Cheating Death

A cross-dressing Nazi murdered a prosecutor's dad 25 years ago. He's back.

Tim Sheehan Frank Spisak
The buses kept coming. As each slowed to a stop, Brendan Sheehan scanned the glowing windows for his father. But he only saw strangers.

His dad, the maintenance supervisor at Cleveland State, was never late. And he surely wouldn't be tonight. It was Brendan's 15th birthday, and Tim Sheehan was taking the family to dinner.

Brendan, his worried mother at his side, thought about this as he choked back diesel fumes. Another bus came, emptied, grumbled away. Then another. "The buses kept coming," remembers Brendan. "My dad never got off."

Then a police car rolled around the corner into the Sheehans' quiet, flag-waving Fairview Park neighborhood, and into the driveway of their two-story home. The officer sat his mother down in the family room. Your husband's been killed.

"Every time I walk into that room in my mom's house," says Sheehan, "I remember that conversation."

His next vivid memory is sitting in court -- "the green, ugly cloth chairs" -- looking into the eyes of the man who murdered his father. He was a puny loser named Frank Spisak, who dressed as a woman and fantasized he was a Nazi, killing black men in the name of Hitler. Tim Sheehan, an Irish immigrant, had simply gotten in the way.

Spisak sat proudly on the stand wearing a Hitler mustache, presenting an odd visage of the master race, cavalierly chatting about his killings as acts of God. But he found a superior nemesis in bad-ass prosecutor Don Nugent. Nugent patiently baited Spisak with his own vanity, spun him into a corner, then exposed him as nothing more than a punk, a coward, a Nazi wannabe, and dime-store thief.

Spisak was sentenced to death.

The prosecutor became Sheehan's hero, justice personified.

Twenty-five years later, Sheehan has taken Nugent's place. He's now the toast of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office, handling more than twice the caseload of the average prosecutor and trying murder cases of his own. It's as if that moment in court more than two decades ago never left him.

"It's almost like he's on a mission," says Assistant Prosecutor Dan Kasaris. "He's a bulldog."

The walls of Sheehan's closet-like office are papered with mementos from his cases -- exhibits, crayon drawings from young victims of molestation, and pictures of his three young children. Strangely absent are any pictures of his father. He's never really talked about his dad's murder. Not even his wife Michelle knows the details.

But now Tim Sheehan's brutal killing is about to be splashed across front pages again. Frank Spisak, still alive 25 years after his death sentence, finally found a sympathetic ear last month. A federal appeals court ruled that his lawyer had committed misconduct and struck down his death sentence. He'll likely be returning to the Justice Center, right by Sheehan's office, where the whole charade will play out again.

Now the prosecutor must do something he never prepared for: explain to his daughters, ages six and eight, that their grandpa was killed by a piece of shit. His eight-year-old is already so paranoid from overhearing her parents talk about the real-life monsters of Sheehan's work that she locks all the doors and windows in the family's home at eight o'clock every night.

But Sheehan says the hardest part was telling his mother and sisters "that this nightmare is creeping its way back."

Frank Spisak Jr. was a nobody until he started killing.

In high school, he was just an awkward dork who liked to draw swastikas. His dad, a factory worker who played the trumpet in a polka band, had packed up his family and fled their neighborhood near Buckeye Road to escape black migration, moving to Middleburg Heights when Frank was young. Spisak, a member of the chess club, was just a nerd looking for attention.

He enrolled at Cleveland State, but dropped out the following year when he could no longer afford tuition. So he made a curriculum of his own at a downtown bookstore, where he worked the stock room, mostly feeding his bizarre appetite for everything Hitler. He read so much that he eventually wore his eyes out, requiring thick, jar-bottom glasses.

At 22, he married a woman named Laverne. They had a daughter, Sally Ann, and Spisak found work at a string of dead-end factory jobs, once making casket parts at a shop on Madison Avenue.

Laverne found the whole Nazi thing a bit off-putting, but it wasn't enough to make her leave. Even when her husband blasted taped speeches by Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, Laverne just tried to shut her ears.

But after three years of marriage, things started getting really weird. Spisak suffered a head injury in a car accident that "messed his mind up," Laverne would later testify. Her husband started expressing dark desires and dressing like a woman. At night, he'd go out on the corner and get paid to turn tricks for guys looking for a lady with a little extra equipment.

Laverne told her husband he was "sick in the head" and that he needed help. Spisak ignored her pleas. Then things got even more bizarre.

One night, Spisak came through the door of their East 53rd Street home with a transvestite, walked by his wife, who was sleeping on the couch, and went into the bedroom to have sex with the man.

"I told Frank it's either me or that thing," Laverne said later. Her husband picked the latter.

Laverne packed up their daughter and left, taking everything -- even the refrigerator and stove. Spisak was left with little more than a hot plate and a coffeepot.

He started dressing like a woman full-time, and had the license bureau change his name to Frankie Ann. He saw a psychologist about getting a sex change, and even began taking hormone treatments. But he couldn't afford the surgery, and he made an ugly woman. With his bad makeup and frizzed-out hair, he looked like Little Orphan Annie gone disco. The guys in the neighborhood would whistle caustically from their porches as Spisak walked by.

Frank, too, seemed to loathe Frankie Ann, and his fascination with Hitler grew into an obsession. He started collecting Nazi memorabilia, swords, framed pictures of Hitler. Neighbors would hear him blasting the Führer's speeches in German on his stereo, as Spisak marched back and forth across his living room, dressed in military garb. He developed an obsession with guns and ammunition, and started stockpiling.

Strangely, he also began dating a black female prostitute. Even as a Nazi, Spisak failed.

Then God saved him, he would later recall for a jury.

On the morning of February 1, 1982, he was at the Cleveland State library on the first floor of Rhodes Tower, reading a 1930s book of Nazi propaganda, when he got up to go to the bathroom.

Inside, Spisak saw two feet underneath the door of one of the stalls. He went to the next toilet and put his eye up to a hole bored in the wall -- it was a black man, the Reverend Horace Rickerson. Accounts of what happened next are fuzzy, but the prosecution later claimed that Spisak had asked the reverend for sex but was rejected.

Spisak then pulled a pistol from his pocket, stuck the nose through the hole, aimed at Rickerson's torso, and squeezed until there were no more bullets.

As the preacher slumped to the floor, Spisak fled to the library snack bar. He felt "pretty good" about the killing, he would say later. So good, he sat down and enjoyed a cup of coffee. But curiosity got the better of him, and he returned downstairs to watch a crowd gathering around the bathroom. There, he locked eyes with the campus maintenance man. Something in his eyes spooked Spisak, some hint of recognition -- as if the man knew he was looking at the killer. Tim Sheehan had no idea that his life had just been set on a timer.

Love brought Tim Sheehan across the Atlantic.

He was working as a policeman in England when he met his wife, Kathleen, an Irish ex-pat living in America. He followed her back, and they started a family in the melting-pot suburb of Fairview Park.

He got work where he could, first managing the warehouse at Higbee's, eventually working his way up to overseeing maintenance at CSU. Every night, neighbors would see him walking home from the bus stop, briefcase in hand, young Brendan clipping at his heels.

"I think they were very, very close," says longtime neighbor Stephanie Gamery. "All the girls were good, but Brendan was kind of standout."

The Sheehans were true Irish. Gamery remembers Kathleen sending over warm soda bread, and Brendan and his sister performing a traditional dance at one of her ladies' club meetings. "They were just charming," says Gamery, in a crackly grandmother's voice. "They literally stole our hearts."

Yet not far from Fairview Park, Cleveland had become gripped by violence. The summer of '82 was a bloody one. The city was averaging four dead bodies a week. Gang killings were rampant. People fled downtown each night, afraid to be caught there after dark.

Police didn't know yet that a serial killer was in their midst. Murdering the preacher had put a taste in Spisak's mouth. It felt as if he had "accomplished something," he would claim.

He'd also befriended another loner and Nazi wannabe, Ron Reddish. Together, they'd cruise the streets in Reddish's Buick LeSabre, looking for black men. "Hunting parties" is what Spisak called them.

He found his second victim late one hot June night. John Hardaway walked into the Black Horse Café on Madison and West 117th, just as he had every payday for 17 years. The bartender cashed his check as he drank a glass of tomato juice. Then he left to catch the Rapid at the station across the street.

As Hardaway waited for the train, he glanced over to see a man standing with his legs spread apart, arms extended, squeezing the trigger of a .22-caliber semi-automatic pistol. Five bullets riddled Hardaway's body. He crumpled to the ground, crawling away on numb limbs as he faded out of consciousness. Four days later, he awoke in a hospital bed. One of the bullets had struck a gold medallion hanging from his neck, saving his life.

A couple months later, Spisak returned to CSU. Coletta Dartt, who worked in the chemistry lab, was just getting off work at five o'clock when she stopped to use the bathroom. When she opened the stall door, she was staring down the barrel of a gun. "Get back!" Spisak demanded. Dartt pushed him away and ran into the hallway. Spisak chased after her and fired a round down the hallway, but missed. A frantic crowd poured from the classrooms. But Spisak was gone.

Panic gripped the campus. Rewards were offered for information on the bathroom shooter. But police were without a solid lead. The attacks seemed so random.

Still, Spisak was paranoid. He kept thinking of the maintenance man outside the bathroom the day he killed Rickerson. So he began to follow the man around campus, prosecutors would later speculate. One day he walked past Tim Sheehan intentionally, just to see if he could notice a look of recognition on the man's face. He was sure that he did.

On the morning of August 27, 1982, Kathleen Sheehan gave her husband $10 and waved goodbye. Tim was cutting out of work early that day to play golf, then coming home for Brendan's birthday.

With the summer session concluded, Rhodes Tower was eerily empty. As Tim stood at the urinal, feet shuffled in behind him. He turned around to see Spisak pointing a pistol at his forehead. The two men locked eyes in silence. Then two bullets blew out the side of Tim's face. One pierced his neck. Another hammered into his chest. Tim fell face down in a pool of blood and urine. As the last twitches of life left Sheehan's body, Spisak rustled around in the man's pants and took out his wallet, which held the $10 Sheehan's wife had given him. Spisak went home and waited for the hysteria to hit TV news.

He would claim he felt that God had made him invisible, "stuffing the ears of everybody." So he went hunting again the next night. Seventeen-year-old Brian Warford, waiting at a bus shelter on Euclid outside campus, died instantly from a perfectly placed shot to the head.

A week later, police actually had Spisak in custody. He was arrested after getting drunk and shooting his gun out the window of his house. But the cops had no idea he was the Cleveland State killer, and Spisak was allowed to post bond.

For the moment, he was invisible.

But God couldn't protect Spisak from his own mouth. He'd bragged about the murders not only to his ex-wife, but also to his girlfriend. Then police received an anonymous call, telling them to take a second look at the guns they'd confiscated from Spisak's house. The weapons matched those used in the killings.

Spisak was driving home one day when he saw squad cars lining his street. He drove to Reddish's house, but a neighbor tipped police. They found Spisak crouched in a basement crawl space.

The CSU killer was behind bars. For the first time in months, the city could sleep.

Spisak proudly admitted to the murders, even autographing his swastika T-shirt for detectives. He came to court with his head held high, sporting the Hitler mustache he'd grown in jail, carrying a copy of Mein Kampf, and greeting Judge James Sweeney with a "Heil Hitler" salute. Yet he didn't seem to grasp the contradiction that a member of the master race was pleading insanity.

Defense attorney Tom Shaughnessy could do little except paint his client as crazy as he seemed. He put Spisak on the stand, egging him into casually admitting to killing in the name of God and Hitler, whom he regarded as a Jesus figure.

Blacks were overpopulating the world, Spisak argued, and he was helping cull the herd. "There's a lot of work to be done. Unfortunately, there's not enough people to get it done," he announced, his chin up in the air like a duke.

Lying in wait was Assistant Prosecutor Don Nugent, a lady-killer with the jurors, with piercing eyes and a poker-room swagger. "Nugent presents a very strong image, where lightning's going to flash from the heavens if you do wrong," says longtime defense attorney Richard Drucker.

Nugent asked Brendan's mom to take the stand and do the unthinkable: stare down the man who gunned down her husband. Kathleen refused, terrified. Brendan pleaded with Nugent not to force her.

"He was trying to be strong and take his dad's place," says Nugent.

But the prosecutor was stronger. Kathleen tearfully testified to the morning she said goodbye to her husband for the last time. In exchange, Nugent promised an eye for an eye.

"That's a big responsibility," says Nugent. "If they put their trust in you, you better live up to it."

Brendan had envisioned his father's killer as a frightening monster. But what he found in court was a skinny, effeminate creep. "I think, 'Who is this punk, this squirrelly-looking punk guy?'" Sheehan remembers.

Spisak coldly recalled how he shot Tim Sheehan. "When I saw him go down, I knew I hit him," he testified. Shaughnessy showed him a crime-scene photo of Tim's body. "I thought I did a good job," Spisak said.

Then Nugent came in for the cross-examine.

When Spisak proudly claimed he shot Hardaway at the Rapid station as "blood of atonement" for the recent Flats slaying of a white woman by a black man, Nugent pointed out that the killing hadn't been made public until a day after Hardaway was shot. Spisak had committed the crime for no more noble purpose than his own sick pleasure, Nugent told the jury.

"Like your hero, Adolf Hitler, you got a yellow streak all the way down your back," Nugent taunted the enraged Nazi.

The prosecutor found Spisak's weaknesses and used them to humiliate him, calling him by his female name, Frankie.

"The name is Frank to you, buddy," Spisak shot back.

"The name is whatever I want to call you," Nugent replied.

"I was overwhelmed by what [Nugent] was doing," Brendan remembers. He was "aggressive, prepared."

Not even the defense's own psychiatrist could help Spisak. In a shocking moment, the doctor testified that Spisak suffered a personality disorder -- not legal insanity.

Spisak was convicted for all the murders, and was as good as sitting in the electric chair.

Asked by a reporter afterward if he could think of any reason why he shouldn't be fried, Spisak smiled and responded, "Not offhand, can you?"

The jury agreed, sentencing Spisak to die. He left the courtroom with a rousing "Heil Hitler!"

Sheehan never forgot the cowboy prosecutor. In his junior year of high school, he volunteered by passing out yard signs for Nugent's judicial campaign.

Nugent, who won, was used to keeping in touch with the victims, but Sheehan would regularly call for advice. Nugent became his mentor, even steering him toward his alma mater, the Cleveland Marshall College of Law.

For Sheehan, life fell into place fast. He proposed to his girlfriend from law school, and they had two daughters and, later, a son -- whom he named Tim, after his father. After graduation, he clerked for Nugent, who had been appointed by President Clinton as a federal judge. Sheehan was making a cool $80,000 salary, which rose higher when he went to practice civil law.

It was the normal path for a budding lawyer -- follow the money. Sheehan, however, had another agenda. When Bill Mason became prosecutor in 1999, he started noticing the bright-eyed attorney following him.

"Wherever I was, he showed up," says Mason. Then one day, Sheehan gathered his nerve and asked Mason for a job on the steps of the courthouse.

The prosecutor wanted to make sure Sheehan knew what he was getting himself into. He'd start out making a measly $34,000, busting deadbeat dads in child-support court. "It doesn't matter," Mason remembers the kid saying. "I just want to do it."

Telling his wife about his latest career move was a more delicate conversation. But Michelle stood by him. "We tightened our belts, and we figured out a way to get it done," she says. "You live for what you want, and that's what he wanted, so we supported him."

Sheehan got what he asked for. He scratched his way through child-support court, then juvie, then moved up to trying small-time felony cases and parole violations. In 2001, he was putting together a case against a loner named Timothy Moulder for robbing a roofing company when he got his chance to go big.

A year after the robbery, Moulder had been called in by prosecutors as a suspect in a gangland-style slaying in Bay Village, but he was dismissed after his girlfriend backed up his alibi.

But Sheehan knew the murdered man -- roofer Robert Cutler -- was the cops' main witness to Moulder's robbery.

Sheehan urged Bay Village police to collect surveillance tapes from businesses near the murder scene. On the morning of the murder, Moulder was videotaped at a nearby gas station. It destroyed his alibi. His girlfriend quickly ratted him.

The boy prodigy had cracked a murder case. "It was Brendan Sheehan, because of him, why that case went to trial," says Judge Ron Suster.

Sheehan earned his way to a sidekick job on bigger and bigger cases. He was a darling of the old-time prosecutors, tipping verdicts with a baby face and Eddie Haskell politeness that the veterans had lost to cold eyes and stomach-turning pauses.

"He's the kind of guy I think most people like their daughter to bring home," says attorney Drucker. "He's got an all-American type of appeal."

He was taking his game to new heights -- as well as new lows. During the trial of a Warrensville Heights bar owner, accused of holding an after-hours strip show at his bar, Sheehan wanted to paint the scene to jurors. So he brought in the stripper, a 50-year-old grandmother in skin-tight leather pants, to dance in the courtroom. He cranked up a boombox playing the bump-and-grind song "My Neck, My Back," as the over-the-hill temptress rolled around on the floor.

Judge Carolyn Friedland, wearing a prudish strand of Barbara Bush pearls, watched the show as if she might vomit. She dismissed the case midtrial.

Today, Sheehan looks at a newspaper clipping tacked to his office wall, where he's pictured holding a pair of extra-large stripper panties. He's still proud of that case.

"I was trained by the best," he says of Nugent, "not afraid to fail."

Something had possessed Sheehan. In 2003, he took 28 cases to trial, winning 24 -- a number unheard of in the prosecutor's office. "Nobody's ever tried that many cases," says Mason.

That year he was given the Carmen Marino Award. Usually bestowed as recognition for the lifers in Mason's office, Sheehan had captured it in just four years.

"I think we caught everybody off guard when we gave it to Brendan," says Mason. "But it was an easy call."

Mason then tapped Sheehan to run the internet crimes division, busting online sex predators and kiddie-porn peddlers. Today, he has 43 cases on his plate; the average prosecutor has less than half that. Michelle says her husband often works until 2 a.m. preparing for the next day.

She doesn't know much about her husband's father, just bits and pieces recounted by Sheehan and his sister. "He's always kept that quiet," she says. "I always wondered: If [Spisak] gets put to death, are you gonna go watch?"

But to her husband, Spisak was already dead and buried. "We moved on," he says. "The fact that Frank Spisak is in a jail cell, and is not talked about, and is not even mentioned, is almost as satisfying."

Yet Spisak has made quite a life for himself on death row. He's lobbied, unsuccessfully, for the prison to allow him to have a sex change. In 1999, he filed a federal lawsuit to force the state to refer to him as a woman. And he's spent 25 years burning public money, dragging out the appeals process for as long as he can.

He never got much sympathy -- until last month. The Sixth Circuit Court in Cincinnati ruled that Spisak hadn't received a fair defense and struck down his death sentence.

Shaughnessy had done his best to make his client appear insane, but it backfired, ruled the judges, actually making a better case for killing Spisak than for sparing him. "Don't look to him for sympathy," the lawyer told jurors at one point, "because he demands none."

Yet lawyers who knew him say Shaughnessy was simply going by the book. "It's a standard technique -- take the thunder from the opposing party," says Assistant Prosecutor Steve Dever. "Expose [the weaknesses of your case] for yourself so that your opponent can't do it."

Unfortunately, Shaughnessy isn't alive to defend himself; he died of throat cancer in 1997.

The state has appealed, but if it loses its challenge, Spisak will return to Cleveland to be resentenced. Twenty-five years later, with the horror of his killings long gone from the headlines, finding 12 jurors to unanimously deny him mercy is a long shot.

To Sheehan, the only thing that matters is that his father's killer is getting a walk. For his mother and sisters, it's a slap in the face.

"You're living the case until it is concluded," says Nugent. "Then a decision like this comes out . . . It's like a death. You're never prepared for it."

Spisak may never see his way out of Mansfield Correctional, but he's found a way back into the Sheehans' lives. Sheehan's kids have heard his worried mother and sister talking about it; they want to know if they should be afraid.

"I said, 'My dad was shot by someone who was mean and bad, a bully,'" Sheehan says.

Those words may be enough to comfort his kids, but Sheehan just wants to bury this thing. And prison walls aren't thick enough.

The letter comes from "Death Row, U.S.A." Written in neat, girlish print, it begins with "Happy Thanksgiving" and a smiley face.

Spisak is writing Scene to dispel the "ignorance" surrounding his case. He's no Nazi, he claims. And he's truly sorry for the killings.

"Mental illness caused the crimes," he writes, "and I'm sorry that I got mentally ill enough to hurt and kill others [sad face]."

He signs the letter "Miss Frances Ann Spisak, a.k.a. STARGIRL, WHITE ROSE in a concrete jungle."

The killer seems truly happy to be alive.

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