Positioned a few feet from that intersection is an RTA rapid stop, where a black plastic canopy covers the ascent from the tracks to street level. The canopy is a stone's throw from the public library, police station, municipal court, and city hall, which, like so many buildings and houses in Shaker Heights, has an impressive brick edifice adorned with towering white columns.
The rapid stop is where Strothers, a deranged 21-year-old with piercing eyes and patchy clumps of facial hair, lay in wait for Chang as morning rush-hour traffic whizzed by. Shortly after Strothers shot her four times, the corner was transformed into a makeshift shrine, full of flowers and pastel chalk messages written in the unmistakable looping swirl of adolescent girls.
"We all miss you." "God bless the Chang family." "Bye baby girl."
One year later, rain and time have conspired to sweep away many of the messages, just as the memory of Penny Chang drifts from Greater Cleveland's collective conscience. Her name still surfaces from time to time -- Bill Bradley invoked Chang in a stump speech touting gun control, support groups mention her frequently as a worst-case victim of stalking, and a tree will be planted in her memory this week. But the shock of the tragedy, like the outpouring of love and grief, has faded.
One message, still barely visible at the rapid stop, asks a simple and direct question: "Why Penny?"
It's a troublesome question, because every measure that society has taken to protect young girls like Penny Chang was in place at the time of her murder. Shaker Heights police were familiar with Strothers. The municipal court had punished him for harassing the Chang family and barred him from any further contact with her.
What's more, Strothers, a deeply disturbed man diagnosed with numerous personality disorders, had been treated by psychiatrists at the Cleveland Clinic, one of the most respected hospitals in the world. He continued seeing a psychiatrist up to the time he murdered Chang, whom Strothers perceived alternatively as the "perfect girl" and a "selfish, arrogant, stupid bitch."
Clearly, both legal and mental health professionals tried to protect Penny Chang. So why did the system fail? What more could have been done? And by whom?
Those questions are even more compelling in light of a journal Strothers kept while at the Clinic, as well as a voluminous series of e-mails he sent to Chang and her family just weeks before he killed her. Both Strothers's journal and e-mails have been obtained by Scene. They provide a chilling look into the mind of a man bent on revenge -- and add troubling weight to the contention that more could have been done to protect the Shaker Heights High freshman.
What emerges from a close examination of Penny Chang's murder is a system full of cracks, with startling lapses, miscues, and a volatile mix of elements, including:
An isolated immigrant family, unfamiliar with the perturbations of mainstream American life and struggling with internal issues -- some cultural, some due to the normal distance between parents and their teenage daughters -- that exacerbated an already uniquely difficult situation.
A reactive legal system that was hampered by a lack of communication and by Strothers's ability to exploit its limitations. As a result, the courts missed much of what was happening.
A medical system that appears to have made serious misjudgments and misdiagnoses. Since the Cleveland Clinic refuses to discuss its treatment of Strothers, it is difficult to say why certain decisions were made. And judgments are always easier in hindsight, particularly from a layman's point of view. Nonetheless, it's clear that the Clinic knew it was dealing with a disturbed person with homicidal tendencies directed toward a specific target, yet elected to send him back into the community.
And there's Strothers himself -- a master of deceit, if one is to believe all the people who say he fooled them. Though Strothers clearly knew how to manipulate the system, it's hard to imagine him pulling off the level of deception attributed to him.
Then again, it's hard to imagine any college kid writing the kind of things Strothers did while he was a patient at the Cleveland Clinic. At the urging of doctors there, Strothers poured his anger onto the page, including one journal entry in which he talks about restoring his dignity after Chang ended their brief summer flirtation.
The entry ends: "Basically I was thinking, "How cool and superior will you look, bitch, when I blow your fucking brains out into the ground.'"
Four months later, that's exactly what Scott Strothers did.
Once in a Lifetime
JoAnn Chang stubs out her cigarette in a snowdrift outside the Arabica on Detroit Road in Lakewood. It's more convenient for her to meet at this West Side coffee shop than in Shaker, since her family moved to Westlake following Penny's death. There were too many memories in the house Strothers used to phone more than 100 times a day, leading up to March 16, 1999.
JoAnn Chang is 25 and all New York style, wearing a fuzzy blue coat over a double-breasted jacket while sipping mocha. She talks about medical school, which she will begin this fall, and her younger sister, whom she remembers as "any 15-year-old girl -- happy, talkative, gregarious. She always talked on the phone." JoAnn Chang often slips between past and present tense when discussing Penny's interests in typical adolescent fare such as the Spice Girls and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The eldest of four children, JoAnn describes her and her sister's childhood as "like any other little suburbanites." Penny was born in Pittsburgh, where her father, Ching Lung Chang, studied at Carnegie Mellon. Both Chang, a mathematics professor at Cleveland State University, and his wife, Yun Hua Chang, were born and raised in China. Penny actually returned to China to live with relatives in her early years, before moving back to the U.S. when she was five.
JoAnn describes her parents, who forbade dating until college, as "very traditional, conservative Chinese." That's a sharp contrast to both JoAnn and Penny, who loved shopping together, everywhere from Beachwood Place to neighborhood thrift stores.
"I'd come home [from college in Texas] for Christmas, and she would raid my closet," JoAnn remembers. "She'd say, "Sis, come on, you know this sweater looks better on me than it does on you. Come on, you've gotta give it up.'"
They would gossip together endlessly, sometimes speaking in Chinese if the person they were discussing was within earshot. Their parents did not celebrate Christmas or even secular holidays like Father's Day, because it conflicted with their Buddhist beliefs. But that didn't stop Penny.
"Penny would buy a $2 cup that said "#1 Dad,' always make sure there was something small," JoAnn says. "She almost convinced my parents to get a Christmas tree. She'd say, "Come on, my Jewish friends get Christmas trees.'"
Along with typical teenage activities, like writing love poems and watching Titanic dozens of times, Penny was an avid chess player, drew intricate Japanimation cartoons, and spent hours in front of the computers at the Shaker Heights Public Library. Her affinity for computers is something she shared with her older brother Sean, now a senior at Ohio State University majoring in business and computer science.
Another thing the siblings shared was a friendship with Scott Strothers.
Strothers was a classmate of Sean Chang, and the two were close friends at Shaker Heights High. Penny first met Strothers when she was seven or eight, JoAnn recalls, and considered him a friend as she grew older -- though not in a romantic sense. After all, he was six years her elder.
Her parents were initially fond of Strothers as well, and he was a frequent visitor to their house on Normandy Road. Born in Georgia, Strothers was the only child of Ken and Joanne Strothers. He was just an infant when his parents divorced, and his mother brought him to live with her parents in Cleveland. A registered nurse, Joanne remarried, had two daughters, and divorced again. At the time of the murder, Scott was living with his mother and two siblings in an apartment on Van Aken Boulevard, where the family moved when he was in 10th grade.
At a high school where many of the stylish cars in the parking lot are decorated with decals from Cornell, Penn, or Harvard, Strothers drifted through the hallways without making much of an impression. He was smart, but had difficulty focusing. High marks on the Scholastic Aptitude Test earned him a scholarship to Ohio State, where he went after graduating in 1996.
Strothers's academic difficulties resurfaced at Ohio State, where he failed all his courses fall quarter of freshman year, partly due to a recurring case of asthma. He eventually dropped out, citing depression. When he returned in autumn 1997, he shared a dorm room with his best friend, Sean Chang, and took to his studies with renewed vigor, earning straight As.
He had also become enamored of Penny, even though she was just 13. To impress her parents, he began taking Chinese language lessons. The friendship with her brother Sean fell apart -- the two got on each other's nerves while living together and stopped speaking. But when Strothers returned to Cleveland in June 1998, he got a job at a Beachwood lightbulb factory with Penny.
JoAnn says her sister, then just 14, was allowed to work at the factory because the owner was a friend of the family. Penny worked side-by-side with Strothers, who would often go 40 minutes out of his way to walk her home after work. Sometimes they would stop and eat at Wendy's, and they occasionally went to the movies together at night.
Penny never took her relationship with Strothers seriously, JoAnn says, or even viewed it as a real relationship. It was, rather, something most 14-year-old girls experience: an awkward start-and-stop process of hanging out with someone as they make their initial forays into dating.
There was some kissing and touching, but nothing beyond that, Strothers would later write in his journal. (Never mind that intercourse would have qualified as statutory rape.) But it's clear that, while Penny considered her relationship with Strothers a brief flirtation -- if she considered it at all -- Strothers viewed it as the most important thing in his life.
"I saw her as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the best prospect that I would ever get a chance at, and the girl I wanted to spend the rest of my life with," Strothers wrote in the journal he kept while at the Cleveland Clinic in the fall of 1998, noting that Penny "could be supermodel material easily."
JoAnn Chang rolls her eyes. "He's in college and dating a 14-year-old? What a dork," she says ruefully. "She's never dated anyone, and he expects the world from this 14-year-old."
In fact, Strothers had never dated anyone either. But he was infatuated and viewed his relationship with Penny as a storybook romance. He became agitated then, when, halfway through the summer, Chang cooled to his overtures. She went to the movies with him less frequently and stopped returning his phone calls.
Strothers grew worried. He was convinced that, when Chang started high school that autumn, his chances with her would diminish, as she would be exposed to hundreds of new boys at Shaker Heights High. His feelings for her ranged from achingly sweet -- "I didn't want anything more than to get a call from her" -- to delusional, obsessive, and controlling.
Desperate, Strothers asked Penny to be his official girlfriend, which she flatly refused. Near the end of the summer, he asked Chang if he could walk her home and talk. She promised him they would walk home together the following day.
When Strothers got to work that Friday, prepared for their big walk home, Penny wasn't there. His supervisor told him that she had quit the previous day.
Remember Me Forever
Scott Strothers wasn't about to be put off so easily. As the start of the 1998-'99 school year approached, he called Penny, trying one last time to talk about their future together.
"We talked about some things, and she said that she was busy and would maybe call me sometime," Strothers wrote. "After a couple weeks and she hadn't called me, and it was the time that classes were starting at OSU, I knew she wasn't going to call me, and I still was left hanging concerning all the questions I had and with resentment and with feelings of being forgoten [sic] about and abandoned."
He continued: "At the end of the summer, after all the time we had spent together and how close we had become, she just parted with me without any kind of good[-]byes, pretending like nothing had happened, leaving me wondering why."
The more distant Penny became, the more obsessive Strothers grew. He decided he couldn't return to Ohio State and, after a heated argument with his grandmother drew a visit from the police, left his mother's apartment. He moved into a second-floor rental unit with his father in Collinwood, which he liked even less. While he brooded there, his longing for Penny turned to anger, festering and stewing inside of him.
From the entries in Strothers's journal, it's clear that Penny was becoming an object -- either a nearly flawless, idealized woman or an unpredictable, manipulative user. Strothers blamed Chang for his unhappy living situation in Collinwood and refused to take any responsibility for his life. He faulted Chang for "forcing" him to withdraw completely from Ohio State, even blaming her for the blotch on his credit rating that came after he broke his lease in Columbus.
There seems no recognition in Strothers's writing that most of the behavior he describes is typical of teenage girls and considered a normal part of maturing. Whereas most healthy people would take a 14-year-old girl's indifference as a clear sign to move on, Strothers became determined to make Penny pay for her perceived slights.
"I didn't like how she didn't seem to think that me or my feelings were important and didn't take them seriously. How it seemed in the end I didn't really mean anything to her," he wrote. "Maybe the destructive actions were my way of calling upon the ultimate threat to make her take me seriously."
He started with telephone harassment in September, calling the Chang home more than 100 times in the middle of the night, hanging up whenever Penny's father picked up the receiver. One month later, Strothers poured a fiberglass resin into the gas tank of the Changs' car. Then he used a slingshot and metal balls to shoot out the windows in Penny's bedroom.
After Shaker Heights police officer Bill Misencik took down the Changs' report about the broken windows, he observed Strothers a few blocks away with an obvious bulge in his pockets. When he was stopped and searched, police confiscated a lighter, a flammable cleaning product, and a makeshift blowtorch. Three days later, Strothers made an unsuccessful attempt to burn down the Changs' garage.
The vandalism was akin to a child's tantrum to get attention -- Strothers didn't seem to care if he was caught. He wrote in his journal that he would often return to the house the same night he had damaged it, noting, "I followed my emotions instead of logic."
"He mainly did all these things to show Penny how he was hurt and to show her he could hurt her back," says JoAnn Chang.
But there were dark harbingers in Strothers's juvenile behavior. His disregard for getting caught presaged the up-front manner -- broad daylight, middle of a busy intersection, across the street from the police station -- in which he would kill Chang. And his vandalism spree also marked the first time that Strothers approached Ted Hullett, his mother's boyfriend, to ask about obtaining a gun. He asked Hullett about it again the day he was admitted to the Clinic.
When Shaker Heights police called Strothers into the station to question him about the continuing vandalism and phone harassment, he confessed to all the crimes. He was arrested and charged with misdemeanor counts of telephone harassment, criminal damaging, and arson.
While it's clear now that Strothers was stalking Chang, he was never charged with stalking. That's because Penny Chang never thought her life was in danger, according to Shaker Heights Prosecutor Lisa Gale.
"Unfortunately, what we found is that children at that age don't realize they should be afraid of this behavior. Because of that, [Chang] was the victim, but she wasn't afraid," Gale says. "It didn't meet the elements of stalking at the time."
Strothers's behavior may not have met the legal definition of stalking, but it certainly met the general standards, according to Toni Louise, a counselor with the Beachwood-based Center for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. That is, Strothers's behavior could be characterized as possessive, obsessive, persistent, and obtrusive.
"It seems to me there was so much that could have been done, if people had known the warning signs," Louise says. "But instead, we go into denial and minimization. After all, nobody wants to believe this is happening to them. And at 14, you're thinking of romantic love images. You're not thinking of being stalked and murdered by the person stalking you."
Strothers's family apparently realized that he was becoming unhinged. Before his case could be heard by Shaker Heights Municipal Court Judge K.J. Montgomery, Strothers followed the advice of his mother and then-attorney, C. Randolph Keller, and checked himself into the Cleveland Clinic. He later admitted in his writings that he checked into the Clinic "because it would look good in court."
Strothers tried to justify his behavior by imagining himself as a crusader for men everywhere, writing, "What I did to her house was in a way trying to teach her a lesson. I couldn't stand the thought of her going through her life doing to other guys what she did with me . . . just leading them on and disregarding their feelings and emotions just for her own petty entertainment and to boost her own self-image."
But at his core, Strothers was still bent on making himself the center of Penny Chang's life.
"I think that my actions were a way to force myself to be important in her life even though it was in a negative way," he wrote. "I once thought "forget about me bitch? I will make you remember me forever.'"
A Waking Nightmare
The Cleveland Clinic will acknowledge that Scott Strothers walked into its emergency room on October 22, 1998 -- and not much else.
"Our feeling is that it's an obviously tragic situation that has already been publicized extensively, that it's been the subject of numerous investigations, legal proceedings, that it's obviously very painful for Penny Chang's loved ones and survivors," says Clinic spokesman Mark Cohen. "But to just keep dragging it up -- we don't see the value in that. We're going to take a pass on making any additional comments on the case."
It's unfortunate that the Clinic won't discuss Strothers now, since it's clear doctors there thought he was a very real threat to Chang. According to court documents, his initial diagnosis was listed as "Delusional Disorder vs. Impulse Control Disorder" as well as "Personality Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified."
In layman's terms, doctors thought Strothers had a fixed delusion that was immutable to logic, and that he was unable to control his impulses. He also suffered from a variety of unspecified personality disorders. What's more, doctors noted Strothers was "a danger to others with homicidal ideas and plan and intent."
The Clinic's Dr. Kathy Quinn concurred with that diagnosis when she met with Strothers five days later to assess his risk of violence. She cited nine factors that made him a high risk, including his history of violence, lack of empathy, severe anger and holding a grudge, attempt to obtain a weapon, homicidal ideation, sense of rejection and humiliation, escalation of aggressive acts, failure to respond to parental and police awareness of actions, and devaluing of object.
The object was Penny Chang.
According to a report prepared by Dr. Philip Resnick for Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court after the murder, Strothers told doctors that, when he was depressed, he thought of killing Chang and himself, but later decided just to kill Chang. He told Clinic doctors he had gained 20 pounds and would sleep 12 hours a day. He denied experiencing hallucinations or hearing voices, but told doctors he possessed a "sixth sense" that allowed him "to gain a better understanding of things that were likely to happen in the future."
When asked for an example of this sixth sense, he told doctors that Penny Chang was deeply in love with him, even though she didn't act like it.
Strothers was treated on an inpatient basis, and underwent testing and counseling. Doctors encouraged him to record his feelings and thoughts about Chang in a journal. Dr. Melodie Morgan-Minott, a Kent-based psychiatrist and a member of the Ohio Psychiatric Association, says having patients keep such journals is common.
"It's a form of treatment," she says. "It's a nice way to have [patients] externalize their feelings and see their thoughts on paper. It's also helpful to the therapist to see what they're thinking."
Cohen, the Clinic spokesman, refuses to discuss Strothers's journal entries, citing patient confidentiality. "I think we get into some very hazy gray areas of medical ethics," he says.
Strothers filled nearly 60 pages of a six-by-nine-inch notebook with rambling, often contradictory thoughts about Chang. Typical of his disjointed thinking is this entry: "The times that I had spent with Penny this summer when things were going good and she was nice to me was like a dream come true. It was like being awake and living my best dream. The weather was beautiful, so was she, and I was at times happier than I had ever been in my entire life. Everything was almost perfect. Then suddenly things changed. She was gone and I was living in a waking nightmare world. The only emotions I felt were sadness and anger and nothing was important or mattered."
While that could have been written by any lovestruck 14- (or even 20-) year-old, there are other, darker passages that suggest the depths of Strothers's illness and his ultimate intent.
"Killing Penny was never my ultimate goal or #1 plan. It was an absolute last resort plan that I only would have considered implementing if things had gotten so bad and there seemed to be no other choices. I completely hated the idea of having to do it because then everything would be over guaranteed," Strothers wrote four months before he shot Chang. "The idea of hurting her was kind of a desperate thought of how to make progress in a situation that seemed to be frozen."
Again, it was all Penny's fault. "If she would have given me one five minute phone call to say goodbye, this whole fiasco and me thinking about a potentially deadly conclusion would never have occurred."
While Strothers refused the antipsychotic medication doctors prescribed for him -- Risperdal -- because of its side effects, psychiatrists at the Clinic felt he was making progress. According to Resnick's report, Strothers appeared to Clinic doctors to become progressively less obsessed with Chang during his stay, prompting them to reassess their diagnosis. By late November, just one month after checking in, Strothers was described by doctors as "more relaxed, spontaneous, and interactive . . . he denied any plan or plot to harm his former girlfriend, stating "My success is more important to me than her failure' . . . He said all this in a credible fashion."
What Strothers was actually doing was lying.
"He explained that he was aware that if he were to tell them of his plans to kill Ms. Chang, he would be kept indefinitely," Resnick wrote. "Therefore, he elected not to tell them in order to gain a quicker release."
How could a 20-year-old misfit fool a battery of mental health professionals at the world-famous Cleveland Clinic? Morgan-Minott says Strothers's actions are typical and something psychiatrists face all the time.
"Many times mental health professionals are forced to release a patient, because the patient is saying all the right things and has been saying them consistently," she says. "We may think they're not being totally truthful, but we have no way of proving it."
As November came to a close, so did Strothers's 30-day stay at the Clinic. But before he was released, his doctors made two phone calls that were remarkable for an institution so quick to invoke patient confidentiality. They called both Penny's father, Ching Chang, and the Shaker Heights police, to tell them that Strothers had made threats against Penny while under their care, but they no longer considered him a threat to the Changs and were releasing him. Shaker Heights police considered the message important enough to call Ching Chang and repeat it.
Cohen refuses to elaborate on why Clinic doctors felt compelled to call the family and police, other than to say the calls were made "out of an abundance of caution and at some risk to medical ethics."
In short, Clinic doctors were concerned enough about Strothers's behavior to alert both the Changs and Shaker Heights police -- and give themselves a legal out. But they didn't think he was enough of a threat to merit continued inpatient care.
On November 26, 1998, Scott Strothers went home to have Thanksgiving dinner with his family. Meanwhile, Penny's 65-year-old father was seriously considering relocating his family to escape any further harassment. But he decided against it after the Clinic called.
"I trusted the Clinic very much. We were going to move to Westlake. We found a house we liked very much," Chang says in choppy but direct English. "We liked to buy the house. But after [the Clinic called], we said, "Oh, it's not necessary. The Cleveland Clinic is such a good place, treat him so well that we don't have to move.'"
Days of Rage
Chang isn't the only one who was given limited information. Strothers still had to face three criminal charges in Shaker Heights Municipal Court.
Though the Clinic felt compelled to breach patient confidentiality with the family and police, doctors did not warn Judge Montgomery about Strothers's homicidal tendencies. When he appeared before her in separate hearings in December 1998 and February 1999, she knew none of the details about his stay at the Clinic.
"Yeah, there were things we didn't know, but it's a tough thing for the criminal justice system and mental health professionals to fight," Montgomery says of the gaps in communication. "It's awfully complex."
Montgomery's office is just a few yards from the intersection of Lee and Van Aken. Would she have treated Strothers differently if she had known then what she knows now, such as his attempts to obtain a weapon, refusal of medication, and statements about killing Chang?
Strothers pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charges in his two court appearances. He was found guilty, fined, and ordered to have no contact with the Chang family. Montgomery says she decided against jail time, because Strothers had no prior criminal record and was seeking mental help. He was put on probation, on the condition that he continue seeing a therapist.
Strothers's sessions with Beachwood psychiatrist Dr. Raina Krell appear to have been a relatively unremarkable series of ups and downs. Strothers expressed remorse for damaging the Changs' home, but continued to fantasize about reconciling with Penny. He agreed to contact Krell or a friend if he felt like hurting or harassing Penny.
"The reports we got were very, very positive," Montgomery says. "He seemed committed to moving on with his life." Still, the judge admits she has replayed the hearings with Strothers in her head, looking for some signal or warning sign of the violence to come.
"I really do focus on a person's face. You want it to be like a rash, something that says, "evil,'" she says. "But I remember his face was clean, and his eyes were clear and sharp. I remember seeing what were the clearest eyes."
No one in authority seemed to notice the decidedly dark turn that Strothers, now 21, took in March. Even as he continued seeing Dr. Krell, he began setting up numerous e-mail accounts, using aliases like "Travis Black," "David Smith," and "Robert Shei." He used those to send long, delusional rants to Penny, Sean, and Ching Chang about his relationship with Penny -- written in third person, as if someone else were talking about Strothers's contempt for the Changs and the rage brewing inside him.
There is a level of anger in these e-mails -- which total more than 60 pages -- not present in Strothers's earlier journal writings. Laced with threats and derogatory remarks about Asians, they seem the work of a person who has reached a point of no return. Strothers was now objectifying himself as well as Penny. It was as if his life had become a prescripted slasher film that he was watching unfold on a movie screen.
"There are emotions that you chinks aren't encouraged to express but here is one that you are allowed to have. ANGER," Strothers wrote on March 9, exactly one week before he killed Chang. "Just imagine how you would feel if somebody threw you into a psychiatric ward. He didn't have very fond thoughts of who he blamed for putting him in there to say the least."
The third-person diatribe went on: "Penny betrayed Scott . . . He knows that he was used, played, betrayed, violated, had his emotions toyed with and then at the end of the summer when she was finished having her fun with him, she just tossed him aside like garbage . . . That callous, heartless bitch. Does she enjoy just casually ruining Scott's life. No, Scott is beginning to think that he didn't overreact whatsoever. Still no apology or explanation. No sympathy or remorse for the massive amounts of suffering that she caused.
"Scott would like to rip off her lips and put them in a blender and slice them up," Strothers wrote. "Better yet, Scott would like to take her lips while they are still attached to her face and shred them in a blender."
Another e-mail was simply the phrase "fuck you," repeated over and over for three pages. It was prefaced with this message: "The following may be crude but it was written al [sic] out by hand. Just so you appreciate the effort."
Ching Chang says the e-mails scared him, but inexplicably, he did not alert authorities. He still clung to the Cleveland Clinic's earlier assurances that Strothers was not a threat. He did, however, insist on driving Penny to school -- a practice he had started earlier in the year. JoAnn Chang says her sister, who had just turned 15, preferred walking to school with her friends.
What Penny didn't know was that Strothers had been watching her. Nor did she know that he had been to a gun show, where he bought a 9-mm pistol for $300.
The morning of March 16 was unseasonably warm, and Penny convinced her parents to let her walk to school. Meanwhile, Strothers was coming off a bad night with little sleep. He had spent much of the previous evening drinking with Ted Hullett at a local strip club. Sources say they were out not for revelry, but for a man-to-man talk, a last-ditch effort by the family to save their son from spiraling downward. Hullett reportedly told Strothers that he needed to move on with his life.
Instead, Strothers put a set of earplugs and a loaded gun in his pocket, and headed for the hub of Shaker Heights. Across from a police station parking lot filled with a dozen black-and-white cruisers, and mere yards from the courtroom where he had been ordered to stay away from Penny Chang, Strothers stood inside the RTA canopy and waited, hoping that she would walk by on her way to school.
Finally, Scott Strothers was poised to do what he had been threatening for the last five months.
He was about to kill Penny Chang.
Everything Was Okay
Shaker Heights police officers Mike Rowe and Ralph Spidalieri were getting their morning doses of caffeine around 7:40 at the Kokopelli coffee shop when they heard shots ring out. A Shaker Heights High student ran into the shop, screaming, "Call the police! My girlfriend's been shot!"
Strothers had emerged from the rapid stop to shoot Chang twice in the back. The force of the shots knocked her face-first into the street. Strothers strode up to her body, stood over it, and pumped two more shots into the back of Penny's head, execution-style.
One eyewitness would later remark: "I didn't know so much blood could come from such a little body."
By the time Rowe and Spidalieri bolted from the coffee shop, Strothers was walking toward them with his hands in the air. He followed the officers' instructions to get on the ground and told them, "The gun is in my pocket, the gun is in my pocket." Witnesses described Strothers as completely devoid of emotion.
An ambulance took Chang to St. Luke's Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 9:50 a.m.
Charged with aggravated murder, Strothers initially pled not guilty by reason of insanity. Then, with noted defense attorney Gerald Gold representing him, he changed his plea to guilty, just as his trial was to begin last September. He was sentenced to life in prison, though he will be eligible for parole in 2022.
Strothers didn't have much choice. Despite his stay at the Clinic, court psychiatrists had decided he was sane enough to differentiate right from wrong. A trial based on an insanity plea would only have brought his notorious background to light.
In the heat of the murder, Ching Chang complained that the law had not done enough to protect his daughter. He remains bitter today -- at the police, at a legal system that let Strothers live, and at the Cleveland Clinic, for releasing Strothers after his repeated threats to kill Penny.
"He found a way to avoid the death penalty, even though he killed a girl across the street from the police station," Chang says. As for the Clinic, "After the treatment, they said everything was OK. They said they treated Scott Strothers, now he's well, and that they were going to release him because he has no intention of killing us."
Chang's is a lonely voice of outrage. Legal and mental health professionals around town have closed ranks, refusing to second-guess and say, in hindsight, what could have been done to prevent Penny's death.
"Everyone did their job, but no one has a crystal ball," insists Gale, the Shaker Heights prosecutor. "I don't know if there is a remedy for that. I hope there would be some day. But I think, as long as you have people who have individual thoughts and motives, they're unpredictable."
While Chang's parents remain angry and are contemplating moving to Hong Kong or China, JoAnn Chang has come to terms with her sister's death. She says she feels pity for Strothers and his family.
"I feel really bad for him, because he felt justified in doing what he did," Chang says. "I'm happy he's going to spend the rest of his life in jail. He'll never see a sunset or a sunrise. The one thing about enjoying life is the little things, like smiling or being with your friends or hearing the birds chirp. He won't have that."
Still, it's impossible not to be haunted by what might have been.
"That's what's messed up," Chang says. "He didn't care what the penalty was. Nobody woke him up."
Mike Tobin can be reached at [email protected].