Call It Even

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

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Thomas Siller grew up on what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard before his family hoofed it to the suburb of Bedford Heights. His dad cut trees for the city of Cleveland, his mom worked on and off in restaurants. His aunt ran an ice cream shop where Thomas started scooping lemon ice when he was 11.

But spending summers indoors didn't agree with Siller, who saw his pals working as landscapers beneath the sun and making good money. So he followed suit. By 18, he dropped out of school and took on various jobs, many of them laying bricks. He also took up smoking crack.

Siller married in the early '80s — "the first one my mom liked," he jokes. They met at a Halloween party and ran with some of the same crowd. Together for 13 years and married for 10, the couple had two sons before their relationship crumbled. After failed bouts with rehab, it was Tom who walked away.

"I blame myself," he says. "She was, like, good at everything. I really didn't want to get married, but she kept asking me. She matured, and I grew younger, and that's how we grew apart."

Siller eventually settled into a transient existence in Slavic Village, staying at times with an on-and-off girlfriend, at other times with acquaintances or on his own.

One of the great post-war neighborhoods, Slavic Village was once a genuine ethnic melting pot of families and workers nestled in small, well-constructed houses set close to the street and blanketed by roadside trees.

But after a triple setup of crime, drugs, and suburban exodus, the nuclear explosion of the recent housing crisis and foreclosure delivered an excessive finishing punch to Slavic Village. Today, most blocks boast more orange-spray-painted "No copper, no wire" warnings than street signs.

The erosion was under way in the early 1990s, but Slavic Village had yet to be given up for dead. There, Siller adopted an unofficial schedule of drugs and work, work and drugs. "I'm from the '70s, so I saw nothing wrong with a little bit of participating," he says. "I never had any strong desires. I did it for recreation, to drown my sorrows, just like a person who drinks."

Life in Slavic Village led Siller to Wally Zimmer, who frequented the same bars and parties. Like Siller, Zimmer worked hard — driving trucks and doing other odd jobs — and numbed himself with crack. Also like Siller, he mostly steered clear of trouble. Despite their parallel paths, the two were never more than casual pals.

Siller knew of Jason Smith, but he didn't hang out with him. "I saw him a couple of times at a house or around, you know, but I would always get this bad feeling about him." He says he didn't buy from Smith and warned others to stay away. Zimmer, too, says he didn't buy from Smith.

Siller and Zimmer found work wherever they could get it. That's how they came to ask the old lady on Hosmer Avenue about her chimney.

"One day, me and Wally are walking down the street and I see this chimney. I can see daylight through it," says Siller. "So I knock on the door. This old lady very cautiously opens the door, and I say, 'I notice your chimney, it's not in good shape.'"

The woman, Alice Zolkowski, said she'd been looking for someone to repair it. Siller said he does chimneys.

"I looked at her, looked at the house, and say, 'Well, $175,' or something like that," he recalls. "That's like kibbles and bits compared to what I should have charged or would have charged for someone out in Beachwood. But I look at the house and I look at her, you know. So me and Wally tear it down and put up a new one."

Pleased with the work, Zolkowski began asking Siller about other projects around her house. Could you fix the porch? Could you look at the thermostat? Siller didn't know how to do all she needed, but he helped find others who did. He became a sort of general contractor, earning money to ensure that projects got done.

"One day, I see her giving one of the guys working on the porch some money," he says. "I ask her what's that about. She says, 'It's OK, it's OK,' and she says she knows the guy from before and she's just loaning him some money. She would then offer, If you ever need anything ..."

Siller eventually finished the porch job himself, and Zolkowski paid him extra. He says he told her not to. He says she insisted.

"I said, 'Why don't you put it down as a loan?' That's how the tally sheet got started."

The tally sheet eventually showed that Siller borrowed just over $12,000 from Zolkowski. Zimmer borrowed just over $7,000. It also showed money loaned to two other men. The ledger was dutifully kept by both Zolkowski and Siller, who would help her with the math.

Siller speaks of Zolkowski with great affection, often breaking down in stifled tears. Sometimes she paid him extra, and he told her to mark it as a loan. Some of it he asked for. Sometimes she just handed over checks.

"She started making it too easy," he says. "Worrying about where I was going to stay, how my girlfriend was. She worried about Wally's daughter. She was a lonely lady who wanted someone to be there." Siller tried to repay her various times, though she always refused.

"We did, I would say, take advantage of her," Wally Zimmer says today. "I'm just being honest. We borrowed money. She was nice — real nice. She'd ask me to fix a ceiling tile or something, and I would, and she'd say, 'Here, here, you did work,' and give me money. But I also had to feed my daughter and pay rent, and I'd ask sometimes."

The morning after Zolkowski was found beaten, neighbors told detectives that Siller and Zimmer were often seen around the house. So they went looking for the men on the tally sheet.

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