The house had been slowly slipping into decay for a century before the kids arrived. Years of weather had faded its wood to the color of storm clouds. In the yard, an old truck sank into the ground, rusting into red shards. Beyond it were oil drums, stacks of plywood, and discarded tires. Clutching flashlights, the teenagers crept closer.
Last September, after a night of listening for ghosts on Crybaby Bridge -- a legendary span in Massillon, where people claim to hear the cries of a dead child -- they drove past the old house. Through a second-story window, they spied a lonely picture of Jesus hanging on the wall. That night, no one dared approach the house, let alone step inside. But on January 7, eight of them had come back to claim the Jesus painting as proof of their fearlessness.
As they walked up the driveway, a cat jumped out from a pile of junk. Mallory Ando and Rachel Beers scrambled back to the cars parked across the street. Six boys pushed forward, laughing nervously.
The first to reach the porch were Beau Earnsberger, Mike Mollica, and Mike Weaver. Old boards creaked in protest under their feet. The room was dark as they stepped inside. A blast of hot air hit their cool faces, smelling of spoiled milk and cat piss.
Mollica swung his flashlight beam into the void. He saw a flash of movement under a mound of clothes. Something was resting there, on a pile of empty birdseed bags that resembled a makeshift bed.
The sagging face of an ancient man turned to look at them.
"Oh fuck, there's a guy in here!" Mollica yelled.
The teens streaked back to the cars, stumbling over garbage. Behind them, the glass door slammed shut. Caught up in the excitement, Earnsberger picked up a brick and hurled it toward the rusting truck. The windshield shattered.
The teenagers leapt into their cars and tore into the night, away from the haunted house and the ghost of a man living inside.
On January 10, Will Nicholson stepped out of the bathtub and dried himself off. He felt sore from the day's wrestling practice and a recent muscle strain. Wrapped in a towel, he looked himself over in the mirror. Tall. Wiry. A shock of thin, light hair. He put on some clothes and sat down to watch TV with his brother.
Then the phone rang. It was Earnsberger. He was with Rocco Vesco, Nick Frangos, and Aaron Whisman. "We're at this house," he said. "It's haunted. I think there could be a homeless guy in there. Do you want to come up and check it out?"
At 18, Nicholson was the oldest member of this clique, all of whom attended Northwest High School in Canal Fulton, a historic farming community north of Massillon. Yuppie developments have recently encroached on the old fields, but for now, it remains an intimate city of 5,000. Northwest is the only public high school and numbers 800 students.
Nicholson was someone the other kids could turn to when they were afraid. "Come get me," he said.
The teenagers planned to throw a party at the dilapidated house that Friday night after the basketball game. By now, they'd decided the old man was probably a bum. They didn't know if they'd find him there; if they did, maybe they could convince him to vacate the house, just for one day.
When they arrived, Earnsberger fired up his camcorder -- it had been a Christmas present, and he was hardly ever without it. He recorded his friends as they approached the house. On the way, Nicholson picked up an axe for protection.
"I'm not going in," said Vesco. "I'm too scared."
Nicholson rapped his fist against the glass door.
"Hey!" he shouted. "Hey man! Hello?"
The younger boys grew more nervous with every knock.
No one answered, so they went to the side door. Earlier that night, Whisman had kicked it open on a dare. It hadn't taken much force. The lock snapped easily. Now the door stood open, inviting them in.
Earnsberger shined the spotlight of his camcorder around the room. It looked as if it had been abandoned long ago. Strips of wallpaper dangled from the wall. Broken glass and cat feces littered the floor. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling in a sheet so thick, the boys couldn't see through it. Chips of plaster were everywhere.
"Stand behind me," Nicholson said.
One of the boys reached for a packet of crackers that lay amid the wreckage.
"Dude, don't take his food," Nicholson said. "Don't take his shit."
In the next room, the air smelled like the den of some wild boar.
"Sir? Hello?" Nicholson called.
In the darkness, a radio snapped on. Maroon 5's "She Will Be Loved" crackled through a sheet of static.
No one moved. The bum was still there. And they had awakened him.
The radio turned off and a metal work lamp clicked on. Sitting on his bed of birdseed bags was the old man. He was dressed in navy work pants, a flannel shirt, and a Slesnick Scrap Metal baseball cap. The bed was bare. Old newspapers jutted from his pant leg -- a feeble attempt at extra insulation. His dirty face hung in droopy jowls. He squinted toward the door.
"Who is it?" he asked, his voice muddled and tired.
Nicholson, who worked in a home for invalids a few nights a week, stepped forward, offering a handshake and his name. "This is for you," he said, extending a crisp ten-dollar bill.
The old man looked at it strangely. "Paper money?" he said, handing it back. "I don't need nothin'."
The boys asked how long he had been here.
"Eighty years," he said.
"Is this your house?" Nicholson asked.
"Yeah," the old man grunted. His name was Herman Ohms. He was 91 years old, mostly blind, mostly deaf. "I ain't got no family. I got nobody. I don't got no Social Security or nothin'."
"We'll bring you some food," Nicholson promised.
"Do you like porn?" Earnsberger jokingly asked. "That stuff will make you go blind. I'll get you some porn."
The other boys told him to knock it off.
"When we come back, should we walk in or knock?" one of the boys asked.
"You better walk in, because I can't hear very well," Ohms said.
Nicholson led his friends outside and dropped the axe. It hadn't been necessary. There were no ghosts. Just a forgotten old man.
Alyssa Vaughn once had feelings for Sean Sabetta, but since the fall, her attraction had solidified into a kind of hesitant friendship. A short girl who kept her brown hair tied back from her round face, Vaughn was a confident extrovert who never had trouble hanging with the guys.
Lately, though, she had spent most of her time with her friend, Amanda Spencer. Spencer was going through a rough patch. Her father had committed suicide last year after struggling with several health problems. Her brother had enlisted in the Marines and was scheduled to ship out to Iraq.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 11, Sabetta and Spencer were hanging out with Vaughn at her house. Sabetta suggested they meet up with Earnsberger, Vesco, and another friend, Kelly Burner, to see the haunted house everyone was talking about at school. They were going to ask Ohms if they could have the Jesus painting.
Vaughn knew that Spencer liked to be creeped out. Maybe the adventure would take her mind off her family's troubles. So the girls agreed to join Sabetta and the other boys.
They climbed into Spencer's car and drove to the haunted house. They parked in a lot across the street, next to the Expedition Vesco was driving. They met up with Earnsberger, who had his trusty camcorder, and he led them inside.
Vaughn covered her nose to filter out the foul smell of rotten food. When she saw the old man, she stared in disbelief. He was living in a nest of filth.
After some small talk, Sabetta asked Ohms about the Jesus painting on the second floor. "Can we have it?"
"If it's still there," Ohms said. He hadn't been upstairs for more than 20 years.
Vaughn followed her friends up the narrow steps. The light from Earnsberger's camcorder illuminated a hallway filled with shards of plaster. At the end was the bedroom that housed Jesus.
The floor was littered with fossilized human feces. A quarter-century ago, after his water was shut off, Ohms had used this room as a toilet.
Behind a bed covered by a blanket of spider webs, the kids found what they were looking for. The three-foot-tall painting depicted Christ with a tattoo on his chest of a heart wrapped in thorns.
Vaughn watched as Sabetta pulled it off the wall.
Minutes later, they loaded the painting into Vesco's car. Triumphant, the group set off for a spooky abandoned factory. Perhaps they would find another ghost.
The girl behind the concession stand ruined everything. Her name was Allison Markham. She served snacks to fellow students between quarters of basketball games. All but invisible, she eavesdropped on the chatter of her peers.
Mollica's voice carried above the others. He was saying something about going to a scary house and finding a bum.
This caught Allison's attention. A friend, Cody Knobloch, had told her that some kids were trespassing on the Ohms property -- a two-story farmhouse in Cody's neighborhood. She thought Mollica might be talking about Ohms, the old man who lived there.
The next day, Allison learned from her friend Randy Ardman that a bunch of kids planned to throw a party at Ohms' house that Friday. Earnsberger was organizing it.
Concerned, Allison contacted Cody and Ohms' other neighbors. They called the sheriff's department, which dispatched Deputy Jim Tedrick to investigate.
"Beau was the one planning everything, to my understanding," Allison told Tedrick, according to his report. "He said he wasn't going to have the party, because I knew about it -- and plus, all he wanted was the picture of Jesus. Also, stuff was stolen, and they had a videotape."
"Who told you about the videotape?" Tedrick asked.
"Alyssa Vaughn," she answered.
"How did Alyssa know about the videotape?" Tedrick asked.
"She was there, but she didn't say who she was with."
Tedrick would find out soon enough.
Around 10 p.m., someone knocked on Vesco's front door. When his father answered, he found a stocky, uniformed man with an intimidating crew cut. Deputy Tedrick had come to talk to Vesco.
"I need your son to come to the car to give his statement," he said.
Vesco looked at his mother. "I don't want to go out to the car," he said.
His father persuaded him to do as he was told. Vesco's sense of dread ticked toward panic as he climbed into the back of Tedrick's cruiser. The deputy reached for a coat lying on the back seat. "Don't want you to steal my jacket," Tedrick joked, then locked the cruiser's doors.
He gave Vesco a sheaf of blank paper and asked him to write everything he had done at Ohms' house. He also wanted the names of everyone else who had been there. "I've already seen the tape, and I know what you did," Tedrick said, according to Vesco. (Tedrick did not return phone calls seeking comment.)
Vesco wrote a three-page confession, but the deputy pushed him for more.
"You smoke weed, don't you?" Tedrick asked. "You and Beau do drugs, right?"
Vesco refused to write down anything about drugs. Tedrick seemed to grow frustrated. They were at a stalemate.
After an hour, Vesco's father walked out to the car. Tedrick stopped him. "I'm not done with him yet," he said. "You'll have to wait inside."
A while later, Tedrick opened the cruiser and sent Vesco back to his parents. "What happened?" Vesco's father asked.
"He thinks we were harassing that old man," Vesco said. "He wanted a lot of stuff about Beau. He's pegged Beau as a ringleader."
Richard Vesco knew about the old man. His son had come home with friends a few nights earlier, asking whether they had any extra food they could take to his house. It had seemed like an innocent request at the time. Other parents had already donated food.
Earnsberger was in the worst place he could possibly be when Tedrick pulled up at his house -- he was at the Ohms place. He'd gone there with a group of boys to deliver a bundle of food that included potato chips, Honey Nut Shredded Wheat, and a gallon of water.
When he got home, Tedrick was waiting. Earnsberger's parents had already turned over the camcorder and the videotape.
At the end of the school day on Friday, January 14, officials at Northwest High began pulling kids out of class. Ando was in Spanish class when Athletic Director Gary Woods came for her. His look of concern was enough to tell her that something was wrong.
Woods led her down the hall to an empty classroom, where she found several deputies waiting. She noticed an impressive array of handcuffs, shackles, and chains.
The deputies told her to take a seat and wait for the other students to arrive. She broke into tears. Soon, Beers came in. She began crying too.
One by one, school administrators brought in Earnsberger, Vesco, Burner, Sabetta, Mollica, Weaver, Vaughn, and Spencer, along with David Stefaniak and Tyler Schwendiman, who also participated. They were under arrest, the deputies told them. The students wouldn't even be allowed to call their parents.
"Put your books in your lockers and return quickly," one deputy said.
"I would advise you all not to run," said another.
Ando loaded her possessions into her locker. When she came back, the deputies handcuffed her and shackled her feet.
The 12 students were escorted to a waiting van. They were packed so tightly, Beers had to ride on Ando's lap. The driver seemed to slam the brakes every chance he got, tossing Beers like a boat in a storm.
Photographers and reporters lay in wait at Stark County Family Court in downtown Canton. Frangos and Whisman -- who had skipped school that day -- arrived in a separate van. The boys covered their heads to avoid the press.
Inside the courthouse, the deputies loaded the 14 juveniles into elevators and took them to the sixth-floor courtroom of Judge David Stucki. Sitting behind his high wooden bench, the judge sized up the teens. He was middle-aged, unassuming, and overweight in a favorite-uncle kind of way.
Opposing the teens was Assistant Prosecutor Toni Schnellinger, a tenacious young woman in a smart suit; her face was fixed in a sharp glare. She told the judge that the kids had vandalized a 91-year-old man's truck and burglarized his home. They even had a videotape.
Judge Stucki looked at the young men and women in front of him. "Frankly, these allegations are of such a serious nature -- and I'm not prejudging your cases, but if they are proven, you will spend a substantial amount of time locked up," he said.
Weaver -- the only kid arraigned before 4 p.m., at which time Stark County courts stop issuing electronic ankle bracelets -- was given house arrest. Everyone else was sent to the Multi-County Juvenile Attention Center in Canton.
Those charged with felonies -- Earnsberger, Vesco, Whisman, Sabetta, Frangos, Vaughn, and Spencer -- took a quick detour to the Stark County Sheriff's Office for fingerprinting and mug shots. It was there that the severity of the situation struck home.
One deputy said, "The last guy from Northwest we had in here left farting funny," according to several of the teens.
Those charged with misdemeanors -- Beers, Ando, Stefaniak, and Schwendiman -- were released to their parents the next day. The rest would stay at the attention center until their next court appearance five days later.
On January 19, the teens returned to Judge Stucki's courtroom. Earnsberger's parents pleaded with him to release their son. "He wouldn't do no harm to nobody," Robert Earnsberger argued.
But the judge disagreed. He sent Earnsberger back to the attention center until his next court appearance. Same for Vesco and Burner. The rest were released to their parents.
All the parents hired lawyers to represent their children. At home, they discussed their options, having been warned by the prosecutor that if the case went to trial, she would seek the most severe penalties.
Six days later, Earnsberger offered his plea. He copped to "true" -- the juvenile equivalent of guilty -- on four counts of felony burglary. By then, the prosecutor had also pegged him as the ringleader. Stucki released him to house arrest.
Over the next two weeks, most of Earnsberger's friends followed his lead, pleading true to various counts of burglary, petty theft, and trespassing. All except Beers, the only teen to plead "not true," and Nicholson, the only adult, who awaited arraignment in Massillon Municipal Court.
When sentencing arrived February 25, the teens returned to Judge Stucki's courtroom. As they looked around the room, it was hard not to expect the worst. Written on a board near Stucki's bench were four quotes lifted from Earnsberger's videotape:
"Pick up something hard so we can kill the fucker if he gets naughty."
"We're going to get the Jesus picture. We're badasses."
"Do you like porn? That stuff will make you go blind. I'll get you some porn."
"Hey dude, come out here. We're not going to fuck around with you."
The judge had also invited a group of senior citizens to his court to chastise the juveniles, something he had never done before. Each took a turn addressing the teens.
"You wouldn't be standing here if you'd come to my place," said one senior. Another compared the teenagers to Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein.
Carla D'Antonio, an advocate appointed by the prosecutor's office, who spoke on Ohms' behalf, read from a statement she said he had given: "I am scared these kids will come back."
Over the next five hours, Judge Stucki sentenced each youth, allowing remarks from Prosecutor Schnellinger and parents.
Schnellinger was hardest on Earnsberger. "He cannot be treated like the other kids," she said. "He is so different. He is the reason they are here." He had bragged about the incident in school, and three of the quotes written on the board were his words. He had also shown no remorse.
Stucki sentenced Earnsberger to a minimum of six months at Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility. Vesco, who was portrayed as Earnsberger's second-in-command, received the same sentence.
Frangos, Vaughn, and Spencer were each given nine days -- to be served during spring break -- in the attention center. Those with misdemeanors received 50 hours of community service, serving dinner at a senior center.
Within the next two weeks, Sabetta and Whisman were also sentenced to spend their break behind bars.
On March 25, the teenagers and their parents reported to the attention center. The parents said tearful goodbyes, hugging their children, then embracing each other.
The kids reported to their cells, where they spent their days reading paperback books; at night, they sat quietly in the common room and watched taped programs from Court TV. Compared to Vesco's sentence in Scioto, it could almost have been a vacation.
At first, Vesco did his best to surrender to the routine of life at Scioto. He volunteered for inventory duty, counting deodorant, clothes, and toothpaste, and for the cafeteria clean-up crew. Occasionally, the workers would sneak him an extra Fruit Roll-Up.
Vesco kept his mind busy with puzzles. He memorized the dimensions of his cell. Ten feet by seven feet. Twelve feet to the ceiling. That's 840 cubic feet.
He befriended a boy called Big Country. When Big Country was jumped by a gang, Vesco didn't hesitate to fill out a report, fingering the instigator.
On March 11, while leaving the cafeteria after lunch, Vesco was jumped by the same teen. The boy punched Vesco in the ear, hard enough to permanently damage his hearing. Vesco shrank to the ground, shielding himself the best he could. The voice of his attacker sounded muffled in his bleeding ear.
"Snitches get stitches," the boy said.
In the sunlight of an early March afternoon, the magic of the haunted house gave way to a sad reality of junk and clutter. Cats darted in and out of the garbage beside the ramshackle garage. Twenty feet from the door, shielded from the road by an oil drum, stood an eight-inch pile of human feces. This is Ohms' toilet.
Deb Blough, a woman who brings Ohms food once a week, led a Scene reporter to the door. A sign read: "TAKE HAMMER AND TAP." Inside, Ohms was staring out a window, listening to oldies through the radio static.
Ohms needed the reporter to shout within a foot of his face so he could hear. Yet when the message got through, he was surprisingly lucid. He remembered the kids who came to visit. "They didn't bother me," he said.
He scoffed at the suggestion that he was ever in danger. "If they would have jumped me, I could have handled at least one," he said with a smile. "They didn't threaten me or nothing. They brought me food and money."
And the Jesus painting? "I said he could have it," Ohms said.
Ohms had said much the same to Stark Deputy Keith Creter, who spoke to the old man on January 13, the night several of the kids were questioned. He asked Ohms if any of the suspects had threatened him. Ohms said they hadn't.
But this was never mentioned in court. It exists only as two lines of text buried in a four-page report provided to Prosecutor Schnellinger by Deputy Tedrick. Either she didn't notice the two lines, or she disregarded them. (After the information came to light, Schnellinger refused to return phone calls from Scene.)
On the afternoon of March 29, Scene presented the information to Judge David Stucki. "Of course, we didn't have a trial, so I didn't hear a lot of these details," Stucki conceded. "On the tape there is vulgar, vulgar language. Not the kind of discussion that comes with a welcome wagon."
That evening, Stucki visited the three teenagers who were still being held at the Multi-County Attention Center in Canton. The next day, each of them was released.
In a follow-up interview, Stucki suggested that some of the teenagers might have been found not guilty if they had gone to trial. But he understood why the parents had been hesitant to take that gamble.
"You're rolling the dice," he said of a trial. "They chose to limit their risk. I might have made that decision too."
On April 1, Vesco stood before Judge Stucki to ask for an early release from Scioto. He was led into the courtroom dressed in shackles and an orange jumpsuit. He sat next to his father, but couldn't bring himself to look at him. His playful blond locks had been replaced by a crew cut. His face had aged five years.
First to speak was Father Ed Gretchko, the priest at St. Mary's in Massillon, Vesco's church. In his Easter homily, the priest had asked his congregation to forgive the boys and to pray for their release. He had met with Vesco at Scioto.
"I believe that this person certainly didn't deserve the punishment that was given," the priest told the judge, referring to Vesco's beating inside Scioto. "He wasn't sentenced to death, but he sure came close."
Vesco's attorney, Paul Hervey, lashed out at Prosecutor Schnellinger. He accused her of going back on a pretrial agreement to give Vesco a suspended sentence and community service if he pleaded true. Instead, she had surprised him in court by asking for a harsher sentence, demanding that the boy serve at least six months.
Schnellinger countered by saying that she didn't think Vesco should be granted early release simply because he had been jumped. "I still have a lot of concerns about this young man," she said. "I don't see any change from before. There is no remorse. I don't think he has learned anything from his five weeks in Scioto."
Finally, Judge Stucki turned to Vesco. "The bottom line is, you've really got to convince me," he said.
"I deserve what happened to me, he did not," Vesco said, referring to Ohms. "I came into his life in a terrible way."
For the next five minutes, he spoke of contrition and service to other people. "I'm begging you to let me show you what I can do," he concluded.
Stucki rifled through a stack of papers on his desk. He typed something into the computer. Vesco's mom looked nervously at their lawyer.
"The motion for early release is sustained," Stucki announced.
Confused, Vesco's mother looked at the lawyer. He patted her hand and smiled. She reached for her husband.
Vesco still couldn't bear to look at his parents. None of the legal terms seem to be sinking in.
"You're free to go," Stucki explained.
Vesco turned to his mother. His face broke into a wide, childlike grin. His parents hugged him. When the handcuffs were finally taken off, he hugged them back.
Although Vesco was released, Earnsberger is still serving his six months inside Scioto. On April 4, Beers pleaded true to a misdemeanor charge of trespassing and was given probation. Nicholson is preparing for his trial in Massillon.
Even the teenagers who are free have been branded convicted criminals. "They have a juvenile record all their life," explains Judge Stucki. "It doesn't magically disappear."
And in a spooky house, inside a fortress of junk, Ohms lives out his final days. Stark County Adult Services briefly looked into his living conditions, but closed the case without taking action.
If he wakes up tomorrow, the 91-year-old man will walk past his ever-rising pile of feces. As is his routine, he will hobble slowly to a PVC pipe under his barn and fill a couple of empty milk jugs -- his drinking water for the day.
This is his life. This is how a ghost lives.
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