Homicide & Hype

The murder of a town eccentric reignites talk of one of Cleveland’s most notorious unsolved crimes

Seven Hills — the name fits. Close your eyes and ruminate on those two words and your mindscreen starts running with postcard shots of suburbia: picket fences, pie in the oven, wiffle ball in the street, and friendly, faultless neighbors, Ward Cleavers one and all.

Reality doesn't drift far from the word association. Seven Hills is an all-smiles city of post-war homes and Monopoly-precise subdivisions. Here, policemen still wave, people answer their doors when strangers knock, and the town eccentric can survive on the goodwill of others.

But if you pop off the sunny lid, there is some unseemliness swimming below. These leafy streets are where freshly convicted Nazi John Demjanjuk ducked his head for decades.

And now a new piece of suburban gruesomeness has been added to the underbelly — a murder that may be related to Northeast Ohio's most infamous unsolved case, the 1989 killing of 10-year-old Amy Mihaljevic. The question is whether the two crimes are linked by hype alone or actual fact.

It all started one Friday afternoon in April. Quiet as a funeral procession, police cars began pulling in front of a home on Oakwood Drive, a shady lane of ranches islanded on large, shaggy lawns. Word soon leaked that authorities had unearthed the body of a gunshot victim in the backyard. Later, police announced the deceased was 58-year-old Joe Kopp, a well-known Seven Hills homeless man and local character. The homeowner — 44-year-old Frank Dienes — was charged with murder.

"When they dug up the body and wouldn't say who it was, I was just praying it wasn't Joe," says Tony Furillo, owner of S&R Farm Market on nearby Broadview Road. "He didn't deserve that."

Kopp was a fixture at Furillo's store, where he did day work for cash, most of which he gave away. Like many Seven Hills residents, Furillo describes Kopp as friendly and gregarious — verging on annoying, but intelligent and opinionated. He had a mouth that fired off chatter like a Gatling gun, a willingness to help others, and a love of cats.

Many also say he was hauling around obvious mental problems: nothing violent, just 100-proof oddball. Decked out in a hermit's beard, untamed locks, and tie-dyed T-shirts, Kopp was constantly seen pedaling around the city on his bike. Hundreds of residents lined up for his funeral.

"It just doesn't make much sense," Furillo says of the killing. "Maybe there's more to it than I know, but from what I know of [Joe], I can't believe this."

Amid the incredulity, Seven Hills soon was soaked in rumors. The thrust of the chatter said Kopp was killed for telling people Dienes was behind the unsolved murder of Amy Mihaljevic.

That name alone carries a lot of baggage across Northeast Ohio, where people still rattle off details of the case from memory and still refer to the victim affectionately as "Amy," as if she'd been one of the girls down the block.

Mihaljevic — who was snatched from a Bay Village shopping center and found dead 104 days later in a field in Ashland County — was linked to a number of suspects over the years. But the floating gossip was partly substantiated when Bay Village police quietly reignited the case last month; later, investigators revealed Dienes had been questioned about the crime in the mid-'90s, after receiving a tip that he matched a sketch of the girl's abductor. His family also owned a farm near where Mihaljevic's body was found. Dienes reportedly may also have done flooring work for one of the girl's parents after her disappearance. (Bay Village police did not return repeated calls for comment.)

Since the connection was made, the buzz has bloomed. Nightly newscasts are clogged with stories rehashing the details of the '89 crime. Witnesses have been re-interviewed, shelved footage replayed. Still, no further concrete links have been developed between Dienes and Mihaljevic.

Neighbors on Oakwood tell Scene that Dienes — or "Feddie," as people called him — is a quiet and odd guy who keeps to himself. The Dienes family runs a flooring business, and neighbors regularly complain about the many cars and trucks always parked there. Dienes lives in the home with his wheelchair-bound wife and a rotating cast of visitors and renters. Since 2009, one of them was Joe Kopp, according to police.

Although the relationship between Kopp and Dienes ended on Oakwood, it began a couple miles north on Rustic Oval, a cul-de-sac where the Dieneses moved in early 1990. At the time, Kopp was living nearby in his parents' basement. The two men often talked. Residents today say it was then that Kopp first linked Dienes to the Mihaljevic crime.

One former neighbor, Tom Carolin, remembers Kopp telling the kids around Rustic Oval to stay away from Dienes because he'd "killed Amy."

"We figured that if it was true, someone would have done something about it already," Carolin says today.

Greg Wilk lived in a house next door to the Dienes family in the early '90s.

He clearly remembers Kopp talking about Feddie's connection to Mihaljevic. Kopp's hunch sprang from Dienes' resemblance to the suspect sketch and the location of the farm. Back then, Kopp carried around a picture of the sketch folded up in his pocket, and also claimed to have confronted Dienes with his suspicions, Wilk says.

"When Frank would hear anything from Joe, he'd just swirl his finger around his ear and say Joe was off," he recalls. Kopp also told Wilk he'd gone to Seven Hills police, but was turned away.

"They ignored him, or at least that's what he said," Wilk recalls. "Joe's problem was he couldn't assimilate all of the information he took in, so what he told people, sometimes it wasn't completely true."

Whether or not Dienes is eventually linked to the crime, Frank and Joe are now knotted up with the Mihaljevic case. Questions about any connection to the disappearance will likely keep popping up as Dienes fights charges for Kopp's murder.

"It's our understanding that several years ago he was considered a suspect [in the Mihaljevic] case. They went over it very meticulously and ruled him out as a suspect," says Eric Nemecek, one of Dienes' attorneys. "Nothing about his present case in Cuyahoga County would lead me to believe any differently."

(Because Bay Village police did not return Scene's calls, it's unclear whether Dienes was officially cleared.)

Nemecek also tells Scene the defense has not been directly contacted by Bay Village police about the earlier case. A trial date has been penciled in for November, and though answers might not be forthcoming, speculation will probably keep bubbling over in the meantime.

Says Nemecek: "I wouldn't be surprised if the case remained in the news."

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