WAUSEON – Craig Rupp had been dating Lori Ann Hill for a couple of weeks when she got angry and left a party they'd gone to together.
Mr. Rupp, who was 18 at the time, testified Tuesday in Fulton County Common Pleas Court that he never saw the 14-year-old Swanton girl alive again. She vanished that night, Oct. 25, 1985, and was found beaten to death four days later in woods along Fulton County Road M.
Mr. Rupp, now 45, was the first witness to take the stand in the trial of Walter Zimbeck II, 45, of Strawberry Plains, Tenn., who is charged with aggravated murder and murder in Miss Hill's slaying.
Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman painted Mr. Zimbeck as a jealous, possessive, and controlling ex-boyfriend of Miss Hill's who was distraught over their recent break-up, and who, like the cliche, felt if he couldn't have her, no one could.
"Walter Zimbeck is a killer, and the evidence in this case will show that for 27 years he has gotten away with the murder of that girl, Lori Hill," Mr. Haselman said as he projected on a large screen a smiling image of Miss Hill with braces on her teeth and '80s-styled blond hair.
Back in 1985, he said, Mr. Zimbeck was interviewed by investigators from Swanton, where Miss Hill was last seen, by investigators from the sheriff's office in Fulton County, where her body was found, and by investigators in Lucas County, where she lived. When the cold case unit from Toledo Police reopened the case in 2008 and began comparing statements each agency had collected, they saw that Mr. Zimbeck had told different stories about where he was the night Miss Hill disappeared -- inconsistencies that led to his indictment in her murder.
Defense attorney Amber VanGunten told the jury that lies and circumstantial evidence do not support a guilty verdict. She said her client's fate should depend on the facts, not a theory unsupported by evidence.
Most damaging, she said, is the fact that DNA evidence recovered from Miss Hill's body does not match Mr. Zimbeck.
"It's science, ladies and gentlemen, that comes directly from evidence collected from Lori Ann Hill at autopsy, and this science has been waiting for more than 26 years to tell its story," she said. "And it's not the story that the Toledo Police cold case unit wants to focus on."
The jury was driven to Swanton to view the spots where Miss Hill was last seen and then into a rural area where her body was found before prosecutors began calling witnesses in the trial that's expected to last up to three weeks.
Though they are now in their 40s, several former classmates and friends of Miss Hill took the stand and described how they knew the 14-year-old freshman at Swanton High School, how she was not sure which boy's company she preferred -- Mr. Rupp, whom she was dating at the time, or Mr. Zimbeck whom she had dated for more than a year.
"I remember her being confused about which boy she was really interested in dating," recalled Rhonda Hall, who described Miss Hill as a "pretty close" friend.
Steve Nowakowski said he was a senior at Swanton when he met Miss Hill in an art class where they sat at the same table.
The night she disappeared, Mr. Nowakowski said, he had been at the same party earlier that evening and later saw Miss Hill walking and stopped to talk to her, find out what was going on, ask if he could give her a ride home.
"She was very distraught, crying," he recalled. "She had been crying very, very hard. Her face was red. She just wasn't herself."
Mr. Nowakowski said Miss Hill had argued with Mr. Rupp at the party after he saw her wearing both his class ring and another boy's ring.
He said she got into his car, but they drove just a block and a half or so when she saw headlights behind them and thought it was her boyfriend.
"She just went crazy after that, wanted out of the car," he said. " …She was going to get out of the car whether I stopped the car or not."
He said he last saw her walking toward Mr. G's Pizza, a popular hangout at the time for teenagers. "I then proceeded to go home. I didn't think anything of it," he said.
Testimony is to resume at 9 a.m. today.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.41.54922 -84.14162
Man charged with murder in 1985 death of girlfriend Lori Ann Hill.