2006: The Plain Dealer, Cleveland (Bob Paynter and Sandra Livingston)
3/1/2006
ASNE Staff
Award for Local Accountability Reporting
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Local Accountability Reporting


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A cold-blooded liar

January 23, 2005

By Bob Paynter
The Plain Dealer

With tiny Elgin, Ohio, buried under a mid-January ice storm, the man convicted of kidnapping and killing its postmaster 22 years ago was preparing his final appeal. John George Spirko Jr. asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to spare his life. A Plain Dealer investigation raises questions about the evidence that sent him to death row for the murder of Betty Jane Mottinger. First of three parts.

It’s no surprise that John George Spirko Jr. landed in a Toledo- area jail cell in early October 1982 . . . just months after being paroled from a Kentucky prison for murder ... just days after getting the snot beat out of him in a bloody bar fight by a gang of bikers ... and just hours after waving a sawed-off shotgun in Theresa Fabbro’s face in a failed attempt to track down and take revenge on his attackers.

Nor was it especially remarkable that, once again behind bars, Spirko cooked up a pair of exotic schemes–contrived in the volatile psyche of a lifelong liar–to wriggle his way out of this new patch of trouble.

That’s the way the 36-year-old ex-con had lived his entire life.

Thirteen years earlier, while in custody in Flint, Mich., after another barroom brawl, a 23-year-old Spirko embarrassed a veteran homicide detective by concocting a detailed, convincing and altogether phony confession to a series of coed murders then filling the local newspapers. Spirko simply wanted to get out of his jail cell for a few hours of coffee and conversation, he later admitted. Further investigation showed that he had nothing to do with what came to be known as "The Michigan Murders."

So, it’s little wonder that Spirko’s imagination sprang to life again in October 1982, as he faced a felonious-assault charge for the shotgun-waving incident.

But this time, his elaborate flourishes produced far more ominous results – for himself, and possibly for the citizens of Ohio.

In just six weeks, John Spirko talked himself right onto Ohio’s death row.

And unless the U.S. Supreme Court or Gov. Bob Taft intervenes, the citizens of Ohio are likely to face the prospect later this year of executing a man for a murder that he very possibly had nothing to do with.

Spirko, now 58, evokes little sympathy. His life of crime and record of spectacular mendacity leave him virtually without credibility. "I’m convictable,' he said from death row with a shrug.

But a months-long Plain Dealer examination of the evidence in his case –prompted in part by an extraordinary decision last May by the Van WertCounty prosecutor – leads to two conclusions:

- John Spirko’s mercurial imagination– and not much else – has brought him to the brink of execution.

- Spirko wasn’t the only player in this case to display a casual regard for the truth.

In late 1982 and early 1983, in more than a dozen jailhouse interviews intended to buy himself a short sentence on his new assault charges, Spirko spun for authorities a series of tall tales about the 1982 abduction and murder of Betty Jane Mottinger, the postmaster in Elgin, Ohio, a hamlet of 96 souls not far from the Indiana border.

Spirko’s graphic, detailed stories attributed the crime to an ever-changing troupe of vaguely identified dopers, barflies and bikers that he said he knew from Toledo-area taverns. The stories – laced with contradictions, fabrications and factual errors – were almost totally discredited.

Police argued that they contained bits of truth, however. And the stories eventually formed the nucleus of a criminal prosecution that over the next two years got Spirko convicted of kidnapping and aggravated murder in the Mottinger case, making him only the second man sentenced to death in Van Wert County in more than a century.

But the robbery of the Elgin post office, and the abduction and slaying of its postmaster, almost certainly didn’t happen the way police and prosecutors said it did, either.

Compelling evidence that they presented to the jury about a mysterious stranger in Elgin on the day of the crime – information that had all but clinched their case against Spirko – almost certainly was wrong. And they knew it.

Some of the least ambiguous evidence they collected during nearly two years of investigation contradicted key elements of their case.

But prosecutors did not reveal that evidence to Spirko’s lawyers.

Nor did they share it with the jury.

In fact, it stayed buried in a file drawer – until legal action forced it into the light – for more than a dozen years after Spirko was condemned to die.

Someone kidnapped Betty Jane Mottinger and robbed her tiny post office at the start of business on Aug. 9, 1982 – a crystal clear Monday morning.

All of western Ohio was shocked by such news coming from Elgin, a burg so quiet and remote that old-timers remembered no crimes at all being reported there since World War II.

Elgin is little more than a crossroads in the vast agricultural flatness of John Deere’s America. Twenty-two miles due west of Lima, it’s on the way to nowhere. Blink twice along Ohio 81 and you’re already through it.

The post office is even easier to miss. Housed in a squat, metal-sided hut about 60 yards south of the two-lane highway, the operation was so spare at the time that it had neither a telephone nor running water. It’s tucked in the shadow of the grain bins and silos of what in the summer of 1982 was the Elgin Grain Co., the village’s sole reason for being.

On the morning of Aug. 9, residents reported seeing a dark-haired stranger standing outside the post office beside a brown, two-tone sedan– possibly a Monte Carlo or a Buick. But nobody witnessed the crime.

Few promising leads had developed by Sept. 19, when shock turned suddenly to horror.

Authorities found Mottinger’s skeletal remains wrapped in a paint-splattered curtain and dumped in a soybean field 50 miles from Elgin near the banks of the Blanchard River, just outside Findlay. The body was so badly decomposed from the summer heat that dental records were required to identify the slain postmaster.

Investigators concluded from cut marks to the front of her clothing that Mottinger had been stabbed 13 to 17 times in the chest.

Dozens of postal inspectors – agents of the U.S.Postal Inspection Service, which investigates crimes against post-office employees or property – had descended on the small towns and villages around Elgin right after the kidnapping. They redoubled their efforts now.

But the story of John Spirko’s journey onto death row didn’t start there. Despite weeks of searching, investigators didn’t find a single clue pointing in his direction.

No, Spirko’s saga began in the Toledo suburb of Swanton – 105 miles north and a world away from Elgin – on Oct.9, 1982. That’s the night Spirko was arrested and jailed after harassing Theresa Fabbro with a shotgun in the parking lot of the Longbranch Saloon, one of his favorite watering holes. It was two days after his bloody whipping at the hands of the gang of bikers.

Out of prison for just two months, Spirko now faced a felonious-assault charge that almost certainly would send him back. His swaggering imagination set to work. And it eventually led to his undoing.

First, Spirko talked his girlfriend, Luann Smith, into hiding $500, a change of clothes and a new 12-gauge pump shotgun inside her 1974 Cutlass and leaving the car around the corner from the jail.

Then he persuaded her to smuggle in two tungsten steel hacksaw blades. And on Oct. 26, after luring a guard to his cell and smacking him in the head with an 8-inch section of iron sawed from his jail bars, Spirko got caught trying to escape. Suddenly, he faced another felonious-assault charge.

Only this time, his girlfriend faced prison time for helping.

Spirko’s calculating mind continued to churn. As in Michigan a dozen years earlier, crime stories in the local newspaper apparently helped to spawn another bright idea.

That very week, The Blade in Toledo was publishing story after story about developments in what had been a futile effort to solve the Elgin postmaster’s murder.

Investigators had been pinning most of their hopes on an obvious suspect. At the time of the crime, Marion "Sonny" Baumgardner was on parole for a similar post-office robbery seven years earlier in Dupont, Ohio, just 30 miles from Elgin. The postmaster in that robbery– also a woman – had been tied up during the crime but had not been seriously injured.

Baumgardner bore an uncanny resemblance to an artist’s sketch of the stranger seen in Elgin on the morning Mottinger disappeared, and one witness thought his photo looked like the man.

But Baumgardner had eluded policefor weeks. Then, on Oct. 29, on its front page,The Blade reported a crushing blow to investigators. Baumgardner had been arrested, but he had an ironclad alibi for Aug. 9. Witnesses saw him at work that day – in Pasadena, Texas. Baumgardner was cleared of all involvement in the Elgin case.

And after nearly three months, with the trail now cold, investigators were back to "square one."

But to Spirko, then weighing his legal options in the Lucas County Jail, the news served as inspiration.

Investigators weren’t looking for him; they had no reason to. He called them. On Oct. 31, just two days after the Baumgardner news.

Spirko got word to federal authorities that he knew something about the Mottinger case. He wanted to cut a deal: Information in return for leniency. For himself and his girlfriend.

His call was like a thunderbolt. Investigators had never heard of Spirko.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t inspire suspicion. His credentials were perfect.

In 1982, Spirko was tall, lean and heavily tattooed – with a dagger on one forearm, the Grim Reaper on the other. He had a rap sheet that stretched back to the second grade, when records in Toledo show that he ran away – the first of many times – and started a fire at a school.

His father, a 300-pound autoworker with an artificial leg, had a violent temper and a tendency to pummel his wife and children during alcoholic rants. Spirko was tagged early on as an incorrigible child with a growing reputation for vile language, impulsive violence and serial lying.

He was convicted of arson, theft, breaking and entering, forgery, interstate transportation of a stolen car and murder – all by the age of 24. And at 36, he had spent all but a few years of his adult life behind bars.

Spirko was paroled from the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville just 13 days before the Mottinger kidnapping. He had served 12 years of a life sentence for strangling 72-year-old Myra Ashcraft in her Covington, Ky., home while he and his then-girlfriend were stealing her jewelry.

The vote of a single juror reportedly had spared him the death penalty.

On top of all that, Spirko was cocky, fancied himself uncommonly clever, had a big mouth and wasn’t very careful about using it.

The new tipster laid out the conditions for his deal right from the start.

First, Spirko demanded probation for his girlfriend, Luann Smith, who had never been in legal trouble until he dragged her into his doomed escape attempt.

Next, he wanted kid-glove treatment for himself.

If he couldn’t get his two felonious assault charges dropped – unlikely, he was told, because a jail guard was among the victims – Spirko insisted on doing no more than five years.

And he demanded placement in the federal witness-protection program so he could serve his time in a federal prison.

In return, Spirko would tell authorities everything he knew about the Mottinger case.

The feds agreed.

They promised to recommend probation for Smith and to meet his other demands. And within weeks, as a newly protected witness, Spirko was transferred to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.

For his part, Spirko started to lay out for investigators a shifting, contradictory, ever-evolving but consistently horrifying series of accounts of what might have happened to Betty Jane Mottinger four months earlier – accounts he said he heard about at several Toledo-area parties.

Spirko attributed the crime to a vividly drawn cast of characters – a band of dope-shooting, whiskey-guzzling, obscenity-spewing bikers, barflies and slackers with colorful but hard-to-verify street names like Rooster, Dino and Dirty Dan.

His stories featured detailed scripts – reminiscent of drive-in slasher flicks –studded with coarse dialogue and detailed descriptions of sickening brutality.

Spirko started spinning his tales Nov.29, 1982, in the first of at least 15 interviews with Postal Inspector Paul Hartman,who was based at the time in Cleveland. The players often changed from interview to interview, and their roles in the drama shifted from one account to another.

But, in essence, Spirko’s narrative boiled down to this: A band of vicious losers snatched Mottinger from her tiny post office during what was either a robbery or the botched pickup of a package of mailed drugs, depending on the version.They shoved her into the trunk or the back seat of a car and whisked her off to a “safe house” in the country.

There, they held her prisoner for several hours or several days – bound on a couch in the living room, confined to an upstairs bedroom or tied to a pole in the basement. They taunted her, beat her up, dragged her around by the hair, forced her to perform oral sex and took turns raping her.

Then, as she screamed and flailed and kicked in self defense, they stabbed her to death so furiously that blood sprayed onto the floor.

Finally, they wrapped her body in a curtain, drove off and dumped it in a soybean field.

Spirko started off telling Hartman that he first heard about the robbery and murder at a party – and that he’d seen the loot in a bag. But Hartman grew increasingly impatient with his inability to confirm any of the accounts. Spirko responded by changing them around and adding still more detail – putting himself closer to the action with each new story.

At first, he had simply heard about the crime from others. Later versions had him witnessing various atrocities and even the murder itself. And, in one account, he even had himself holding Mottinger down (in a cornfield in this version), trying to keep her quiet, when Rooster suddenly stabbed her to death.

The rationale behind the evolving accounts was simple, at least in Spirko’s contorted logic. With his girlfriend still not sentenced, he had to keep investigators interested long enough to get what he wanted – probation for her.

"I didn’t really care because I didn’t do nothin'," Spirko testified during his1984 trial. "So I didn’t figure I’d get indicted."

Spirko said he kept feeding Hartman new versions because "he wouldn’t settle for nothin’ else. I would tell him one story and . . . the next day, he would come back for another story. And the more I told the more deeper I got into it, you know. And finally he told me one time, he said 'either you did it,' or, he says, 'or you know who did it.' I don’t know if those were his exact words, but it was something to that effect."

Spirko’s stories are horrifying, even to an emotionally detached reader more than 22 years later. But they are also shot through with contradictions, fabrications and what appear to be wild guesses – many of them wrong – about the facts of the case.

For one thing, virtually all of the characters in Spirko’s dramas were either fictitious or not involved – with either Spirko or the crime. (Spirko said he made up the names, based on people he knew from prison. Investigators maintain they were able to identify several, but eventually cleared them all.)

And there’s not a shred of evidence that any of the stories ever happened.

Except for the fact that Mottinger had been stabbed more than a dozen times and that her shroud-wrapped body had been dumped in a Hancock County beanfield – details that were known to anyone in western Ohio who had read a newspaper or watched TV – Spirko’s stories easily could have been fiction.

It’s possible, for instance, that Mottinger was sexually abused. It’s just as possible she wasn’t. Her body was so badly decomposed that the prosecution’s forensics experts didn’t even test her clothing for bodily fluids.

And while it’s possible she died in a bloodbath at an isolated farmhouse, investigators could find no evidence of that either.

At one point, they thought they had identified the "safe house" that Spirko had spoken of – a vacant farmhouse near Interstate 75 in Cygnet, Ohio. Postal inspectors descended onto the place in December 1982 and spent three days taking it apart from stem to stern.

They hauled out bedsheets, pillowcases, napkins, trash, magazines, work gloves, matchbooks and drapery cords.They lifted fingerprints from throughout the house, pulled up carpet samples and dug for bloodstains in the weather-stripping around the back door.

They found nothing. Not a drop of blood, not a workable print, not a telltale hair. Not one piece of evidence suggesting that a homicide happened there. All they got for their trouble was a $600 bill for damage from the angry owner.

Investigators failed to verify much of anything in Spirko’s tales. Prosecutors argued during Spirko’s 1984 trial that his stories contained several morsels of information that only the killer could have known. Notes of the conversations Spirko had with Hartman leave considerable doubt about that.

But what’s striking is how much Spirko didn’t appear to know about the crime, or somehow failed to mention to Hartman.

Things, for instance, like the loot: Spirko apparently knew nothing about the most obvious items taken during the abduction and robbery.

In addition to $43.86 from the cash drawer and a few money orders, the Elgin post-office robbers took virtually every stamp in the place – more than $700 worth.

And yet during his interviews with Hartman, Spirko specifically said – at least twice – that he never saw any stamps among the stolen items.

Spirko also told Hartman that Mottinger was wearing a gold watch and a gold necklace when she was killed and that he had seen both in the bag of loot.

But in their testimony, Mottinger’s family and a co-worker didn’t recall her wearing either. When asked about her jewelry, they said that she typically wore three rings – a wedding band, something they described as a "mother’s ring" and a tiny pinky ring which, aside from her clothing, was the only personal item found on Mottinger’s body.

Spirko said nothing to Hartman about any rings being taken from the victim. Spirko also seemed ignorant about what Mottinger looked like, about how she died and about how her body was prepared for disposal.

Despite hours of interviews over six weeks, no evidence exists that Hartman ever asked Spirko to describe the victim. If he did, it’s not reflected in his notes. On two occasions, however, Spirko spontaneously referred to Mottinger as a "fat bitch."

But it’s hard to imagine how "fat" would come to mind for someone who had actually seen her. Mottinger was just over 5 feet tall, weighed 104 pounds and was described by friends as "tiny" or "petite."

Spirko also told Hartman that Mottinger’s hands were bound behind her back with duct tape when she was killed. But her hands were not bound – with anything – when her body was found.

And he twice told investigators that Mottinger had been stabbed in the back, something her killer would surely know was wrong. She was stabbed in the chest. Investigators found no evidence of wounds to her back.

But that’s not all they failed to find.

Investigators found no Spirko link to Mottinger, no connection to Elgin or to the Findlay area, where her body was found, and no reliable evidence that he had ever been to either place.

Nor did they find a convincing motive. Prosecutors never tried to explain, for instance, why a fresh parolee looking for a place to rob would leave a treasure chest of possibilities like Toledo just after dawn on a Monday morning to scour an unfamiliar rural countryside for a one-room post office that did less than $3,000 in business a year and never kept more than $50 in the safe.

And they never produced a more logical explanation than Spirko’s for why he came forward in the first place. Why would a man who was guilty of murder, but had escaped even the hint of detection, voluntarily reach out to police – and risk the death penalty – to bargain down his sentence on an assault charge?

Finally, investigators found no physical evidence linking Spirko to the crime.

No prints.

No murder weapon.

No loot.

And no car for kidnapping and transporting the victim.

In fact, through all his hours of interviews, Spirko gave investigators virtually no evidence in the Mottinger case that they didn’t have before they met him.

Except for two things:

The stories, which Hartman recounted for the jury – without regard to fact or fiction – in gruesome detail, and to devastating effect.

And Delaney Gibson Jr.

That may well have been enough.

Gibson and Spirko became best friends while sharing a Kentucky prison cell in the late 1970s.

Although he never set foot in the courtroom, Gibson gave prosecutors an even more delectable suspect than Spirko himself.

And Gibson provided them a critical key to cracking the case – the only strong evidence they ever developed that appeared to link Spirko, albeit indirectly, to Elgin on the day Betty Jane Mottinger disappeared.

Both men were indicted on charges of kidnapping and stabbing the 48-year-old mother of three.

An "eyewitness" testified that she saw Gibson in Elgin on that clear August morning 22 years ago.

No ifs, ands or buts.

Nine men and three women convicted Spirko on Aug. 22, 1984.

But they never heard the whole story.


Article list

A mysterious murder suspect emerges, then disappears

January 24, 2005

By Bob Paynter
The Plain Dealer

A cold-blooded liar

Previously: By late October 1982, frustrated investigators had followed hundreds of dead-end leads in the August murder of a rural Ohio postmaster. Then, out of the blue, career criminal John George Spirko Jr. called them and offered to help. Not much of what he told them added up. But it was enough to send him to death row.

Second of three parts.

A brown-and-cinnamon sedan eased down Main Street, a misnamed little side lane jutting southward from Ohio 81, and glided to a stop in front of the nondescript, metal-sided blockhouse that served as the Elgin post office.

Betty Jane Mottinger, postmaster for four years, had arrived moments earlier from Ohio City, 10 miles to the northwest, and was already inside.

From her home across the street, Opal Seibert eyed the two-tone vehicle as it crept into town that day. The 30-year resident of Elgin recognized every face for miles around and knew at once when a car or truck didn’t belong. This was one of those times.

Sipping coffee in her breezeway, Seibert glanced at the kitchen clock. It was exactly 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 9, 1982.

A lean, clean-shaven stranger stepped slowly from the car and peered around, in all directions, as if to see if anyone was watching. He wore a long-sleeve blue work shirt and glasses. His dark hair was combed straight back.

The man stood there for several minutes, wedged between the car door and the roof, his left arm draped on the door. Seibert’s eyes locked onto him from her breezeway.

She never lost sight of the man, except for a few seconds when her view was blocked by a passing truck. And as the truck cleared the post office, the stranger — back behind the wheel — drove off to the south.

Seibert saw no one else in the car as it arrived. She saw no one entering the post office or leaving it and no one else in the car as it pulled away.

Yet five months later, her unwavering memory of that clear, summer morning in Elgin provided a critical key to cracking the most senseless and horrific crime in Elgin’s history — the abduction and murder of the 48-year-old postmaster, wife and mother of three.

It was Seibert’s sturdy recall that finally gave frustrated investigators their ace in the hole and made her a star witness in the 1984 trial that sent John George Spirko Jr. to death row.

More than a dozen years passed before the government was forced to reveal evidence that raised serious doubts about the quality of Seibert’s memory — and about the reliability of the postal inspectors investigating the case, the tactics of the prosecutors presenting it to the jury and the caliber of the justice they produced.

By that time, however, Seibert was long dead and Spirko had squandered years on fruitless appeals. Today, the 58-year-old career criminal, who has spent all but a handful of his adult years behind bars, is nearing the end of the line.

Barring last-minute relief by the U.S. Supreme Court or Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, Spirko will likely be executed this year.

But a litany of questions has cropped up about how this bizarre and bewildering case was put together. And some of the most troubling center on just who Opal Seibert saw on that sunny August morning 22 years ago.

In the beginning, her memory promised to be of limited value.

She witnessed no crime. And when combined with what others saw, Seibert’s account only contributed to a confused, almost kaleidoscopic portrait of the supposed killer.

Mark Lewis, for instance, who was leaving the Elgin Grain Co. that morning with a Toledo-bound truckload of wheat, said he also noticed the man standing outside the post office. Like Seibert’s stranger, the man was wedged between the door and the body of a brownish two-tone sedan, his left arm resting on the door, his right on the rooftop. But there the similarities end.

Lewis’ stranger was a husky, slightly pot-bellied man, about 240 pounds, with sandy brown or reddish hair and possibly a light mustache. And instead of long-sleeve and blue, the shirt Lewis remembered him wearing was short-sleeve and green. With orange stripes. About the only feature Lewis and Seibert saw in common was the glasses.

Others in town that morning described other scenarios. But Seibert’s memory seemed the firmest. And because of fortuitous developments unfolding 95 miles to the north in a Lucas County jail cell, her stock in one of the biggest investigations in Van Wert County history would suddenly rise in January 1983.

By that point, John Spirko had been filling the ear of Postal Inspector Paul Hartman for more than six weeks with a steady diet of captivating stories about the Mottinger mystery.

Spirko had come forward in late 1982 offering a deal. He was in jail on a pair of unrelated assault charges. In return for lenient treatment for himself and his girlfriend, Spirko volunteered to divulge information about the unsolved postmaster case that he said he picked up at a party.

He had no known connection to Elgin or to Mottinger. Investigators had never heard of him. And much of what he eventually told them turned out to be unprovable or downright wrong.

But with their high-profile investigation going nowhere, they leapt at this new opportunity.

Given Spirko’s lengthy and violent criminal record, investigators suspected almost from the day he came forward that he might be involved in Mottinger’s death.

Records show they subpoenaed phone records for Spirko and his family and ordered their mail tracked weeks before he started telling Hartman his stories.

And early on in their relationship, the postal inspector struck what eventually looked like pay dirt while searching through Spirko’s prison scrapbooks at his sister’s home in a Toledo suburb.

Along with dozens of other photos of Spirko’s prison buddies, Hartman seized a snapshot of a man who just might pass for Opal Seibert’s dark-haired stranger.

The portrait seemed innocent enough. A slight, calm-looking young man in a T-shirt and jeans gazed benignly into the camera as he gently stroked a kitten. But it was the résumé behind the photograph that sparked the imagination.

If John Spirko’s rap sheet made him an enticing prospect in the Mottinger case, then Delaney Gibson Jr.’s made him a prosecutor’s dream. He was everything Spirko was. And more.

And he had an almost mythical aura about him, a near legendary capacity to engage in criminal mayhem one day, only to vanish the next.

Gibson and Spirko were cellmates in Kentucky in the late 1970s, when both served time for homicides. Both were paroled — Spirko in July 1982, Gibson five years earlier. And when postal inspectors happened upon Gibson’s photograph in late 1982, he had been on the run for more than a year for two other murders.

Gibson was born in 1950 in the mountains of Leslie County, in the coal field region of southeastern Kentucky. He turned to violence early.

At 16, Gibson and a roving band of friends abducted a 17-year-old girl at gunpoint from a disabled vehicle by the side of a Leslie County highway, hauled her off to the hills and raped her.

He got 15 years.

Gibson stabbed Alfred Metcalf to death in nearby Clay County in September 1972, one month after getting paroled on the rape. He pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, was sentenced to another 15 years and wound up as Spirko’s cellmate at the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville.

Paroled again in late 1977, Gibson returned to Leslie County, where he killed Milton David Couch with a pistol in the summer of 1980. Eight months later, he did the same to R.T. Gray a few miles down the road in Manchester.

Gibson was convicted of the Couch murder on March 26, 1981. But the next day, while awaiting sentencing, he escaped from the Leslie County Jail in Hyden and disappeared.

That was Gibson’s status — at large, whereabouts unknown — when investigators in the Mottinger case first ran across his picture in Spirko’s photo album.

They assembled more photographs — taken by Kentucky authorities years earlier when Gibson was in custody there — and went to see Opal Seibert in January 1983.

"That’s the person I saw," she told them. No doubt about it.

After months of frustration, postal inspectors thought they had finally found their way in the Mottinger killing.

Spirko was shooting off his mouth about the case from his Toledo jail cell. Now they had his murderous former cellmate positively identified as the dark-haired stranger hanging around the Elgin post office on the morning that Mottinger disappeared.

The Gibson factor changed everything, including Spirko’s story line.

His entire relationship with Paul Hartman had been based on lies. No one disputes that. In fact, Spirko later testified, that was the whole point.

The idea was to spin enough intriguing yarns about the Mottinger case to keep investigators in thrall until his girlfriend was safely on probation and his own five-year sentence for a pair of unrelated assault charges was set in stone. Those were his goals for coming forward in the first place.

He had been telling Hartman for weeks about a gang of crazed dopers who kidnapped Mottinger while trying to retrieve a package of drugs from the post office, brutalized her at a country "safe house" and then stabbed her repeatedly and dumped her body in a Hancock County beanfield.

Much of what he related about the circumstances and manner of Mottinger’s death had been widely reported in the western Ohio press for months. And Spirko’s narratives were jammed with fabrications — including his entire cast of characters — and with grisly details that no one could verify.

But in January 1983, apparently armed with the new Gibson card and ready to play it, Hartman got Spirko to jettison his gang of dopers, disavow everything he had said before and alter his shifting story in a way that would break open the Mottinger investigation.

Hartman denied in a recent interview that he ever coaxed Spirko into anything.

But it’s clear from investigative documents that on Jan. 11, 1983, Hartman confronted Spirko with the emerging Gibson theory — at least indirectly — by steering their conversation toward Bear Branch, the tiny mountain community in eastern Kentucky that Gibson called home.

Spirko recalled recently from death row that Hartman was far more blunt than that.

As he started with his usual doper story for the day, Spirko said, Hartman was "lookin' at me and he’s smilin’ across the table. Then he says, 'you’re full of shit. We know who was there. We know who was with you: Delaney Gibson.' "

Spirko said he scoffed at the claim. But Hartman persisted: " 'We’ve got eyewitnesses.' "

"I don’t remember that," Hartman said recently.

But both men agreed at the time that Spirko would sleep on the new development. And sure enough, the next day — Jan. 12, 1983 — he concocted an entirely new story, a radical departure from everything he’d said before.

Yes, Spirko told Hartman, it was Delaney Gibson who had killed the Elgin postmaster after all.

During a robbery, Spirko said, Gibson and two cronies had kidnapped Mottinger, raped her and stabbed her to death by the side of a road so she couldn’t identify them. Then they told him all about it a few days later.

That was the last story Spirko ever told Hartman.

It was almost certainly a lie as well. Just like the others. But together with Seibert’s identification, the new story gave the authorities all they felt they needed: Two months later, Luann Smith — the girlfriend Spirko had been trying to keep out of prison — was given 18 months to five years at Marysville for helping with his failed jail break the previous October. And a few weeks after that, postal authorities declared that the Mottinger murder had been "resolved."

But months passed before indictments were handed down. And nearly a year and a half went by before Spirko was brought to trial.

Delaney Gibson proved a mysterious and elusive quarry, with an uncanny knack for suddenly showing up and disappearing at pivotal moments.

By the time Spirko did go to trial in August 1984, Gibson had become little more than a trick up the prosecution’s sleeve.

The first complication in the investigators’ new theory arose three months after Spirko’s last chat with Hartman. A bearded Gibson — still on the lam for his two Kentucky murders — was arrested in April 1983 in Canton, N.C., near where he was working incognito as a tomato picker with a troupe of migrant farm workers.

Postal inspectors in the Mottinger case descended on Asheville, N.C., where Gibson was locked up in the Buncombe County Jail.

He promptly told them that his itinerary since escaping from jail in 1981 had included no stops in Ohio, much less Elgin. His wife, Margie, vouched for that.

And both insisted that Gibson had sported the full beard throughout 1982, a fact that might complicate efforts to portray him as Seibert’s clean-shaven stranger.

Gibson’s supervisor also said Gibson had worn a beard that whole year. If he had ever shaved it, Juan Flores said, he didn’t remember when that might have been.

Still, the beard was hardly definitive. Gibson’s family and friends could be lying; he could have grown it since the August crime.

And besides, the whole problem became conveniently moot a few months later, after Gibson was shipped back to Kentucky to face his murder charges.

On Aug. 7, 1983, Gibson and several other inmates overpowered a guard and he escaped again, this time from the Clay County Jail.

Just a month later, with Gibson at large and not likely to be available for trial, a Van Wert County grand jury indicted him — along with Spirko — on charges of kidnapping and aggravated murder in the Mottinger case.

But more complications — big ones — soon arose.

Seven days before Christmas in 1983, the FBI arrested Gibson at the John’s II Motel outside Montgomery, Ala., and charged him with unlawful flight from the Kentucky murder charges.

Their wild card suddenly back in play, postal inspectors pounced once again — this time on tiny Bear Branch, where Margie Gibson had taken refuge while her husband was on the lam.

For the first time, Hartman asked her about Delaney’s whereabouts on the morning of Aug. 9, 1982. Margie Gibson told him a story that would twist the working theory on the Mottinger case into a pretzel.

Margie told Hartman that she, Delaney and her sister and brother-in-law, Brenda and Michael Bentley, were with their children near the North Carolina migrant camp from Saturday, Aug. 7, until about 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 8.

If true, that would put Gibson roughly 500 miles away from Elgin on the evening before the crime.

Hartman immediately contacted Bentley, who confirmed the story. Worse, he had receipts documenting activities during the visit.

Worse still, he had photographs. Lots of them. Of Gibson, sporting the full beard that he and his friends had spoken of months earlier.

Over the next few weeks, Hartman shuttled between towns in Kentucky and North Carolina doing interviews and gathering receipts that only compounded the problem.

On Jan. 11, 1984, he obtained 18 photographs from Margie Gibson showing Delaney, herself, their young son and the Bentleys driving go-carts at a North Carolina amusement park that weekend and dining at a McDonald’s in Candler, N.C.

Hartman went to Candler. Sure enough, it was the McDonald’s in the photos.

He obtained 40 more photographs from the Bentleys, showing basically the same things. Then he called Maloney’s Department Store, near the Bentleys’ home in Ary, Ky., and confirmed that they had dropped off their film for processing on Aug. 10, 1982.

In photo after photo, there he was: fugitive Delaney Gibson, with a full beard and a thick mop of dark, curly hair, enjoying a family vacation in Maggie Valley, N.C., the night before witness Opal Seibert’s clean-shaven stranger slipped quietly into Elgin.

Certainly, it was mathematically possible.

But to complete the scenario, Gibson would have had to straighten his hair, comb it straight back, shave his beard and drive at least nine hours through the night to Elgin — assuming he knew how to navigate the herky-jerky country roads to get there — so he could cruise by Seibert’s house at exactly 8:30 on Monday morning.

Then, after kidnapping and murdering Mottinger, he would have to return to his tomato-picking crew and regrow his beard without his boss ever noticing that he’d shaved it off.

Clearly, this was a problem.

It’s unclear now who made the decision. But the apparent solution was to stick the fresh photographs in a private file drawer, apparently separate from other investigative documents, where they remained hidden for the next 13 years.

The new photographs apparently were never shown to Seibert.

It’s also unclear whether Van Wert prosecutor Stephen Keister ever saw them.

Prosecutors are required by law to tell defense attorneys about significant evidence that might help their client. Four months before Spirko’s trial, Keister did reveal the following: that a Michael Bentley had stated that Gibson was in North Carolina the weekend before the Mottinger killing and "that pictures are purported to have been taken of the weekend in question."

Twice over the next three months, Spirko’s attorneys demanded to see "all statements of Michael Bentley." Those statements would have alerted them to receipts documenting the weekend visit and would have proved that the photos were far more than "purported." Dozens had been handed over to Hartman.

And the photos would have shown that Gibson almost certainly was not Seibert’s clean-shaven stranger.

But the defense demands went unmet. No photos or Bentley statements were forthcoming. And Gibson — incredibly — was soon unavailable for questioning.

Keister and postal officials decided not to hold him in the Mottinger case. Less than three months before Spirko’s trial was to begin, they released Gibson to authorities in Kentucky.

And on July 9, 1984, true to form, Gibson pulled a knife on a deputy at the Bell County Jail and vanished yet again.

Spirko went to trial as scheduled in early August — without his alleged accomplice. Prosecutors called Seibert to the witness stand as planned. And she delivered with rock-solid certainty.

"That there is his face," Seibert testified, as she pulled a years-old picture of a clean-shaven Delaney Gibson from a photo array.

"He had a different hairdo, but that's him," Seibert said. "I don’t forget a face."

Keister zeroed in on that certitude in his arguments to the jury.

There had been other witnesses. Prosecutors produced two prisoners who said Spirko had admitted to them that he killed Mottinger. Both later recanted, according to court documents filed by the defense.

And truck driver Mark Lewis testified that Spirko might have been the Elgin stranger — even though Spirko is blond, looks nothing like Gibson, and weighed roughly 60 pounds less than the man Lewis originally described.

Lewis said he was about "70 percent" sure. But he was so shaky on the witness stand that no one asked him to identify the man at the defendant’s table. And even Keister acknowledged it would be "silly" to argue that 70 percent is beyond a reasonable doubt.

But Seibert was another matter. She was 100 percent sure, Keister told the jurors. And together with Spirko’s stories, Keister argued, Seibert’s certainty validated Lewis and made his testimony more than a "70 percent situation."

Spirko and Gibson robbed the post office together and killed Mottinger together, the prosecutor argued. Of those whose photos were shown to Lewis and Seibert, Spirko and Gibson "were the only persons . . . that had any personal connection," Keister said. "These two were the most important persons to each other, the best friends in the whole world."

One of them, Spirko, had said things to Hartman that only the killer could have known, Keister argued. And the other, Gibson, the defendant’s closest friend, was positively identified at the scene of the crime. No question.

The prosecutor showed jurors a Kentucky prison photo from the late 1970s showing Gibson’s bare-chinned profile. Then he held up an artist’s rendering — also in profile — of Seibert’s clean-shaven stranger, drawn two days after the crime.

"This is a picture of Delaney Gibson," Keister said, pointing to one. "There is a profile of Delaney Gibson," he said of the other. "I submit to you, it is almost as if the person who made this drawing back on Aug. 11, 1982, had this picture from which to make the drawing.

"You make the comparison. That identification is there. Delaney Gibson was there that morning."

Keister, in a recent interview, declined to discuss any aspect of the Spirko case, citing the passage of time. "It’s been 20 years," said the former prosecutor, who left office in 1988. "My memory is fading. And a lot of things have been over the dam."

It wasn’t until the summer of 1997 — 13 years later — that John Spirko and his attorneys first saw the Gibson vacation photos and other evidence detailing that weekend in North Carolina.

They had been trying to bore into the Mottinger investigative files since shortly after the trial. But postal authorities fought them every step of the way.

A court-brokered agreement finally gave Spirko access to previously undisclosed files in 1996. And for the first time, his attorneys discovered several references to the vacation photos. But no actual pictures. They weren’t in the investigative files and postal officials said they couldn’t find them.

After a federal judge ordered the missing photos released, postal authorities produced them the next year, just weeks after promising to look for them in Hartman’s personal "desk file."

Asked recently if that’s where they were found, Hartman said, "I don’t believe so." Does he know where they were? "I have no idea." He said he originally put the photos in the investigative case file, "along with everything else."

Meanwhile, in the more than two decades since Gibson was indicted for aggravated murder, Van Wert and federal authorities have never attempted to bring him to trial.

Four months after Spirko was sentenced to death, the FBI arrested Gibson again. This time, agents found him hiding in the false ceiling of his father-in-law’s attic, in Bear Branch.

He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the two Kentucky murders from the early 1980s.

But Ohio authorities didn’t place a holder on Gibson to keep him from escaping justice in the Mottinger case if he should ever get out of prison.

And so, when Kentucky released Gibson on parole in December 1998, he walked away a free man — despite the pending indictment.

The next June, Gibson was returned to prison for violating an order to stay out of Clay County, Ky.

But he was paroled again in the summer of 2001, and he has been free ever since, living in Louisville, Ky.

On May 17, 2004, the same day a federal appeals court denied Spirko’s next-to-last appeal for relief, Van Wert County authorities dismissed the kidnapping and aggravated murder charges against Gibson.

He declined to return phone messages left with his sister in Bear Branch.

In 1997, Spirko’s attorneys launched a new round of angry appeals based on the Gibson vacation photos. They argued that prosecutors had not only withheld key evidence, but had knowingly presented a false case to the jury.

One federal judge seemed to agree last May, writing that the case against Spirko — built on a "foundation of sand" — left "considerable doubt" about whether he had been lawfully condemned.

Judge Ronald Lee Gilman, of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, noted the "complete absence" of physical evidence against Spirko and other weaknesses in the case. He concluded that if the Gibson photos had not been withheld, the state’s star witness and its case would have been seriously undermined and Spirko might have been acquitted.

But Gilman was outvoted 2-1 by his colleagues on the 6th Circuit panel, and the full court declined to take up the matter three months later.

With the exception of Gilman, state and federal appeals-court judges have largely adopted the state’s counterargument.

The state’s attorneys responded to the new round of Spirko appeals by radically downsizing the stature of one star witness — Opal Seibert — and the role her clean-shaven stranger played in the case.

And in the process, they elevated the stature of another: Postal Inspector Paul Hartman. It was Hartman, during the jailhouse interviews, who produced the really critical evidence that doomed John Spirko, they argued.

But a close look at that evidence suggests that, for whatever reason, not everything that Paul Hartman said in this case was correct.


Article list

Cop, criminal square off in jailhouse duel

January 25, 2005

By Bob Paynter
The Plain Dealer

Previously: New evidence put a major crimp in the prosecution's case against John George Spirko Jr. in the murder of a rural Ohio postmaster. But the jury and Spirko's lawyers never saw the evidence. It stayed buried in a private file drawer for more than a decade. After a federal judge forced the evidence into the open, the spotlight focused more sharply on the lead investigator in the case. Last of three parts.

A pair of movie-star look-alikes waged a war of wits inside the Lucas County Jail as 1982 came to a close.

Day after day, hour after hour, the lifelong con man - with more than a passing resemblance to Nick Nolte - played high-stakes cat and mouse with the veteran postal inspector with a likeness, it was said at the time, to Robert Redford.

Both were highly motivated.

Each was hell-bent on getting the other to play into his hands in what had become a baffling investigation into the murder of 48-year-old Betty Jane Mottinger, the postmaster in a tiny village in western Ohio.

John Spirko was a career criminal only recently paroled from a Kentucky prison, with a long history of trying to manipulate curious cops. He was angling to play investigator Paul Hartman for a sap.

Spirko had found himself back in jail on Toledo-area assault charges in late October 1982, a few months after Mottinger was abducted 100 miles away in Elgin, and five weeks after her body was found. Spirko called officials after reading newspaper stories about the sputtering Mottinger investigation.

He figured he could get lenient treatment on the Toledo cases for his girlfriend and himself by saying he had information about the unsolved murder.

Spirko's plan was to tantalize Hartman with lurid, hard-to-prove tales about Mottinger's death - hooking him just long enough to keep his girlfriend out of jail and his own prison time to a minimum.

No hard evidence ever linked Spirko to the crime. Nothing in the months-long investigation pointed to him. And the stories he told Hartman were full of gross fabrications and out-and-out lies.

But the investigator had a role in mind for Spirko as well.

Hartman had never been so deeply involved in a homicide investigation in his 11 years as a postal inspector, although he had interviewed thousands of suspects in lesser cases. He concluded fairly quickly that Spirko was involved "up to his ass" in the Mottinger slaying or knew who was.

Hartman's job was to keep Spirko talking, on the chance that he would either help solve a crime that had confounded postal authorities for months, or implicate himself in the process.

The two men met at least a dozen times in three weeks, often for four, five, six hours or more.

For the most part, there were no witnesses to these conversations. No video cameras. No tape recorders. No stenographers. Just Spirko and Hartman. Criminal and cop. Nolte and Redford.

And based largely on the fruits of those interviews, Spirko was eventually convicted of kidnapping and murdering the rural postmaster and is now on death row. He is awaiting execution - barring an intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court or Gov. Bob Taft - that's likely to come this year.

With his deft handling of Spirko, Hartman was almost single-handedly responsible for closing a case that had frustrated dozens of his colleagues, who collectively spent thousands of hours interviewing more than 3,000 people in 37 states, identifying and eventually discarding nearly 100 suspects along the way.

Whether he actually solved the Mottinger murder, however, is another matter.

Hartman produced what became the most tangible link between Spirko and the scene of the crime. That came in the form of Delaney Gibson Jr., Spirko's former cellmate and best friend, who was identified by an unwavering eyewitness as the mysterious stranger seen hanging around outside the post office in tiny Elgin, Ohio, moments before Mottinger was abducted.

Not only did Hartman stumble upon Gibson's photo in Spirko's prison scrapbook, he also succeeded - in their final session together - in getting Spirko to tell him that Gibson kidnapped the woman during a robbery, raped her, killed her and then told Spirko about it later.

That was the last in a string of whoppers that Spirko told Hartman.

When evidence later established that Gibson almost certainly was nowhere near Elgin that day - evidence that was never shared with Spirko's jury - the information apparently was buried in a private file drawer and kept from Spirko's attorneys for more than a decade.

And in the late 1990s, when Spirko's attorneys used that newly discovered information to argue that the prosecution had presented a false case to the jury, Hartman took center stage once again.

The state responded to the new round of appeals by asserting that Gibson's alleged role in the crime was meaningless - despite the considerable effort expended to prove it - and that the eyewitness testimony putting him in Elgin was immaterial.

The real foundation of the state's case, the argument continued, was the collection of "statements" that Spirko made, statements that purportedly included a handful of "intimate details" that only the killer could have known - because they supposedly were never made public.

It's an argument, adopted nearly verbatim by a succession of appeals-court judges over the last seven years, that defers to the largely unchallenged trial assertions of Hartman, the man Spirko first encountered in November 1982 in the Lucas County Jail.

But a detailed examination of those assertions, the notes of Hartman's interviews with Spirko and the independent evidence in the case shows that the veteran investigator was wrong on several of his claims and may have overstated others.

And the condition of Hartman's notes raises questions about how some of the more damaging "intimate details" got there in the first place.

Hartman laid out his "intimate details" theory - the essence of which has been repeated in court decisions denying Spirko's appeals - in a sworn statement on Feb. 1, 1983, three weeks after his final session with Spirko.

Among the details Hartman cited was Spirko's revelation that Mottinger's body had been wrapped "in a part of a curtain."

"Public disclosure has not been made that the subject shroud was, in fact, a portion of a curtain," Hartman asserted.

But that's wrong.

It had been publicly disclosed - right under Spirko's nose - and right when he was formulating his plan to trade information about the Mottinger case for leniency.

Just 11 days before Spirko called federal authorities with his proposal for a deal, The Blade in Toledo reported what was described as a significant break in the case on the front page of its local news section.

The shroud around Mottinger's body had been identified as a theater curtain, postal inspectors announced, that "at some time had been cut from a larger piece." The Blade even reported the fragment's precise dimensions.

At least twice in the next week -just days before Spirko reached out to authorities - The Blade described the shroud as "a remnant of a theater curtain."

When prosecutors pressed him during his trial on how he knew about the torn curtain, Spirko replied, "I believe I read that in the paper."

Among other "intimate details" that "have not been released to the news media," Hartman cited the location of stab wounds on Mottinger's body, that Mottinger had been wearing a blouse and slacks when she was abducted and that her purse had been taken along with post-office proceeds during the robbery.

But those details had been in news reports as well.

In fact, almost from the beginning, postal inspectors left little to the public's imagination in this case.

Mottinger's clothing, for instance, had been described in the press in considerable detail (light colored or white blouse with a design on the front and dark slacks). And Ohio newspapers from Van Wert, to Lima and Toledo - not to mention wire services that also fed radio and television reports - had also disclosed the following: what was believed stolen from the post office (less than $50 in cash, stamps and money orders); how Mottinger died (stabbed at least 13 times in the chest); where and how her body was found (wrapped in a tarp - later identified as a curtain - in a soybean field near the Blanchard River in Hancock County, just outside Findlay, roughly 50 miles from Elgin.)

Still, Spirko told postal inspectors at least twice that Mottinger had been stabbed in the back - even though she wasn't - and that he knew nothing about stamps having been taken from the post office.

Spirko also twice described Mottinger as a "fat bitch," even though she weighed just over 100 pounds.

Several of Spirko's other descriptions also don't jibe with the facts.

For instance, Hartman said that Spirko's description of the shroud "matches exactly" the material Mottinger's body was wrapped in.

Hartman's notes indicate that Spirko described the shroud as a "gray curtain" made of a heavy "canvas type material."

But everyone who is known to have seen it - investigators who found the body, pathologists conducting Mottinger's autopsy and forensics experts doing tests for both the prosecution and the defense - described the shroud the same way: as a painter's drop cloth.

The cloth was covered with paint smears and spots, literally thousands of them, according to a prosecutor, who said they represented "probably about every color in the rainbow."

And yet, in his description, Spirko never even hinted at paint.

Asked about the omission in an interview recently, Hartman dismissed the paint spots as "minutiae."

"It looked like a gray shroud to me, as I remember it."

Hartman also asserted that Spirko's description of how the slain postmaster was wrapped "matches exactly the manner in which the body was prepared for disposal."

In his Dec. 15, 1982, interview, Spirko said he watched as a fictional band of thugs - all either cleared or never identified by authorities - killed Mottinger and wrapped her body in the shroud. According to Hartman's notes, Spirko said they "rolled body onto curtain/flapped curtain end to end over head."

Prosecutors argued during Spirko's 1984 trial that this description was so precise that only the killer could have given it.

As with many of Hartman's assertions, Spirko denied at trial that he ever said it. But even if he did, he somehow left out these facts:

- That after Mottinger was rolled into the shroud, it was attached to her body from the outside with a cord, tied around both her neck and waist.

- That the shroud was further secured from the outside with duct tape, stretched around the body's midsection and legs.

- That inside the shroud, pressed against the body's abdomen and legs, were two concrete blocks.

Spirko mentioned none of those seemingly noteworthy details, according to Hartman's notes. "To me," Hartman said in a recent interview, "the noteworthy detail was that she was put in it [the shroud] in that fashion."

Despite such vagaries and inaccuracies, several other "intimate details" cited by Hartman do correspond to facts in the case.

But the way they appear - coupled with the way the interviews were conducted - raise questions about how some of the most significant details found their way into the investigator's notes in the first place.

Among those is the matter of the "pried stone."

During his interview with Hartman on Dec. 9, 1982, Spirko digressed into a tale about the exploits of his cast of characters during a Florida drug robbery - an episode that had little if anything to do with the Mottinger case.

But at the very end, under a heading labeled "Miscellaneous info," Hartman's notes indicate that Spirko suddenly blurted out that Rooster - one of his fictional characters - had pried a stone loose from a ring on Mottinger's finger after killing her.

This was significant because a tiny, $7.99 "pinky ring" was the only jewelry found on Mottinger's body, a detail that apparently never was revealed to the public. And the ring's single rhinestone, not much bigger than the tip of a ballpoint pen, was missing. How it came to be missing was never independently established.

Prosecutors later argued that the mere fact that it was gone could only have been known by the killer and, as a result, was evidence of Spirko's guilt.

But that information was obviously known by investigators as well. And that's exactly where Spirko testified he got it - during hours of give-and-take chatter with Hartman.

"I will never forget the exact words he used," Spirko said of Hartman, during his trial testimony.

"I gave him a couple of fictitious names. And he says, 'The one I want to get a hold of . . . [is] that stinkin' son-of-a-bitch that pried that stone out of her ring.' That's the first time I heard anything about a ring."

Hartman denied at trial that he ever suggested information. And Spirko's reputation for truthfulness is hardly sterling.

But it's impossible to tell where that piece of information - or any other - actually came from, because of the way the interviews were conducted. It's also impossible to know what questions Hartman asked, whether Spirko's answers were recorded accurately or what was said between the two men that wasn't written down.

Not one of their sessions was tape recorded. Spirko was never asked to write a statement - or to sign any of Hartman's notes - to vouch for the accuracy of any of the accounts. And he was never asked to initial additions or deletions, a standard procedure for validating edited documents.

The technique appears to fall short of accepted police standards, even for the time.

Today, deep into the age of DNA evidence, more police agencies are requiring video or audio recordings of suspect interrogations - especially in homicide cases - because so many documented cases of wrongful convictions have involved faulty confessions.

Researchers say these often occur when investigators, in the process of questioning or prodding their suspects, either deliberately or inadvertently reveal critical information that later shows up in a suspect's statement.

Of the 18 death-row inmates exonerated in Illinois alone, half were originally convicted based on what turned out to be false confessions or witness statements, said Steven Drizin, staff attorney for the Center on Wrongful Convictions and professor at Northwestern University School of Law.

Notes of even the best police interrogators have been shown to contain significant errors when compared with tape recordings, Drizin said. Notes are also notorious for omitting critical details. "That's why you need taped interrogations," he said.

Hartman testified that he never used a tape recorder while interviewing suspects. He said it hampered his efforts to establish rapport.

He acknowledged on cross-examination that his notes of the Spirko interviews are not verbatim accounts of everything that was said. Rather, Hartman said, they are "my interpretation, as it were, of the words."

And in a recent interview, Hartman said that police officers typically don't ask suspects to initial or sign notes of conversations. In 28 years as a postal inspector, he said, he never did.

But in Spirko's trial, Hartman's notes of more than a dozen conversations were presented as the defendant's "statements." And standards for handling those have been in place for half a century.

John E. Reid & Associates, Inc., a Chicago firm that trains thousands of law enforcement, government and private investigators every year, is considered one of the nation's leading authorities on investigative techniques.

The traditional procedure for documenting a suspect's version of events is to have him write and sign a statement, said Reid's president, Joseph Buckley, or to have the investigator write a summary of their conversation and have the suspect read and sign it.

"In some cases, you might have a stenographer come in and take it down in shorthand - where it's a question-and-answer process. Then, she would go type it up, the suspect would read it and sign it," Buckley said.

"That hasn't changed," he said. "That has been the case for decades. Forty years. Fifty years."

The purpose, Buckley said, is credibility.

Without a written, signed statement, he said, the validity of the information becomes a matter of whom the jury believes - the police officer or the defendant.

Hartman did none of those things in his interviews with Spirko. Given Spirko's record, credibility with a jury wasn't likely to be an issue.

It would be cop over criminal every time.

A curious fact raises another question about Hartman's interview tactics. In several instances in which Spirko is alleged to have uttered "intimate details" about the case, those very details were added after the original notes were written.

That's definitely the case in one of only two references in the notes to the "pried stone." And it's possible the other was added later as well, according to two documents experts asked to examine portions of Hartman's handwritten notes.

There's no way to tell from the documents whether the critical information was added minutes, hours or even days after the original notes were written. Nor is it possible to tell what prompted the additions.

Hartman disputes that he made any significant additions to his notes.

What is certain, however, is that Spirko never initialed the changes to verify that he was the source of the information.

The most significant examples, in addition to the "pried stone," include Spirko's alleged description of Mottinger's purse and of the clothing the postmaster was wearing when she was killed. Both are among the "intimate details" cited by Hartman.

When he first reached out to federal investigators in October 1982, Spirko said that he knew the identities of three men involved in the crime and that, while at a party in the Toledo area, he had seen a bag that might have contained loot from the robbery.

Spirko described it merely as a sack, made of cloth or canvas, according to notes of that preliminary interview with a different investigator.

By his first interview with Hartman, however, the sack had morphed into a cream-colored bag with "loop handles" and "brown trim around edges," according to Hartman's notes, a description that matched Mottinger's missing purse. That's the description Hartman read to the jury.

But the investigator's handwritten notes show that the words "loop" and "brown trim around edges" were all added sometime after the original notes about the bag were written.

Again, experts say, it's not possible to tell when the additions were made.

The same thing happened with the description of Mottinger's clothing.

In an interview with Hartman on Dec. 10, 1982, Spirko indicated that he had seen Mottinger alive in the basement of a "safe house" after she had been kidnapped.

"The defendant described the victim's clothing, indicating that the postmaster had been wearing dark slacks, a light yellow blouse, which buttoned in the front and bearing a print design," Hartman told the jury.

Spirko insisted at trial that it was Hartman who supplied those details.

And a glance at the investigator's handwritten notes reveals that the entire description - "dark slacks, light yellow blouse, button front, print design" - was added after the original notes were written, and in a different handwriting style.

Again, no way to tell when.

Hartman insisted recently that he had added nothing to his notes, that any changes were nothing more than innocent corrections.

"All these notes were written contemporaneously. They were written during the interviews," he said. "What happened is, obviously, in the course of writing the notes, I went back and added these little notations."

On Aug. 17, 1984, a week after his original testimony, Hartman was called back to the witness stand on the last day of Spirko's trial. He denied prompting or suggesting any information in his interviews with Spirko.

"For me to have done those things would have violated seriously sound investigative procedure and would have completely destroyed the integrity of the investigation," he testified.

But just a few moments later, while still on the stand, Hartman made the most dramatic addition of all to the notes of his interviews with Spirko.

Asked if Spirko ever actually admitted killing Betty Jane Mottinger, a detail conspicuously absent from his notes and earlier testimony, Hartman said that, as a matter of fact, he had.

Defense attorney Ed Hatcher was stunned.

"Would you like to tell me when he told you that?" Hatcher asked.

"He stated that to me . . . on January 11th of 1983," Hartman replied, the date of his second-to-last session with Spirko.

In an internal memo written sometime after that interview, Hartman asserted that Spirko said to him that day: "Lay it all on me. I killed her."

But defense attorneys had never heard such a claim before.

In fact, in at least two sworn statements made after the Jan. 11 interview - statements in which he summarized his theory of Spirko's involvement - Hartman had mentioned nothing of the sort. Likewise in his testimony - and cross-examination - about the Jan. 11 interview.

And the notes of Hartman's interview for that day - which he had earlier testified were "accurate in all respects" - contained nothing even close to such an admission.

Hatcher pressed him on the notes: "Well, let's take a look and see, OK, on that date. You would have written that down, wouldn't you?"

The investigator calmly replied, "I don't believe that that is in my notes."

Hartman, who retired from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in early 2000, after nearly three decades in law enforcement, said recently that he didn't need notes to recall the encounter.

"I didn't need to write that down to know that he said it," Hartman said in an interview at his Medina County home. "I remembered it then. I remember it now."

And he remains just as certain that Spirko deserves to die for killing Betty Jane Mottinger.

"It is my belief that he did it," Hartman said. "If and when they execute him, I will have no qualms. No qualms."

Just days after Hartman's final appearance on the witness stand 20 years ago, Spirko addressed the postal inspector's assertions in a remarkable statement to the jury.

But first, with his conviction freshly on the books, Spirko asked the jury to recommend the death penalty. Even while insisting he was innocent.

"I have never seen Betty Mottinger in my life," he said. "I did not kill Betty Jane Mottinger. I did not kidnap Betty Jane Mottinger. But, I have been convicted for it.

"From what I have heard, a lady that went to work, bothered no one, had a family, a husband that loved her, she was cruelly taken away, brutally murdered. She didn't get no appeal. Nobody gave her that right. Instead, they just stabbed her to death. They probably still out there now laughin' about it; laughin' because I got convicted of it. But she deserved justice, and if that means me, then that's the way it should be. I'm convicted, I should die. It's simple; simple arithmetic."

Spirko blamed no one but himself for his predicament. "I started all this" by reaching out to authorities in the first place, he said. "I put myself in this position."

But then he turned to his battle of wits with the postal inspector.

"I don't actually hold no animosity towards Paul Hartman," Spirko told the jury. "But he did not tell you the truth, not about the statements.

"Why? I can't tell you why. But who am I . . . to call the government liars, the state liars, when I'm a known liar?

"My chances of gettin' up there and telling the truth were nil. But I did tell you the truth. That's the hell of this whole thing. I have told you the truth.

"I feel one thing. I might be bound for hell, but I know Paul Hartman will be right on my tail end. And him and I is going to have a go-around in hell. You can believe that."


Article list

Give me polygraph in Spirko case

October 16, 2005

By Bob Paynter; Projects Editor and Sandra Livingston; Reporter
The Plain Dealer

The former house painter who divulged a 15-year-old secret in 1997 about who might have killed an Elgin, Ohio, postmaster is challenging federal authorities to give him a lie-detector test.

John Willier told a Wyandot County investigator eight years ago that the man he painted houses with in Findlay in the summer of 1982 was involved in Betty Jane Mottinger’s murder that August and threatened to kill him if he ever told. But federal officials have never contacted him about the allegation.

With death-row inmate John Spirko set to be executed next month for Mottinger’s murder, Willier told The Plain Dealer on Friday that he is just as willing to talk to officials now as he was in 1997.

He said he’s just as convinced that the shroud Mottinger’s body was wrapped in is the very tarp that his boss, Dale Dingus, used on a painting job about the time of the murder.

And he’s just as troubled as Jim Bedra — a member of the Ohio Parole Board — that law enforcement officials have never followed up on his assertions about Mottinger’s death.

Last week, at Spirko’s second clemency hearing before the parole board, Bedra pressed state officials about why they have never reached out to Willier, even though the information he provided about a possible killer has been known for more than eight years.

It’s "very strange," Willier agreed on Friday in a telephone interview. "Nobody has got ahold of me."

Mottinger was kidnapped from her tiny, rural post office on Aug. 9, 1982, and was stabbed at least 13 times. Her body, wrapped in a paint-splattered shroud, was found six weeks later in a soybean field a few hundred yards from the rented house trailer where Willier lived.

He was considered a suspect early in the investigation, but investigators lost interest in him in late 1982, as they focused on Spirko.

Dingus, Willier’s boss that summer, was running his painting business out of a barn on U.S. 224, also less than a quarter-mile from the spot where Mottinger’s body was found.

On Aug. 1, 1997, while being questioned on an unrelated matter by William Latham, an investigator for the Wyandot County prosecutor’s office, Willier disclosed that Dingus was involved in Mottinger’s kidnapping and murder, both of which followed a botched drug pickup by Dingus and others at the Elgin post office.

In a letter in December from the Avoyelles Correctional Center in Louisiana, where he was serving a 25-year sentence for rape, Dingus told The Plain Dealer he had no involvement in Mottinger’s death.

On Friday, Willier said authorities investigating the murder showed him a piece of the paint-splattered shroud and he recognized it as part of the dropcloth he and Dingus had been using to paint a Findlay house that summer.

"I am 99-point-nine-tenths sure that that tarp came from that painting job," Willier said. And, he said, besides the owner of the house, Dingus was the only one who had access to the tarp.

"That’s the key thing that has me baffled over the years," Willier said. "Look, if this guy — this John Spirko — if he don’t know me and I don’t know him and he don’t know Dingus and Dingus don’t know him, how the hell did he get the tarp?"

Willier lives in a small town in Tennessee and works in the cable industry. He declined to discuss the specifics of his 1997 statement to Latham, although he said he stands by it.

But Willier did say he is more than willing to talk to federal authorities — and he’s eager to take a lie-detector test about his assertions to Latham, both to finally clear his own name and to help reopen the investigation. He said he offered to take a lie-detector test in 1982 to prove he wasn’t involved in the murder, but has never been given one.

"I’ve been out of trouble since 1988," Willier said, referring to a past scarred by drug involvement and criminal convictions. "I’m very clean now. I’m married. I go to church and everything. I just want this to leave me alone."

But he also expressed some sympathy for Spirko’s situation.

"I think about it a lot," Willier said. "It has me bothered. Because what if there is an innocent person there. And what if the guy that actually did it — or guys or whoever — are walking free?"

Parole board member Bedra sounded a similar theme on Wednesday, although not necessarily on Spirko’s behalf. Bedra described Willier’s story as a legitimate lead, especially in light of 1984 testimony by a forensic scientist called by the defense. The expert testified that paint on the shroud matched paint that Willier and Dingus had been applying to Findlay homes that summer.

Bedra challenged state officials to pursue Willier’s story in the interest of justice — for Mottinger and her family.

Everyone agrees that more than one offender was involved, Bedra said. Regardless of whether Spirko is guilty or innocent, he said, "we can all assume that one or more offenders is still out there. I think the state missed a window of opportunity."

Bedra urged officials — especially Van Wert County Prosecutor Charles Kennedy, in whose county the crime occurred — to follow up. "Who knows what you’ll find?" Bedra said.

It could not be determined if Kennedy plans to heed Bedra’s advice. He could not be reached Friday.

Charles Wille, an assistant Ohio attorney general, expressed skepticism at Wednesday’s hearing that any evidence could be found now to corroborate Willier’s account.

When asked Friday whether the attorney general’s office would try to find Willier, spokeswoman Kim Norris said in an e-mail that a federal judge had already determined that the Willier issues weren’t relevant because they didn’t prove Spirko was innocent.

Bedra’s suggestion followed the videotaped testimony of Wyandot County investigator Latham, who has broken ranks with the law enforcement community to appear on Spirko’s behalf at both of his clemency hearings.

Latham has said he found Willier’s story far more credible than the prosecution theory that put Spirko on death row.

No physical evidence implicated Spirko, and nothing was found to link the lifelong criminal and admitted con man to Elgin, Mottinger or the area outside Findlay where her body was found.

In fact, investigators had never heard of Spirko until he came forward, saying he had information about the crime he wanted to trade for lenient treatment for himself and his girlfriend in an unrelated case.

Spirko was convicted largely on the basis of his own testimony and a series of jailhouse interviews he gave to former postal inspector Paul Hartman. During both, state attorneys say, he revealed details about the case that only the killer could know — an assertion his attorneys vigorously dispute.

Spirko’s lawyers offered an alternative theory at the 1984 trial that Mottinger was murdered in Willier’s trailer. Dingus was also living there temporarily about that time.

Latham has said that Willier’s story, coupled with recent challenges to Hartman’s credibility and the quality of the evidence, raises questions about whether Spirko had anything to do with the Mottinger slaying.

Although he alerted the U.S. Postal Inspection Service about Willier’s account several times by phone eight years ago, Latham said no attempt has been made to follow up.

Recently filed court documents show that Latham’s calls in 1997 inspired a flurry of memos between postal officials in Washington and Cleveland, where Hartman was based at the time.

The documents had been in Hartman’s files, which were made public only recently, after a federal judge’s order.

According to the memos, postal officials in Washington seemed ready to come to Ohio to interview Willier.

But Hartman, the investigator most responsible for putting Spirko on death row, was dismissive of the Willier story, telling his boss in one September 1997 memo that "this whole thing sounds like a defense ploy to me."

Describing Willier at the time as a "goofy, 19-year-old kid," Hartman said a fellow investigator described him as so unreliable "that even if you knew it was raining, and Willier told you it was, you’d have to look out the window just to verify the fact for yourself."

In fact, Hartman wrote, "I read this as an ex-convict trying to do a favor for Spirko, a convict; and that Willier has a beef with Dingus."

Still, after speaking with Latham, Hartman recommended that if the Washington investigators wanted to interview Willier they "bring along the polygraph examiner, so that we can work this out and get to the bottom of the entire matter."

But after he spoke to Hartman on Sept. 9, 1997, Latham said he never heard from postal authorities.

Latham met with Willier again, along with Spirko’s attorneys, two years later and reported that no one had contacted Willier either.

Willier said on Friday that he has heard nothing from anyone since.

He said he initially talked to Latham in hopes of bringing attention to the issues because things didn’t seem right. Now he would like to clarify them for good and move on.

"Just to clear people’s minds, hey, let’s get it on. Let’s do this lie-detector test and then leave me alone from then on for the rest of my life."

Plain Dealer news researcher Jo Ellen Corrigan contributed to this story.


Article list

Unresolved issues, undisclosed evidence cited in Spirko case

October 30, 2005

By Bob Paynter
The Plain Dealer

Three members of the Ohio Parole Board, not convinced that John Spirko committed murder 23 years ago, asked the state’s lawyers a series of pointed questions during Spirko’s Oct. 12 clemency hearing.

Many of the doubts they raised about the case were fueled by information that was unknown to the jury that convicted Spirko in 1984 and to many of the appellate court judges who have since declined to grant him relief.

Attorneys for the state argued, to the apparent satisfaction of the board majority, that Spirko’s own words — to investigators and to the jury — were enough to convict him of robbing the tiny Elgin post office on Aug. 9, 1982, and of kidnapping and fatally stabbing Postmaster Betty Jane Mottinger in the process.

And they produced recent declarations from four of the original jurors that they stand by their verdict.

But that wasn’t enough for board members Ellen Venters, Jim Bedra and Sandra Mack. "There is too much residual doubt," they told Gov. Bob Taft in their dissent, "to execute John Spirko."

Question: Why, when dealing with a lifelong liar like John Spirko, does the state’s case rely almost exclusively on what Spirko said, not what he did? “Where is the conduct?”— board member Ellen Venters.

Here’s what’s known: Spirko was a busy man on Aug. 9, 1982 — the day Betty Jane Mottinger disappeared from her Elgin post office — shuttling between various activities in Toledo and Swanton, two hours to the north. And prosecutors never provided a timetable showing how he could have squeezed in a trip to Elgin and back.

Nor did they have any physical evidence linking Spirko to Elgin, Mottinger or the murder scene.

In fact, Spirko never appeared on investigators’ radar until nearly three months after the crime, when he contacted them. The career criminal and habitual liar said he had information he wanted to trade in return for lenient treatment for his girlfriend and himself in an unrelated case.

In more than a dozen untaped interviews that followed, Spirko told investigators a series of gruesome, ever-changing tall tales about what he said he knew about the Mottinger murder.

Investigators tried to chase down Spirko’s many leads but came up with nothing.

They argued that, embedded among the lies, Spirko’s stories contained details that showed he knew things only the killer could know — something they say he acknowledged in a letter to his girlfriend. The letter was as filled with bravado as his interviews.

What’s never been clear is where the details came from. Many had been reported in various news outlets before Spirko came forward. And others, Spirko’s lawyers argue, might have been supplied — deliberately or inadvertently — by investigators.

One of the details was a description of Mottinger’s purse. Spirko first told one postal inspector he had seen a canvas "sack." Two days later, Spirko met with another inspector who had earlier gotten a detailed description of Mottinger’s purse from her family. Suddenly, Spirko’s vague description radically changed, matching almost verbatim the one given to the inspector weeks earlier, including a precise recitation of the purse’s dimensions.

Other descriptions, like the victim’s clothing, appear to have been added later to an investigator’s notes — in a different handwriting style.

Since none of the key interviews was taped, his attorneys and their experts have questioned whether some of the details were supplied by investigators. The investigators dispute this.

But Spirko never led them to new information to corroborate his stories, a troubling deficiency, according to a national expert on wrongful convictions who appeared before the parole board. And there’s plenty that Spirko didn’t know.

Twice he told investigators he knew nothing about stamps being stolen from the post office, although more than $700 worth had been taken.

Twice he told investigators that Mottinger had been stabbed in the back, but there was no evidence of back wounds.

Spirko twice described the diminutive, 105-pound woman in his stories as "fat."

It was widely reported that her body was found wrapped in a shroud. Prosecutors claimed that Spirko knew what the shroud looked like (he said it was "gray") and how Mottinger’s body was wrapped (shroud "flapped . . . end to end over head"). But Spirko didn’t appear to know the most memorable facts about either.

He said nothing about two concrete blocks wrapped with the body, or about the rope and duct tape used to bind the shroud around her neck, waist and legs. And he didn’t appear to know the most obvious detail about the shroud — that it was covered with paint spots, a fact that led every investigator at the scene to describe it as a painter’s dropcloth.

(A former house painter disclosed in 1997 that the shroud matched the dropcloth he and his boss used on painting jobs that summer, near where Mottinger’s body was found, and that his boss was involved in the crime. Investigators never followed up on the lead.)

Despite what Spirko said and didn’t say, evidence of what he did the day of the crime tends to undercut the prosecution’s case.

Investigators discovered that Spirko — released two weeks earlier from prison in Kentucky — met for more than an hour with his parole officer in Toledo, although it’s not clear at what time.

He went to a doctor’s office with his sister that afternoon, also in Toledo. He also called the Kentucky prison from Swanton that afternoon to inquire about his personal belongings. And he signed for a package at the Swanton post office.

Conclusions: The board majority said Spirko knew details of the crime and that he convicted himself with his own words. On matters like the lack of physical evidence, the content of Spirko’s statements and the quality of his alibi, the majority deferred to the original jury.

Citing the alibi, the dissenters disagreed. With a "plausible" timetable from Spirko, and none at all from the state, "we are again left with residual doubt," they wrote.

Question: Why did the state put John Spirko on trial and not his friend Delaney Gibson, even though both were indicted and the state claimed it had much stronger evidence placing Gibson at the scene of the crime? – board member Ellen Venters.

Here’s what’s known: On the morning of Betty Jane Mottinger’s kidnapping, Elgin resident Opal Seibert said she saw a clean-shaven stranger standing outside the post office beside a two-toned car, with one arm resting on top of the open door. She then saw him drive away minutes later, without anyone else leaving or entering the car.

Mark Lewis, a truck driver, saw a man in exactly the same position, also beside a two-toned car, about the same time.

Unless two men in identical cars stopped by the Elgin post office at the same time that morning and stood wedged between car and door in exactly the same manner, it’s likely that the two witnesses saw the same man, although they described him quite differently.

A few months later, Spirko was wrapping up his final untaped interview with the primary investigator, Postal Inspector Paul Hartman, when he suddenly – and, until recently, inexplicably – changed his story a final time. His best friend and former cellmate, Delaney Gibson, had killed Mottinger, Spirko now said, and told him all about it.

Not long after, Lewis picked Spirko’s photo from a lineup, but said he was only 70 percent sure that was the man he saw that day – hardly beyond a reasonable doubt, even according to the prosecutor.

Seibert picked out an old photo of Gibson. But she said she was 100 percent sure that he was the Elgin stranger – even though Gibson was 20 years younger and half a foot shorter than the man she originally described. She was never asked to identify Gibson in person.

Based on Spirko’s stories and Seibert’s memory, both men were indicted on capital murder charges in September 1983.

Over the next several months, Hartman gathered extensive evidence – evidence that wasn’t disclosed to Spirko or his lawyers for more than a dozen years – indicating that Gibson was nowhere near Elgin the day of the crime and that he didn’t look anything like the old photo that Seibert picked out.

Investigators noted at the time, in an internal memo, that the interviews of Gibson had gone nowhere. So, just before Spirko’s trial, prosecutors released Gibson to Kentucky to face noncapital charges there.

When Spirko went on trial – alone – in August 1984, prosecutors used Seibert’s supposedly unshakeable identification of Gibson to link Spirko to Elgin on the day of the crime.

Gibson, back in Kentucky, was not available to rebut the claim. Spirko and his lawyers contend that prosecutors claimed Gibson was in Elgin on the morning of the crime – despite the undisclosed evidence that he was hundreds of miles away the night before – simply to convict Spirko.

Ohio authorities have never tried to bring Gibson to trial. After serving time for a Kentucky murder, Gibson was paroled in 2001. The Mottinger charges against him were quietly dropped last year.

At Spirko’s clemency hearing, Venters wanted to know why prosecutors released the 100 percent suspect before putting their 70 percent defendant on trial. The state’s attorneys said they weren’t involved in the case at the time and didn’t know.

Spirko’s lawyers say their client stuck to the Gibson story during the trial – even though it was just as false as the other tales he spun for investigators – because he didn’t have the evidence to disprove the state’s claim that Gibson was there.

Had they been given the evidence that Gibson was nowhere near Elgin that day, they say, Spirko’s final story would have fallen apart, just as all the previous ones had.

Conclusions: The board majority didn’t agree that prosecutors intentionally withheld evidence of Gibson’s alibi, and said Spirko’s lawyers made a "strategic decision" not to pursue it.

The dissenters found the state’s persistence in using Gibson’s purported presence in Elgin to convict Spirko to be another cause for doubt. Earlier, they had described the tactic as "death by association."

"We cannot ignore the possibility that Gibson was 600 miles away when the offense was committed," they wrote. "This possibility causes residual doubt."

Question: Why would the primary investigator and star witness against John Spirko "reverse his testimony" by declaring recently that he never believed a key piece of evidence used to convict Spirko in the first place? — board member Jim Bedra.

Here’s what’s known: On at least three occasions in the past 18 months — twice in tape-recorded interviews — retired Postal Inspector Paul Hartman disclosed that he never believed that Spirko’s best friend, Delaney Gibson, was involved in Betty Jane Mottinger’s murder and that he told the prosecutor as much at the time.

The revelation was critical because the prosecution used Gibson’s alleged involvement — bolstered by an eyewitness who said she was certain she saw him outside Mottinger’s tiny post office at 8:30 a.m. the day of the crime — to help convict Spirko in 1984.

Hartman said he concluded Gibson wasn’t involved in part because of evidence that he gathered — including dozens of photographs and several witness statements — that placed Gibson hundreds of miles from Elgin the evening before the crime. That evidence was not provided to Spirko’s lawyers until 13 years after their client’s conviction.

Hartman later claimed under oath that he made these disclosures to "mislead" a reporter and Spirko’s lawyers.

When pressed at Spirko’s clemency hearing two weeks ago, state attorneys said they could not explain Hartman’s statements about Gibson’s role.

But one possible explanation lies in a 22-year-old memo that suggests that it was Hartman who had lured Spirko into implicating Gibson in the first place.

Hartman knew all about Gibson from an extensive background investigation he conducted after learning that the two men had spent time in prison together.

By early 1983, Hartman had already listened to a host of Spirko stories during more than a dozen jailhouse interviews, stories that he had tried in vain to corroborate. Gibson’s name had never come up.

But in one of their last interviews, Hartman acknowledged in an internal memo, he steered their conversation to Bear Branch, the tiny Kentucky hamlet that both men knew was Gibson’s home. That’s just the kind of coaxing that can taint an interrogation, experts say.

Spirko took the bait. The next day, he suddenly changed his story, saying for the first time that Gibson killed Mottinger and told him all about it.

Coupled with the dubious Gibson identification by the state’s eyewitness, that story — repeated by Spirko from the witness stand — provided the crux of the state’s case. But questions about the source of the Gibson story cast a shadow on other claims Hartman made about Spirko as well.

All of the revelations Spirko was said to have made about the crime — including a purported confession — came during untaped interviews, virtually all with Hartman. With several revelations, most notably a description of the victim’s clothing, the critical details appear to have been added later to Hartman’s original notes.

Questions have been raised about other details as well.

The state has stressed Spirko’s purported knowledge of the "pried stone" — a tiny rhinestone found to be missing from a $7.99 ring found on Mottinger’s body.

Given its size and quality, the stone is just as likely to have fallen out during a struggle as to have been pried out. But the fact that the stone was missing was never publicly reported. In his notes and testimony, Hartman said that Spirko told him that one of the characters in his stories pried it loose.

But Spirko testified he knew nothing about a stone until Hartman brought it up, quoting the investigator as telling him that the man he was after is " 'that stinkin’ son of a bitch that pried that stone out of her ring.' That’s the first time I heard anything about a ring."

Questions about Hartman’s notes also figure in the story of Spirko’s purported confession.

On the last day of Spirko’s trial, Hartman testified that Spirko had confessed to him in early 1983 — that during one of their final interviews, Spirko had blurted out: "Lay it all on me. I killed her."

Curiously, Hartman had testified in detail about that interview several days earlier and had never mentioned any such confession. Nor did any mention of it appear in sworn statements Hartman made about the evidence in the case.

His interview notes were silent on the matter as well.

"I don’t believe that that is in my notes," Hartman told the jury.

Conclusions: The board majority said it wasn’t convinced that any recent Hartman falsehoods proved that he doctored the Spirko interviews or lied during his trial testimony.

The dissenters described Hartman’s "apparent deceitful conduct" as "reprehensible," saying it lent credence to claims by Spirko’s lawyers that the key witness against their client is not believable.

"We are once again wrought by residual doubt," they wrote.

Key dates in Spirko case

1982

Aug. 9: Postmaster Betty Jane Mottinger, 48, is abducted in Elgin, Ohio.

Sept. 18: Her decomposed body, stabbed repeatedly and wrapped in a painter’s dropcloth, is found in soybean field near Findlay.

Oct. 31: John Spirko contacts authorities, offering information. He gives more than a dozen jailhouse interviews over next 10 weeks.

1983

Sept 13: Spirko and friend Delaney Gibson are indicted in Mottinger’s murder.

1984

August: Spirko is tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

1997

May: Spirko attorneys obtain undisclosed evidence questioning case.

August: Onetime house painter claims former boss is involved in Mottinger murder; authorities never follow up.

2005

March: U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear Spirko case, capping 15 years of fruitless appeals.

Oct. 19: By 6-3 vote, Ohio Parole Board recommends against clemency.

Nov. 15: Spirko is scheduled to die.


Article list

Taft must decide if doubts justify reprieve for Spirko

October 30, 2005

By Bob Paynter; Projects Editor and Sandra Livingston; Reporter
The Plain Dealer

In the six years since executions resumed in Ohio, Gov. Bob Taft has never found a compelling reason to reject a death-penalty recommendation from the Ohio Parole Board.

He’s gotten 19 recommendations from the board – all but one advocating execution – and he has followed them every time.

But never before has Taft received a parole board report like the one he got two weeks ago in the case of John Spirko, with so many board members expressing such profound doubt about whether an inmate was guilty.

After two daylong clemency hearings, the board has twice voted 6-3 against clemency for Spirko. But after the second hearing on Oct. 12, the three dissenters didn’t just disagree. They gave Taft a litany of what they described as “compelling factors” that raise doubt about whether Spirko should be executed in a little more than two weeks for the 1982 slaying of Elgin, Ohio, postmaster Betty Jane Mottinger.

In only one other death-penalty case during Taft’s tenure have three dissenters argued for clemency. But their reasons in that case stemmed from the inmate’s youth and his parents’ neglect – not from doubts about actual guilt.

In Spirko’s case, however, the dissenters raised three basic questions about his 1984 conviction. They questioned the quality of the evidence against him, the fairness of the prosecution and the credibility of the key investigator and primary accuser.

But unless Taft or the courts intervene, John Spirko will die Nov. 15.

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