Howard Co. police seek public’s help in 40-year-old cold case

This former restaurant on Frederick Road in Ellicott City, Maryland, is the last place that Joseph and Betty Selby were seen before they were murdered in a fire intentionally set in their home. They were planning on returning to the restaurant later that night to see a band. (WTOP/Valerie Bonk)

Betty and Joseph Selby were planning on returning to this restaurant on Frederick Road in Ellicott City, Maryland, to see a band 40 years ago. Instead, they died in a fire at their nearby home. (WTOP/Valerie Bonk).

This former restaurant on Frederick Road in Ellicott City, Maryland, is the last place that Joseph and Betty Selby were seen before they were murdered in a fire intentionally set in their home. They were planning on returning to the restaurant later that night to see band. (WTOP/Valerie Bonk)

Joesph and Betty Selby were killed in a house fire intentionally set at their home in Ellicott City, Maryland, more than 40 years ago. (Courtesy HCPD)

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Police in Howard County are calling out for tips in a double homicide and arson case where a couple was killed while sleeping in their home 40 years ago.

Joseph Selby, 56, and his wife Betty, 51, went home from having drinks with friends at a local restaurant on Frederick Road in Ellicott City and fell asleep.

Later that night on March 6, they died from smoke inhalation after someone set fire to their home. They were married for almost 40 years.

Joseph was the manager of The Enchanted Forest, a fairytale-themed amusement park on Route 40 in Ellicott City.

“This was his pride and joy, it was like his first life,” said Joseph’s daughter-in-law Fran Selby about The Enchanted Forest.

In a video recently posted on the Howard County Police social media channels, members of the Selby family remembered the couple and asked for the public’s help in solving the mystery of their murders.

“All of his employees loved him,” said Joseph’s son Joe Selby III of his father and The Enchanted Forest. “Never had any complaints. It was run like clockwork and I believe he had a lot to do with that,” he said.

The Enchanted Forest remained in business until 1995. Now, a local farm has restored some of the attractions and keeps the spirit of the park alive for the next generations.

The shopping center on Route 40 where the amusement park was located is still named The Enchanted Forest.

Police believe that someone held a grudge against someone in their family.

The last place that they were seen was a restaurant in the the 11000 block of Frederick Road.

“They came by here to have a drink, a little happy hour after a hard week of work,” said Howard County Police Cold Case Detective Wade Zufall. “They met some friends and at some point while they were in the bar they decided that they were going to go home.”

The couple lived a short distance up the road in the 12100 block of Frederick Road.

They were originally going to return for a Blue Grass band that played on Friday nights that they frequented.

“They had met friends here that they discussed their plans with and those were their intensions that night,” Zufall said. “Joseph and Betty Selby never made it back to this restaurant.”

Their son, Joe Selby III, went to the house that night when he hard about the fire.

“I went up to the house and the fire marshal came out and I asked a stupid question, I said, ‘was anybody inside?’ He said, ‘two elderly people.’ And I just about collapsed — I got weak in my knees.”

They were asleep in their beds when someone went inside their house and set the it on fire, police said.

His grandson Joe Selby IV, was almost six years old at the time.

“I was supposed to be there that night when the tragedy happened,” Joe Selby IV said. “I still remember a lot of things. There’s things in your mind that you’ll never erase like the smells of fire. I’ll never forget that.”

“I don’t see a reason why any of this should have happened,” Fran said. “It’s still a mystery.”

In November of 1976, the Howard County Police got a call about a fight that broke out in the parking lot of a restaurant called Otis’ Hideaway where a person was stabbed in the 17000 block of Frederick Road.

In that fight was a family member of Joseph and Betty Selby.

The police received information from two independent witnesses that said there was a person looking for someone by the name of Johnny Selby, Jr., which is the nephew of Joseph and Betty Selby.

The mailbox on the road in front of the home where Joseph and Betty lived said “J. N. Selby.” A mile down the road there was another mailbox down the road that said “J. Selby.”

Police and family members believe that the person involved in the fight at the restaurant was looking for Johnny Selby, Jr. and found the mailbox that said “J. N. Selby” and lit the fire in Joseph and Betty’s house by mistake.

“One of our theories is that he [Joseph] was the wrong J. Selby,” said Joe Selby III.

The mailbox in front of Joseph and Betty’s house stands for “Joe Nicholas Selby, Jr.” and not “John Selby,” according to Zufall.

“We do believe that this fire was started and was committed and it is a mistaken identity,” Zufall said. “They did choose the wrong house.”

The other house of John Selby, Jr. was further out west down Frederick Road.

“These cases do stick with you,” Zufall said. “I remember being a young man rolling up hearing about the case myself. Having a relationship with the family and seeing 40 years later that it still affects Joe and Betty’s sons, it still affects their grandson, it still affects them to this day.”

A reward of up to $10,000 is being offered for information in the case.

“We always did feel that there were people out there but they were afraid to come forward for their own lives,” Fran Selby said.

Anyone with information about the case is encouraged to call (410) 313-STOP or email hcpdcrimetips@howardcountymd.gov.

“You’re talking about two people, they were hard workers, they didn’t have any enemies. Joe and Betty worked hard at the Enchanted Forest, a pillar in the community here in Ellicott City,” Zufall said.

Valerie Bonk

Valerie Bonk started working at WTOP in 2016 and has lived in Howard County, Maryland, her entire life. She's thrilled to be a reporter for WTOP telling stories on air. She works as both a television and radio reporter in the Maryland and D.C. areas. 

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