In 1977, somewhere between a Minnesota gift shop and a flight to Chicago, the heiress to the Brach’s Candy Company vanished forever.
Born Helen Vorhees, her sudden climb up the social ladder surprised everyone. In just a few years, she shed her life as a middle-aged divorcee working a Florida country club’s hat check and became the glamorous wife of Frank Brach, the multi-millionaire heir to Chicagoland’s Brach’s & Sons Candy Company.
Her disappearance dominated headlines in 1977 and ’78 and remained a hot story even after courts pronounced her legally dead in 1984. This infamous case inspired a parade of theories (including one involving Victor Spilotro, brother of Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro, who was bludgeoned then buried in an Indiana cornfield in 1986). In hindsight, the only real suspect was her houseman and handyman, Jack Matlick.
After her husband’s death in 1970, Mrs. Brach hired Matlick to perform the routine maintenance needed on the large home, a task Frank had often enjoyed. He quickly became a trusted then indispensable presence around the estate.
Matlick was the last to see her alive and insisted Mrs. Brach boarded her flight from Minnesota to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. From there, he drove her to the Brach’s mansion in Glenview, Illinois. Later on, the crew of that flight would testify they saw no one matching Mrs. Brach’s description.
According to Matlick, Mrs. Brach remained at home for four days, then had Matlick return her to O’Hare Airport for another flight, this time to Florida. That was the last he ever saw of her, said an indigent Matlick. Investigators found his assertions unsatisfying and discovered damning circumstances piled up at Matlick’s feet.
The week Mrs. Brach vanished, Matlick had told his wife he would remain at the Brach home because there was too much “work to do.” His wife claimed he had never stayed overnight at Brach home before, since he lived only a few miles away. During those mysterious days, several of Mrs. Brach’s friends stopped by for a visit, only to be turned away by Matlick, who said she was not feeling well. Mrs. Brach never made a phone over those phone days
Her flight to Florida was early, and Matlick insisted he drove her to O’Hare at 7:00 AM, although friends considered this ridiculous—Mrs. Brach hated early mornings and never, ever took early flights. During that same period of time, Matlick also hired workers to repaint two rooms in the Brach home; one room also had its carpeting replaced at the same time. Matlick had her pink Cadillac’s interior cleaned and shampooed.
The most damning bit of circumstantial evidence came in the form of checks—it provided motive. During those four days, Matlick said Mrs. Brach had signed and given him several large checks ( all around $15,000) as a gift. Handwriting analysis showed it wasn’t Mrs. Brach’s signature. Matlick said her arthritis had troubled her, and she asked him to write the checks himself.
All this evidence pointed directly at Jack Matlick, yet it was all circumstantial. With no physical evidence to link him to her murder—a weapon, blood, a body, hair strands, even witnesses—they could only question the handyman and let him go. Although he was included in her will, Matlick later agreed to forfeit the $50,000 inheritance if the courts would no longer pursue a lawsuit for the forged checks. Responding to all of these almost impossible coincidences years later, Matlick said, “I don’t know who killed Helen Brach. I have no idea. I have no idea what happened to her.” That would become his standard response
Although Matlick escaped the law, he couldn’t escape his infamy. Reporters and media hounded Matlick the rest of his life, and police did little to shelter him from the harassment. Matlick died in 2011, maintaining his innocence until the very end.
Today, her empty grave rests near her birthplace in Ohio. The ornately-carved marble marker is flanked by the graves of her two beloved dogs, Sugar and Candy. It is only a marker.
Her greatest memorial rests in the generous hands of the Helen V. Brach Foundation, a nonprofit she established in her will. Her husband’s 1970 death left her with roughly $20 million, most of which went to her foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting children and animals from abuse and gives away almost $6 million a year in grants.