POSTED: March 28, 2010
LISBON - Another year, another unsolved murder or suspicious death in Columbiana County, or so it seems to many citizens.
Letters to the editors, blogs and an organization dedicated to remembering these victims have drawn attention to the seemingly growing list of murders/suspicious deaths that remain unsolved.
The county Families of Homicide Victims, established in 2006 to keep the public focus on these unsolved crimes, maintains a Web site that lists 28 such crimes dating back to 1969.
Some of the deaths and missing persons cases on the list either occurred outside the county, have already been decided, or involved questionable cases in which medical examiners were unable to determine the cause of death.
For instance, Tyler Unkefer of Elkrun Township is on the list. He was killed during a shootout with another armed person at an outdoor party in June 2008. There were 10-15 witnesses, and investigators concluded it was a case of self-defense. The county grand jury apparently agreed because it declined to issue an indictment after being presented the evidence.
Also listed on the site is Christopher Joy Jr., the 18-month old boy formerly of Wellsville who was beaten to death in March 2009, but this crime occurred in Jefferson County, where he lived with his mother and her boyfriend. The boyfriend was arrested by Jefferson County officials, but the charges were later dropped.
Then there is the case of Dalton Springer, the 3-year-old St. Clair Township boy who died from blunt force trauma to the head in November 2000. The Allegheny County (Pa.) Medical Examiner's Office was unable to determine the cause of death.
Although nearly everyone on the list is a homicide victim - homicide simply means someone was killed by another person - not everyone is a murder victim, at least not in the common understanding. For instance, Gary Paulin, 53, was killed in a 2008 traffic accident near Guilford Lake caused by another vehicle, and the Ohio Highway Patrol was unable to determine the identity of the other driver, who fled the scene, and the owner reported the vehicle stolen.
But this still leaves a significant number of unsolved murders/questionable deaths/missing person cases. Although the law enforcement agencies in the jurisdictions where these alleged crimes occurred conduct the investigations, they are assisted by county Prosecutor Robert Herron, whose office ultimately decides when and if to seek an indictment.
Herron said these cases remain unsolved due to lack of evidence, not lack of effort.
"The one common denominator .... is they all come down to evidence," he said. "In a lot of these cases we've identified a suspect, but having a suspect and proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt are two different things."
The job of the prosecutor's office is to present evidence to the county grand jury to seek an indictment and then prosecute the case, and Herron will do that only once he is convinced they have enough to obtain a conviction at trial.
"That's what drives these cases," he said.
What about in cases where the investigation has hit a brick wall but there is some evidence indicating guilt? Why not take a chance rather than leave the case unresolved?
"You've got to remember we only get one bite at the apple. If we try someone and lose, we can't try them again," Herron said.
He said they also have an ethical duty not to bring charges unless convinced beyond a reasonable doubt the suspect is responsible and they have the evidence to prove it.
"You don't charge someone because you sense you are close ... In the final analysis that compromises the criminal justice system," Herron said.
The rush to judgment also can result in an innocent person being wrongly charged, with Herron citing the Duke rape case as such an example.
"People were wanting something done and that put pressure on the prosecutor to move a case forward (before it was ready) ... and the end result is injustice," Herron said.
The go-slow approach "exposes us to criticism, but that goes with the territory," he said.
The following is the list of other unsolved murders/questionable deaths over the past 20 years on the list, excluding the ones mentioned above:
- James Anthony, 49, who died Jan. 27, 1996, but in reality his life ended five years before when he was savagely beaten during a gas station robbery that left him in a vegetative state. In 1991, Anthony was working as a clerk at Century Industries store in East Fairfield when someone beat him with a tire iron and stole $8,819 in cash and checks from the safe. A passing motorist who stopped for gas found him at 6:30 a.m.
Former county Sheriff David Smith worked that case when he was a detective. Smith believed he knew who was responsible but lacked the evidence to take the case to the county grand jury. The suspect has since died.
-Terry Ballard, 19, Crestview Road, New Waterford. His badly decomposed body was found by a hunter in woods in Unity Township on Oct. 10, 1995. Ballard, who was last seen alive three weeks before, had been stabbed.
"We have a suspect in mind but not enough evidence," said Andy Sweeney, a detective with the sheriff's office.
- Richard Altomare, 59, of Leetonia, was found shot to death in September 1999 in the basement of the former Crestview Elementary School building, which he owned. In a 2006 story, Sheriff Smith described the shooting as "professionally done" but, despite an intensive investigation, no one was ever charged.
- Joey Gilmore was struck and killed by a motorist near Carter Lumber in Lisbon in 2000, and the driver fled the scene. This is a highway patrol case.
- Tracy Hill, 25, Sprucevale Road, Rogers, disappeared on June 7, 2001, when she last showed up for work. Her husband, Clifford E. Hill Jr., 41, later was found with her car, but he denied any knowledge of her whereabouts. The day before she went missing, Tracy dropped a domestic violence protection order she had obtained against her husband.
The sheriff's office searched numerous sites in this county as well as locations in Wayne County, where the couple also had resided, but Tracy remains missing.
Meanwhile, Hill spent between 2004 and 2008 in prison for robbing an Amish woman and her daughter in their buggy at gunpoint in Holmes County. Upon his release, Hill shot an Ashland County man during a home invasion/robbery and was sentenced last July to 23 years in prison.
Hill's most recent crime provided the sheriff's office with another opportunity to speak with him, and he again denied knowing what became of his wife.
- Craig Roberts, 43, of Wellsville was shot to death in his bed on Aug. 26, 2002. His brother says five other people were in the home at the time, but none of them claimed to have heard any gunshots. The brother also has a tape-recording of someone supposedly confessing to the shooting, but it is believed to be unreliable and inadmissible in court. This is a Wellsville Police Department case.
- Walter D. Valentine, 60, Scotts Mill Road, Rogers, was found dead inside his burning house trailer in 2003. Officials determined he had been shot several times before the explosion occurred that set the trailer on fire. Again, the sheriff's office has a suspect in mind but insufficient evidence to go forward.
- Jamie Huffman was the 33-year-old Kensington man found unconscious along U.S. Route 30 near his home in May 2004, after having walked home from nearby Stitches Bar in Kensington earlier the same night. Although the case was investigated as a possible homicide, the Stark County Coroner's Office was unable to reach a conclusion, so the cause of death was left "undetermined."
Detective Sweeney said he speaks nearly every week with Huffman's mother, but there have been no new leads in the case.
- Gene Lysle of Wellsville went missing in June 2004, when he was last seen after being dropped off at state Route 213 just over the county line in Jefferson County.
- Michael Williams, 37, Greenwood Road, Rogers, was found beaten to death in the driver's seat of his car not far from his home on Aug. 30, 2005. Sweeney said they are at a standstill with the case.
- Charlie McKinnon Jr., 32, Dyke Road, Negley, died from a gunshot wound in December 2006 in the driveway at the home of his estranged wife's parents near East Palestine. This is a sheriff's office case.
At one time, Herron believed they were close to taking this case to the grand jury but held off.
"We've taken a different approach that has taken us in a different direction, but it hasn't provided us any admissible evidence," he said.
- Sherry Ieropoli, 47, state Route 45, Lisbon, was shot to death in her home in August 2008. The only other people home were her husband and their son, and investigators said indications pointed to the son's involvement.
This is a sheriff's case, and Herron said he recently asked investigators to go back and take another look at some of the evidence and re-interview witnesses.
Herron, who has been prosecutor since the late 1980s, expects the backlog of unsolved cases of this sort may be typical for a county this size.
"Probably all jurisdictions have unresolved cases. That's not a justification. That's just a fact," he said. "If you don't have that perspective you'd think only Columbiana County has unsolved cases."
Herron attributed much of the criticism to a "fundamental misunderstanding about what can be admitted as evidence at trial" and the common belief just because someone hears something secondhand, no other evidence is required to back up their claim.
"Talk isn't evidence. We can't base our prosecution on what someone says or hears" because most of it is inadmissible, he said.
County Sheriff Ray Stone said people don't like to hear it but sometimes there is nothing more that can be done unless some new information is received.
"We work the case as hard we can but unfortunately sometimes you come to a dead end and simply run out of leads," he said.
Stone and Herron both agree lack of manpower hampers any investigation. The sheriff's office has only three detectives to investigate all crimes, one of whom investigates sex crimes almost exclusively and another splits duty as a shift supervisor, requiring he respond to calls when needed.
"We need help, that's for sure," said Stone, who would love nothing more than to have the manpower to devote to solving old cases. "We don't have the manpower to turn two people loose on a cold case."
Herron said every law enforcement agency in the county suffers from manpower shortages that are only growing worse due to budget cuts. He has suggested creating a homicide task force in the county, with each department designating someone who could be trained to investigate homicides. This would create a pool of trained investigators who could be called to help another department for a week or two whenever a murder occurs in their town.
"I've taken the position it's just the smart thing to do, but for a variety of reasons it has never gathered traction" among police chiefs, he said.