Nearly 100 years after her day in court, one of Otsego County’s most famous murderers is finally getting her day on the silver screen.
Eva Coo, the infamous Oneonta brothel owner sentenced to death for her role in the 1934 murder of a man in her care, will take center stage in “The Roadhouse Coup,” an upcoming independent film about the murder and trial.
The project, set to begin filming in October, will star some of Otsego County’s biggest names: retired Oneonta Police Chief Doug Brenner as the investigator, former state Sen. James Seward as the judge, and Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh, whose grandfather oversaw the funeral arrangements for Coo’s victim and tipped off police about his suspicions.
“They’ll forget you soon enough.”
Those were the haunting last words Eva Coo’s best friend and co-conspirator allegedly ever spoke to her at the gates of Sing Sing Prison, where the two women said their good-byes one summer day in 1935. Coo, sentenced to death for first-degree murder, would be executed in the famed electric chair, “Old Sparky,” on June 27.
Martha Clift turned state’s witness in a bid to preserve her own life when investigators uncovered the plot to kill Coo’s handyman, Harry “Gimpy” Wright, in exchange for a portion of the insurance payout. She was convicted of second-degree murder in Wright’s death and served 13 years of a 20-year sentence at Bedford Reformatory, about 30 miles away from Sing Sing.
According to the official narrative — though unclear to this day if it’s an accurate rendition — Clift ran Wright down with a rented Willys-Knight car after Coo bludgeoned him in the head with a mallet, and then backed over the body once more for good measure.
Coo and Clift, who worked as a hostess at “Little Eva’s Place,” lured Wright out to a supposedly haunted farmhouse on Crumhorn Mountain under the pretenses of stealing some shrubbery to be planted in front of Coo’s establishment.
“Gimpy was targeted from Day One,” said Oneonta resident Lori Bailey, the film’s writer, director and producer. “He’s probably the only innocent character in the whole story.”
Bailey described Coo’s unwitting victim as “very tall, very homely, very unsure of himself and bullied by the other children.”
“He was very much a loner, and all he had was his mother, whom he was very close to,” Bailey said. “Obviously, she doted over him, because he was a little needy.”
Bailey’s mother, Hattriet Bunn Wright, died “rather suddenly” in 1931, Bailey said, and her son was left in the care of his employer, Mrs. Eva Coo.
Shortly after Hattriet’s death, her home burned down, “under mysterious circumstances,” Bailey said. Coo collected on the home insurance and sold the property for an additional profit.
Wright lived at the Roadhouse Inn, where he worked as a handyman and was a regular patron of the bar, according to Bailey.
Coo’s business, by all accounts a full-fledged brothel, profited handsomely during Prohibition, but the money ran dry when the ban was lifted in 1933. Things got harder still for Coo when the Delaware & Hudson Railroad discontinued its passenger service between Colliersville and Cooperstown the following year.
Wright, a well-known alcoholic, was prone to drinking excessively at Coo’s bar and wandering along state Route 7, where he would often be picked up and returned by other patrons, Bailey said. That was how Coo framed his death: Wright’s body was found crumpled about a hundred yards from the roadhouse.
Coo reported him missing to the police, who quickly discovered the body and wrote it off as a tragic accident, Bailey said.
Wright’s body was brought to one of five funeral homes operated by Revo Tillapaugh, the grandfather of Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh.
“Eva Coo wanted to argue over the price of the casket, but what really would have ticked Grandpa off was when she didn’t want to pay the gratuity for a minister to preside over the service,” Tillapaugh said. “He was a man of his faith and he would offer to pay for the services if a family couldn’t afford them, but stiffing a minister was pretty low in his eyes.”
“Grandpa always said she had such a cold presence,” Tillapaugh recalled. “When you looked in her eyes, you could tell she was exactly the kind of person who would kill someone for insurance money.”
Tillapaugh said her father, George, who was 21 at the time of the murder, was one of the lucky few who secured a lottery ticket to watch the court proceedings.
George consulted on the 1997 book, “Eva Coo, Murderess,” written by local author Niles Eggleston, upon which Bailey’s script is based, Tillapaugh said.
Bailey said she began her research at the Otsego County Courthouse, pulling transcripts and signed depositions to weave into her story. Tillapaugh was one of the first to read the script and offered her own notes and casting recommendations, most notably, Seward as the judge.
“I’ve been a longtime supporter of efforts to promote Otsego County as a good place to produce films,” Seward said. “I never saw myself playing a part in any movie, but what better way to promote filming in our area?”
Seward recalled flipping through his parents’ scrapbook of the case, filled with newspaper clippings recounting the investigation and the trial.
“It was huge news back in the ‘30s,” he said. “The whole world had its eyes on Otsego County.”
Brenner also consulted on the film.
Brenner said he met Bailey while filming the disaster scenes in a recent project, “Asteroid,” downtown last summer and floated the idea of a movie about Eva Coo.
“It’s kind of a local legend,” Brenner said. “If you grew up around here, you knew it.”
Brenner said he learned more about the story when he took his first law enforcement job working in the old Otsego County Jail in 1986.
The “Eva Coo cell” is the last in a block set away from the jail proper, Brenner said. It’s about half the size of a normal cell, and intentionally secluded from the rest of the block.
Though the original jailhouse was retired from use in the 1990s, Brenner said, to his knowledge, the cell still stands and is used as a records storage room.
“The bars may even still be there,” he said.
Through his own local research on the Civil War, Brenner said he located Wright’s grave, in a now-overgrown cemetery on School House Hill Road, just off of state Route 28 in Portlandville.
Much of the film is set to be produced on location at various points between Oneonta and Cooperstown, including the gravesite, Bailey said.
“I was thinking about taking flowers out there one day,” she said. “I read that no one’s ever visited.”
The body’s repeated exhumation, part of the murder investigation, will have to be staged at another site, she said.
Filmmakers are also in search of a site to film the murder scene itself: ideally an old abandoned farmhouse, set far away from the road and any other structures.
Bailey said she is also in the process of securing at least two 1930s-era cars to use on set, as well as a variety of period costumes and props.
Though filming has yet to begin, the project has been more than two years in the making, Bailey said.
“I saw how the movie ‘Garrow’ worked — it’s still playing and it was never meant to; it was just supposed to be backyard fun — people just really like that kind of story,” Bailey said of one of her more recent projects, based on the real-life events of spree killer Robert Garrow. “It’s another New York state tale, from our area — she’s much the same kind of character. So I started researching, and the more I researched, the more interested I got.”
“That’s the thing that I found worked. Most people would say, ‘Oh, go for the big name, get out of your community.’ I feel it works much better, in today’s market, to do this, because the story builds itself, and every step you take forward, it becomes a bigger story and more people get involved,” she continued. “I find it more exciting to cast somebody like the senator than Tom Cruise, who everybody’s seen fifty thousand times and it’s all about him and his money. This is about us, our history. It just feels right. Everybody gets a piece of the action.”
Bailey said she is looking to cast about 60 extras of all ages and a handful of small speaking parts for the film.
For more information about casting or the film, contact Lori Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.