The Quick and the Dead

It was far from the perfect crime. But someone still got away with murder.

Painesville Lake County unsolved murders
The phone went off in the middle of a perfectly good night's sleep. A body in the park.

Three-thirty in the morning was a hell of a time to be doing CSI Painesville. But Detective Bob Sayer had seen enough bodies in his 28 years to do it in his sleep anyway. He was stepping under the yellow police tape by 4 a.m.

A fisherman had found him. Went looking for Grand River steelhead, found a nice-looking dead kid instead. Built like a brick shithouse, this kid. But from the looks of him, he'd tangled with someone bigger. His head was beaten in like a tin can, his clothes ripped off down to his boxers and socks. The belt had been yanked off so hard it had almost snapped in two. But it was the bullet hole in his thigh that did him in. He'd bled out like a slaughtered sheep.

What happened to you, kid? Sayer pondered, as he followed the path of evidence markers around the park. A trail of blood started in the parking lot and led down into a ditch, then up to the top of a culvert near where the body lay. Strewn nearby were the boy's pants. Inside one of the pockets was a blood-stained wad of cash -- $2,452, to be exact. If this was a robbery, it hadn't gone how anyone planned.

As Sayer stood there racking his brain, a lieutenant told him about a call from dispatch. Some hysterical girl had called 911. Said she and her friend Dustin Spaller had been assaulted in the park by three men just a few hours earlier. Dustin had run off, and she had no idea what happened to him.

Well, that was one mystery solved. It was time to deliver the bad news.

The poor girl was a wreck when Sayer got to her grandparents' house around 5:30 a.m. They seemed like good people. An American flag big enough for the White House hung in the driveway of their little ranch. Grandpa's pride and joy was a 1930 Model A sitting in the garage. They were from the old Painesville, back when it was all farmland and they knew you by name at the drugstore.

Their granddaughter was from the new Painesville -- Jennifer, a white girl with cornrows who'd traded in her cheerleader pom-poms and Tom Petty smile for baggy clothes and a prison mouth. But the ghetto had been knocked out of her this morning. She lay balled up, crying in her grandmother's arms.

She'd gone with Spaller to the park that night to buy crack, she told the detective. They were supposed to rendezvous with some guys, but things had gone bad. Real bad. The three men rushed their car, ripped them out, and tried to rob them.

One guy held Jennifer, while the other two fought with Spaller. When he wriggled free and started running away, all three gave chase and left her alone. She heard a gun go off. She jumped back in the car and peeled away.

Sayer asked Jennifer to come back to the station for a written statement. But as he was leaving, he saw something glimmering on the side of Jennifer's Monte Carlo.

It was a handprint in blood. In fact, the entire side of the car looked like a butcher's table.

Out of all the dead mopes Sayer had woken up for, this would be the one to keep him lying awake at night.

Dave Tills and Brett Cameron were still shaking off their hangovers when they walked into the Painesville Police station that morning of December 4, 2001. They'd been partying with Dustin the night before. The party was sure over now.

The three were not your typical dope fiends. Especially Dustin. Fact is, there was a good chance the guys back there with the latex gloves remembered him from his days at Harvey and Fairport Harding high schools. Played running back and defensive end. Back then, Dustin's life was class, the gym, and practice. He could have appeared in one of those Partnership for a Drug-Free America commercials.

But he hung up his jersey after graduation. Turned down offers to play college so he could sell cars. After that, he had cash in his pocket and no coach on his back. And in Painesville, temptation was always just around the corner.

The town square feels like stepping into a time machine. At noon, bells ring from the clock tower atop the courthouse. Brides and grooms exchange kisses in a gazebo on the green. In December, children line up in the cold to read their Christmas lists on Santa's lap. The historic Rider Inn Bed & Breakfast, built in 1812, hosts tea parties for the genteel.

But this Mayberry has an underbelly. A building boom in the '70s brought public housing, urban decay, and white flight. In the early '90s, seedy complexes like Argonne Arms and Shamrock Place became hubs for a booming drug trade that funneled crack into Lake County farm country. Middle-class kids like Dustin, Dave, and Brett started experimenting. By that night in December 2001, they were crackheads like any other.

Dustin had been the big man at the strip club that night, thanks to the $2,500 wad greasing his pocket. It was his brother's; Dustin was supposed to buy him a car. But it was making the girls at Just Teazin swarm like groupies.

Soon the trio was buzzed and feeling good, itching to get to that higher level. They drove down the street to Tony's Subway Inn, an old spaghetti joint from the '40s, now a hangout for Painesville's dope boys. If you wanted to find trouble, it was the best place to start.

And there she was, trouble herself: Jennifer Jeffries. Dustin was shooting pool when she walked up. She gave him a hug and a kiss, started hanging on him with that come-hither look in her eyes. Dustin didn't even need to ask. He just pulled that big wad from his pocket. They'd done this transaction dozens of times before. Jennifer always had some rock on her. Just not tonight.

She'd quit selling, she told Dustin. But for her favorite customer, she'd pull some strings. As Jennifer made her way around the bar, she ran into a guy who delivered with the regularity of the U.S. Postal Service: Tyrone Jeffries, her ex-husband.

Everyone in Painesville knew the couple's train-wreck love story. Jennifer Meyers started dating Tyrone Jeffries when she was only 16. He was 19 and fresh out of prison for aggravated robbery. Three years later, she had his baby, then another.

They were Painesville's equivalent of Whitney and Bobby. Tyrone had a vicious jealous streak. He kept Jennifer on a steady regimen of black eyes, yanked-out hair, and bloody lips. But she came back every time. They even had their wedding in jail, where Tyrone was serving time again.

They eventually split up, but that apparently didn't matter when it came to business. It was too loud for Dustin and his friends to hear Jennifer and Tyrone's conversation, but it looked as if they were arranging a deal.

They were in luck, Jennifer said. Tyrone just had to run to his grandmother's house. They would meet at Recreation Park down the street.

Dustin rode with Jennifer, while Brett and Dave followed in their Dodge Neon. The two friends were skittish. Recreation Park was always swarming with cops. So when Dustin jumped out of Jennifer's car at a stop sign to tell them he was doing the deal alone, Brett and Dave were happy to wait back at Tony's.

They sat at the bar nursing beers. Then sat some more, watching the door every time it opened. No Dustin.

Something was wrong. They called Jennifer's phone, but it went straight to voice mail. They drove to Dustin's mom's house to see if he'd been dropped off. The house was dark. They called Jennifer again. This time she picked up.

She was hysterical. She and Dustin had been robbed, she told Dave. They'd stopped at a BP Station. Some guys had attacked them. Dustin tried to fight them off, then ran away. Jennifer heard shots. She didn't know what to do. She just drove off.

Dave sobered up fast. But when he called Jennifer back, she said everything was fine. She'd just dropped Dustin off back at Tony's. Dave and Brett rushed back to the bar.

But Tony's was empty. Dave called Jennifer again. What the hell's going on? She was on her way over to Dustin's to meet them.

Just before 3 a.m., a black Pontiac Grand Am pulled into Dustin's driveway. Get in, Jennifer told Dave. A woman he didn't know was behind the wheel.

They were going to search for Dustin, Jennifer said. But Dave knew she was lying. Dustin was a scrapper. He'd been in too many fights to count. During one bar brawl, he'd taken a knife to the shoulder, tough enough to still walk away. Not once did he need a search party. Dave told her he was going back to the house to wait for Dustin.

Jennifer pleaded with him. "You're going to go with me!" she screamed. "You're going to go!"

"Ma'am," Dave said calmly to the woman driving, "can you please let me out?" The woman drove back to Dustin's house and dropped him off, as if she knew this was a ride Dave should best skip.

"Tyrone." That was the name the sobbing blonde in Detective Sayer's cramped office remembered Jennifer saying that night on their way to pick up Dave Tills -- as in Don't mention Tyrone. Monica Griswold hadn't understood what she'd meant at the time. But that was before Jennifer took her to the park.

Just a couple hours earlier, Griswold found Jennifer, a trembling mess, in her driveway. This was more than girl troubles. After all, she hadn't seen Jennifer in years, since they bunked together at the Lake County Jail -- Jennifer for drugs, Griswold for burglary. Perhaps it was Griswold's own appreciation for a sticky situation that made her the perfect confidante that night.

Get a rag, Jennifer told her, before she went to work furiously scrubbing down her car with Griswold's kitchen sponge.

"What's going on?" Griswold asked.

"Shut up," Jennifer snapped. She handed the sponge back. It was stained pink. That stopped the questions.

Soon they were driving in Griswold's black Grand Am. To where, Griswold wasn't sure. She just let Jennifer give the directions.

First they stopped to pick up a guy named Dave Tills. He seemed worried about his friend Dustin. Griswold wondered if that was Dustin on her kitchen sponge. She dropped Dave off.

Then they were driving again, this time toward Jennifer's grandmother's house, Griswold thought, relieved. But Jennifer told her to turn into Recreation Park. The Pontiac's headlamps illuminated something big lying on the ground. Griswold slammed on the brakes. The two girls stared in silence.

"There was a body laying there," Griswold later testified.

"Oh my God! Oh my God!" Jennifer started screaming. Griswold yanked the wheel around and sped away.

Crime-lab tests on Jennifer's Monte Carlo backed Griswold's story that the car had been cleaned. It didn't take a detective to figure out what was going on.

"My personal feeling at that point was that she was covering up for somebody," Sayer would later testify in court. "My thought was Tyrone Jeffries."

It was time for Sayer to pay Jennifer another visit, this time with a warrant for her arrest. They had enough to charge her with evidence tampering for trying to clean the car and cocaine trafficking for bringing Dustin to the park. That ought to scare her.

Sitting in the living room with Jennifer and her adoring grandparents, Sayer laid out the mountain of evidence against her. Forget whomever she was protecting for whatever reason. Now was the time to come clean. But she was tougher than Sayer thought.

"I gave you my statement," she announced boldly. "Nothing's going to change."

Someone had gotten to Jennifer. Someone scarier than any cop.

"Bad as you can get," Jan Hawkins says of her former grandson-in-law.

Every time Tyrone would break Jennifer, Grandma would be there to pick her up. Who else was going to do it? Jennifer's mom had all but checked out of her life. Hawkins had practically raised Jennifer since she was a baby. She was the one who went to her cheerleading meets, drove her to gymnastics, sat in the stands at softball games. And when Jennifer had started dating this thug, Hawkins had tried to support her in that too. But Tyrone wasn't exactly charming his way through her prejudices.

Once, Hawkins came home for lunch unexpectedly to hear screams coming from inside the bedroom. She opened the door to find Tyrone standing over Jennifer, kicking her like a mob snitch as she lay helpless on the floor. When Hawkins threatened to call the cops, Tyrone looked her coldly in the eye. "You'll find her in an alley," he said. "Dead."

Hawkins never picked up the phone.

Nor did she call the time she went to her granddaughter's apartment to find Tyrone bloodying Jennifer's face with his fists. In a jealous rage, he'd destroyed everything in sight -- slashed the upholstery on the couch, split the love seat down the back, cut open the water bed, soaking the entire bedroom.

And she didn't call the time Tyrone attacked Jennifer as she was pulling out of the driveway. The two fought as the car rolled backward. Jennifer fell out, and the wheels ran over her arm, crushing it. While her friends ran to get towels, Tyrone ran away.

The two finally divorced, but she was still Tyrone's property. He came to a friend's house once to find Jennifer hanging out with another guy -- just a friend. It didn't matter. He beat the guy senseless.

"I'll never be able to have a boyfriend," Jennifer confided in her grandma. "I'll never be able to date."

Now, it was starting to look as if Dustin Spaller had talked to the wrong girl that night at the bar. There was nothing going on between the two, except for innocent flirting. But Tyrone had gone ballistic over less.

"I feel it was a crime of passion," says Sayer. "[Tyrone] was jealous, and he didn't like her out there strutting her stuff and flirting."

But the detective couldn't get a warrant based on his gut. Sayer had no murder weapon, not a single hair or drop of blood to link Tyrone to the scene.

The Spaller family, meanwhile, was passing flyers around town, offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest. Calls and letters poured in. Over and over again, Tyrone's name came up.

Two days before Christmas 2001, Thomas Robinett, an inmate at the Lake County Jail, passed a guard a letter claiming he'd heard secondhand that Tyrone admitted to the murder.

In October 2002, another inmate handed over a note. Darryl Harris claimed he'd seen Tyrone the night Dustin was murdered. He was carrying a gun, something Tyrone didn't normally do.

But the one that really got Sayer's blood pressure up was Vanessa Robinson, the mother of one of Tyrone's children. Tyrone had come over late that night, said Robinson, cut and scratched like he'd been in a fight. He didn't tell her what happened, but Robinson guessed it had something to do with the woman who was cussing his ear off on the other end of his cell phone all night. Robinson could hear her screaming something about how Tyrone better get his ass down to the park.

Yet prosecutors needed more. On June 2, 2003, they got it. Jennifer's public defender called Sayer to arrange a meeting. A year and a half after Dustin Spaller was put in the ground, Jennifer was ready to talk.

Tyrone Jeffries. That was who Jennifer and Dustin were going to meet at the park that night, she said. But unbeknownst to Jennifer, Tyrone had a different deal in mind.

The park appeared empty as Jennifer drove in. She backed into a space by the woods, shut off the engine, got out of the car to pee. That's when she saw a faceless figure in the darkness, walking silently toward her. She jumped back in the car. It was Tyrone, wearing a hood. Dustin's door flew open, and Tyrone clocked him in the face. The two fought next to the car, wrestling on the ground.

Jennifer screamed at Tyrone to stop. What the fuck is going on?

Then she saw a flash of metal in Tyrone's hand. Dustin tried to grab it. Pop!

Tyrone jumped back. "The gun went off!" he yelled, panicked. "The gun went off!"

Dustin screamed in pain. "Oh my God! Oh my God!" he cried.

Terrified, Jennifer drove off.

Later that night, she and Monica Griswold went to check on him. He was dead, all right.

Justice was late, but it had come. Prosecutors offered Jennifer probation if she'd testify against Tyrone. She took the deal. All that was left was a polygraph, just a formality to hammer down the details. Tyrone was as good as convicted.

Look, if you moved the body, just say you did!" yelled Carolyn Kucharski, Jennifer's public defender.

"I didn't!" Jennifer shouted back.

They were five hours into the polygraph, and things were quickly deteriorating. Jennifer didn't care that the line on the screen started bouncing like a roller coaster when the examiner asked whether Dustin's body had been moved. It didn't make sense to Jennifer either. But she didn't touch it!

If Jennifer flunked the lie detector, the prosecutor could tear up the plea deal. Worse, any hope of nailing Tyrone would be gone. And no one in the cramped little room -- not Sayer, not Assistant County Prosecutor Karen Sheppert, not Kucharski -- was willing to let that happen.

"You moved the body! You had to have moved the body! You know who moved the body!" they repeated over and over.

But they were moving in circles: Jennifer would threaten to walk out, they'd calm her down, then they'd start hammering again. Finally, she snapped.

"I don't want to do this. I'm outta here." She stood up and walked out. Nobody could stop her.

When Jennifer failed to report to her probation officer the next week, a warrant was issued. But she was gone. Her face appeared on the local news, alongside the nine other fugitives most wanted by U.S. marshals in Northeast Ohio.

Then, in January 2004, Sayer got a tip. Jennifer was at a Mentor Wal-Mart. The detective and his partner rushed to the store. When they got to the garden center, they noticed footprints in the snow, leading to a stone wall and beyond. She'd slipped away again.

A few months later, Cleveland police got a tip that she was crashing at a house in Tremont. Seven cops showed up to arrest her, and at first it seemed they'd missed her again. A girl who said her name was Ann Marie Fordham told police they had the wrong house.

But the cops ran Fordham's name through dispatch. It was a fake. They had Jennifer.

It was safe to say her agreement with the prosecutor was off. If she wasn't going to tell the whole truth, it didn't matter if she testified against Tyrone. His lawyers would rip her apart. Assistant Prosecutor Sheppert wasn't willing to risk her one and only shot.

"You get one bite at the apple," says Sheppert. "You charge someone with a crime, and double jeopardy attaches."

Instead, Jennifer was charged as an accomplice and facing hard time. She decided to rest her fate in the hands of a jury.

At her trial in early 2005, she watched stone-faced, along with Dustin's crying mother, as photos of a naked, battered body were projected onto a screen.

Sheppert painted Jennifer as an equal participant in the murder. When Dustin whipped out that fat billfold at the bar, she and Tyrone hatched a plan to rob him, the prosecutor asserted. They just hadn't planned on his fighting back.

Jailhouse rat Gena Groskopf backed the theory. She'd been Jennifer's friend in middle school. The two once had sleepovers and roller-skated together. They'd lost touch after junior high, but their lives had taken similar downward paths. Groskopf had gotten pregnant at 17, dropped out of school, and started doctor-shopping to feed a pain-pill addiction. That's what landed her in the Lake County Jail in May 2004, in the same pod with Jennifer. Groskopf said Jennifer opened up to her about the murder. There never was any crack, she said. It was all a setup.

Defense attorneys Russell Tye and Ed Wade countered with a different story. Tyrone had seen his woman flirting that night and turned into a monster. After all, if the intention was robbery, why wasn't any money taken? "Our theory is that Tyrone Jeffries went on a rampage here," Tye told jurors.

Strangely absent from the trial was Tyrone himself. He was back in prison for selling crack and assaulting a cop. But it was clear from listening to Sheppert's closing argument: He was their guy.

"[Jennifer and Tyrone] are joined together in this case, and there's no way of getting around that," Sheppert told the jurors. "Bonnie and Clyde. They're complicitors. They're conspirators together."

The jury convicted Jennifer. She was sentenced to 22 years to life and was sent to Marysville. (She's currently appealing her conviction and declined Scene's request for an interview.)

Tyrone recently left prison and is living with a new girlfriend in South Euclid, but didn't respond to interview requests. He has yet to be charged in Dustin's death. But Detective Sayer has no qualms naming names when asked about the case.

"Tyrone was involved in this," he says. "It's obvious he was there."

Nancy Spaller blows a smoke cloud at the sunlight filtering in through her dining-room drapes. She sits clenching a Winston as a baby would a binky. Her eyes look bruised from crying. As the tears come again, she wipes them away like sweat.

"My son was beautiful," she says, pointing to a photo of a bright-eyed high-school freshman in a shirt and tie. Dustin and his brothers were everything to their mother. Now two of them are ghosts.

Life changed in a split second on that December morning in 2001. Nancy remembers the Painesville cop coming to her door, and the rest is black. She collapsed, screaming for her murdered son as only a mother could.

It wasn't long before Nancy's older son, Aaron, spiraled into depression. He quit his job and spent his entire savings on booze and drugs.

When the money dried up, he had one last drink. Nancy was sitting in the den when she heard the bang. She ran into Aaron's bedroom to find his head splattered on the wall, a pistol by his side.

Some people might move after that. Nancy, a nurse with a blond perm and oval glasses, painted over the blood and bought a gun. She's not going anywhere until she can watch Dustin's killer get a life sentence -- exactly what he gave her. These are tears of bloodlust.

She and her ex-husband, Wynn, have taken it upon themselves to send Tyrone away. They keep upping the reward, hoping someone with information will have the guts to come forward. When Tyrone left prison in January, they upped the ante to $20,000.

"We thought maybe, by this time, somebody's not afraid anymore, or somebody's pissed at him," says Nancy. In the meantime, she keeps her pistol ready, just in case.

Once, someone called Nancy to say, "You're next." Sometimes cars with bass notes booming slow to a creep when they pass the home. Part of Nancy wishes one would stop.

"I hope he comes after us," she says, making the sound of a gun with her mouth. "And I wouldn't feel bad about it either."

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