Due to a series of strange and confusing events that I can no longer keep entirely straight, I have become the spokesman for the family of a dead girl named Tina Harmon. In December, Tina's brother and I convinced a county prosecutor to close the case so that the records of an investigation into her abduction and murder could finally be made public, after 27 years. But those records are still being kept secret, and it now appears that the county prosecutor may attempt to destroy evidence before the identity of Tina's killer can finally be proven. That prosecutor has a lot to lose. If I'm right, the state of Ohio has executed a man for crimes he did not commit - a sentence based in no small part on the work the prosecutor did when he was still a rookie lawyer.
The particulars of this case are hard to summarize succinctly. And the ramifications of such a miscarriage of justice are difficult to imagine. For Randy Harmon, though, it's really quite simple: Somebody killed his sister and he wants to know who did it.
Tina was a 6th-grader at Sterling Elementary in 1981, a resident of Creston, a sleepy ramshackle berg north of Wooster in Wayne County, just south of the Medina County line. She was a round-faced 12-year-old with a taste for country music and Camel Light cigarettes. The only real entertainment for rebellious teens at the time was found at the Union 76 truck stop in Lodi, a few miles away, which had snacks and arcade games. Tina was known to frequent the place and occasionally hitched a ride to get there.
On October 29, 1981, Tina got a ride to the local Lawson's from her father's girlfriend, who dropped her off in front with a group of her friends. They went inside. Tina bought a Fudgsicle. Her friends last saw her sitting in front of the convenience store, eating her snack.
The girl's body was discovered by a man named Herb Sefert five days later, on an oil-well access road in Bethlehem Township, about 40 miles away. She had been raped and strangled. On her clothes, detectives discovered important clues: dog hairs and orange carpet fibers.
Though her body was discovered in Stark County, her murder became a Wayne County case, based on the belief that she was killed there before being dumped in Bethlehem. The Wayne County prosecutor at the time quickly fingered two local miscreants, Ernie Holbrook and Herman Rucker; an eyewitness claimed she saw Tina running away from their car shortly before her body was found. But the carpet fibers and dog hair could not be matched to anything owned by Holbrook or Rucker, and no trace of evidence could be found in the car.
Still, both men were convicted by a jury in 1982. But Tina's family's sense of closure was short-lived.
A strikingly similar abduction and murder took place in the summer of 1982, just down the road in Marshallville. Twelve-year-old Krista Harrison was snatched from a baseball field there, in plain view of a classmate who saw a man force her into a dark-colored van. When Krista's body was found wrapped in plastic in a field six days later, authorities discovered more of those orange fibers on her body. Because of this evidence, Holbrook and Rucker were released from prison, and Tina's case once again went cold. Then, one morning in 1983, a naked 28-year-old woman with a handcuff dangling from one wrist and a shaved head appeared at the door of a Doylestown couple. She said she had been abducted from a gas station and held captive in the house next door, where she was tortured and degraded, then chained to a bench when her assailant left for work.
The house was owned by Bob Buell, who worked for the city of Akron. When police descended on Buell's ranch home, they found a roll of carpet in the bedroom that matched the fibers found on Krista and Tina. Buried in the backyard they found a dead dog whose hairs matched those found on Tina. They also discovered that the plastic used to wrap Krista's body had come off seats that had been installed in Buell's van.
Buell was summarily arrested and eventually linked to a spree of abductions and rapes. He stood trial for only one murder, Krista's, was found guilty and was executed in 2002. Though he admitted to the rapes, he continued to deny to the end that he had killed anyone.
In 2007, a minister Buell spoke with frequently while in prison gave me a box of his possessions and handwritten notes. Inside was evidence that implicates Ralph Ross Jr., Buell's nephew, in Krista's homicide ("The Serial Killer's Disciple," Cleveland Free Times, September 2007, freetimes.com/stories/15/21/the-serial-killers-disciple).
Ross, not Buell, was living in Buell's home at the time of Krista's abduction. The day Krista's body was dumped, Ross took off work and appeared later that night with a bandaged arm. At the time, he was driving a van that was nearly identical to Buell's. Ross had helped his uncle install the new van seats, and it had been Ross's job to put the plastic in the garbage. A week after Krista's body was found, Ross abruptly quit his job in Akron and moved back in with his parents in Mingo Junction. When a detective questioned him about his uncle in 1983, Ross refused a request for his fingerprints.
When Buell went to trial for Krista's murder, Ross was the first witness called by the Wayne County prosecutor and he gave the most damaging testimony; his uncle, he said, had often talked about abducting girls. But assistant prosecutor Martin Frantz never told the jury about what had come up during Ross' earlier testimony in front of the grand jury.
Frantz had asked: "Can you tell us what you remember about what Robert Buell said when he was talking about these fantasies?"
Ross replied: "I would like to say something. It was me as well as him that was discussing whatever we were discussing."
"So both of you were talking about it?"
"It was a two-way conversation."
"Just tell us what Buell said," demanded Frantz.
"Well, we would talk about, if we would pass up a girl or something on the street, talked about, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have that girl for this evening,' and I would say, 'Yeah, sure would.'"
When I located Ross in 2007, he was working for a company in Steubenville, installing cable in area homes.
Though he was long assumed to have killed Tina Harmon, Buell was never charged with the crime. (As a detective once put it, "How many times do you need to kill a man?") So technically Tina's murder was an open case, and the Wayne County Sheriff's office could deny access to their files, even though they had stopped investigating leads decades ago. And after Buell's execution, Frantz, who had since been elected Wayne County prosecutor, ordered all evidence in Krista's case destroyed.
Records kept on microfilm in the basement of the county's record room reference a single fingerprint found on the plastic that had been used to wrap Krista's body. That fingerprint did not match Bob Buell's.
Randy Harmon still lives in Wayne County, in a trailer with his girlfriend and her kids. He's a rough-hewn man, a skinny, bristly dude with a gravely voice and a thin smile. Months ago, he started calling me to see if we could somehow get some resolution to his sister's case.
In November, in that very trailer, he held a small press conference for the local papers, the Massillon Independent, the Wooster Daily-Record and also the Akron Beacon Journal. Randy asked the reporters to let the community know that Tina's family was still searching for the identity of her killer. In 27 years, no one had let Tina's family know that they believed that Buell had killed their daughter. The subsequent media attention led to a meeting with Frantz in his office on December 18.
Frantz, a tall man with a red mustache, sat uncomfortably in his chair and offered Randy an apology for neglecting to tell his family sooner that Buell was the man who killed Tina. He said he had, just that day, officially closed the case.
Randy believes that Buell may in fact be his sister's murderer but, after 27 years of waiting for that phone call that never came, would like to be sure. "You still have my sister's clothes," he said. "We'd like you to test her clothes to see if Buell's DNA is on them."
Frantz said the test would cost $400.
When I offered to help find the money, Frantz said that the laboratory could not accept donations from civilians.
"If you won't test them, then give the clothes to us," said Randy. But Frantz said that was an "unusual request" that he might not be able to grant.
"Can you promise the Harmons that you will not destroy the evidence in the meantime?" I asked.
"I'm not going to make any promises," said Frantz.
Moments later he briskly escorted us out of the office.
We're not the only ones questioning Buell's conviction. The detectives who worked the case are no longer certain they got the right man.
"Soooo many questions," writes Dennis Derflinger, a retired detective from Wayne County. "You, I'm sure, recognize the possible magnitude of this case because it ended with an execution being carried out. No one wants to be wrong, and if there ever is a time not to be wrong, it's with this case. I have never second-guessed the outcome of the Buell case and now in my mind I have to question, did we miss Ralph as an accomplice?"
Jim Shannon was the investigator for Stark County and worked leads in Bethlehem. He tried to get the Wayne County prosecutor to indict Buell for Tina's murder after the fibers found on her body were linked to those found on Krista's body in 1983. But his enthusiasm was met with a strange stubbornness. "I walked away from that meeting with a bad feeling," he says. "If Buell did it, why not indict him then? For some reason, there was a reluctance or a refusal to do so. I had a burning desire to resolve that case, not leave it open."
While combing through the few reports still housed in Stark County, I discovered an unsettling connection to another murder. Herb Sefert, the man who found Tina's body on that oil-well drive, worked at a butcher shop in Canton, next to a man named Don Maurer. Maurer confessed to police to the 1982 abduction and murder of seven-year-old Dawn Hendershot, whose body he had dumped on an oil-well drive. Tina's body was found near property owned by the Seferts.
Apparently no one made that connection during the investigation of Tina's murder. Whether it's a weird coincidence or circumstantial evidence, the only thing it really proves is that there's more work to be done in Tina's case. It's up to the Wayne County prosecutor to ensure that justice has been served.
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