The morning of December 3, 1996, brought relief for Theodore Georgekopoulos. The night before, a fire sparked in the building where he lived with his fiancée, Olga Suhre. A faulty electrical heater may have been to blame. Worse, they thought their insurance may have lapsed. But the next morning, Suhre spoke with their insurance agent, then called Georgekopoulos with the good news: They were covered.
Life always seemed to go Georgekopoulos's way. Born in Greece in 1945, he immigrated to the United States in 1967. A short, handsome man with a salt-and-pepper mustache and a lined face, Georgekopoulos made the American dream his own. At 51, he owned a home rental and remodeling business, a few dozen properties, and a bar in Akron. He had four children, all on the road to successful careers; his second-youngest, Pete, had become his partner.
Georgekopoulos's first marriage ended in divorce, but by 1996, he was engaged to marry again. Olga Suhre was a pretty blond woman of Greek descent almost 20 years his junior. They met when she answered a help-wanted ad for the Wagon Wheel, a small neighborhood bar he owned. Their romance blossomed, and 10 years later he asked her to marry him. By then, she was working part-time as hostess at another bar, Gus's Chalet. As a gift, Georgekopoulos bought her a bar named Rick's Hollywood Café.
On the morning of December 3, Georgekopoulos went to a car auction with friend Elias Tsakalis, a fellow Greek immigrant who owned a Dunkin' Donuts. They stopped at Burger King for lunch, then Tsakalis drove him home.
"Why don't you come in and have coffee?" Georgekopoulos asked. Suhre often made Greek coffee and pastries for them.
Tsakalis was tired. "No, maybe next time," he said and drove off.
Georgekopoulos went to his office, which was in the same building as his apartment. He checked his answering machine: no messages. His son Pete was patching the roof. Firefighters had cut a gaping hole to ventilate smoke the night before.
Georgekopoulos went to his apartment. "Olga, honey, you here?" he called.
"Yes, I'm here," she answered.
Later, Georgekopoulos would say he sensed something wrong. Usually, Suhre would kiss him and ask how his day was. On this day she didn't.
"Come, sit down to have coffee," she said.
Moments later, Georgekopoulos came running out of the building and yelled to his son in Greek. "Come down! Come down! Olga was shot!"
Pete climbed off the roof and raced into the building. He found his father on his knees, crying. Pete didn't see any blood, but the color had drained from Suhre's face. He felt her wrist for a pulse. She was alive. He dashed into another room and called 911, then went back to Suhre and held her hand. "Hold on, the ambulance is coming," he said. "You'll be all right."
Captain Ron Black, a 28-year veteran of the Akron police, heard a radio call at 2:48 p.m. asking any car in the area to respond. His shift was over, but he went anyway; it sounded serious. He arrived six minutes later to find a young man in work clothes halfway down the driveway, yelling that a lady had been shot. Pete led Black into the living room, where they found Suhre slumped in a puffy chair in the living room.
Georgekopoulos was lightly slapping her, trying to revive her. "Don't do this to me," he was saying. "Don't do this to me!"
Black spotted an entrance wound in her stomach. He found her pulse, but it was faint. He called dispatch. Tell EMS to "step it up," he said.
What happened? Black asked.
Georgekopoulos explained that Suhre had tried to shoot herself. He struggled to get the gun away from her. Then it went off.
Where's the weapon? Black asked.
Georgekopoulos pointed to the floor. The butt of a .357 Magnum poked from under the chair. By then, more cops had arrived. Black told Officer Adam Clark to take Georgekopoulos to the bedroom and get a statement.
In halting English, Georgekopoulos explained the incident. Months later, Clark quoted Georgekopoulos, putting his words into plain English:
"She came into the room with two cups of coffee, one for me, one for her. She sat down and pulled the gun out -- before I had the coffee, she had the gun. She pointed the gun at me and then turned it on herself. I then jumped over to her and tried to take the gun from her."
As Georgekopoulos narrated, he demonstrated the struggle. He had grabbed her hands and twisted the gun in toward her body until it was pointing down at her abdomen.
When EMS arrived, they couldn't fit the gurney through the door. They grabbed a bedsheet and slid it under Suhre's body. Black was among those who hoisted her from the chair and out of the house.
Sergeant Cynthia Christman arrived as Suhre was being carried away.
Did the victim ever attempt to harm herself before? she asked Georgekopoulos.
"No," he said.
Was she going to counseling or talking to a doctor for any sort of mental or physical problems?
Did she ever talk about attempting to harm herself?
"No," Georgekopoulos said, then revised his answer: Yes, but only in a kidding way.
Christman drove to Akron City Hospital, where Suhre was being treated. There was a chance she might regain consciousness and make a statement.
Georgekopoulos wanted to accompany Suhre to the hospital, but police officers stopped him. They had more questions.
Detective Michael Caprez's suspicion was aroused soon after he arrived, when he saw Georgekopoulos wiping his hands with a paper towel. "One of the things we do, when there's a weapon involved, we recover gunshot residue," Caprez later explained. "He may have been aware of that."
Caprez seized the paper towel as evidence and asked Georgekopoulos to join him in the kitchen to discuss what happened. The story Georgekopoulos told was similar to the one given to Officer Clark. Georgekopoulos went to sip his coffee, looked up, and saw Suhre pointing the gun at him.
"What's that?" Georgekopoulos asked.
"Why did you do this to me?" Suhre replied.
"What do you mean, what I did?"
Georgekopoulos then got up and swatted the gun to the side with his right hand. He grabbed her hands, and a struggle ensued. The gun went off.
When Sergeant Christman arrived at the hospital, Suhre didn't look good. Doctors cracked open her chest and were trying to keep her heart beating. They rolled the gurney past Christman. There would be no interview; Suhre was headed for surgery.
Christman drove back to Georgekopoulos's house and gave his son, Pete, a lift to the police station. His father arrived an hour later and was taken to a room for further questioning. Pete waited outside.
After a while, an officer told Pete that Suhre had died. The bullet severed a major artery.
Officers broke the news to Georgekopoulos. Pete heard his father wail in anguish. The cops emerged and told Pete, "You should be with him right now."
Pete found his father on the floor, inconsolable and crying hysterically. He was taken to St. Thomas Hospital to calm down.
After he was released, Georgekopoulos wouldn't return to the apartment. Too many bad memories. He stayed with his brother until Pete finished renovating a house in Silver Lake, where Georgekopoulos and Suhre were to live after their wedding. Furniture from his former life was packed into storage.
Georgekopoulos's second-oldest daughter, Angie, learned of Suhre's death the next day. She was at Akron City Hospital, where she worked as an intern on her way to becoming a doctor, when her brother-in-law, Nick Koinoglou, called her with the news. "Oh my God," Angie thought. "She finally did it."
Indeed, despite Georgekopoulos's claims to police, Suhre had a history of suicidal behavior. In 1990, Georgekopoulos told Pete he had found a strange note from Suhre. Pete kept a copy, which was scrawled in Greek. Translated, it reads: "Ted I am sorry for what I am about to do. Don't try to find me because I will be very far from life but I want you to know I love you very much. Olga."
They went to Georgekopoulos's apartment and called all their relatives, but no one had heard from her. They eventually found her in a corner of the building's spacious and cluttered basement, passed out on a blanket next to a bottle of liquor and a gun -- the same one that would kill her six years later.
Three years passed before Suhre made another apparent suicide attempt. One night Georgekopoulos returned to his apartment with his brother, Sam, and found Suhre passed out on the floor. They feared she had killed herself, but they were able to revive her. When she came to, she explained that she had taken too many pills.
Suhre's mood was known to be especially dour when she drank. Timothy Luna worked at Rick's Hollywood Café, where she would drink several days a week. "After two, maybe three drinks, she would often get depressed," he said. "Her face would get clenched, her eyes would get glossy. She wasn't the upbeat person she was when she wasn't drinking."
Georgekopoulos's children also noticed the powerful effect alcohol had on her. "To me, she was a totally different person when she drank," Pete says. "There's times that you could just be sitting talking to her and, you know, she could be saying everything's nice and she liked this and liked this, and once she has one, two, three drinks, she'd talk negatively about those things."
The next day, when she sobered up, Suhre was all apologies. "I'm sorry, I did a bad thing," she would say. And Georgekopoulos would accept it. "He loved her, but he enabled, like a lot of people do," says Angie. The children didn't think it was their place to intervene.
About a week before her death, Suhre drank at Rick's Hollywood Café with Georgekopoulos's sister, Margie Reis. At first, Suhre seemed cheery and talked of her wedding and the move to Silver Lake. But after a few drinks, Suhre said she wasn't happy. She was afraid Georgekopoulos wouldn't marry her after all. She sometimes felt like killing herself, according to Reis. The admission was especially troubling because that same night, as Suhre reached into her purse, Reis saw that she was carrying a gun.
On the day of her death, Suhre stopped by Gus's Chalet. Her bar tab included two Sea Breezes -- vodka mixed with cranberry and grapefruit juice -- along with a beer she bought for her boss.
Alcohol might not have been the only drug in her system. Paramedics who treated Suhre noted possible drug use. "As a doctor, when I looked at the EMS report and saw 'drug suspected,' my first question was: What do the tox screens show?" says Dr. Ron Flauto, Angie's husband. "It's protocol in every trauma center."
Yet nobody ever ran toxicology tests. A medical examiner later explained that Suhre had been transfused with so much blood that a test would be worthless.
After Suhre's death, Pete found a note sandwiched into her address book. Translated from Greek, it reads: "Ted I am begging you to forgive me for what I did. I will love you forever. Olga. Since you don't love and never loved me because your heart is elsewhere and not with me I want you to tell my mother that I love her very much. I want you to also tell my son that I love him. Goodbye. Olga."
Georgekopoulos even passed a lie detector test. The test was inadmissible, but he thought it would prove to prosecutors that his words were true.
Those closest to Suhre and Georgekopoulos had little reason to doubt his version of events. Suhre's family even stayed with him when they came to Ohio for the funeral.
"I don't have no reason to kill Olga," says Georgekopoulos. "I do a lot of things for her. She was not only my fiancée; she was my best friend."
Yet police were not so trusting. They summoned Georgekopoulos to the station several times to question him. Each time he obliged, speaking without legal counsel. But his story raised questions.
He initially quoted Suhre as saying, "Why did you do this to me?" although he would later claim he was misunderstood and that she had actually said, "Why is this happening to me?" Tests of the towel he used to wipe his hands showed traces of petroleum -- turpentine, maybe, or kerosene -- suggesting he had used it to wash off incriminating evidence.
Taken alone, the facts seemed innocuous enough. After all, Georgekopoulos speaks in broken English, so it's no surprise his quotes came out garbled. And the petroleum on his hands might have come from the car auction he visited before the shooting. He explained that he was wiping his hands because he had a cut; photographs show this to be true.
But taken with other evidence, it implied something more sinister. Suhre had gunpowder burns on her left hand, suggesting to the coroner that she had been in a defensive posture. Tests performed by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification indicated that the gun had been almost 12 inches from her arm when it fired, which seemed to refute Georgekopoulos's claim of a struggle in close quarters.
"The truth is in the details," says Caprez. "We let him tell the story, then we examine the details to see if it makes sense. Usually, if a person is telling lies, the details is what sinks him."
Four months after the shooting, police charged Georgekopoulos with murder.
Defense lawyer Barry Ward's strategy was to keep it simple, family members say. That meant letting the case rest on scientific evidence, without calling up a horde of witnesses to testify about Suhre's previous flirtations with suicide.
Initially, the plan suited Georgekopoulos, who didn't want to sully his dead fiancée's reputation by painting her as drunk and depressed. The family, too, had few reservations. "We trusted the system," says Angie. "We knew it was an accident."
But the strategy backfired almost immediately. It allowed prosecutors to portray Suhre as a woman in good spirits. Karen Kinel, a server at Gus's Chalet, saw Suhre shortly before her death and said she seemed vibrant and fastidiously dressed -- hardly the portrait of an unhinged woman on her way to suicide. Suhre was excited about her new home and marriage. "Things were going well for her," Kinel said.
Other employees also mentioned that Suhre expressed excitement about the new home. As Suhre left, she chirped to Kinel, "Goodbye, Cookie, see you Monday."
The defense countered with Timothy Luna's testimony that Suhre seemed to get depressed when she drank, but it was a feeble response to the chipper portrait painted by those who saw her shortly before her death. Jurors never saw the suicide notes nor heard the family's tales of finding Suhre unconscious. "We tell our lawyer to bring this stuff up," Georgekopoulos says. "We have two suicide notes . . . and he don't do nothing about it."
Ward refuses to comment on his trial strategy. "That's just stuff I'm not going to talk about," he says.
But as bad as the trial seemed to be going, Georgekopoulos's defense had an ace in the hole: Dr. Werner Spitz, the best medical examiner money could buy. He had performed autopsies on JonBenet Ramsey and Nicole Brown-Simpson, among others. He had even testified before the congressional committee that reviewed the autopsy of John F. Kennedy.
Moreover, Spitz had literally written the book on forensic pathology. For 20 years, his Medicolegal Investigation of Death had been the bible of forensic pathologists around the world. If the case was to come down to a contest of coroners, Summit Deputy Medical Examiner Roberto Ruiz seemed hopelessly overmatched.
Ruiz testified that it would have been impossible for Suhre to fire the shot that killed her. The bullet had gone through her right forearm before piercing her abdomen, and the back of her left hand was seared with gunpowder, indicating it couldn't have been on the trigger.
The evidence suggested that she was cowering in front of an attacker, holding her hands in front of her face when she was shot. "She was sitting in the chair, somebody was there with a gun, and instinctively you do that, you cover your face," Ruiz said.
Spitz had a different explanation. He noted that Georgekopoulos's left hand showed a mushroom pattern of gunpowder burns. That pattern would likely have been formed when the gunpowder blew out of the chamber of the gun, Spitz said, indicating the left hand was on the spine of the weapon, struggling to twist it away, just as Georgekopoulos had said.
"I mean, it all fits together like a puzzle," Spitz said.
Spitz may be brilliant, but modesty isn't among his strengths. His pronouncements -- delivered with the authority of a man who believes no word but his is worthy -- may have alienated jurors, Georgekopoulos's family says. "Werner Spitz is an arrogant, German old man," says Nick Koinoglou, Georgekopoulos's son-in-law. "He's strong-willed. Don't get me wrong. The guy knows his business. But when he's telling you something, he's God."
If jurors were offended by Spitz's highhandedness, Summit County Assistant Prosecutor Michael Carroll would give them more reason to question the doctor's credibility. He got Spitz to admit that he had been paid at least $5,000 for his work -- the implication being that the family paid him off.
Carroll even turned Spitz's own textbook against him, quoting to the doctor from a chapter titled "Homicide, Suicide or Accident."
"You also say that 'a gunshot wound in an area of the body not accessible to the victim or one that is accessible with difficulty --'" Carroll began.
"Yes," said the impatient Spitz.
"'-- is always suspicious of homicide.' Did you write that?" Carroll asked.
"That's all I have, your honor," Carroll said.
The jury deliberated six hours before returning its verdict: guilty. Georgekopoulos initially showed no reaction, but his son Pete shouted, "No way!" His sisters began to cry. Sheriff's deputies handcuffed Georgekopoulos, who by then was weeping.
At his sentencing, he told the judge, "I'm sorry for what happened, but I did not do it." He was given 15 years.
Georgekopoulos's children wasted little time in hiring Attorney John Pyle to appeal. He contended that Georgekopoulos was denied his right to effective counsel, because Ward failed to present voluminous evidence of Suhre's depression and suicide attempts. Included in the appeal were copies of Suhre's suicide notes and affidavits from Georgekopoulos's family members who had witnessed her depressive episodes.
But the appeal was rejected across the board, including by the Ohio Supreme Court in 1999.
Courts don't often buy the ineffective counsel argument, says attorney Elizabeth Kelley, who is working with Pyle on the appeal. It's an insular, protect-your-own profession, where lawyers are presumed competent until proven otherwise. And while Ward's strategy seemed particularly ill-advised, appellate courts must set a high standard, lest they be bombed with appeals on every case where a trial tactic fails. "The attorney's gotta be drop-dead drunk and incompetent," says Kelley.
Still, the family wasn't about to give up. "We all come from scientific backgrounds," says Angie. "And at the trial, listening to Dr. Ruiz . . . it just didn't make sense. It didn't make scientific sense. We said: There's gotta be something more."
The family contacted Richard Ernest, a forensic ballistics consultant from Fort Worth, Texas. He suggested something that, amazingly, no one had considered: Check the path of the bullet through the chair Suhre was sitting in. "That's the one stationary thing. You can't argue with the chair," Angie says.
The family hauled the chair out of storage, and Ernest examined it. "Lo and behold," says Georgekopoulos's son-in-law, Dr. Ron Flauto, "the bullet path is perpendicular to the ground."
It was an important find. At trial, the prosecution contended that Georgekopoulos had shot Suhre from almost 12 inches away, at about a 45-degree angle. The bullet's path indicates that's impossible, adding credence to Georgekopoulos's claim that he twisted the gun so it was pointed down at her abdomen.
The family took its findings to Summit County Chief Criminal Prosecutor Mary Ann Kovach, Deputy Medical Examiner Roberto Ruiz, and trial prosecutor Michael Carroll. Ruiz wasn't conceding the point, but Kovach, who didn't work for the prosecutor's office at the time of the trial, seemed more receptive, the family says. Still, the path of the bullet alone didn't prove that Georgekopoulos's finger wasn't on the trigger.
Until that moment, Georgekopoulos's children hadn't realized the importance of their father's right hand. All along, Georgekopoulos had been telling his children that police had taken numerous photos of his hands on the day of the shooting. Yet at trial, Caprez seemed to assert that no pictures of the right hand alone existed. Even today, he denies knowing about any such photos. "I never heard anything about them," he says.
Three days after their meeting with Kovach, Pete and brother-in-law Koinoglou went back to Kovach's office. "We explained to her there had to be more pictures," says Pete. "All that was presented to us at trial was two pictures."
Kovach suggested they check with the police lab. Pete and Koinoglou got the usual public-records runaround: They went to the detective bureau, then to the law director, who wanted something in writing. Two weeks later, police handed over a trove of about 36 pictures.
Most of the photos were unimportant: shots of the interior of the house, the tools police used during their investigation. But they found two photos showing the right hand -- the very evidence that Caprez denied existed.
Even more exciting, the photos clearly showed gunpowder burns between the first and second finger on Georgekopoulos's right hand. To the untrained eye, the burns look like a cluster of freckles, but they are actually tiny flecks of gunpowder, launched like mini-missiles when a gun is fired, embedded in the skin like a tattoo.
Georgekopoulos's lawyers sent the photographs to five experts in forensic pathology. All concluded that the marks were produced by gunpowder burns, also known as stippling. They further concluded that the presence of stippling on both hands proves that Georgekopoulos could not have fired the gun.
Wrote Dr. Sanford Edberg, a forensic pathologist in Pennsylvania: "It is impossible for a person to fire one shot from a revolver and have stippling burns on both of his or her hands because the hot gun shot residue is expelled outward from the revolver muzzle and firing chamber and thus the hand that fires the shot which is behind the muzzle and the firing chamber will not be exposed to the hot stippling."
And the only hand with no stippling was Suhre's.
Deputy Medical Examiner Roberto Ruiz didn't respond to Scene's repeated interview requests. But prosecutor Carroll says the photos don't change his opinion of Georgekopoulos's guilt. "We tried the case on the exact same defense," he says. "I was absolutely convinced that he shot her intentionally. These Georgekopouloses are desperate folks now, and they're doing whatever they can do."
Kovach declined comment on the appeal, but says the family could have obtained the photographs for the original trial. "The pictures were all available to them the whole time," Kovach says. "We told them it was there. They can go and look at it, just like we can . . . Certainly their lawyers knew that. This is not undisclosed evidence to me."
An affidavit written by defense lawyer Ward claims otherwise: "Recently I was shown a photograph of Mr. Georgekopoulos' right hand that shows the presence of stippling burns . . . At no time did either Carrol [sic] or any representative of the state show me this photograph or otherwise make me aware of its existence in preparing Mr. Georgekopoulos' defense."
An appeal based on the new evidence is expected to be filed any day. It asserts that the prosecutor's failure to turn over the photographs violated Georgekopoulos's "Brady rights" -- lawyer-speak for the accused's right to evidence favorable to his case. Further, the appeal says the photographs prove once and for all that Georgekopoulos is innocent.
The argument isn't a sure thing, but lawyer Elizabeth Kelley has high hopes. "It's like DNA," she says. "It's that certain."
Even Suhre's son from an earlier marriage, Matthew, thinks Georgekopoulos was wrongfully convicted. "I believe, based upon everything I know, that my mother's death was the result of an accident and that Mr. Georgekopoulos never intended to kill my mother," he says in an affidavit. "I have no objections to Mr. Georgekopoulos being released from prison."
For now, at least, Georgekopoulos remains incarcerated at the Trumbull Correctional Institution, where he is known as inmate #343190. He has already missed enough family moments to fill several photo albums: Pete got married. Angie got married. Three grandchildren were born; a fourth is on the way. Georgekopoulos's mother died, and his father is ill.
"The way I see it, my dad is being held hostage by the American justice system," says Angie. "The only thing that keeps him going is, he knows he's not alone. We're there emotionally, but he knows we're working hard."
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