SEVIER COUNTY (TENN.) SHERIFF'S DEPT. Enlarge
For 24 years, Rachel Hill Barton waited to see an arrest in her teenage sister’s 1985 murder.
And for 15 months, the Fulton County woman waited again to learn if the man once charged with the crime eventually would stand trial.
Friday, the wait — at least some of it — was over.
The Sixth District Court of Appeals reversed a Fulton County judge’s decision to dismiss the aggravated murder charges against Walter E. Zimbeck II, 43, of Strawberry Plains, Tenn. The reversal means Mr. Zimbeck is once again charged with aggravated murder and murder in the death of Lori Ann Hill, 14.
“I am so grateful,” Mrs. Barton said Friday, fighting back tears. “This has not all been in vain, the last 27 years. It’s still sad, but I’m so happy that … he won’t get away with it.”
Formerly of Maumee, Mr. Zimbeck was indicted in July, 2009, and charged in Miss Hill’s slaying. The Swanton teenager disappeared after a Halloween party Oct. 25, 1985. Four days later, her body was found in a field near Wauseon.
Mr. Zimbeck, who was an ex-boyfriend of the victim, was questioned by investigators at the time, but no charges were filed. The case, which was investigated by both Lucas County and Fulton County detectives, eventually went cold.
In 2008, at the urging of Mrs. Barton, the case was reopened by the Toledo-Lucas County cold-case unit and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office. After an eight-month investigation, Mr. Zimbeck was arrested at his home near Knoxville, Tenn.
In January, 2010, Fulton County Common Pleas Judge James Barber dismissed the case against Mr. Zimbeck, saying it was unlikely a fair trial could be held and a fair verdict reached. The ruling stated the lengthy delay caused “actual and substantial prejudice.”
In a 23-page opinion released Friday, the appellate court disagreed.
Instead, the three-judge panel concluded “that the state has shown a justifiable reason for its delay in prosecuting Zimbeck and, accordingly, the lower court erred in dismissing the criminal charges against him.”
The opinion, written by Judge Mark Pietrykowski with Judges Arlene Singer and Thomas Osowik concurring, noted that it was new evidence that led investigators to suspect Mr. Zimbeck.
“Investigators did not begin to suspect Zimbeck until the cold case unit gathered the records from the Fulton County and Lucas County investigations and compared them,” the opinions stated.
“…There is nothing in the record to suggest that the state delayed its prosecution of Zimbeck to intentionally gain a tactical advantage over him. Rather, it was new evidence, by way of witnesses’ statements, that directed investigators’ attention to Zimbeck,” the appellate court opined.
The court further disagreed with the lower court’s opinion that Mr. Zimbeck’s own statements to police at the time of the initial investigation could not be considered “new evidence.”
“The lower court further disparaged the state’s use of Zimbeck’s ‘inconsistent’ statements as ‘new’ evidence in the case,” the court opined. “Zimbeck’s statements to investigators, however, are far more than simply inconsistent. He admitted that both of his 1985 statements were lies.”
The court found, “It is well-settled that ‘lies told by an accused are admissible evidence of consciousness of guilt, and thus of guilt itself.’?”
In a written statement released Friday, Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman expressed pleasure with the appellate court’s decision. “I look forward to receiving a new trial date from the Common Pleas Court,” the statement said.
Mr. Zimbeck’s attorneys, Amber VanGunten and Gregory VanGunten, could not be reached for comment.
Miss Hill was last seen on South Berkey-Southern Road, about 100 yards from her home. On Oct. 29, 1985, a deer hunter found Miss Hill’s naked body in a wooded area about seven miles northeast of Wauseon. The coroner ruled that she had been beaten by an object such as a tire iron.
Toledo police Detective Bart Beavers of the department’s cold-case unit said yesterday that he was pleased with the decision.
A member of the team that reopened Miss Hill’s murder case, Detective Beavers said investigators often encounter obstacles when attempting to solve old homicides.
“These old cases are difficult and, as in any case that goes back 20 years, you’re going to have these hurdles to overcome,” he said. “It’s comforting that the appeals court looked at the totality of the case and will let us move forward.”
Mr. Zimbeck, who was released from custody when the case was dismissed, is out on $1,000 bond set pending the appeal. Authorities said he returned to his home in Tennessee after his release.
According to common pleas court records, no court date has yet been set.
Mrs. Barton said she is looking forward to seeing Mr. Zimbeck back in court facing charges for her sister’s murder.
She said she has had fitful sleep every Thursday night since the case was brought to the court of appeals, knowing that decisions are typically released the next day.
Friday, some of that stress, worry, and anger slipped away.
“I realized he is going to stand trial and the tears just started to fall,” she said of hearing the news.
“I looked up and said, ‘Mom, Dad, Lori, did you see it? Did you know?’
“I told them, ‘We did it. We did it.’”
Contact Erica Blake at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.