Dead Reckoning: Two Missing Girls, Two Wrongful Convictions, and the Hunt for the Wayne County Killer
"A false witness shall not be unpunished, and he that speaketh lies shall not escape"
WARNING: This story contains very graphic material, including crime scene photographs and descriptions of murder, torture, and rape, which some readers may find disturbing.
Discretion is advised.
In the early 1980s, a vicious serial killer stalked the rural community of Wayne County, Ohio. Preying on young women and middle school girls, the killer wreaked havoc among the tightly-knit, crime-sheltered communities of the Buckeye State, leaving a trail of bodies, misery, pain, and terror in his wake.
In the midst of a panic, and under immense public pressure to catch the monster terrorizing Wayne County, major mistakes were made by the local authorities with catastrophic results. Sloppy, rushed work by Ohio prosecutors sent two innocent men to prison for a terrible crime they didn't commit. False hope was given to the grieving families of young victims, only for it to be cruelly torn away.
And while the police and the public panicked, and while innocent people stood accused of crimes they didn't commit, the serial killer continued to strike terror and anguish into the small community again and again. By the time he was finally brought to justice, lives had needlessly been lost, reputations had been needlessly destroyed, and the small community of Wayne County, Ohio, had been changed forever.
Tina Marie Harmon
On the afternoon of Thursday, October 29th, 1981, Tina Harmon was driven into town by her father's girlfriend, who dropped her off near a convenience store in Creston. There, Tina met up with three of her friends from school, and they spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out.
At about 6:30 PM, Tina and her friends decided to go to the house of another girl nearby. Maybe she could stay the night, the friend said, and stay up late playing games and chatting.
As they walked along Main Street, Tina told her friends that she wanted to go buy a fudgsicle from a nearby convenience store. She told her friends to keep walking and not wait for her - she'd catch up with them later as soon as she got her ice cream.
But Tina never returned.
The owner of the store later recalled seeing Tina Harmon buy her ice cream and leave, but he didn't look to see what happened next. All he could remember was that, as Tina left the store, she was followed by an older man - an unshaven white male in his 20s or 30s wearing a jean jacket.
The following day, on October 30th, dozens of searchers combed the area around Creston, Ohio, looking for any sign of the young girl. A TV news station even lent their helicopter to assist in the search. But, despite their exhaustive efforts, they found no trace of Tina.
|Tina Harmon's school portrait|
But nobody could give police any information on why the young girl was gone. Tina was a good student, they said, and, although she was rebellious and independent, she was smart enough to know her limits. She'd recently broken up with a boyfriend, but it seemed to be a mutual separation with no bitterness. Nobody could think of a reason as to why the young girl would run away.
On the afternoon of November 3rd, 1981, 40 miles away from Creston, a young hunter named Herbert Sefert was tracking a deer outside the tiny village of Navarre, Ohio, right near the property of an oil well. As Sefert walked through a field along an access road while on the hunt, he came across the body of a young girl, fully-clothed and lying face-up on the ground. In her pocket was $3.25 in cash and a matchbook from the Union 76 Truck Stop.
The corpse was brought to Massillon Community Hospital, where investigators confirmed what everyone already feared. The body was that of 12-year-old Tina Marie Harmon. Upon hearing the news that her daughter was found murdered, Tina's mother fainted.
Tina Harmon had suffered a violent death. The coroner determined that the 12-year-old had been raped and sexually assaulted - semen was found on her dress and in her panties. Marks on her wrists and ankles showed that she had been bound, and bruises on her face and arms indicated she had put up a struggle with her attacker. The cause of death was ruled to be strangulation. Burns on Tina's neck showed the killer had apparently tried to strangle her with a rope before finally using his hands to finish the job.
The coroner determined that the girl had been lying in the field for less than 24 hours. Because no employees had seen the body when they arrived for work that morning, he surmised that the killer probably kept the body inside a house or a car for several days before leaving it there sometime that afternoon.
But the examiner also found something else - the body was covered in dog hairs and tiny orange fibers. In fact, these orange fibers were so abundant that they were found on every piece of Tina's clothing except for her underwear.
|These orange fibers were recovered from Tina Harmon's body.|
Examiners concluded that these orange fibers were polyester carpet fibers, and that they probably came from the murderer's car or home. But, until they had a suspect's carpet to compare them to, these fibers put police no closer to catching their killer.
Tina Harmon's murder sent shockwaves through the community of Creston, Ohio. The tiny town hadn't had a homicide in decades, and most everyone who lived in Creston had either personally known Tina or knew someone who had personally known Tina.
After the horrific murder, there was immense public pressure on the police to apprehend and convict Tina's killer. Police began a wholescale investigation, interviewing witnesses, questioning known sex offenders who lived in the area, and canvassing truck stops to search for clues.
Several witnesses at the Union 76 Truck Stop - which Tina frequented - said that they had seen a girl resembling Tina enter the truck stop with some friends. Police followed up on that lead, hoping to see if anyone had seen anything suspicious. They were disappointed to find out that the witness had described the incident as occurring on October 30th, a day after Tina Harmon had been abducted. The lead was a dead end.
Another witness claimed she had seen Tina in the company of a man and a woman at the truck stop on the day of the abduction. Police interviewed more than 48 people in one day while following up on the lead. Again, unfortunately, it was another dead end.
Every time police interviewed a person of interest, they collected carpet fibers to compare with the fibers on Tina Harmon's body. They scoured motel rooms, truck stops, and cars owned by convicted sex offenders, collecting samples of the carpets for comparison. But, in the end, none of them matched the fibers found at the crime scene.
One investigator developed a hunch that Tina's father might have been involved in the murder. Tina's parents were divorced, and it seemed like a probable lead. But, after searching the cars of Tina's father, brother, uncle, and relatives, they still came up with nothing.
When Tina's old boyfriend sent a condolence card to her family, he also became a person of interest. Police interviewed him and took samples of the carpets in his house. Ultimately, he, too, was cleared as a suspect.
Within two weeks of the murder, the police had exhausted all of their leads and the case became stalled. They had nothing but bags of fibers and more questions than answers.
But, that same month, the police would get a break in the case. And it would come from a very unlikely source.
On November 17th, 1981, three weeks after Tina Harmon had been murdered, local mother Mary Bowman and her teenage daughter, Lois, walked into the Creston Police Station and provided authorities with a crucial tip.
Mary and Lois Bowman told the Creston police chief that they had been driving on the Route 539 highway when they pulled up behind a dirty, beat-up car that was weaving haphazardly between lanes. Inside the car, they saw two "scruffy-looking" men and a young girl who appeared to be struggling with them. It appeared that the girl was trying to get out of the car but was being restrained by one of the men.
Mary Bowman said she began honking her horn to draw attention to the situation. As she did so, the girl managed to get out of the car and began running away. Mary and Lois told police that they saw the car take a U-turn and chase after the girl, but they didn't stick around to see what happened next.
The description of the girl seemed to fit Tina Harmon. Mary and Lois described the girl as being between 12 and 16 years old, with dark hair, wearing a windbreaker and jeans with a "loop design" on the back pocket. Tina Harmon had been found dead wearing a blue windbreaker and jeans with a star on the back pocket.
Lois thought that the girl resembled an old schoolmate of hers - Tina Courtwright. In fact, Tina Courtwright lived in a house on that very same road. But Tina Courtwright was alive and well, and she told police that no such incident had happened to her.
It wasn't until the Bowmans saw a picture of Tina Harmon on the TV a few days after the incident that they believed they may have witnessed the murdered girl attempting to escape from her abductors. When police showed the pair a picture of Tina Harmon, both Lois and Mary said that the girl they saw looked like Tina.
Mary Bowman told police she couldn't remember too many details about the car. She could not recall the make, model, or the color. She couldn't even recall whether it had two doors or four.
So police asked Mary Bowman to undergo hypnosis, with the belief that it could help her recall specific details of the incident that she may have forgotten.
After being hypnotized, Mary Bowman told police that she remembered the details of the car. It was a bluish-green Pontiac or Plymouth, she said, with no rear bumper and a dark red stripe along the side of the car. It had a blue fur carpet in the back window, she claimed, and it had what looked like a temporary license plate (although she could not recall the number).
Police began searching for a car matching Mary Bowman's description. After a few days, their investigation focused on a 26-year-old man named Herman Ray Rucker.
Rucker had a criminal record for several misdemeanor offenses, and had recently been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol. Like Tina Harmon, Rucker frequented truck stops and lived in Wayne County. He often hung out with a local kid, 19-year-old Ernest Holbrook Jr., who was married and expecting a child.
|26-year-old Herman Ray Rucker (left) and 19-year-old Ernest Holbrook Jr. (right) quickly became the prime suspects in the murder of 12-year-old Tina Harmon. However, there was very little evidence that tied the pair to the crime.|
However, Rucker's car didn't match the description that Mary Bowman had given to police. While Mary Bowman had said the car she saw was a turquoise Pontiac with a damaged rear bumper and a blue fur carpet, Rucker owned a primer-red 1972 Chevrolet Nova with a black hood, an intact rear bumper, and no blue fur carpet.
Nevertheless, police decided to interview Rucker and Holbrook on November 24th. Both Rucker and Holbrook denied all involvement in Tina Harmon's murder, insisting they had alibis for the day of the crime. Holbrook told police he was at his sister's wedding on the day of the murder, and Rucker said he'd been with his family.
But police were desperate to find a suspect in Tina Harmon's murder, and Rucker and Holbrook seemed to fit the profile of their killer. They quickly became the prime suspects in the brutal crime, and the investigation began to shift its focus.
On December 3rd, 1981, police interviewed a woman named Susan Sigler, who had been recommended to them by an anonymous source who said she knew something about the murder of Tina Harmon.
Susan Sigler knew Ernest Holbrook and Herman Rucker casually, and she told police that she had some incriminating information to give them.
Sigler told police that, one night, she was drinking beer with Rucker and Holbrook when Rucker confided to her that he and Holbrook had kidnapped, raped, and murdered Tina Harmon.
Sigler said Rucker had told her that he, Holbrook, and a friend, Earl Conaway, had "fooled around" with a young girl they had picked up. The pair had made sexual advances on the girl, and, when she resisted, they ripped off her clothes and raped her. Sigler claimed Rucker said he "beat the shit" out of Tina Harmon, repeatedly slammed her head against the car, and left her to die on the side of the road.
Sigler also claimed that Rucker asked her for some money so he could lay low out of town.
This story sounded doubtful to police. Although Sigler claimed that Rucker had beaten Tina Harmon to death, the coroner had found no evidence of head injuries. Furthermore, Rucker's employer told police that Rucker had perfect attendance at his job both before and after the murder of Tina Harmon.
But Sigler told police that Ernest Holbrook's cousin, Curtis Maynard, had been with her when Rucker confessed to the crime. Maynard, she said, could corroborate her story.
On December 10th, Curtis Maynard arrived at the police station in Creston, OH, to talk to investigators. Maynard, a 24-year-old ex-convict with an IQ of only 71, had a long criminal record for petty crimes such as burglary and larceny. He had, in fact, recently been released on parole after being convicted of aggravated assault and grand theft auto.
Maynard arrived at the station with his parole officer and agreed, under oath, to give a tape-recorded interview. He corroborated Susan Sigler's story about Rucker confessing to Tina Harmon's murder. Maynard told police that Rucker confessed that he, Holbrook, and a friend named Earl Conaway had taken a "little girl" for a "ride" around Creston.
"Ernie and Herman was kissing on this girl and she didn't want them to", Maynard told police, "so they got mad and ripped her clothes off of her and he killed her".
Curiously, Maynard told police that Sigler said she had been in the car when the incident occurred - yet another anomaly that contradicted Sigler's original report. But police didn't seem to seriously doubt Maynard's story. They were so desperate to apprehend the killer of Tina Harmon, and so short on leads at this point, that they were willing to take Sigler and Maynard at their word.
Near where the Bowmans saw the incident with the girl was a small shed, which the police thought could be of some significance. They asked Maynard if Rucker had mentioned the shed. Perhaps the rape and murder had taken place in there, and could provide the police with more evidence.
But Maynard denied knowing anything about the shed, saying he had never heard Rucker mention it. This frustrated the police. To ensure a conviction, they needed to pin down the location of the murder of Tina Harmon, and the shed had seemed a likely place.
On January 12th, 1982, Curtis Maynard was arrested yet again, this time for stealing $4 from a friend. While in police custody, authorities told Maynard that his new crime had violated the conditions of his release. He was going to go back to jail and serve his original 4-year sentence.
Aghast, Maynard burst into tears and, desperate to avoid going back to prison, he offered to give another statement to police about the Tina Harmon murder. He was willing to do anything to stay out of jail.
Once again, Maynard began recounting to them his story of Rucker's confession. This time, however, there were significant differences in Maynard's story. His new statement neglected to mention Earl Conaway or Susan Sigler at all, and there was much more.
Now, Maynard said that Rucker and Holbrook had not only confessed to killing Tina Harmon, but that they had actually shown him the girl's body, lying in the very shed he had previously denied knowing about. The shed, he said, was a popular hangout place for Rucker and Holbrook, and had been stuffed full of women's clothing and pictures of nude girls.
After Maynard gave his second statement, police agreed to drop the theft charge against him and he was released. They examined the shed in which Maynard said he'd seen Tina Harmon's body, and they immediately noticed that part of the shed had an orange carpet. Because orange fibers had been found on Tina Harmon's body, police thought this might be the connection that could make their case. But, when fiber samples from the shed's carpet were compared to the fibers from the crime scene, they did not match.
Nevertheless, police thought they had the evidence they needed to charge Ernest Holbrook and Herman Ray Rucker with the rape and murder of Tina Harmon. On February 9th, 1982, they issued sealed indictments against both Rucker and Holbrook charging them with Tina's murder.
On February 10th, 1982, Herman Ray Rucker and Ernest Holbrook Jr. were arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated first-degree murder and felony murder, one count of kidnapping, and one count of rape. Because the crime constituted aggravating circumstances, the district attorney announced that he would seek the death penalty for both Rucker and Holbrook.
Rucker and Holbrook steadfastly maintained their innocence, and both pleaded not guilty to all charges. But the police were convinced that they had found the killers they were looking for, and the little town of Creston was eager to lock them up and move on from the terrible tragedy.
A Tale of Two Trials
Ernest Holbrook and Herman Rucker were each tried separately for the murder of Tina Harmon, but the testimonies of both Susan Sigler and Curtis Maynard served as the primary items of evidence against both of them. Police had still been unable to tie the fiber and dog hair evidence to either Rucker or Holbrook. The case against them was entirely circumstantial, however damning it appeared to be.
|Herman Rucker (left) and Ernest Holbrook Jr. (right) are led into court for a pre-trial appearance in May of 1982|
Rucker was the first defendant to go on trial. His trial began in Wayne County District Court on May 27th, 1982. Assistant Prosecutor Mark Altier told the jury that Herman Rucker was the ringleader of the two-man gang that had kidnapped, raped, and murdered 12-year-old Tina Harmon. The evidence, he said, would show that Rucker and Holbrook had kidnapped Tina Harmon, made sexual advances on her, raped her when she resisted them, and then beat her to death to ensure her silence.
|Assistant prosecutor Mark Altier holds Tina Harmon's shoes as he confers with his co-counsel|
The bulk of the evidence against Rucker was the testimony of the witnesses, namely Susan Sigler, Curtis Maynard, and the Bowmans. Prosecutors told the jury that Mary Bowman had "positively identified" Rucker's car as the car she said she saw during the incident on the highway, and both she and Lois had picked Rucker and Holbrook's pictures out of a photo lineup.
The prosecutor's assertions, however, differed from those of Mary Bowman herself. When Mary Bowman testified on the stand during Rucker's trial, the prosecutor showed her a picture of Rucker's vehicle. "Is this the car you saw?", he asked.
Bowman looked at the picture. "No", she responded. "No, that ain't the car."
"That's not the car you saw?", the prosecutor asked, bewildered.
"No, that ain't the car", Mary Bowman repeated.
There were other major holes in the prosecution's case surrounding the testimony of Susan Sigler. One of these holes was the date of the alleged confession made by Rucker. Originally, Susan Sigler had told police that Rucker confessed to the crime on November 14th - more than two weeks after Tina Harmon was killed.
|Susan Sigler testifies during the 1982 trial of Herman Rucker. Sigler, who had a long history of lying, was one of the prosecution's star witnesses in the case against Rucker and Holbrook.|
But, on the stand, Susan Sigler changed her story. Now, she said that Rucker had confessed to the crime on October 30th - the same day the coroner believed the young girl had died. It conveniently fit with the prosecution's timeline, and with Maynard's dubious claim that he had seen Tina Harmon's body in the shed.
Furthermore, the defense called several witnesses who told of Susan Sigler's poor relationship with the truth. Sigler, they said, was a pathological liar. She had been married and divorced four times, had falsely accused a previous boyfriend of rape, and had lied on a marriage certificate about her marital history. Her testimony, they said, should be taken with a grain of salt.
The prosecution's star witness was Curtis Maynard. He was the only person who tied Holbrook and Rucker to Tina Harmon. He was the only one who claimed to have actually seen the young girl's body in the shed with the two men. His testimony was considered crucial to the prosecution's case.
But Curtis Maynard's testimony, like Susan Sigler's, was problematic. Maynard's story had varied wildly each time he'd recounted it. He had gone from merely saying he'd heard the confession to saying that he'd actually visited the crime scene and seen Tina Harmon's body. And this was to say nothing of his mental state, his criminal record, and the pressure the police had put on him when questioning him.
But, in the end, although the prosecution's case was so full of obvious holes and flaws, and although it completely lacked any forensic evidence that could tie the defendants to the murder of Tina Harmon, it was still enough to convince the jury of Rucker's guilt.
On June 9th, 1982, after deliberating for more than ten hours, the jury found Herman Ray Rucker guilty of the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Tina Harmon. As the jury read their verdict, Rucker's ex-wife, who was sitting in the spectator's gallery, began to cry. "I don't believe it!", she sobbed. "They have no evidence!"
|Friends comfort Rucker's ex-wife as she cries upon hearing the jury convict Rucker of murder|
As his ex-wife wept in the courtroom, Rucker just stared silently at the judge, shaking his head as tears began welling in his eyes. He bowed his head and appeared to recite a small prayer as the judge announced the verdict.
|Herman Ray Rucker listens as he is found guilty of the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Tina Harmon|
Next came the penalty phase of the trial. Under Ohio law, Rucker faced two possible penalties - life imprisonment or death in the electric chair. In an unusual violation of court procedure, the judge refused to sequester the jury before they reached a verdict - yet another mistake marring an already flawed case.
Even before the sentencing proceedings began, Rucker's attorneys began filing petitions for a new trial. They subjected Rucker to a polygraph test - the second time he'd been given one since his arrest - and he passed with flying colors. But Judge George McMonagle refused to grant Rucker a new hearing, stating that there was insufficient evidence to fulfill the defense's request.
On June 24th, 1982, after deliberating for four hours and twenty minutes, the jury voted to spare Rucker from the electric chair. Judge George McMonagle promptly sentenced Herman Ray Rucker to life in prison on both murder charges, with no possibility of parole for 20 years, plus 50 years in prison for the rape and kidnapping charges. As Judge McMonagle read the verdict, Rucker bowed his head, dropped his shoulders, jammed his hands in his pockets, and began to cry.
|Herman Rucker listens as Judge George J. McMonagle sentences him to life in prison|
Before he was led out of the courtroom to his new home at the Ohio State Prison, Rucker was given the chance to make a statement. "I didn't do it", the convicted killer said softly. "I'm innocent".
As Rucker was sent to prison to serve out his life sentence, prosecutors prepared to try his co-defendant, Ernest Holbrook Jr., for the same crime. They were confident that, because they were using the same evidence that had convicted Rucker, Holbrook would soon be sent to prison to join his friend.
But the following month, rural Ohio was struck by yet another heinous killing - one that seemed all too familiar to local investigators. It was the first compelling sign that, perhaps, the police had gotten the wrong men.
Krista Lea Harrison
The tiny town of Marshallville, Ohio (population 756), sits barely 13 miles from Creston and is in the same county. Like Creston, Marshallville is a very tight-knit community, and crime is almost totally nonexistent there. In 1982, the town hadn't experienced a single murder in its 165-year history.
At one point, Roy Wilson became thirsty, and walked to the other end of the baseball field to get a drink of water. Krista decided to sit down on the bleachers and rest while she waited for her friend to return.
As Krista sat down, Roy noticed a strange, maroon-colored van with bubble-shaped windows pull into the park and stop next to the bleachers. A white, mustachioed man, between 25 and 35 years old, got out of the van, walked over to where Krista was sitting, and sat down next to her.
The man said something to the girl, and then reached under her blouse. Krista slapped his hand away, but the man persisted. He put his arm around Krista, and stuck his hands down the girl's shorts. When Krista tried to get on her bike, the man pulled her back and whispered something into her ear.
Krista began to cry as the man led her back to his van and forced her to get inside the vehicle. As the man climbed in, he leaned out the window to look at Roy Wilson. "Bye, Roy!", he shouted as he backed out of the park and drove off with his captive in tow.
Roy Wilson immediately ran over to Krista's house, where he told her parents that their daughter had been abducted. Krista's father immediately called police.
When questioned by officers, Roy Wilson told police that Krista's abductor was a slender white male, approximately 5'10", in his 20s or 30s, with a mustache and long brown hair. He was driving a late-model dark red or brown van, with bubble-shaped rear windows and a roof vent.
|A police sketch of Krista Harrison's abductor, based on the description given by Roy Wilson|
The Ohio State Highway Patrol quickly set up roadblocks in and around Marshallville, searching for any vehicle which matched Roy Wilson's description. Officers, rescue workers, and more than 500 local volunteers from the surrounding community immediately began scouring the area, searching for any sign of the missing girl.
|One of the many volunteers who searched for Krista Harrison following her abduction.|
Police theorized that Krista Harrison might have been abducted for ransom. Anticipating a ransom call, the FBI was summoned to the Harrison home, and they set up a tap-and-trace line on the phone. But that call never came. The police were so desperate for clues that they even consulted the help of two self-proclaimed psychics to see if they could locate Krista Harrison's whereabouts. But this, too, led to nothing.
Krista Harrison's parents hoped beyond hope that their daughter was still alive. Krista's father, Gerald Harrison, made an impassioned plea on TV for the abductor of his daughter to return her. "Please don't harm her", Gerald begged. "Let her come home safe to us. She's just a child, and we want to be able to hold her in our arms and tell her how much we love her."
After three days had passed with no sign of the young girl, the FBI came to the grim conclusion that Krista Harrison was probably dead, even though her family continued to hold out hope that she was still alive.
Surmising that Krista's body may have been thrown into a nearby body of water, FBI boats dragged the bottom of a nearby lake, but the search turned up nothing. Then, the FBI received a tip that a shallow grave had been found off the side of a small access road. But, yet again, the tip was a dead end.
|FBI agents and civilian volunteers scour a lake near the scene of Krista Harrison's abduction.|
Even while police searched for Krista Harrison, they couldn't help but wonder if the young girl's disappearance had something to do with the murder of Tina Harmon less than a year earlier.
Even though police knew that Herman Rucker and Ernest Holbrook were under arrest for her murder, the circumstances of this latest disappearance set off alarm bells for detectives. Privately, some officers began to doubt whether they had apprehended the right suspects in Tina Harmon's murder.
Six days after Krista Harrison's disappearance, investigators' worst fears were realized.
On Friday, July 23rd, 1982, just before 8:00 PM, a group of trappers went to a small pond in a field 15 miles away from Marshallville, hoping to catch some turtles. As the trappers examined an abandoned garage off to the side of the field, hoping to find some bait, they made a horrifying discovery.
Just outside of the abandoned garage lay the badly decomposed body of a young girl, lying on her side, fully clothed, and partially wrapped in a plastic bag.
|The badly decomposed body of 11-year-old Krista Lea Harrison was found outside an abandoned garage six days after her abduction. (Due to the extremely graphic nature of this image, it is partially censored)|
The body was in such bad condition that investigators could not immediately determine the identity of the remains, but forensic testing confirmed that the body was that of 11-year-old Krista Lea Harrison. Despite Gerald Harrison's pleas to see his daughter's body, police urged him not to view Krista's remains. They wanted her grieving family to only remember Krista the way she had been in life.
|Investigators examine the area where Krista Harrison's body was found.|
An autopsy revealed that Krista Harrison had, like Tina Harmon, suffered a horrific death. The 11-year-old girl had been raped and "viciously" sexually assaulted with a "rigid object" - likely a sex toy - and then violently beaten and strangled to death.Based on the state of decomposition of the remains, police believed that Krista's body had been stored in a hot environment for several days before being dumped outside the abandoned garage.
|A clump of hair found at the crime scene was determined to belong to Krista Harrison|
Next to Krista Harrison's body, police found a number of items, including a beach towel, a clump of hair, a pair of well-worn men's jeans, a men's plaid shirt, a pair of black leather gloves, and a large carboard box completely covered in blood. Forensic testing determined that the blood on the carboard box was Krista's, as was the clump of hair found near it.
|This large, blood-covered cardboard box was found near Krista Harrison's body. Investigators believed that the killer had put Krista's corpse in the box after killing her|
The bloody carboard box found near Krista Harrison's body was also traced. Investigators determined that the boxes were used to package a specific brand of car seat sold exclusively through a Sears mail-order catalogue. Investigators checked Sears records for all Ohio residents who had purchased these seats, but none of the individuals identified owned a van matching the description of the kidnapper's car.
During the autopsy, the coroner made a startling discovery. In Krista Harrison's hair, he found dozens of trilobal orange carpet fibers - the exact same fibers that had been found on Tina Harmon's body. The coroner had previously worked on the Tina Harmon case, and the uniqueness of this discovery seemed too much to be a coincidence. He was certain that the two cases were connected.
The Second Trial
The abduction and murder of Krista Harrison devastated the small town of Marshallville. The community had never experienced a kidnapping in its entire history, and pretty much everyone - even the mayor - had known Krista Harrison personally. The loss of the beloved girl left the entire town grieving and searching for answers.
On July 29th, 1982, 11-year-old Krista Lea Harrison was laid to rest on a small hill at Maple Grove Cemetery. More than 30 people attended the young girl's funeral, sharing happy memories of the time they had spent with Krista. The pastor asked the congregation to forgive Krista's killer, emphasizing that this was the best way to move on from the tragedy. Holding hate in their heart, he said, would let the killer win.
|Pallbearers carry Krista Harrison's coffin to her final resting place in Maple Grove Cemetery. Krista's older brothers, Mark and Dana, are at the front of the procession.|
Krista's parents hugged each other tightly as they cried over the pale-white coffin of their daughter.
To the very end, even after police had found the girl's body, Gerald Harrison had held out hope that his daughter was still alive. He had held out hope even after the police told him the clothes on the victim matched those his daughter was last seen wearing.
His hopes, and the hopes of the entire town of Marshallville, had been in vain.
|Krista Harrison's parents leave church after attending a memorial service for their daughter|
After the community mourned the death of Krista Harrison, the police turned to catching her killer. Because Krista's death seemed eerily similar to the murder of Tina Harmon, investigators were certain that the two cases were connected. In fact, when the FBI compared the orange fibers found on Krista Harrison's body with the fibers found on Tina Harmon's body, they found that the two were identical in every regard.
Clearly, the police had apprehended the wrong suspects in Harmon's murder. The man who killed Krista Harrison was the same person who had killed Tina Harmon, and that person could not have been either Ernest Holbrook or Herman Rucker.
In fact, just a few days after Krista Harrison's body was found, Curtis Maynard recanted the testimony he had given in the Rucker case. Maynard said he had lied under oath because he feared going back to prison, and said police had threatened and coerced him into testifying. Although police denied the accusations, Maynard was promptly arrested and charged with perjury. Maynard would later be convicted of lying under oath and sentenced to six years in prison, of which he'd serve 13 months.
Without Maynard's testimony, defense attorneys were convinced that Ernest Holbrook, who was still awaiting trial for Tina Harmon's murder, would be acquitted. Furthermore, they believed that Rucker, who was serving a life sentence for that crime, would now be freed. Obviously, they thought, police had gotten the wrong men. The real killer was still out there, and he had just claimed a second victim.
But defense attorneys were disappointed to learn that the prosecution still intended to press the case against Holbrook. Even though it was now beyond clear that Holbrook and Rucker were innocent, the state of Ohio was unwilling to admit that they had arrested the wrong men.
On August 16th, 1982, Ernest Holbrook went on trial for Tina Harmon's murder in Wayne County Court. Instead of a jury, Holbrook faced a three-judge panel overseeing his case. This was actually a positive sign for the defense (or so they thought). Holbrook's attorneys believed that a judge panel would be less likely to accept troublesome evidence and more likely to see through the flimsy case against Holbrook.
In their opening arguments, the defense argued that the police had gotten the wrong men. There was now solid forensic proof, they said, that the real killer of Tina Harmon had just struck again. The fibers found at both crime scenes matched perfectly, conclusively proving that the same killer was not only still free, but still committing crimes. The evidence was overwhelming and its message was clear: Ernest Holbrook was an innocent man.
But the prosecution brought forth Susan Sigler to once again recount the confession that Rucker and Holbrook had allegedly relayed to her after Tina's murder. On the stand, Sigler told the judge panel that she had been driven by Rucker and Holbrook to the field where Tina Harmon's body had been found, and that Holbrook had told her "See? I told you they'd find her."
However, even while on the stand, Susan Sigler made comments that contradicted her own testimony. When asked by Holbrook's attorney "Do you think Ernest Holbrook could have murdered Tina Harmon?", she responded "In my personal opinion, no sir, he could not."
|Ernest Holbrook (left) sits with his attorney during his trial in August, 1982. Even though it was beyond clear by now that police had apprehended the wrong men in Tina Harmon's murder, Holbrook was convicted of the crime anyway.|
On August 26th, 1982, after hearing ten days of testimony, the three-judge panel retired to deliberate their verdict. Like Herman Rucker, Ernest Holbrook faced the electric chair if convicted of Tina Harmon's murder, but the defense was confident that the judge panel would find Holbrook innocent of the charges against him.
|While waiting for the judges to issue a verdict, Ernest Holbrook chats with his wife and sister. Holbrook's one-month old son, born while his father was in prison, can be seen in his wife's arms.|
But, unbelievably, the evidence of Holbrook's innocence failed to convince the judge panel. After deliberating for nine hours, the three-judge panel unanimously found Ernest Holbrook guilty of murder, rape, and kidnapping, and, like Rucker, he was sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years.
Upon hearing the verdict, Ernest Holbrook stiffened, apparently shocked that he'd been convicted. Holbrook's wife and mother, however, burst into tears, frustrated and angry that the legal system had, yet again, failed to do their job. Once again, the system had convicted an innocent man.
|Holbrook's mother, wife, and brother-in-law cry upon hearing the guilty verdict|
As Holbrook was led away, he looked to his supporters in the courtroom. Upon seeing his wife and child, Holbrook broke down and suffered a panic attack. He crumpled forward, collapsed to the floor, and began uncontrollably crying, wailing, and gasping for air. Holbrook had to literally be dragged from the courtroom by deputies.
But all was not lost. Even before Holbrook joined his friend in Ohio State Prison, attorneys for the pair began filing petitions for a new trial, citing Curtis Maynard's recanting of his testimony and the recent murder of Krista Harrison.
On September 15th, 1982, Judge George McMonagle - the same judge who had sentenced Rucker to life in prison - overturned Rucker's murder conviction and ordered a new trial. The state of Ohio appealed the ruling, but it was upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court in March of 1983, and a retrial date was scheduled for June 6th, 1983.
Rucker would have another chance to prove his innocence, but, in a bizarre decision, his co-defendant would not get the same chance. In January of 1983, a three-judge panel denied Holbrook's request for a new trial, stating that there was "insufficient evidence" to warrant a new hearing.
It was yet another frustrating legal blunder in an already messy case.
A New Chance at Justice
Herman Rucker's second trial commenced on June 6th, 1983, with prosecutors again seeking the death penalty. This time, prosecutors didn't have the testimony that had previously convicted Rucker. It was clear from the start that this trial would be different than the last one.
The jury heard testimony from not only Tina Harmon's father but also her friends, including Sherry Mowrey, a girl who had been out with Tina the night she disappeared.
Despite the evidence exonerating Rucker, the prosecution was adamant that Rucker was guilty of everything he stood accused of. They tried to play on the jury's emotions, telling them of how Tina Marie had planned a sleepover with her friends, but that her plans had been thwarted when a sadistic killer snatched her from the street.
"Tina Marie was abducted before she could ask Sherry Mowrey to stay the night", assistant prosecutor Martin Frantz told the jury, "and she was abducted by this defendant".
But the defense told the jury that reason, not emotion, had to guide their decisions. Yes, they said, Tina Harmon's death was an utter tragedy, but convicting an innocent man of her murder was inexcusable. The defense warned the jury not to allow their personal feelings to influence their decision, and cautioned against compounding the tragedy of Tina's murder with sending an innocent man to prison or the electric chair.
|Herman Ray Rucker (left) watches as his attorney describes testimony to the jury during his 1983 retrial|
The defense also presented forensic evidence that they said proved Herman Rucker was innocent. The fibers found on Tina Harmon's body, the defense said, could not be tied to Herman Rucker or any other suspect. Police had never found a carpet matching those fibers in Rucker's car or place of residence. In fact, none of the suspects or dozens of persons of interest had any rugs, carpets, or other materials that could be tied to the unique orange fibers. These fibers had never been found anywhere else except on the body of Krista Harrison. This was proof, the defense said, that the wrong man had been arrested and that the real killer was still out there, stalking rural Ohio and preying on young girls.
On June 15th, 1983, after hearing a week of testimony, the jury retired to deliberate. This time, the verdict came quickly. The evidence that the police had gotten the wrong man was impossible to dismiss. After deliberating for just one hour and 50 minutes, the jury acquitted Herman Ray Rucker of all charges. Relieved and overcome with emotion, Rucker hugged his sister tightly and broke into tears of happiness. After spending nearly a year incarcerated for a crime he didn't commit, Rucker finally left the courtroom a free man.
|Vindicated: Herman Ray Rucker embraces his sister after being acquitted of murder|
But even with Rucker now fully exonerated, the fight was far from over. Rucker's co-defendant, Ernest Holbrook Jr., still remained incarcerated for Tina Harmon's murder.
On August 10th, 1983, despite Rucker's acquittal and despite the mountain of evidence that he was wrongfully imprisoned, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Ernest Holbrook's petition for a new trial. The state of Ohio refused to accept Rucker and Holbrook's innocence, still stubbornly refusing to admit that they had made a mistake.
Even with Rucker now a free man, an innocent person still rotted in prison, being punished for a crime he clearly didn't commit, while a serial killer of young girls continued to roam rural Ohio, searching for his next victim.
But, just two months later, police would get another lead - this time pointing towards the real killer. And it would come not from a corpse, but a living victim - a victim who had been to hell and back and lived to tell the tale.
It was about 10:00 PM on the night of October 16th, 1983. In the nearby town of Damascus in neighboring Mahoning County, Ohio, a 28-year-old gas station manager, known only as "Debbie", was closing up for the night and preparing to head home.
As Debbie walked to her car, a man emerged from the darkness, approached her from behind, and grabbed the young woman, holding a gun to her head. "Don't move!", he snarled, covering her mouth to prevent her from screaming. "You're coming with me unless you want your fucking head blown off!"
Debbie's gun-wielding assailant forced her into his car and drove her to his home - a small house in a suburban neighborhood in Clinton, Ohio. There, the man led Debbie into his garage and forced her to undress. After she did, the man chained Debbie to a weight-lifting bench. He used a safety razor to shave her head, and, for the next ten hours, he brutally raped, beat, and tortured the young woman.
Debbie's captor cut the wires to a lamp and used the exposed electrodes to torture the young woman with electric shocks. In addition, Debbie was physically beaten on the head and stomach, forced to drink her assailant's semen and urine, whipped with a belt until she bled (both internally and externally), raped and sexually assaulted, and suffocated repeatedly with plastic bags until she passed out, was revived, and endured the same treatment all over again.
After enduring eight hours of living hell, Debbie was left exhausted and in agony, with blood everywhere - on her, on the floor, and even on the ceiling. She was brought to her attacker's bed, where the man tied and handcuffed each of her limbs to the four bedposts. By now, it was about 8:00 AM, and the man had to leave. He dressed in a suit and told Debbie that he would be heading to work, but that would be back soon.
"I'm going to work now, and I'll be back in three hours", he told Debbie. The man left her with a warning: "If you try to escape, I'll find you and I'll kill you."
After the man left, Debbie realized that he would never let her go. She had seen his face and his home. When he returned, the man would kill her whether or not she tried to run away.
Debbie knew this was her last chance to escape from her captor. She had to free herself. Her life literally depended on it.
Debbie began struggling with her restraints, desperate to free her limbs. She was so desperate, in fact, that she even considered gnawing her thumbs off to free herself.
Finally, after a long, difficult struggle, Debbie managed to free her right hand from the rope that bound it to the bedpost. Using her free hand, she undid the ropes that tied her ankles to the foot of the bed.
But Debbie's left hand was secured to its bedpost with a metal handcuff. There was no way to unlock it or remove it from the post. The only way for Debbie to free her hand was to literally pull it through the frame of the handcuff. After a long, excruciatingly painful struggle, which left her wrist bloody, bruised, and lacerated, Debbie miraculously managed to pull her hand free from the cuff.
It had taken Debbie nearly two hours to free herself, and she knew she didn't have much time before the man returned home. Quickly, the nude woman snatched a blue men's bathrobe from the restroom and ran, barefoot, out of the house.
Outside, Debbie found herself in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, with no idea what town she was in. Nothing looked familiar, and, with time running out, she knew she had to distance herself as much as she could from the house where she had been held captive.
With nowhere else to turn, Debbie collapsed to the ground, clasped her hands together, and looked up at the sky. "God!", she pleaded. "Oh God, help me! Oh God, I need a sign! I need help! I don't know where I'm at!"
As Debbie prayed, she heard a poodle barking from a nearby yard. Hoping beyond hope that the occupant of the house was home, Debbie ran as fast as she could towards the sound of the barking and knocked on the door. Miraculously, the occupant of the house, an elderly woman, was home and opened the door. Horrified at what she saw, the woman quickly ushered Debbie inside, bolted the front door shut, and closed all the drapes. The woman gave Debbie some food and water and immediately phoned the police.
Within minutes, officers from the Clinton Police Department arrived at the house. When the detectives saw Debbie's bruised, tortured body, they were aghast. One of the officers recalled that Debbie was so badly bruised that it looked like she was wearing "deep purple underwear".
Between hysterical sobs and gasps for breath, Debbie relayed to police her horrifying ordeal. She didn't know the name of her attacker, but she pointed out the house where she had been held captive. She told police that her attacker had gone to work and was due to return home any minute, so police quickly took up position outside the house and prepared to confront the rapist when he returned.
When Debbie's attacker returned home from work at about 11:00 AM, more than a dozen armed officers were waiting for him, and he was immediately arrested.
On the scene, Debbie positively identified the man as her attacker. He was Robert Anthony Buell, a highly-respected resident of Clinton and a man most thought was incapable of committing such a terrible crime.
But, after doing some digging, police found that Buell had been living a quite disturbing double-life.
Despite having a tumultuous family history, Buell was known to be a friendly, if eccentric, neighbor who was well known for his charm, his wit, and his sense of humor. He was always friendly to the neighborhood children, and often attended softball games at the local middle school, where he cheered on his girlfriend's two daughters.
Nobody had realized that this seemingly harmless and friendly man was living a secret double-life.
It later turned out that this wasn't the first time Buell had come to the attention of police. Back in 1978, Buell had been arrested for public indecency after flashing a group of women. He had been convicted on a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct, paid a fine, and had his criminal record expunged, but it appeared that his deviant behavior continued.
It quickly became apparent that Debbie wasn't the first young woman to suffer the full scale of Buell's sexual sadism. Soon after Buell was arrested, a 29-year-old woman from West Virginia told police that Buell had abducted her while she was visiting Ohio and had raped and tortured her for four days in his home before finally releasing her. Several other young women also accused Buell of sexual assault after seeing his picture in the local papers.
But it appears that Buell's targets were not limited to women in their 20s. Lately, it seemed, he had begun to take a disturbing interest in young girls.
On May 10th, 1983, a man in a blue Ford Pinto had approached a young girl near an alleyway and had tried to lure her into his car. The man quickly left once the girl's mother arrived, but not before the mother wrote down his plate number. The license plate was traced to a car owned by Buell's ex-wife.
In August of 1981, a 13-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in the basement of her home by an unknown man. Throughout the next year and a half, the girl's house received nonstop anonymous calls from an unidentified individual who asked for her by name.
Not only had the girl identified Buell as her assailant, but, on March 8th, 1983, one of the anonymous phone calls to the girl's home was traced to Buell's house in Clinton. For some unknown reason, however, the lead had never been followed up on.
Other suspicious incidents involving children were soon connected to Buell. In March, 1983, a gunman had attempted to force two girls - aged 12 and 13 - into a dark red or maroon van, but had failed. A police sketch of the gunman based on the girls' descriptions looked strikingly similar to Buell, and both girls identified him as their assailant when shown a photo lineup.
|The police sketch of a gunman who attempted to abduct two young girls in 1983 (left) bore a close resemblance to Robert Buell (right).|
And then the police remembered Krista Harrison and Tina Harmon - girls who fit Buell's victim profile and whose kidnappings, rapes, and murders still remained unsolved.
Police began searching through Buell's house for clues, and what they found was beyond damning.
Chewing the Carpet
On October 20th, 1983, Robert Anthony Buell was charged in Mahoning County Court with the kidnapping, rape, and torture of Debbie and the other woman from West Virginia. In court, Buell confessed to the crimes and pleaded "no contest" to all charges.
|A patrolman shows the handcuffs Robert Buell used to chain Debbie to his bed|
However, when accused of the murder of Krista Harrison, Buell denied all involvement and insisted that he was innocent. Even when he was subjected to an interrogation, Buell refused to crack to the pressure. The police had hoped that a confession could help them bring an end to the year-long murder investigation, but now they would have to build the case themselves from scratch.
|Robert Buell is escorted from the courthouse after pleading no contest to the rape charges|
While Buell sat in prison awaiting sentencing, investigators searched through his house and property, looking for evidence that could tie him to the murders of Krista Harrison and Tina Harmon.
Because dog hair had been found on the body of Tina Harmon, investigators wanted to know if Buell owned any pets. They learned he had owned a dog, which had recently died and was buried in the backyard. The dog's body was exhumed and hair samples were taken for comparison.
In the garage of Buell's house, investigators found several cans of black spray-paint - a paint which was chemically matched to some black paint on the bloody carboard box found near Krista Harrison's body. In addition, police discovered that Buell had recently painted the outside of his house, and took samples for comparison. The beige and blue paint from the house matched specks of beige and blue paint found on the discarded jeans near the Harrison crime scene.
The evidence of Robert Buell's connection to Krista Harrison's murder was building. But the most incriminating piece of evidence against Buell actually came from his car.
|Robert Buell's maroon 1978 Dodge cargo van. It closely resembled the description of the van driven by Krista Harrison's kidnapper|
Roy Wilson had described the van that Krista Harrison's kidnapper drove as a late-model red or maroon van, with bubble-shaped rear windows and a roof vent. Buell owned a van that almost perfectly matched the description - a maroon-colored 1978 Dodge van with a roof vent. Inside the van, police noticed that Buell had installed custom-made black leather car seats - the same kind of car seats that had come from the box found near Krista's body.
There was, however, one major difference between Buell's van and the kidnapper's van.
Roy Wilson had described the van as having distinctive bubble-shaped rear windows, but Buell's van had rectangular ones. However, police soon found an explanation for that, too. Neighbors told investigators that Buell's van actually did have bubble-shaped rear windows, but that Buell had replaced them with rectangular ones shortly after Krista's murder.
Investigators believed the van would likely have an orange carpet inside, as fibers from such a carpet were found on Krista Harrison's body. And when investigators looked inside the van, they found it was lined with an orange polyester trilobal carpet - almost a perfect match for the fibers found on the bodies of Krista Harrison and Tina Harmon.
|The inside of Buell's van, showing the orange carpet that lined the interior.|
The carpet was traced to the JP Stevens Company, a carpet manufacturer located in Canton, Ohio. They found that this specific color carpet was not a big seller, and very little of it had been produced. Only 12,015 square yards of this orange carpet had ever been manufactured, and, of those 12,015 yards, only 74 square yards were ever shipped to northern Ohio. The carpet found in Buell's van was so unique that it could prove to be a valuable piece of evidence tying Buell to the murders of the two girls.
|Detectives collected this piece of carpet from Robert Buell's van for forensic testing. It would be matched to carpet fibers found on the bodies of both Krista Harrison and Tina Harmon.|
There was only one thing left to do - chemically test the fibers from Buell's van to the fibers recovered from the crime scenes. And on November 7th, when the FBI tested the fibers from each of the crime scenes, they found a positive three-way match. The fibers from both crime scenes had each come from the same carpet as the carpet found in Robert Buell's van.
The following day, the FBI provided yet another bombshell - the hairs collected from Buell's deceased dog were a perfect match for the dog hairs found on Tina Harmon's body. There was now no doubt as to who her killer was.
This evidence sealed the case against Buell. Police were now certain that he had kidnapped, raped, and murdered not only Krista Harrison but also Tina Harmon. They finally had the serial killer they had spent two years looking for.
On November 15th, 1983, Robert Anthony Buell was formally charged in Wayne County Court with the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Krista Harrison. Still insisting on his innocence, Buell pleaded not guilty to all charges, and the prosecutor decided to seek the death penalty.
Six days after Buell was charged with murder, Ernest Holbrook, still in prison for Tina Harmon's murder, filed a request for a new trial. Surely, he thought, with all of the evidence that forensically tied Buell to Tina Harmon's murder, the courts would acknowledge that they had made a mistake.
But, unbelievably, the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear Holbrook's case. Even with his co-defendant acquitted, and with the real primary suspect now in custody, the court refused to clear Holbrook of the crime he was so obviously not guilty of. It was yet another frustrating setback for Holbrook's attorneys.
However, on January 24th, 1984, after facing immense backlash for their decision, a three-judge panel from the Ohio Supreme Court decided to grant Holbrook's attorneys the chance to make their case. They didn't agree to hear the arguments just yet, but they agreed to allow Holbrook's lawyers time to gather evidence to justify a new trial.
Hope was not yet lost for Holbrook. But, for Robert Anthony Buell, hope was quickly fading.
On January 31st, 1984, Robert Buell was sentenced to 320 years in prison for the kidnapping and rape of Debbie and the West Virginia woman. He was sent to prison with no chance of parole for 121 years - effectively a life sentence.
But prosecutors weren't satisfied just yet. Even though they knew Buell would now never leave prison alive, they wanted to bring closure to a long, painful case and bring justice for the families of Tina Harmon and Krista Harrison.
Buell's murder trial was scheduled for March 19th, 1984, in Cleveland Court. Now, prosecutors hoped that, when Buell returned to prison, he would have a date with the electric chair.
On March 19th, 1984, Robert Anthony Buell went on trial in Cleveland Court for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of 11-year-old Krista Lea Harrison. Buell had pleaded not guilty to all charges and continued to maintain his innocence.
Unlike the two trials against Ernest Holbrook and Herman Rucker, the evidence against Buell was based on irrefutable forensic science. Buell couldn't argue that he was a victim of circumstance or the subject of a frame-up. He was caught in a vice.
|Buell confers with his attorneys during his murder trial|
In his opening arguments, defense attorney James Burdon told the jury that Buell was the victim of misidentification. Eyewitnesses, he said, are naturally unreliable, and the eyewitnesses who identified Buell as Krista's abductor could have very easily been mistaken.
"The people who identified Robert Buell as being at the park did not do so until 1983", Burdon said. "These people only identified Robert Buell after his association with the police investigation into the death of Krista Lea Harrison."
The following day, the jury heard the testimony of seven witnesses, including Roy Wilson, the boy who had been with Krista the evening she was abducted. Wilson, now 13, described in detail how Krista had been fondled, accosted, and forced into a van, never to be seen again.
When asked if Robert Buell was the man who had kidnapped Krista Harrison, Roy Wilson said the man looked very similar, but, because so much time had passed, he could not be absolutely sure.
|Roy Wilson testifies during Buell's murder trial. He witnessed Krista Harrison's abduction and had spent the day playing with her.|
Some of the most damning testimony against Buell came from his own nephew: Ralph Ross. Ross told the jury that he and Buell spent a lot of time together, driving around rural Ohio and watching young girls and women. Ross said that Buell would often point out a young girl and describe in disturbing detail how he wanted to "pick her up", rape her with a vibrator, and then kill her.
Jurors were also shown grisly pictures of Krista Harrison's body, and heard graphic details about the sexual abuse the young girl had endured before she died. The Hamilton County coroner testified that two tears in Krista's vagina were consistent with a cordless vibrator found in Robert Buell's home, and that she had been slashed across the head with a razor that had taken off part of her scalp.
The details were so graphic that Krista's parents were unable to listen to it, and they had to leave the courtroom until the coroner finished his testimony.
|Dr. Charles Hirsch, the coroner who performed Krista Harrison's autopsy, testifies against Buell|
The defense focused much of its arguments on discrediting the eyewitness accounts. Though numerous witnesses testified seeing a man in a maroon van at the park on the night of the abduction, few were able to positively identify Buell as the man they saw. The evidence against Buell, the defense argued, was too circumstantial, and other suspects had to be considered.
But the defense had little explanation for the most damning evidence against Buell: the unique orange carpet fibers found in his van that had been matched to the fibers found on Krista's body. The fibers were identical in every regard - shape, size, color, and chemical composition.
|An FBI agent shows off a forensic chart listing the similarities between the fibers found in Buell's van with the fibers found on Krista Harrison's body. An FBI analysis had found that the fibers were identical in every way.|
The defense tried to discredit the carpet fiber evidence by pointing out that Buell wasn't the only one who bought such a carpet. Hadn't over 12,000 yards of the stuff been manufactured and put on the market? Anyone who bought the carpet, the defense said, was just as likely a suspect in Krista Harrison's murder as Robert Buell.
But the prosecution presented yet another damning piece of evidence that further complicated the defense's story. They revealed that hair had been found on the bedspread in Robert Buell's home, and the hair had been forensically matched to Krista Harrison. The evidence now not only placed Krista Harrison in Robert Buell's van, but now it also placed Krista Harrison in Robert Buell's house.
With the hair evidence combined with the carpet fiber evidence, and the fact that Buell owned such a similar van, the odds of Krista Harrison being abducted by a different man with the same kind of van and the same type of carpet worked out to about 1 in 6 trillion. There was no doubt, the prosecution said, that Robert Buell was guilty. He had kidnapped Krista Harrison, taken her to his home, brutally raped her, and then strangled her to death.
In his closing arguments, the prosecutor, Keith Shearer, told the jury to focus on the forensic evidence that implicated Robert Buell. That evidence, he said, was key to implicating Robert Buell, not the eyewitness testimony.
Tracing the orange carpet fibers, Shearer said, had started out as "looking for a needle in a haystack", but had gradually zeroed in on Buell.
"Where do we find that needle now?", Shearer asked rhetorically. "We find it in the van of Robert Buell".
"Our case is not circumstantial. Our case is not based on witness idenfitication", Shearer stressed. "Our case", he closed, "is based on uncontroverted scientific fact."
On April 4th, 1984, after three days of deliberation, the jury found Robert Anthony Buell guilty of the kidnapping, criminal sexual penetration, and murder of Krista Lea Harrison. Upon hearing the verdict, Krista's parents embraced and began to cry.
"For the last two years we've all been waiting for this day", Gerald Harrison told reporters outside the courthouse. "I just knew I had to be here. Now I'm glad I came".
|Krista's parents, Gerald and Shirley Harrison (left), embrace upon hearing the jury pronounce Robert Buell guilty of murder|
With Buell guilty of murder, the jury now had one last thing to determine - his sentence. On April 5th, 1984, the jury heard testimony from Buell's friends, family, and even Buell himself. The defense tried to elicit sympathy from the jury. They showed pictures of Buell as a baby and a young child. They described the abusive, broken home he had grown up in, and they highlighted his military service and respectable employment.
|Robert Buell testifies during the penalty phase of his trial|
"What you're entitled to have is the fact that Robert Buell is a real, live, living soul, and of hearing his voice and seeing his eyes", defense attorney James Burdon told the jury while arguing for a life sentence. "There is no appeal for death. What we ask for is absolute certainty. Mr. Buell trusts you with his life".
But prosecutor Keith Shearer tore into Burdon. "Krista Harrison isn't here to give you a history of her life", he retorted. "We don't know what a bright and happy future she might have had had she been allowed to live."
Shearer pointed to Buell and continued. "This man murdered an innocent little girl and dumped her body like a sack of garbage along the side of the road. He had no feelings and, as far as I know, no remorse", he fumed.
"Personally", he continued, "I cannot think of a factual situation other than the one you've heard over the past two weeks that is more deserving of the death penalty."
"And, frankly, ladies and gentlemen," Shearer closed, "if death isn't warranted in this case, I can't think of one where it should be."
It took the jury barely three hours to come to a decision. On April 6th, 1984, they unanimously voted to send Robert Buell to the electric chair.
Debbie was in the courtroom when the verdict was announced. Upon hearing the recommendation for the death penalty, she pumped her fist in the air and cheered "This is it!"
On April 11th, 1984, Judge Mark K. Weist upheld the jury's recommendation and sentenced Robert Anthony Buell to death by electric chair. In addition, he sentenced Buell to life in prison on the rape charge and 25 years for the kidnapping charge.
"Buell terrorized, sexually abused, and literally put Krista Lea Harrison through living hell", Judge Weist said in a statement as he handed down the death sentence. "From the circumstances surrounding the crime, the court did not find any evidence of mitigating factors".
|Robert Buell listens as Judge Mark Weist sentences him to death for the rape and murder of Krista Harrison|
After pronouncing the sentence, Judge Mark Weist set Buell's execution date for July 17th, 1984 - ironically, the two year anniversary of the murder of Krista Harrison. The date, however, was just a formality, and wasn't expected to be carried out.
Although plenty of forensic and circumstantial evidence tied Buell to the murder of Tina Harmon, prosecutor Shearer told reporters that he probably wouldn't press charges.
"After all", he said, "how many times do you need to kill a man?"
But even after Buell was sent to death row, Ernest Holbrook continued to sit in prison for the murder of Tina Harmon - a murder which he clearly did not commit. In fact, it would not be until May of 1984 that Ernest Holbrook's conviction would finally be overturned.
Rather than attempt a retrial like they had done with Rucker, the state of Ohio decided to dismiss all of the charges against Ernest Holbrook, and, after spending two years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, he was released a free man.
Holbrook would later sue the state of Ohio for his wrongful conviction, and, in October of 1986, the Ohio Court of Claims would award him $83,940 in damages. But, for a man whose life had been turned completely upside down, whose reputation had been needlessly destroyed, and whose family had been put through living hell, the judgement was scant consolation.
For 18 years, Robert Anthony Buell remained on Ohio's death row, one of dozens of heinous murderers awaiting their date with the electric chair. Even among such heinous criminals, Buell was reviled by his fellow inmates, who wanted nothing to do with a child killer.
However, Buell did develop a close friendship with a death row inmate in the cell next to him, Dale Johnston. Johnston, who would later be exonerated and released from prison in 1990, later credited Buell for "keeping me sane" while on death row, and the two remained close friends even after Johnston left prison.
Between 1986 and 1996, Robert Buell received eight different execution dates, all of which were stayed to allow him time to file further appeals. In 1996, Buell's execution was stayed a mere 17 minutes before he was to be strapped to Ohio's electric chair - in what would have been Ohio's first execution since 1963.
Throughout his time on death row, Buell continued to maintain his innocence, and he never confessed to either Krista Harrison's murder or Tina Harmon's murder. While on death row, Buell told reporters on numerous occasions that he had identified the actual killers of Tina Harmon and Krista Harrison, but he refused to name them.
|Robert Buell speaks to reporters during a death row interview in 2001.|
Despite the mountain of evidence incriminating him in the murders of Krista Harrison and Tina Harmon, Buell maintained his innocence to the very end.
Ultimately, all of Buell's appeals, requests for clemency, and petitions for a new trial were denied. On July 11th, 2002, the state of Ohio set Robert Buell's execution date for September 24th, 2002. The murderer's time had run out.
On September 22nd, 2002, after Ohio governor Bob Taft refused to commute his sentence to life, Robert Buell was transferred from death row to a holding cell at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, near the town of Lucasville. For his last meal, Buell made an unusual request: a single black unpitted olive. The significance of this unique request still remains a mystery.
On September 24th, Buell awoke early in the morning and listened to some classical music while he ate his breakfast of milk and bran flakes. Before he was led to the death chamber, Buell's attorney tried to get him to make a last-minute admission to his crime.
"If you did it, and if you admit it", she said, "it will help everybody."
But Buell still refused to confess to his crime. "I didn't do it", he responded simply.
At 10:15 AM on September 24th, 2002, Robert Buell was led from his holding cell for the last time and walked into the dimly-lit execution chamber, where a crude lethal injection gurney lay waiting for him. This time, Buell would get no last-minute reprieve like he did in 1996.
|Robert Anthony Buell died by lethal injection in this execution chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility on September 24th, 2002. It was the fifth execution carried out in Ohio since 1999.|
Buell climbed up on the gurney and lay down as six correctional officers secured his body to the bed with nylon straps. As a medical technician inserted two IV lines into Buell's arms, he clenched his fists, stared at the ceiling, and began speaking rapidly.
"I had invited the governor to be here today and Mrs. Taft, too.", Buell said to no one in particular. "Obviously he didn't come. Governor, if you can't bring your wife to your workplace, you are obviously ashamed of what you do. If you're ashamed of what you do, you shouldn't be doing it".
At 10:22 AM, the white curtain separating the witness room from the death chamber was pulled back. Inside the witness room, Gerald Harrison and his two sons, Mark and Dana, had gathered to watch the killer of their beloved Krista die. Upon seeing Buell lying on the gurney, Krista's brothers each tightly clasped hands with their father and stared at their sister's murderer. Buell, however, never looked at the family of the little girl he murdered. With his fists clenched, he stared at the ceiling with an unmoving gaze.
When the warden asked Buell for his last words, the convicted killer took several deep breaths and, still looking up at the ceiling, addressed the Harrison family.
|From this small room adjoining the execution chamber, Krista Harrison's father and two brothers witnessed Robert Buell's execution. Krista's mother, Shirley Harrison, chose not to attend.|
"Jerry and Shirley, I didn't kill your daughter", Buell said, unaware that Shirley Harrison had chosen not to attend the execution of her daughter's killer. "The prosecutor knows that and they left the real killer out there on the streets to kill again and again and again."
"So that some good may come of this", he continued, "I ask that you continue to pursue this to the end. Do not let the prosecutor continue to spin this out of focus and force them to find out who really killed your daughter. That's all I have to say."
At 10:23 AM, the lethal drugs began to flow into Robert Buell's veins. Buell closed his eyes and clenched his fists as the chemicals took effect. The injection took less than two minutes to do its job, and by 10:25 AM, Buell had drifted peacefully off to sleep, never to wake up again.
At 10:30 AM, Robert Anthony Buell was formally pronounced dead. Twenty years after their daughter was viciously murdered, the Harrison family had finally gotten the justice they deserved.
Eight years after Robert Buell was executed, the family of Tina Harmon - whose murder still remained officially unsolved - would finally get the answers they had been waiting for for nearly 30 years. In 2010, the state of Ohio conducted DNA testing on the semen found on Tina Harmon's dress and compared it with Robert Buell's DNA.
The DNA matched.
Afterword: Reckoning with Innocence
For the families of Krista Harrison and Tina Harmon, there will never be closure, and, for the towns of Creston and Marshallville, the horror that Robert Buell created will never fade.
Today, the little baseball park where Krista was abducted is named in her honor. Life, of coursed, moved on after the tragedy, but, even today, residents of Marshallville still say they become uneasy when they see strangers at the park. Even today, residents still keep their doors locked at night, and parents still keep a close eye on their children.
But the victims of this tragic case weren't just the girls Buell murdered or the women he raped. Ernest Holbrook and Herman Rucker also became victims of this tragedy. Two innocent men were sent to prison for a crime they didn't commit, convicted on some of the flimsiest evidence imaginable, and their lives were completely - and needlessly - destroyed.
It's no secret that I am a supporter of capital punishment, and I am beyond satisfied that Robert Buell was executed for his crimes rather than sent to live the rest of his life in prison on the taxpayers' dime. But there are some arguments put forth by death penalty opponents that do have merit - and one of these arguments is that, too often, we have locked up innocent people - sometimes for decades - for crimes they didn't commit, convicted on garbage evidence and unreliable testimony.
While I obviously don't agree with the solutions death penalty opponents propose for this problem, I can certainly agree that such a problem exists. Ernest Holbrook and Herman Rucker are proof that innocent people in prison face an uphill battle, and part of that is because of us - the public.
After Tina Harmon was raped and murdered, there was immense public pressure on the authorities to quickly apprehend and convict her killer. The public didn't realize that such investigations take both considerable time and considerable effort, and, due to this pressure, the police put neither time nor effort into their initial investigations.
In the end, Ernest Holbrook and Herman Rucker were convicted on little more than vague recollections from eyewitnesses who weren't sure of what they'd seen, the perjured testimony of an intellectually-disabled farm worker with a criminal record, and the unreliable account of a four-times-divorced woman with a long history of lying. There was no forensic evidence tying them to the crime, but that did not seem to matter to the prosecution.
And even when it became clear that neither Herman Rucker nor Ernest Holbrook were guilty of Tina Harmon's murder, the courts and the prosecution simply refused to accept that they had the wrong men. Holbrook and Rucker had their appeals rejected after the murder of Krista Harrison, and after the fiber evidence tied Krista's murder to Tina's murder.
Rucker and Holbrook were lucky in that they were only incarcerated for two years before being exonerated. Other exonerees, like Glen Ford in Louisiana, have spent upwards of 30 years in prison for crimes they never committed, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of their innocence.
Had it not been for the tireless efforts of defense attorneys, it is very likely that Herman Rucker and Ernest Holbrook would still be in prison.
Now, exonerations themselves aren't necessarily proof of a failed system. Every country, from Norway to the US to Japan, has had exonerations. But when defendants are convicted on such flimsy evidence as that against Holbrook and Rucker - that is proof of a failed system.
Of course, the justice system has vastly improved since 1982, but this is by no means a done deal. Just last year, there were more than 151 exonerations in the United States - 66 of them serving life imprisonment or death sentences for murder. So it is clear that we have a long way to go.
Yes, it is important to solve a case quickly. Yes, it is important to bring swift justice for the families of murder victims and take violent criminals out of society permanently. But we should not let our desire to resolve a case overcome our better judgement.
Police investigations take time, and when they are constrained by public pressure and overzealous prosecutors, mistakes are bound to happen. Lives hang in the balance here, and every time we lock up an innocent man for a murder he didn't commit, we allow the real killer to win.