Old case files

Erie County Courthouse cleanup brings local legal history into the daylight

The Sandusky Register

Sep. 3, 2005



They started, at first, to make room for a new judge.

But as employees at Erie County Common Pleas Court began in January trudging through the mounds of evidence stockpiled there, they found themselves with the kind of material even the best of crime fiction writers could not fathom.

It's evidence that inspired dozens of headlines in its day, and still spurs stories starting with the word "Remember." Items that still are valuable -- cash, jewelry, electronics -- and stuff that's just weird, like the tree stump and dusty bottles of massage oil.

And then there are the things that can't ever be replaced; a child's last Father's Day card before his tragic death; family photos that were once used to remind jurors of the incalculable cost of human life.

A core group of about a half-dozen employees, with help from many others, have disposed of evidence relating to about 500 cases, according to Court Administrator Vicki Fitzgerald. That's about 70 percent of what they believe is there.

"There's more stuff in there, and some of it people will want," Fitzgerald said. "We just haven't gotten to it yet."

Most court employees say the bulk of the evidence piled up during former Judge Ann B. Maschari's tenure. Judgment entries that would have released the evidence were never signed, staff said, and little effort was made to clear out evidence from about 75 cases that predate her election in 1986.

Maschari could not be reached for comment.

Under Ohio law, evidence should be released or otherwise disposed of 60 days after the final action in a civil or criminal case, whether at local or appellate courts. There are exceptions for certain cases, such as capital murders.

So for some of the most over-ripe evidence -- the oldest seems to date back to around 1945, long before cases were labeled by year -- there is no ready explanation why it has remained.

One case that finished in an appeals court in the late 1950s left behind a door sill from the former Erie County United Bank. It was a "trip and fall" case, and it was one of Rocky River attorney Phillip J. Wall's first after graduating law school.

"When I got the phone call asking me for permission to throw it out, I was astounded," said Wall, now 78. He might have asked to keep it, he said, had his victory not been overturned in appeals court.

Notices were sent mostly to local attorneys, said Judicial Administrator Sherma Vawters. Some took a few items that clients wanted, and others, like the Murray & Murray firm, tried to take everything they could.

"It really was like a time capsule," said Dennis Murray Sr. "You truly can't do a trial before a jury without it being a memorable experience ... it was a lot to go through, but it's been worth it."

A total of $14,502 in cash seized in criminal investigations has been earmarked for local law enforcement, Fitzgerald said, although not all of it has been turned over. Employees also found drugs, which were disposed of by the county drug task force, and various criminal tools along with a few surprises during their search.

"There was a bag that was marked, 'Loaded weapon,'" said Judge Tygh M. Tone. "I handed the gun to (Erie County Drug Task Force Commander) Greg Majoy. He didn't believe me. But he took it out and, well, it was loaded."

Seized jewelry found in storage was appraised at about $16,000, according to Fitzgerald. One piece, seized in 1993 and now valued at $2,800, was a gold medallion with the initials "DM," for Daryl McKenzie, studded in diamonds.

That piece is now sitting in Majoy's task force office, awaiting sale on govdeals.com, an Internet auction site used by government agencies for confiscated and surplus items.

"That's something you look at and say, 'Wow, I remember that case,' and you ask the guy next to you if he does,'" Majoy said. "Having to wait so long to get it is a bit frustrating ... hopefully, we can find a guy whose initials are 'DM' to help us out."

While sitting in Tone's chambers Wednesday, court workers recalled dozens of cases they found bits and pieces of evidence from.

There were parts to the motorcycle that Thomas Wasily purchased from Ray "Bo" Spangler in 2000, which was connected to the shooting death of Bradley Hackathorn, for which Wasily served four years.

There were parts to a vehicle that was checked for blood stains in the 1975 murder of 17-year-old Jode Auble, a Huron High School student. Dennis Dussell was sentenced to 15 years to life in the case, was paroled in 1990 and then sent back for 60 years, after kidnapping and raping a Lakewood woman.

But court staff said the most important discoveries, and the ones attorneys and clients have been most grateful for, are the memorabilia that often turn up in cases involving untimely deaths.

"A few people have told us, 'We've been trying to get this stuff for years,'" Fitzgerald said. "We've gotten thank you letters from people who have moved out of state and thought they'd never see them."

Terry Garrett's son, Terry Lee Garrett Jr., made a Father's Day card for him just days before he drowned on June 13, 1987, at Surf's Up, the former wave action pool owned by the city.

Garrett said he was still seeking reimbursement for medical bills, but receiving the card and photos used in his lawsuit gave him a different kind of closure.

"My son didn't have the money, so he made that card himself for me, just before he drowned," Garrett said. "This has been going on for 18 years now ... you could say I'm very grateful to have this."