Fact Check

The Body Under the Bed

A vacationing couple staying in a foul-smelling motel room discovered a body hidden under their bed.

Published June 12, 1999

A vacationing couple staying in a foul-smelling motel room discovered a body hidden under their bed.

In his urban legend book The Baby Train, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand writes that he first heard the "dead body found under hotel bed" legend in 1991. Every version that came to him mentioned a Las Vegas hotel, but the lack of checkable details led him to believe this was an apocryphal tale.

Okay, so we can date the appearance of this legend to 1991. Unlike a number of other such gruesome tales, this legend appears to have sprung from a misremembering of any one of a number of actual news items, with the talebearer shifting certain details so that deaths which took place in anonymous little motels along Interstates are said to have happened in Las Vegas, America's own Sin City, and victims who'd (usually) done little else amiss than be in the wrong place at the wrong time and/or take up with questionable company were transformed through the magic of retelling into prostitutes.

Dead bodies get stashed in the box spring or the bed's pedestal more often than you'd want to believe. What's more, a fair number of them are only discovered days later ... after the new tenant complains about a persistent and disagreeable odor.

In each of the following cases not only were bodies discovered under hotel beds, but it was investigations of the smell of decomposition that led to their discoveries.

Cartoon of the legend

On 10 July 2003, a man checked into the Capri Motel, just east of downtown Kansas City, and began complaining about a foul odor in his room. Management told him nothing could be done about the problem, and he spent three nights in his room before checking out because he could no longer stand the smell. When the cleaning staff came in to make up the room on 13 July, they lifted the mattress and underneath found a man's body in an advanced stage of decomposition.

On 10 June 1999 the rapidly decomposing remains of 64-year-old Saul Hernandez were discovered inside the bed in Room 112 at the Burgundy Motor Inn in Atlantic City, New Jersey. A German couple had spent the night sleeping over Hernandez's remains, and it was their complaint to the manager about the smell in their room which led to the discovery of the corpse.

In July 1996 a woman's body was found under a mattress in the Colorado Boulevard Travelodge in Pasadena, CA. Apparently the motel's staff discovered her ten days after her demise and only after guests had complained for several days of a foul odor coming from that room.

There were two stashed-and-smelly body cases in Florida in 1994. (Further adding to the confusability of these stories' taking place in the same year and the same state, in both instances the next tenants those rooms had were German tourists.) In August 1994 in Fort Lauderdale, hotel staff discovered the body of 47-year-old Bryan Gregory tucked under a platform bed. Though the staff had themselves noticed the strange smell for days, they only set about looking for its source after a German couple spent the night in that room and afterwards complained about the odor.

In March 1994 the body of 24-year-old Josefina Martinez was found underneath a bed at the Traveler's Hotel near Miami International Airport. Again, the discovery was prompted by an aggrieved German tourist upset about a foul odor in his room.

In Virginia in 1989, Jerry Lee Dunbar disposed of the remains of two victims this way: 27-year-old Deirdre Smith, who was discovered in May under the floor of a motel room on Route 1, and 29-year-old Marilyn Graham, who turned up in June under a bed in the Alexandria Econo Lodge. In Smith's case, the killer first kept her body partially hidden under his bed for two days, then subsequently placed it in the crawl space under the carpeted floor. Her presence seemingly didn't bother him, because he didn't move out of that room until three or four weeks later. Both girls' bodies were eventually found after other guests complained about the stink.

In Mineola, New York, motel in 1988, a body turned up in a box spring. The remains of 29-year-old Mary Jean DeOliviera were found at the Oceanside Motel. Again, the body was discovered days later and only after other patrons complained about the smell. At least two other guests unknowingly cohabited with the body before it was found, and at least one guest refused to stay in that room because of the smell.

Here's a change of pace — not a murder, but a death by misadventure. In Rosedale, Maryland in 1987, an unidentified man died of a drug overdose after one of the thirty-four balloons of heroin he'd swallowed burst. His partner stashed the corpse under their motel bed, then split. Three days later, the family the room was next rented to complained about the odor, and this led to the body's discovery.

One of the oldest "smelly body left under the bed" sightings comes from 1982. Richard Kuklinski, Daniel Deppner, and Gary Smith often teamed together to run auto theft scams. Kuklinski and Deppner decided to kill Smith, and they accomplished this by feeding him a cyanide-laced hamburger in a North Bergen, New Jersey, motel room. Kuklinkski finished off Smith by strangling him when watching Smith die of poisoning proved tiresome. Smith's body was stuffed under the bed and left there. It was found four days later, on 27 December 1982. During the intervening four days, the room had been rented to others each night. Guests had wrinkled their noses at the smell, but none thought to look under the bed.

That case has seemingly been topped by one in which Sony Millbrook of Memphis, Tennessee, was reported missing on 27 January 2010 after she failed to pick up her children from school. Forty-seven days later, on 15 March 2010, homicide investigators were called to the room of a Budget Inn motel where Millbrook had been living just prior to her disappearance, her body having just been discovered inside the frame of the bed there — even though the room had reportedly been cleaned and rented several times since her disappearance almost seven weeks earlier.

There are, of course, numerous other cases of dead bodies being left under hotel beds, but I've chosen not to report on these because they lack the key element of the legend: complaints about the presence of a horrific smell leading to the corpse's discovery. What gives this urban legend its chills-down-the-spine gruesomeness is the body's being found only after an unsuspecting traveler spends the night sleeping above it. That clearly happened in at least some of the cases mentioned here (and perhaps in others where the news reports stated only that hotel guests had complained without specifying which guests).

Urban legends tend to localize to where we believe they likely would have happened. It's easy to understand how in each of the versions Brunvand related that Las Vegas was always named as the city where the corpse reposed, for Vegas is indeed viewed as Sin City, USA. Much easier to believe that the unsuspecting traveler shared his room with a moldering corpse in Las Vegas than it is to (rightly) place that occurrence in small-town New York, Virginia, or Maryland. Especially when dealing with a half-remembered true story, it's natural for the "obvious" details to replace facts that have been misplaced due to ordinary fuzziness of memory. One, after all, does not let a lack of certainty stand in the way of a good story.

Keep in mind that the Deirdre Smith (1989, Virginia), Marilyn Graham (1989, Virginia), Mary Jean DeOliviera (1988, New York), John Doe (1987, Maryland), and Gary Smith (1982, New York) cases antedate 1991. Gruesome finds like those tend to get heavily reported on, and that certainly happened with Smith, Graham and DeOliviera (the cites below don't begin to do justice to the coverage these discoveries got — they were reported on by a double handful of various papers across the USA). It is because of that widespread coverage that I lean towards this legend's having sprung to life out of a true story whose location got shifted from Your Town, USA (where only nice people live) to Sin City (where life and room rates are cheap).

Sightings:   Look for this legend in the 1995 film Four Rooms. This legend was also the subject of a July 2014 fake news article.


Boccella, Kathy.   "Motel Murder Arrest."     [Nassau and Suffolk] Newsday.     3 September 1988   (p. 3).

Brunvand, Jan Harold.  The Baby Train.     New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (pp. 131-133).

Clark, Jayne.   "Attention-Grabbing Highs, Lows of Year."     Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.     1 January 1995   (p. H1).

Davis, Kevin.   "Corpse Found Under Motel Bed."     Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.   18 August 1994   (p. B3).

Davis, Patricia.   "Man Pleads Guilty to Slaying at Virginia Motel."     The Washington Post.   28 November 1989   (p. E5).

Evans, Colin.   The Casebook of Forensic Detection.     New York: Wiley, 1996.   ISBN 0-471-28369-X.

Logeman, Henry G.   "Hempstead Man Convicted of Killing Woman."     United Press International   8 June 1989.

Sharfstein, D.   "No Longer a UL!"     Pasadena Star News.   1 August 1996.

Agence France Presse.   "German Tourists Unwittingly Sleep with Decomposing Body."     19 August 1994.

Associated Press.   "Body Found Under Mattress in Motel Room."     14 July 2003.

Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.   "Woman's Body Identified."     19 March 1994   (p. B3).

WHBQ-TV [Memphis].   "Missing Woman Found Dead Under Hotel Mattress."     17 March 2010.

The Times-Picayune.   "Hotel Guest Finds Body Under Bed."     13 March 1994   (p A2).

United Press International.   "Maryland News Briefs."     4 August 1987.

The Big Book of Urban Legends.     New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 80).