Christmas cheer turned to carnage 50 years ago in Carlinville, Ill., as man killed wife, kids, social workers (2024)

Joe Holleman

“Daddy shot my Mommy.”

Those words from a 10-year-old begin to illustrate a Christmas party that turned into a mass murder 50 years ago in the Metro East.

“Sherman Kline was not an evil man who set out to do horrible things.”

That opinion from retired social worker Ray Unterbrink doesn’t explain the grisly scene he found Dec. 18, 1968, in his office in Carlinville, Ill., but it’s what Unterbrink believes after five decades trying to understand what happened.

There’s no good explanation why Kline walked into a state social services office, met with his wife and seven children and social workers for a holiday reunion of the split family — and opened fire with two pistols.

Kline’s wife, Lorraine, 33; social workers Frank Wildgrube, 25, and Bonnie Albracht, 23; and secretary Anne Keppler, 28, all died on site.

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Two Kline children, Michael, 14, and Diane, 8, would die later at a Springfield, Ill., hospital. Two more children, Gene, 13, and Judy, 10, were wounded but recovered.

Three children were not hurt, but all lost of them lost their parents that day: Hours after the massacre, Sherman Kline shot himself in St. Charles County.

The violent eruption captured the nation’s attention for a flash, but then faded from focus.

But for those directly touched by the crime — people such as Unterbrink, who saw the killer moments after the slayings — the reasons are still elusive.

Unterbrink, 82, recently recalled the events in an interview from his home in Midland, Texas, where he moved years ago to continue his career in social services. He still has no explanation for what Kline did that day.

“He just … I don’t really know …” said Unterbrink, his voice trailing to silence.

The Kline family

Sherman L. Kline, 35, was a plumber by trade and, according to news accounts, a dependable one. He grew up around St. Charles and St. Peters.

By 1967, he, Lorraine and seven children lived in a mobile home near Brussels, Ill., between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers in Calhoun County.

Christmas cheer turned to carnage 50 years ago in Carlinville, Ill., as man killed wife, kids, social workers (1)

While he wasn’t notorious, he was known to police and was considered capable of aggression, a trait that grew in the year before the killings.

“He was a hard worker, but he was loudmouthed and liked to make a lot of threats,” one patrolman said at the time.

Kline’s oldest child, 16-year-old Linda, had married Charles Bennett, who told reporters trying to understand Kline that his father-in-law would stop by to chat and help him work on his car.

“Sometimes, he acted OK,” Bennett said. “Other times, he acted a little nutty.”

In late 1967, problems cropped up. School officials told the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services that one of the Kline children showed signs of abuse. Social worker Wildgrube was assigned to investigate, an intrusion Kline did not like.

“When you get in a child welfare case, let’s face it, no one likes you,” Unterbrink said. “Everyone’s first perception is that we’re trying to take their kids away.”

Kline disliked it enough that during a home visit in April 1967, he punched Wildgrube and shot a pistol into the floor near a Calhoun County deputy who had come along.

Kline fled to St. Charles and was on the lam for a month. In May, police spotted Kline and his wife at a gas station in northwest St. Louis County. When officers approached, Kline pulled a gun, held it to his wife’s head and threatened to kill her, police said.

Officers were able to intervene and arrested Kline. The children were placed in foster care. Kline was taken to the St. Louis County jail and examined by a psychiatrist, who prescribed tranquilizers and diagnosed Kline as having a “psychopathic personality disorder, antisocial type.”

But after Kline bonded out of jail, social workers in Illinois said they noticed a genuine desire to mend his ways.

He pleaded guilty to an assault charge and had a successful meeting with his family in October at the office in Carlinville, about 50 miles northeast of St. Louis.

“Kline knew he had done wrong and seemed determined to keep his family together,” Unterbrink said.

“And despite what people think, we don’t want to break up families. We want to keep them together.”

The social workers

Unterbrink was born and reared in East Alton and spent three years in the Army. In 1964, he earned a master’s degree in social work from Washington University and went to work managing the family services office in Carlinville.

Christmas cheer turned to carnage 50 years ago in Carlinville, Ill., as man killed wife, kids, social workers (2)

“I was a 28-year-old kid when I took that job,” he said. “It was a great job. We had so many good people in that office.”

One social worker was Wildgrube, a former seminarian who, according to news reports, once told a friend “I don’t think I could fight another man.”

Another was Albracht. “She was so young, and a very gentle, mild soul,” Unterbrink said.

Keppler was a secretary in the office. She was to be married in a few weeks.

They all worked on the top floor of the Burke Pharmacy building on Carlinville’s town square. The drug store was on the first floor and the DCFS office took up the second, save for a small space that housed WSMI Radio.

Figuring that Sherman Kline was probably headed to jail in the new year on the assault charge, plans were made to throw a Christmas party for the family at 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 18.

Christmas cheer turned to carnage 50 years ago in Carlinville, Ill., as man killed wife, kids, social workers (3)

Kline arrived about 2:15 p.m. with his wife and two of the children. Wildgrube arrived with the five others about 2:25 p.m. The five children that Wildgrube picked up from their temporary foster homes ran up and hugged their father, newspaper accounts said.

Wildgrube led the family into a large room in the office suite and returned to his office to let the family meet and open Christmas presents.

Meanwhile, Unterbrink and Albracht were returning from a holiday luncheon in Shipman, Ill. By the time they got back to Carlinville, no parking space was to be had in front of the building.

“Bonnie had to go to the bathroom, so she asked me to drop her off at the front door,” Unterbrink said. “Then she just opened the car door and dashed right in.”

Unterbrink went to scout a parking spot, which probably saved his life.

The Christmas party

While Unterbrink circled the block, the party began to unravel.

Police said that after the family opened presents, Kline went to Wildgrube’s office and said he hoped it was all right he had brought his son Michael. Wildgrube reprimanded Kline, saying he did not have permission to pick up Michael from his foster home.

Kline returned to the meeting room, then went back to Wildgrube’s office — with .22-caliber and .25-caliber pistols.

He shot Wildgrube in the head at close range. The gunshot drew Lorraine Kline into the hallway, where she was shot in the head, police said.

Then Kline went back to the meeting room and shot at his children, fatally wounding Michael and Diane. Gene was struck in the chest; Judy, in the arm. Linda, holding Randy, 3, and Paul, 12, escaped harm by hiding behind chairs.

Kline moved back into the hallway and saw the three secretaries talking. He shot in their direction. One shot struck Keppler in the throat.

Albracht, who had reached the reception area, was shot in the chest.

Then Unterbrink entered the building.

“I was walking up the stairs and I see Kline coming down and he just ran right into me and didn’t say a word,” Unterbrink said.

“I just remember thinking how rude he was, acting like he didn’t even see me,” he said.

Christmas cheer turned to carnage 50 years ago in Carlinville, Ill., as man killed wife, kids, social workers (4)

Things kept getting worse. “First thing I saw was Mrs. Kline lying on the floor and there was blood. I thought to myself, ‘The SOB hit her,’” he said. “Then I noticed the shell casings on the floor.”

As Unterbrink surveyed the carnage, police began to arrive. A WSMI deejay had summoned them. They’d just missed seeing Kline run to a car he’d borrowed from his brother, Vernon Kline, and speed off toward St. Charles.

A short time later, Unterbrink’s wife, Penny Unterbrink, heard about the shooting on WSMI, and also that parents were being told to pick up their children from school because an armed killer was on the loose.

“And I was worried maybe (Kline) would go after Ray, so I picked up my kids, took them to a friend’s house and then joined Ray at the hospital,” she said in a recent interview.

To stay on top of the situation, Ray Unterbrink went to the hospital, where he met up with his wife and asked her to watch over the three uninjured Kline children.

“We sat in this large room and I was looking out the window, wondering if he was going to show up at the hospital,” she recalled.

“I decided right at that moment that if he did, I was going to protect those kids. Period.”

But Kline had headed immediately to his brother’s house in St. Charles County, arriving about 4 p.m. He told his brother what he had done, then walked into the woods and shot himself. He died six hours later at a hospital in St. Charles.

“They drove me over to St. Charles to have me identify him,” Ray Unterbrink said. “And I remember being happy he was dead — happy because it was the best thing for him and his family.

“I’m sure he was in hell over what he’d done.”

An unhappy ending

Now 82, Unterbrink recalls few other details of the hours after the shooting, other than the town’s being filled with police, reporters and cameras.

The surviving Kline children, aside from the married daughter, were placed in foster homes; the two murdered children were buried by the state.

The Klines were not from Carlinville, Unterbrink said, so talk of the shooting faded relatively quickly.

“Few people ever brought up the murders, at least not to Penny or me.”

Christmas cheer turned to carnage 50 years ago in Carlinville, Ill., as man killed wife, kids, social workers (5)

Unterbrink moved to Springfield in 1970 to work in the state offices of the DCFS, then left to work for the Illinois Association for Retarded Citizens.

In 1983, he and Penny moved to Midland, Texas, where he continued to work with the developmentally disabled. They still live there.

Unterbrink would not say much about the Kline children’s lives or whereabouts after the tragedy.

“Just know they each carried a heavy load,” he said, then recalled talking with one child, Paul Kline, some years after the killings.

“He said, ‘I knew he was going to do it when we went up there,’” Unterbrink said. “That got to me.”

The shootings didn’t change the approach social service agencies took toward reunion efforts, he said.

“I agonized over it time and again, but no one ever said Frank or I was wrong. We kept a lot of families together,” he said.

But even 50 years later, Unterbrink still thinks often of the Klines.

“Something like that just doesn’t leave your mind.”




  • Joe Holleman
  • Joe's St. Louis
  • Sherpa
  • Stl
  • St. Louis
  • Carlinville
  • Murder
  • Massacre
  • Mass Shootings
  • Family Services
  • Sherman Kline
  • Ray Unterbrink
  • Illinois

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Christmas cheer turned to carnage 50 years ago in Carlinville, Ill., as man killed wife, kids, social workers (2024)


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