DNA Evidence Might Finally Reveal Who Killed Barbara Blatnik, 'Tough Little Broad' of Garfield Heights

click to enlarge Barbie Blatnik - Photo courtesy of James Renner
Photo courtesy of James Renner
Barbie Blatnik
At approximately 10 a.m. on December 20, 1987, a young woman’s body was discovered along the shoulder of O’Neil Road in Cuyahoga Falls. She was nude, with nothing on her body except a class ring. She’d just been strangled to death. When investigators pulled the ring off her finger, they found her name written on the band – Barbara Blatnik. Seventeen years old. A kid from the city, thirty minutes away. Someone had beaten her, murdered her, left her body on this narrow access road leading into Blossom Music Center way out in the country, near Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Thirty-two-years later, we still don’t know her killer’s name. But that might change in the coming weeks.

Cuyahoga Falls Police have announced that biological material found under Barbara’s fingernails will be sent to a lab for DNA testing. The goal is to extract enough genetic data from the sample that it can be used by forensic genealogists to track down the killer using the same method that identified the Golden State Killer last year. A new nonprofit – The Porchlight Project – will pay for the independent tests and the genealogists’ time.

(Full disclosure: I’m the founder of The Porchlight Project.)

I met Barbara’s sister, Donna, at a Panera on the West Side a couple weeks ago. She has this tattoo on her arm. It reads: Tu me mangues. I ask her about this and she tells me that the French have a different way of feeling loss. They don’t say “I miss you.” They say, “You are missing from me.” That class ring they found on her sister’s body? She wears it on a necklace around her neck like a talisman.

Donna takes care of people. She worked as an activities director in a long-term care facility. Inner city. She married the boy who lived next door. Raised two kids. But the past and the details of it all are murky.

“I think I have PTSD,” she says. “I hardly remember anything from high school. It’s hard to remember anything from when we were kids.”

Everyone called her sister ‘Barbie.’ “She was so pretty,” says Donna. “White, porcelain skin. Piercing green eyes. Twenty-six-inch waist. Gorgeous, with blonde, feathered hair. She could walk into a room and connect with everyone. The kind of person everyone is drawn to. But she had her demons.”

Barbie liked to skip school. She ran away. Got into fights. Had to switch to a private school. She smoked Marlboros. And pot. But so did just about everyone they knew in Garfield Heights back then. Donna was the preppy. Barbie was the burnout. They ran in different circles.

Donna remembers how Barbie once hitchhiked from Garfield Heights to the Coliseum in Richfield to see Angus Young. Barbie worked her way down to the front row. She loved AC/DC, too. And Led Zeppelin, of course.

December 19, 1987. Donna was busy planning her wedding – Barbie would have been the maid of honor. A typical day, everyone looking forward to Christmas. And Barbie was out partying again. She started the day hanging out on the West Side, with her friends Michelle Trodden and Sheila Salmon, according to Donna. Later, they visited Orzack’s bar, where they could be served underage, before making their way back to Garfield Heights to visit Philip Null. Donna didn’t know this part until recently, when Phil reached out to her on Facebook.

“Barb and I were close friends in junior high,” says Null, when reached by phone. “I miss her like crazy and think of her often.”

According to Phil, Barbie arrived at his place after dark, between 7 and 8 p.m. He believes she came in a cab with Michelle and Sheila. “We were all drinking, having a good time. But Barbie said she couldn’t stay.” Barbie and her friends wanted to make it to a Christmas party at the bicycle shop on Turney Road, a short walk from Phil’s place.

“We were supposed to get together the following day,” says Phil. “I kept calling and calling over at her house, but nobody answered. I found out on Monday that she’d been murdered. I was totally floored. It had to be more than one person who got her. She would have fought. She was a tough little broad, you know what I mean?”

The bike shop on Turney was run by the Tretera brothers, Jimmy and Jeff. Jimmy was already deep for trouble, with a rap sheet that included attempted murder, though it’s unclear if Barbie knew this at the time. Regardless, after the party, according to her friends, Barbie asked to be dropped off at the corner of Warner Road and Grand Division so that she could walk to her boyfriend Jerry Stead’s house (it was easier to drop her off at the corner than pull into the driveway).

That was the last reported sighting of Barbie Blatnik. This would have been around 2 or 3 a.m. Jerry said he never saw her that night. Her sister, Donna, wonders what Barbie would have done if she couldn’t get into his house. “If he doesn’t answer the door, what does she do?”

Maybe she tried to hitchhike. Or maybe she walked to her friend Gina’s house. Gina lived just down the street with the Marek brothers – Porky and Mouse – who had a couple felonies between them, including assault and breaking and entering charges. Trouble at every turn.

But if it was a local, Donna wonders, why drive all the way out to Blossom to get rid of the body? There were plenty of places to dump a body in town back then: the tracks, the dump.

The next morning – December 20 – Donna and her mother went Christmas shopping. It wasn’t odd for Barbie not to be home. So, when the police called, their father was alone. He drove out to identify the body alone. And then he had to come back to share the tragic news.

Thirty-two years later, Donna wants answers. She wants to know who killed Barbie and why. It’s the not-knowing that causes sleepless nights. And there’s one other thing Donna wants. She wants her sister’s hand back. The coroner cut it off, she says, so that it could be sent to another lab in an attempt to identify what was written on her palm (likely the cab company’s phone number). It has since gone missing.

The Barbara Blatnik mystery is the first cold case that The Porchlight Project has taken on. We will pay for DNA tests and forensic genealogy by Colleen Fitzpatrick and her team at Identifinders International. The Porchlight Project was founded earlier this year in order to provide assistance to the families of the missing and murdered in Northern Ohio. Its board members include area lawyers, private investigators, journalists including Scene editor Vince Grzegorek, and former law enforcement officials.

If you any have information about the murder of Barbara Blatnik, please contact Detectives Dirker or Hursh, at the Cuyahoga Falls Police Department Detective Bureau, 330-971-8334.

To learn more about the Porchlight Project, visit our site.

Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.