Call It Even

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

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Siller and Zimmer have relayed essentially the same account of that night for 14 years: They weren't there. In voluntary statements given to detectives, the details remain the same save for some haziness on specific times. They were, after all, getting high that night.

Early in the evening on June 3, Zimmer and Siller say they went to a neighborhood bar called Chaulkie's. There, Siller cashed three checks from Zolkowski in the amounts of $240, $200, and $75. With more than $500 on him, he headed out for the night, driving to a friend's house in a car owned by Siller's sometime girlfriend, Rosie Crowder. The friend later told cops that Siller was there and that he arrived, nicely dressed, in Crowder's car.

Zimmer said he was with Crowder after leaving the bar; Crowder told cops the same; she would be charged with obstruction of justice, the prosecution claiming she lied. (Attempts to reach Crowder were unsuccessful.)

According to Zimmer's original statements to detectives, his testimony, and conversations after his release, he was walking by Zolkowski's house at around 2:30 a.m. and noticed the lights and TV on. Thinking that was strange, he went to knock on the door, but there was no answer. After peering in and seeing Zolkowski's feet sticking out from a chair, he tried the back door, which he found kicked in. He entered to find the house ransacked and Zolkowski tied to a chair, badly beaten.

Zimmer tried shaking her to elicit a response, then picked up the phone to call 911. At that moment, he considered an outstanding warrant he had for a traffic offense, as well as his state of impairment. So he returned to Crowder's house to tell her what had happened instead.

Crowder also didn't want to call 911 because she had drugs in the house. They began paging Siller, putting "911" in the message to convey urgency.

Siller figured Crowder was just bent out of shape and wanted her car back. He left the friend's house and headed down to Hosmer Avenue. When he arrived, Zimmer explained what had happened. Siller yelled at Zimmer for not calling for help, dropped him off at his home, then stopped at a pay phone on nearby Fleet Avenue to place an anonymous 911 call before heading back to Crowder's place.

All three told police what happened and paid it no mind. And for the better part of a year, all was quiet.

But in March 1998, Siller was working at a house in Shaker Heights when somebody from the neighborhood pointed at him and said, "There's the guy that's on TV!" and called the cops. Siller, it turned out, had been featured on an America's Most Wanted type show. He was deemed "armed and dangerous."

"I've shot a gun once in my life. I don't own a gun," he says. "Armed and dangerous?" Cops tracked him down, guns drawn. Zimmer had already been picked up. "I thought it was a case of mistaken identity. Or maybe we were being arrested for not calling 911. I didn't even think about going to jail. If you're innocent, how do you go to prison?"

***

Jason Smith's fingerprints were found on a dresser drawer in Zolkowski's home — a drawer where checks had been kept, but which had been grabbed and then dropped on her dining room table. Cops immediately zeroed in on Smith, who had never previously been to Zolkowski's home but had a long rap sheet.

And unlike the unchanging accounts of Siller and Zimmer, Smith's version of events proved to be much more malleable under scrutiny. This was the state's star witness.

Smith was arrested about a week after the death of Zolkowski. Officers had come looking for him at his girlfriend's home. They returned later, kicking down the door, to find Smith hiding in a closet. "I kind of had an idea of what they wanted," he would testify at trial.

Smith initially proclaimed his innocence, saying that he held down two jobs to stay out of trouble and that he was working that night at the Touch of Italy restaurant. He would later admit the claim was untrue.

When reminded at trial that he had already lied twice about the crime to detectives, Smith replied, "I lied, but I'm not a chronic liar."

While Smith was jailed, another man in the cell next to him was being held for a parole violation. He testified at trial that Smith told him that police had nothing on him, that he was the one who killed Zolkowski, and that he took off his gloves a couple of times while ransacking the house — and that's how a fingerprint ended up on the dresser. He went on to say that he had no partners; he just needed money to buy his girlfriend a house. Smith told the man he had an alibi ready — he was in Kentucky at the time — which is exactly what Smith would tell a detective the following day.

The jailhouse snitch wasn't the only one to say Smith had confessed. At the trials of Zimmer and Siller, another man said Smith called him at a motel in Independence where he was partying with two prostitutes on the night of the attack. Smith told him he "hit a lick" for $2,500, meaning he had stolen a substantial amount of money and was ready to party. Prosecutors questioned the man's word because he was a drug user.

Smith also admitted that he cut his leg on the night in question, and that it happened on the job at Touch of Italy. An odd detail to volunteer, but it came after Smith's girlfriend had warned him that cops confiscated a pair of his pants. Those pants, he knew, had blood on them.

Still, Smith maintained his innocence until March 1998. His girlfriend, who had been charged with obstruction of justice, agreed to testify against Smith, who faced burglary, kidnapping, and aggravated attempted murder charges. Now Smith was ready to talk to prosecutors. (Conveniently, Siller notes, it was clear by this time that Alice Zolkowski would not regain consciousness and thus would never identify her attacker.)

According to Smith, he stopped at Rosie Crowder's house around 9 on the evening of June 3, looking for Siller or Zimmer to help him cash a check to buy drugs. Smith, a black man in a predominantly white neighborhood, claimed he needed the help of Siller, who frequently cashed checks in the area. Instead, Smith claims, Zimmer suggested the trio just go to Zolkowski's house and borrow some money. Smith said he drove them there and waited while Siller and Zimmer went inside, then the three went to buy drugs and smoke them.

As the evening wore on, Smith said, the drugs and money ran out. He suggested they cash his check, then Zimmer suggested they return to Zolkowski's house. There, Zimmer and Siller went into the house, this time through the back door, while Smith waited in the car. Wondering what was taking so long, Smith went inside and found Siller rummaging through the house. He seized upon an opportunity to grab the checks, then came back to see Zimmer hovering over Zolkowski. He dropped the checks, left without saying a word, and went on in search of drugs.

The state could produce no witness who had ever seen Smith hanging out with Siller and Zimmer, let alone on the night in question.

In exchange for Smith's testimony, prosecutors dropped two pending drug charges, handed him just three years in a plea for a single burglary charge, and gave him immunity from further prosecution should Zolkowski die. Years later, Judge Christine McMonagle would call this a "breathtakingly favorable plea deal."

Smith had a history of those.

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