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Ira Einhorn, Counterculture Guru and Murderer, Dies in Prison at 79

Ira Einhorn was the darling of Philadelphia’s counterculture in the 1960s and ‘70s. A charismatic and flamboyant personality, he preached peace, love and environmentalism, and became a sought-after liaison in helping the city’s civic establishment grasp the upheavals in society.

Then his former girlfriend, Holly Maddux, who had left him, disappeared. Almost a year and a half later, the police found her mummified remains in a steamer trunk in his apartment.

He was charged in 1979 with her murder. But before his pretrial hearing, he fled to Europe, eventually marrying a wealthy Swedish heiress, Annika Flodin, and settling down in a converted windmill in France.

More than two decades later, after lengthy and convoluted extradition negotiations, in which he became a human rights cause célèbre in France, he was sent back to Philadelphia to stand trial. A jury quickly convicted him and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Mr. Einhorn had been in prison for nearly 18 years when he died on April 3 in the State Correctional Institution Laurel Highlands in southwestern Pennsylvania. He was 79.

The Somerset County coroner, Wally Miller, said in a phone interview that Mr. Einhorn died of longstanding cardiac problems, unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic.

His death brought an end to a bizarre melodrama that troubled Philadelphians for decades and drew worldwide attention.

“The chapter is finally, for real, closed,” Elizabeth Hall, one of Ms. Maddux’s sisters, told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week.

“I think a lot of people in Philadelphia were waiting to hear” that he had died, she said. “He became part of the city’s consciousness in an ugly way.”

In 1972 he began a five-year relationship with Ms. Maddux, who was from Tyler, Texas, and had graduated from nearby Bryn Mawr College. Her family never liked him, considering him a bully, and in 1977 she left him and moved to New York.

He was furious and demanded that she come back to Philadelphia to retrieve her belongings, saying he would throw them into the street if she didn’t. She came back. And then she vanished. She was 30.

Mr. Einhorn denied any involvement in her disappearance, saying she had gone out to the local co-op to buy some tofu and sprouts and had never returned.

It was a measure of his ability to make important connections that after he was charged with murder, his lawyer was Arlen Specter, the city’s former district attorney who was then in private practice and who went on to become a United States senator.

Mr. Specter managed to get Mr. Einhorn’s bail reduced to $40,000. To be released from custody, Mr. Einhorn had to put up only 10 percent, or $4,000. It was paid by a Canadian socialite, one of several well-off people who supported him financially and who doubted he could have been involved in murder.

Ira Samuel Einhorn was born on May 15, 1940, in Philadelphia and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1961 with a major in English.

A big burly man with a full beard and electric blue eyes, he was an early avatar of the counterculture steeped in consciousness-raising, ecological awareness and illicit psychedelic drugs. He dropped acid as early as 1958 and later started a rescue service for people in the throes of bad trips. He also taught a series of free courses, including “Analogues to the LSD Experience.”

The Village Voice called him “indisputably Philadelphia’s head hippie” and the city’s “number one freak.” He attracted a wide range of friends, from the Yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman to corporate executives and civic do-gooders.

“Ira waxed eloquent about what was happening in the world,” Sam Katz, a former mayoral candidate and Philadelphia entrepreneur, said in a phone interview.

“It was the age of Aquarius and the Vietnam War and the generation gap, and he was articulate and dynamic and very approachable,” Mr. Katz said. Mr. Einhorn became a bridge between the anti-establishment and the establishment, he said, often speaking at civic events.

But his darker side and a monumental ego were emerging, most noticeably during the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, when 20 million people across the country gathered to draw attention to environmental problems.

As two environmental activists later wrote in an op-ed in The Inquirer, Mr. Einhorn had made himself unwelcome at organizational meetings in advance of Earth Day, and then, at the actual event, he “grabbed the microphone and refused to give up the podium for 30 minutes, thinking he would get some free television publicity.”

He later falsely claimed to have been a founder of Earth Day, a title generally accorded to Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat.

Mr. Einhorn was domineering with women and could become violent if he was rejected. The news media reported that at one point he strangled a woman until she was unconscious; at another, he hit a woman over the head with a bottle.

After Ms. Maddux vanished, he carried on as before. He continued to give speeches, and in 1978 spent a semester at the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Frustrated at the lack of progress in finding their daughter, the Maddux family hired a private investigator. By then, neighbors reported a stench coming from Mr. Einhorn’s apartment and a dark liquid leaking into the apartment below.

When the police searched the apartment in 1979, they found Ms. Maddux’s decomposed body in a trunk in a closet. Her skull had been fractured in at least six places by a blunt object.

A murder trial for Mr. Einhorn had been set for 1981 when he fled. The Philadelphia district attorney decided to try him in 1993 anyway, in absentia, a rare proceeding but one that the city felt might bring the case to a close. The jury quickly found him guilty, and the judge sentenced him to life without parole.

The case continued to capture the public’s imagination. Mr. Einhorn had labeled himself “the unicorn,” the translation of his name in German., and he became the subject of a 1988 book by Steven Levy called “The Unicorn’s Secret: A Murder in the Age of Aquarius.”

Investigators, spurred on by Ms. Maddux’s family, continued the search for Mr. Einhorn. In 1997 they found him in a farmhouse in southwest France. As negotiations over his extradition dragged on for four years, NBC produced a mini-series in 1999 called “The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer.” He was finally sent back to Philadelphia in 2001.

As a condition for his extradition, he was granted a second trial, during which he took the stand. He said that the C.I.A. had killed Ms. Maddux and planted her body in his apartment in an attempt to frame him because he knew too much about military research into the paranormal.

He was found guilty and again sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The parting thoughts of those in the courtroom were not kind.

A juror said that Mr. Einhorn had a God complex. The presiding judge called him “an intellectual dilettante” who preyed on people.

The district attorney, Lynne Abraham, said, “Metaphorically speaking, Ira Einhorn and his Virgo moon are toast.”

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