The Lepers of Chester Township

Foster parents Hal and Billie Elston, scorned and spurned, quietly refuse to abandon their home or their work.

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Hal Elston answered the phone at 4:45 a.m., his voice thick with sleep. Yes, he told the Chester Township police officer, Marcus Moorer was home. Why?

The cop ignored the question and asked how soon Hal could meet him at the front door. "Give me 15 minutes," Elston replied.

"Make it five."

Elston dressed and shuffled downstairs. Only after walking into the chill winter air did he realize the officer wasn't alone -- a cluster of cops waited on his lawn. Guns drawn, they surged upstairs and banged open Moorer's bedroom door. The teenager's voice, meek and faraway, sounded "like a little boy's," Elston recalls.

"What's this all about, officer?" Moorer asked.

"You know what this is about."

The police refused to tell Hal and his wife, Billie, why they were arresting one of the couple's four foster children. Billie felt sure the officers had the wrong kid -- and the wrong residence, one of the few black homes in the mostly white township.

"I was defending him, you know, being protective," she says. "I thought that just because somebody black had done something, the police assumed he was living with us."

Moorer was hauled away, and only then did the couple hear the story of the night before. A shooting at a Clark station on Mayfield Road left a 19-year-old clerk dead and her friend injured. The survivor, her head grazed by a bullet, recognized two of the three people involved in the robbery -- teenage lovers Wesley Pearson and Jill Holder, who told police that Moorer, Pearson's "little brother," had pulled the trigger.

Hal drove to the police station, no less convinced of the boy's innocence. Moorer, then 15, sat with investigators, a sweatshirt hood pulled over his head. Too shell-shocked to speak, he responded with written answers. When police left him alone for a moment, Hal entered the interview room and asked the sole question that mattered. Moorer shut his eyes as his chin fell to his chest, then slowly nodded.

The reality "was devastating," Billie says. "I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe one of the kids . . ."

Her voice fades, and stillness invades the kitchen of the couple's Chesterland home. Twenty-three months after Moorer killed Danielle Kovacic and wounded Rachael Cogswell in a crime that drew headlines across Ohio, the Elstons have decided to break their silence about the aftermath of February 18, 2000.

Though the backlash against the couple has waned, cold shoulders, hard stares, and occasional death threats remain a part of life. They face a more formal antagonism in the courts, where a clutch of residents has sued to close the foster home or, failing that, to restrict who's placed there.

Their house represents an island within the community, and the Elstons, both in their 60s, show the strain of isolation. Each suffers from health problems -- Hal has high blood pressure, Billie early-stage heart failure -- brought on by the turmoil of the past two years.

The couple know that if they shriveled up and blew away from Chesterland, few would mourn. Perhaps that is why, beneath the physical frailties, they nurture a quiet defiance -- a resolve to stay put and, they believe, do the right thing. It is why they want to talk.

In 1998, 13-year-old Marcus Moorer arrived at the Elstons' home from Beech Brook, a treatment center for troubled children. The Pepper Pike facility, working with the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services, has placed 15 children with the couple since 1994.

Following standard policy, Beech Brook officials provided little background on their new charge, the Elstons say.

Moorer's mother, who became pregnant after she was raped, abandoned her infant son to the county's custody. He had lived in three foster homes by age 2, when a Shaker Heights couple adopted him. Unable to control his erratic behavior, they relinquished custody back to the county when he was 11, and he spent the next two years at Beech Brook.

Most of the kids who live with the Elstons show up carrying all their belongings in a small cardboard box or plastic grocery bag. There's no similar measure of how much emotional baggage -- years of abuse, neglect, uncertainty -- they lug with them. So the couple try to offer stability and routine for kids who have known neither -- everything from breakfast to lights out happens at the same time every weekday.

Moorer responded to the change. Despite his history, and in contrast to town gossip asserting that he must have flashed violent tendencies, "He was a good-natured kid," Billie says. He got along with the older foster children, generally obeyed house rules, and formed a tight bond with the Elstons. Other kids refer to them as Ms. Billie and Mr. E; he called them Mom and Dad.

"Everyone liked Marcus," Hal says. "He was a talker, always saying something and joking. He always helped out around the house -- if you said somebody needed to take the trash out or clear tree branches from the yard, he'd say, 'I'll do it.'"

Wesley Pearson was already living at the home when Moorer moved in. Four years Moorer's senior, Pearson stood 5-foot-5 and weighed 115 pounds. Pearson sought to make up for his small size by acting older, tougher -- "a little guy trying to be a big man," as Hal puts it.

In Moorer, Pearson found someone who looked up to him. He won over the younger teen with cheap favors, buying him movie tickets and taking him out for pizza. Moorer regarded his new friend as the big brother he never had. Pearson, the Elstons say, treated Moorer the way an owner does his puppy. "Wesley liked attention," Billie says. "Marcus gave him that."

In spring 1999, Pearson turned 18 and officially "aged out" of the foster home. The Elstons, aware that he lacked direction, allowed him to stay on for four months past his birthday, though they no longer received a government subsidy for him. Hoping to give Pearson a sense of purpose, they arranged for him to join the Job Corps in Indiana.

Pearson's initial interest in the plan withered; instead, he returned to Cleveland to live with friends. The day he moved out, Moorer sat on the front stoop and cried.

But Moorer still would see plenty of Pearson, who got around by bumming rides from his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Jill Holder. The frequent contact between the two "brothers" worried the Elstons, since only the lure of the streets seemed to pierce Pearson's apathy. His influence became the subject of cautionary sermons Hal delivered to Marcus while driving him to and from school in Euclid.

"I just kept telling him, 'You have to look out for Wesley. He's older, he wants to take advantage of you. He wants you to do things you shouldn't do.' But Wesley kept buying him things, and Marcus went for it."

An incident at Christmas that year cemented the friendship. Pearson visited his mother in Cleveland, and Moorer went along. The holiday disintegrated into tragedy when she died from an overdose, with Moorer performing CPR in a futile attempt to revive her.

Two months later, on February 11, 2000, Moorer turned 15. Around that time, he stole a .38-caliber revolver from a Cleveland Heights beauty salon -- owned by a friend of the Elstons' -- where he sometimes worked.

"I took the gun to have power," he testified in court. "I wanted to impress Wesley."

One week after Moorer's birthday, Pearson and Holder picked him up at home. He told the Elstons they were going to a Mentor mall to shop and catch a movie, promising to return by his 9 p.m. curfew. Despite their misgivings about Pearson, they were reassured by Holder's presence.

"If I saw Jill, I thought Marcus would be OK," Billie says. "She seemed like a smart girl who wouldn't let anything bad go on."

The threesome spent several hours driving around the area in Holder's car, visiting friends, smoking pot, and, at Pearson's command, casing convenience stores to rob. Shortly before 10 p.m., they pulled in near the Clark station on Mayfield Road.

Rachael Cogswell had dropped by the store to chat with her friend, Danielle Kovacic, who was working the night shift. The young women knew Holder and Pearson; because of that, he told Moorer, they would have to die.

Inside the store, Moorer opened fire with the stolen .38, hitting Kovacic twice in the back and once in the head as she begged for her life. He struck Cogswell in the head with another shot before running out of bullets. As Holder sprinted to the car, Pearson cleaned out the cash register.

Pearson grabbed the gun from a distraught Moorer and tossed it out the car window as the trio sped away, then called Hal at 10:30 p.m. to say Marcus would be home soon. When Moorer walked in 20 minutes later, Billie laid into him for breaking curfew and ordered him to his room.

He stayed up late to watch a basketball game on television. Billie, watching the game on another set, noticed that Moorer -- who always ran his mouth during sports broadcasts -- kept quiet. She figured her lecture had doused his mood. The truth would emerge when police called early the next morning.

Sitting in their kitchen, which frames a soothing backyard view of woods and a pond, the Elstons relive their disbelief. Billie keeps a Ziploc bag full of orange medicine vials within arm's reach as she taps the chair once assigned to Moorer. Hal lets his cornflakes go limp, lost in thought about that night.

"You can never expect anything like what happened," he says.

"There's no way you see it coming," she says.

Pearson, Holder, and Moorer were each sentenced to life last March. Yet even as the Elstons lament Kovacic's death, they refuse to malign Moorer.

The couple say in retrospect their gravest mistake was trusting Holder, then 17. While authorities painted Pearson as the ringleader, the Elstons think she paired with him to form a teenage Bonnie and Clyde who figured that Moorer, as the triggerman, would take the rap.

Their view of Moorer as a wide-eyed dupe contradicts public perception of him as a sociopath, as well as a court-appointed psychiatrist's opinion that he has a "hole in his soul." They condemn only the killing, not the killer.

"He doesn't have a hole in his soul," Billie says. "He's someone who needed love and a good home. He lived with us; how long did the psychiatrist know him?"

The rolling hills of Chester Township, dotted by apple orchards and horse farms, seem the very inspiration for the phrase "beautiful country." But in the weeks following the shootings, anger and accusations cracked the area's usual calm.

More than 1,000 residents jammed the West Geauga High School gym for a meeting in March 2000. They wanted to know how Moorer and Pearson, two Cuyahoga County teens, wound up living in their community, and why they were never informed about the Elstons' foster home.

Bill Denihan, head of the Department of Children and Family Services, and Beech Brook Director Mario Tonti attempted to offer answers.

They pointed out that Cuyahoga County, with over 2,500 juveniles awaiting adoption and a scarcity of space to house them, has no choice but to place foster children in neighboring counties. They also explained that the state doesn't require community notification about a foster home or the children placed there.

Their responses, added to praise of the Elstons as caring and well trained, inflamed the tension. Some residents seethed about "terrorist kids" moving into the area. Others bashed the couple, airing doubts about a pair of retirees supervising four teenagers. A few described disturbances involving children who lived at the home.

Hal and Billie avoided the gathering, after which the Geauga County Sheriff's Department posted a deputy at the couple's home. Township police already were doing drive-by patrols of the house out of fear for their safety.

The couple heard about the meeting later that night from an officer. They say he told them that, in response to a question about closing the foster home, someone in the crowd yelled, "Let's burn 'em out!"

While others at the meeting maintain no such comment was made, it matters little to the Elstons. Then as now, they suspect the public concerns of residents mask a private prejudice: "It's genuine, old-fashioned racism," Billie says.

"They don't know anything about us or what we do here. If you went to any of their houses, the only thing they could tell you about us is that we're black."

Late-night phone calls to "Get the hell out!" and unsigned letters about their bringing "nigger kids" to the neighborhood deepened the couple's wariness. As time passed, when people spoke of keeping residential areas free of troubled foster children, the Elstons heard black. Cuyahoga County came to mean inner city.

Hal had braced for the worst. He once owned a small fleet of tractor-trailers and says that, if he were bidding out his services to a white-owned trucking company, he rarely got the job. "Ever since I can remember, I've had to deal with [racism]," he says. "I had an idea what was coming."

His wife's 27-year career as a postal clerk left her less prepared. "I was blindsided by the fallout," Billie says. "When you work in the post office, everyone comes in, everyone gets along. I wasn't exposed to this side of people."

The full-throated animosity toward the Elstons eventually died down, replaced by subtler acts of ostracism. Acquaintances who no longer say hello. Door-to-door solicitors who skip their house. Grocery clerks who turn their backs or go on break when Billie walks in. Small indignities that occur often enough to rule out coincidence -- or an overripe sense of persecution.

"I used to get angry, because there's no reason for their [rudeness]," Billie says. "But now I feel sympathy for them, because I feel they're shutting themselves off from a friend."

If there is one individual for whom the couple feels no sympathy, it is state Representative Tim Grendell (R-Chesterland), the person they blame for the discontent still smoldering.

Grendell, a lawyer by trade, represents a group of residents who filed suit in April 2000 seeking to shut down the foster home. Seven months later, he won election to his first House term, capturing the seat vacated by his wife, Diane, now an appellate judge. The Elstons accuse him of pursuing the case to curry favor in a district that is overwhelmingly white.

"I don't think Grendell could have gained so much support without using race to stir people up," Billie says.

A Geauga County judge in November rejected the suit's "community nuisance" claim that the foster home in essence serves as a holding tank for Cuyahoga County's juvenile offenders. Judge Forrest Burt also ruled that the home adheres to township zoning guidelines.

Grendell, who has appealed the decision, argues that the Elstons run a "treatment center" for delinquents and insists that residents would tolerate a traditional foster home for non-delinquents. "This isn't a race issue. This is an issue of putting emotionally disturbed children . . . into residential areas. This is an issue of safety."

One woman involved in the suit, who agreed to an interview only if she could remain anonymous, shakes her head at the suggestion of race-baiting. She and her husband live within sight of the Elstons' home.

"It has never been about race. It has been about the safety of the people who live here. I really resent the accusation that we're racist."

"Those foster kids should be in a facility of some kind," adds John Skrtic, 53, who is not part of the lawsuit. "It doesn't matter if they're black or white. This area is not the right place for them."

Grendell, who calls the Elstons "good people," nonetheless contends that they lack the training to handle chronically wayward youth. He refers to a two-inch stack of Chester Township police reports detailing offenses committed by their foster children.

Pearson's name appears on more than a dozen reports for assault, theft, and stalking a former girlfriend. Moorer was cited on a handful of occasions for harassing a teenage girl, missing curfew, and other infractions.

The fact that both teens were allowed to stay with the Elstons despite repeated violations reveals fatal flaws in the foster care network, Grendell says. His suit names Cuyahoga County, Beech Brook, and the Elstons as co-defendants. "The whole system is cloaked in a veil of secrecy and immunity that creates a concern," he says. If the lawsuit fails, Grendell will propose legislation that would lay out zoning specifics for foster homes.

The Elstons assert that Grendell is propping up the case for his own gain. The number of plaintiffs already has dwindled from 26 to 8, and the couple surmise that others would drop out if the legislator weren't handling the legal work for free.

It is impossible to test Hal and Billie's theory that there would be no lawsuit if Pearson and Moorer, or perhaps they themselves, were white. What is certain: Since the shootings, Cuyahoga County has ceased placing black children with the Elstons.

The county's official rationale is to protect the teens from hostile scrutiny; the unspoken reason is anxiety over rekindling the township's hysteria. The Elstons don't complain about the change -- two white teens, a boy and a girl, live with them now -- but say it hurts more than helps black children.

Unlike the majority of foster parents in Northeast Ohio, the couple requested that the county place black teenage boys with them. Most foster parents prefer toddlers and girls.

"We're in the kid business -- it doesn't matter what kind of kids we get," Billie says. "The only thing is, we know how many disadvantaged black teenagers there are, and now there's one less place for them to go."

The Elstons' house on Mulberry Road provides them ample sanctuary from recent history. The same holds true for the children placed there, many of whom experience for the first time what it's like to have a bed, enough food to eat, a measure of security.

The home remained a target of fierce speculation after the shootings. The couple chafe at Grendell and others who describe it as a facility, center, or institution. The labels are dispelled by the 6,000-square-foot, Colonial-style residence, much of it renovated by Hal, a former electrician, after it sustained snow damage five years ago.

Expansive, sunlit rooms dominate the main floor, each with plush sofas positioned to offer views of the 1.5-acre yard or big-screen TVs. Video-game consoles and stereo systems are scattered throughout, along with a vast collection of artwork.

The basement features three large fish tanks built into the walls, and the heated garage doubles as a basketball court. Upstairs are five bedrooms, with a TV in each. Children have a rowboat, mountain bikes, and a weight room at their disposal.

The couple bought the house in 1994, upon returning to Cleveland from Honolulu. They had moved to Hawaii not long after marrying in 1976, and while there became foster parents.

One day Billie spotted a bumper sticker that read "Happiness is foster parenting." It tripped vivid memories for the West Virginia native, who was a foster child and grew up all over the state. During their childhood, she and her younger brother -- William Burrus, who today is president of the American Postal Workers Union -- moved 11 times in 12 years.

Billie persuaded an initially reluctant Hal to take on foster parenting. They welcomed more than 100 children into their Honolulu home and decided to continue their work in Ohio, Hal's home state. The couple, each with a grown child from a previous marriage, regards their work as a font of renewal.

"It's really been a blessing," Hal says. "Each new kid brings a new energy into the house, and it kind of rubs off on everyone."

Most teens also come with scars created by jagged childhoods. They suffer from learning disabilities and take medication to control hyperactivity or depression. Some arrive wearing the only clothes and shoes they own. On their first day, they might swipe boxes of cookies and crackers from the pantry, convinced that their good fortune won't last.

They are children who, when asked at the Elstons' Thanksgiving dinner to say what they're thankful for, reply, "That I'm still alive."

Their hidebound pessimism can prove impenetrable at first, Hal says. "You have kids saying, 'I don't see myself living past 18.' That's tough. These are the kinds of kids you're dealing with."

The couple, who under state regulations must complete some 30 hours of training every year, preach and practice old-style discipline. That means no swearing, smoking, or rap music. The kids must take showers every night and hit the sack by 11 p.m. They're expected to clean bedrooms and bathrooms once a week, wash their own laundry, and take out the garbage.

The children receive a $10 weekly allowance and $300 at Christmas, barring deductions for violation of house rules. The Elstons, often dipping into their own wallets, buy them clothes and footwear. They provide transportation for school and leisure activities, and take kids on road trips throughout Ohio and elsewhere.

Though the couple are licensed to supervise five kids, their self-imposed limit is four, the better to provide both personal space and parental attention. As much as anything else, the home's residential setting -- the crux of the legal fracas -- allows children to exhale, Billie says.

"They're not in foster care because they're criminals, like a lot of people think. They're in foster care because their parents neglected or abandoned them. They need a place to feel safe, and they need people who will listen to them -- that's what they get out here."

Kenny Cloud moved in with the Elstons on March 26, 1995, at age 12. He bounced around before then, living with relatives and in foster homes because both his parents were in and out of prison.

Cloud's time with the Elstons included his share of hard-headed moments -- his name appears on some of the police reports obtained by Grendell. Pearson's and Moorer's time at the home overlapped with Cloud's, and Cloud and Pearson often ran together, getting into fights and raising hell. Moorer sometimes tagged along.

Now 19, Cloud admits he struggled with life in the sticks, away from the city environs he knew. Yet, in time, he warmed to Chester Township's laid-back pace, emerging as a solid student and three-sport standout at West Geauga High. A freshman at the University of Akron, he's studying physical education, in the hope of becoming a high school teacher and coach.

He considers the Elstons' house, where he lived even after he "aged out" and where he still spends holidays, his home.

"Mr. E and Miss Billie, they're good people. I had my problems, but they treated me like one of their kids. They gave me a lot of good advice."

The backlash against the couple after Kovacic's slaying left the impression that few if any area residents thought of them as "good people." Nicole Edwards, 23, who lives with her parents next door to Hal and Billie, says the anger had more to do with ignorance than with the Elstons.

"They're very caring, good-hearted people," she says. "What happened [with Moorer] was a horrible thing. But that's something that could have happened to other parents, not just them. They're trying to give their foster kids a better life."

Down the street, Linda Crawford and her husband installed a security system in their home after the shootings. But almost two years later, she neither worries about her safety nor feels the foster home needs to close. "These kids have to have someplace to live."

For much of last year, the Elstons mulled whether to sell the house and move back to Hawaii. At one point, Billie says, she wanted to scream at her fellow residents, "Either buy us out or shut up!"

These days, while 3 a.m. hang-up calls and other nuisances persist, that sentiment has ebbed -- partly because of time, partly because of the many simple acts of kindness shown them. A typical example occurred last month, when a woman approached Hal at a drugstore.

"All the people in Chester aren't like the few," she said, laying a hand on his forearm. "Don't let them stop you."

And so they stay.

Tangible reminders abound of February 18, 2000. The Elstons have spent $6,000 in legal fees on the Grendell suit. They are named -- along with Clark Retail Enterprises, Beech Brook, Pearson, Moorer, Holder, and her parents -- in a suit brought by Rachael Cogswell and her family, who want $2.7 million in damages.

But it is the unseen effects that gnaw at their spirits. They stay home a little more, laugh a little less. They're more guarded around strangers. They avoid getting too close to the children.

They don't compare their pain with the Kovacic family's, yet they glimpse the world through the same irretrievable moment.

"For me, it's always there," Billie says. "I transfer it to everything: the World Trade Center attack, the condition of the world, the Bible. I think about things differently now."

The couple last saw Moorer in March, at his sentencing. They have exchanged a few letters and hope to meet with him soon. They have no plans to visit Pearson, whom they say pesters Moorer even behind bars, dogging him to claim responsibility for the robbery scheme.

The Elstons' defense of Moorer might sound self-serving if they were talking two weeks -- not almost two years -- after the shootings. Or if they were any less honest about the fact that success stories like Kenny Cloud's are nearly as much an exception as tragic ones like Marcus Moorer's. But their opening up appears driven by nothing more than a need to let out, ever so slowly, the pain within.

"It's been a long two years without saying anything," Billie says. "I feel like I'm gonna burst."

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