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Call It Even 

The wrong guys went down for an old lady's murder. At least the prosecutors are unscathed

No one at the Barley House seems to notice the guy wearing jail-issued clothes on a Thursday night in late March. Not an orange jumpsuit — just denim blues, which from a distance look like something you might buy at the mall, and which easily blend in with the happy-hour crowd at the Warehouse District club. But there on the left pocket is his Trumbull County inmate number next to his name, T. Siller.

Just hours earlier, Thomas Siller was the property of Cuyahoga County, sitting in a cell, as he had for 13 years, for a murder he has maintained since day one that he had no part of, and for which new DNA evidence shows he is telling the truth.

Now he's sipping Guinness and Sam Adams, munching on a corned beef sandwich with a side of stuffed pretzel bites, and laughing. Asked how his first sandwich as a free man tastes, Siller responds, "Good, but the beer is better. How much is a Guinness these days, anyway?"

"Four or five dollars, depending on where you go," someone answers.

"That's not bad," says Siller, before going on to ask about the price of gas, cigarettes, and other daily needs whose prices prove a bit more shocking. Reintegration into society is a long and difficult process, but it begins with the most basic facts — how to get there, how to buy that — and even those are hard to master. Siller borrows a cell phone and with some assistance manages to send his first text message: "Hi, it's Tom. We're at Barley House."

A relative bought Siller some clothes earlier in the day for his post-release gathering, but they were way too big. Siller himself is a uniformly large man; his stout 56-year-old frame topped by a round head. His gray hair long ago gave way to a bald spot. He still looks strong, with muscles hewn from decades of labor now tucked under the extra pounds of prison life.

Everyone figured he'd be released soon, but nobody knew it would be today. "The bailiffs told me they've never seen anyone get out so quickly," says Siller. After more than a decade in prison, weathering two trials and dozens of lawyers, processing his release took just over an hour.

"Yours is still the most complicated case I've ever worked on," says Alba Morales, Siller's attorney from the Innocence Project in New York, and one among the gaggle of lawyers who not only helped secure his release, but also gathered to celebrate.

Faulty evidence made Siller an unlikely murderer all along. At the heart of Siller's case was the testimony of a single shady eyewitness and a forensics expert asleep on the job. But Cuyahoga County prosecutors haven't so much changed their minds as thrown up their hands in light of the overwhelming evidence that runs contrary to their 14-year-old stance.

On this night, however, Siller's case is not to be a topic of discussion. The Innocence Project wants to give its man time to adjust — and besides, Siller just wants to enjoy the moment, enjoy the sandwich, enjoy that beer. He promises one hell of a story. Just not now.

***

Alice Zolkowski's nightgown had been ripped and used to tie her to a chair in her Slavic Village home on the night of June 3, 1997. The single 74-year-old had been gagged and savagely beaten, her blood spattered against the wall behind her and her home ransacked. When it was over, she was barely clinging to life.

Cops would find her in the early hours of June 4 after an anonymous 911 call placed at 3:49 a.m. That call was made by Thomas Siller.

Fingerprints at the house included those of a then-42-year-old Siller, who had done work for Zolkowski, grown close to the woman, and borrowed money from her. Prints were also found matching 41-year-old Walter Zimmer, another worker at the house who had borrowed money, and 29-year-old Jason Smith, a drug dealer with a long rap sheet who never hung out with Siller or Zimmer or worked at Zolkowski's house. All three men had a thirst for crack cocaine.

Zolkowski slipped into a coma, then died two years later without having identified her attacker. But there are two accounts of what happened that night: one espoused by Siller and Zimmer, the other by Smith. The third man was offered a deal by prosecutors: just three years in prison in exchange for testimony against the other two. That testimony, it turns out, was a lie.

***

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