'Sometimes I wonder if death ain't better'
Inmate still maintains innocence 16 years after being convicted of kidnapping and raping three women.
By Laura A. Bischoff
Sunday, June 03, 2007
FAIRBORN, OH - The binder reflected nearly four years' worth of research by the Ohio Innocence Project, a legal clinic at the University of Cincinnati law school that has freed other inmates, including Clarence Elkins.
But unlike Elkins, who was released from prison after DNA evidence implicated another man in the murder and rape of his mother-in-law and rape of his 6-year-old niece, Gillispie doesn't have scientific evidence to fall back on.
Martin Yant, a Columbus-based private investigator who specializes in wrongful convictions, estimates it's 10 times more difficult to prove innocence without DNA testing.
"The more DNA is successful, the more it seems the system is not going to listen to people who don't have DNA (evidence.) It's sort of a two-edged sword," Yant says.
In 1991, a Montgomery County jury found Gillispie guilty of kidnapping twin sisters at gunpoint from a strip mall and raping them on Aug. 20, 1988. He was also convicted of a third woman's rape and kidnapping that occurred on Aug. 5, 1988.
Defense attorney Dennis Lieberman got him a second trial when untested evidence surfaced just after the first trial. Although no physical evidence tied Gillispie to the crimes, jurors gave more weight to the emotional, detailed testimony of the three victims, all of whom identified Gillispie as the rapist. The second jury found Gillispie guilty too.
Montgomery County Assistant Prosecutor Paul Folfas, who tried the case both times and opposed parole, said there's been no mistake: Gillispie is the attacker.
"We could argue this case forever. But the fact is we argued this case twice. Twenty-four people convicted this particular individual in a very well-tried defense by the two defense attorneys," Folfas said. "It was not a slipshod defense. It was an excellent defense. The jury was still convinced beyond a reasonable doubt to convict this man. And it was affirmed on appeal too."
Gillispie has steadfastly maintained his innocence, even as it appeared to hurt his chances for parole. An inmate who doesn't admit responsibility for the crime is not likely to get out on his first try for parole, attorneys and former prisoners say.
Gillispie, 42, says, "If I wanted to admit something, I'd have admitted it back when they offered me 30 days in jail. Take 30 days, plead it down. Well I didn't do nothing. I didn't do nothing. Why would I say I done something that I didn't do?"
In denying his request for parole, the Parole Board set the next hearing for Feb. 1, 2011, which would mark Gillispie's 20th year in prison. But there's a chance the board will reconsider. One of the reasons the board gave for denying parole this time is that Gillispie did not participate in a sex offender program — when, in fact, he had.
Chairwoman Cynthia Mausser confirmed that Gillispie completed a short mandated program, a fact she said she would bring to the board's attention when it meets June 11 and 12. Mausser said the board will then vote whether to rehear the case, although she said she personally doesn't think it merits a rehearing.
Aug. 20, 1988
The kidnapping happened so fast no one even saw the gunman get into the car. The 22-year-old twin sisters from Sidney were on a mission to buy a bridal shower gift near the Dayton Mall when, at about 7 p.m., they ducked into a store on Springboro Pike, leaving empty-handed a few minutes later.
As they hopped into their car, they were approached by a man about 6-foot, 3-inches tall and 250 pounds who said he was from store security. In a matter of seconds, the man pushed his way into the backseat, pulled out a small, silver handgun and jabbed it against one sister's right ribs.
"I need a ride out of town. I want to go to Columbus," the man said, smelling of alcohol. While the one sister drove, the other sister stole brief glances at the man's face and began committing details to memory: mustache, brown hair that curls at the end and has a reddish tint, wide face, suntanned, acne along the jaw, bushy eyebrows above the large sunglasses that hid his eyes.
"If you do everything I say, I won't hurt you or kill you," the man said again and again.
When they came to Bear Creek bridge in northwest Miami Twp., he ordered them out of the car, grabbed two bandanas from the rearview mirror and marched the sisters single file more than 60 yards into heavily secluded woods.
No one saw them. No one heard them.
After forcing them to perform oral sex on him, the rapist blindfolded the sisters and walked them back to the car, told them to lie down in the back seat, and made small talk as he drove them back to the mall parking lot — asking about their jobs and love lives as though he had just met them in a bar.
He parceled out details about himself as well, saying his name was Roger, that he was a contract killer from Columbus and Corpus Christi, Texas, and that he was raped by his grandfather at age 12.
"I'm going to leave the radio on," he told them after pulling to a stop and rifling through their purses. "After two songs play, you can get up. ... If you bob your heads before that, I'll kill you."
Fearful he might be watching them, the twins didn't go to the police. Instead, they drove to a nearby gas station for soda pop and cigarettes, and then went home to Sidney. Their father drove them to the Miami Twp. police station at about 1 a.m., and within a few days, the police had a composite drawing of the attacker.
After the media picked up the sensational story, a Harrison Twp. woman reported that she too had been forced at gunpoint by an attacker to drive from a strip mall to a secluded area and perform oral sex. Her attacker smoked, wore a gold medallion around his neck, and was tall, heavy, very tan, and mustached.
Police concluded the same man pulled off both attacks.
'You've got the wrong person here'
Despite all the initial publicity, the case went cold.
Then, after nearly two years, the investigation took a turn. Rick Wolfe, a GM security supervisor at Harrison Radiator where Gillispie worked as a part-time guard, handed over Gillispie's employee ID photo to Miami Twp. Police Officer Scott Moore. Wolfe, a former Miami Twp. cop himself, said co-workers thought Gillispie, who had just been fired, resembled the composite drawing.
Moore passed it along to Detectives Gary Bailey and Steve Fritz, who quickly ruled Gillispie out as a suspect: He didn't fit the physical description and had no criminal history. By mid-June, though, Fritz had left the department to become a private detective and Bailey had retired. It was Moore's turn to take a crack at the case, and he decided to put Gillispie back on the suspect list.
Moore assembled a photo lineup and called the twins in for a look, telling them he had a possible suspect. In the lineup, Gillispie's photo was all but circled and starred. His face was bigger in the frame than most of the others, the photo was on a yellow background and it was a matte finish. The other photos were on blue backgrounds and were glossy.
With Moore beside her, one of the twins picked out Gillispie, initially saying she was 90 percent sure. The next morning, she drove her sister to the station to look at the same photos. She, too, picked out Gillispie. Moore then visited the Harrison Twp. woman in her home and she picked out Gillispie as well.
Meanwhile, every time Moore tried to reach his suspect, he was told he was camping in Kentucky. When he finally sent a letter threatening Gillispie with arrest if he didn't show up for questioning, Gillispie went to the police station — without a lawyer.
A month later, Gillispie was sitting on his front porch on Spruce Drive when five Fairborn police cars screech to a halt in front of his house with their guns drawn.
Two friends fetched Juana Gillispie.
"What are you doing! What are you doing! You got the wrong person here," she yelled at the officers.
It is a refrain she would use for the next 16 years.
For a while, Gillispie's chances for an acquittal appeared strong. Fritz, the former Miami Twp. detective hired by Lieberman to dig into the two-year-old case, started uncovering things that convinced him Gillispie was innocent.
He thought the photo lineups were unreliable. Gillispie's photograph stood out, the sisters viewed the photos on different days — allowing one sister to tell the other which photo she picked — and there was a two-year gap between the crimes and photo lineup. Plus, the police department never arranged a physical lineup.
Gillispie also didn't resemble the victims' initial description of their attacker. The attacker had reddish-brown hair, no chest hair, a loud commanding voice, no accent, bushy eyebrows and a dark suntan. He was also a smoker, wore cologne and smelled of alcohol. Gillispie had brown hair that grayed at the sides, a cleft chin, thick chest hair, pale skin, a Kentucky drawl and rarely wore cologne. Friends say he rarely drank and never smoked.
Gillispie also is pretty sure he was camping in Kentucky the night the twins were attacked. But Lieberman struck out trying to prove Gillispie's alibi — in part because he couldn't find campground records from that weekend — and in the end, the eyewitness testimony from the victims was too much to overcome.
"That's him. I'll never forget that face," one of the sisters told the jury in the first trial.
Now at London Correctional Institution, Gillispie busies himself with art projects, creating detailed dioramas of scenes now out of his reach: a corner gas station, a backwoods still, a restored Victorian home.
He's logged 12,000 hours of community service, organizing projects such as ordering and selling pies to inmates to raise $10,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation — volunteer work the Parole Board elected not to recognize.
And he hopes Godsey can win him a new trial, resigned to the reality that it's not promised and that even if it happened, there is no guarantee of the outcome.
Roger and Juana Gillispie have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers, telephone calls, prison visits and postage on packages. Their life savings is gone, and they're buried in debt.
They were relieved — and hopeful — when the Ohio Innocence Project agreed to take on Gillispie's case in 2003. Innocence Projects nationwide have freed more than 200 wrongfully convicted inmates.
But Godsey and his law students soon learned that the biological evidence in the Gillispie case either was returned to the victims or is long gone. Still, Godsey says he believes in Gillispie's innocence and is investigating a number of angles, including one involving another suspect.
Fritz, who now lives in Arizona, still shares tips with Godsey that he has received over the years. Among them: that an anonymous caller told him the real rapist was a guard at Lebanon Correctional Institution.
Fritz investigated the guard, confirming his job, interviewing his family members and finding him to be a dead ringer for how the twins described their attacker. Fritz also learned that guard had been arrested on Sept. 27, 1990, in Fairfield for an incident involving taking a drunken woman outside a bar to his apartment, pretending to be a police officer and handcuffing her. The case was dismissed when the woman refused to cooperate.
The man went to prison in 2001 after he was arrested for burglarizing his ex-girlfriend's house in Bellevue, Ky. When Godsey and his investigator tracked him down outside a halfway house in Kentucky, they became even more convinced that he should have been the prime suspect. He had a commanding voice, dark complexion and brown hair with a reddish tint. Although he claimed ignorance about the Gillispie case, he seemed overly curious about it, Godsey said, and referred to the "ladies" without the attorney once telling him there were multiple victims.
Folfas remains unconvinced, saying Godsey's information on the ex-prison guard is speculative and doesn't merit reopening the case.
"I understand why the family is fighting for (Gillispie) and what their beliefs are as far as him being innocent," Moore said. "I just find it hard to believe that he is innocent due to the fact that I have three victims, and all three positively identify him without issue and within taking no time at all."
Folfas echoes Moore.
All three victims saw the attacker up close, for a long time and in good lighting. "You go through something that traumatic, I'd think that would leave an indelible memory in your mind as to what this rapist did to you," Folfas said.
All three victims declined to comment for this story. But after reading Godsey's brief to the Parole Board, the twins' father said, "It looks to me like the man is innocent."
Godsey said he will keep fighting. His team will turn the binder submitted to the Parole Board into a motion for a new trial sometime this summer. After that, it could be Thanksgiving by the time the courts make a ruling.
Meanwhile, Gillispie yearns for a chance to reclaim his life.
"This is the worst thing you can do to anyone without killing them," he says. "Send them to prison for something they didn't do. Sometimes I wonder if death ain't better."