WAUSEON – It took 27 years to bring a suspect to trial in the murder of 14-year-old Lori Ann Hill. It took 11 hours, spread over three days, for a jury to conclude it could not agree on whether Walter Zimbeck II was guilty of the 1985 murder.
Visiting Judge Sumner Walters declared a mistrial in the case Friday after the seven-man, five-woman jury in Fulton County Common Pleas Court informed him about 11:15 a.m. that it could not reach a unanimous verdict. The jury was sent home, and Mr. Zimbeck, 45, of Strawberry Plains, Tenn., remains charged with murder. He is free on bond but must continue to stay in Ohio on electronic home monitoring.
Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman declined to comment on the three-week trial's outcome and would not say whether he will retry Mr. Zimbeck.
A pretrial hearing in the case was scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday before Judge Walters.
"The judge is giving us a week to figure out where we are, where we go, and that's what we're going to do," Mr. Haselman said, refusing to elaborate.
"If we retry this, I have an obligation to make sure this is done fairly, so I can't say anything now that will prejudice anybody's rights," he said. "That's why at this point, I don't really have anything else to say. If it had come to a verdict one way or the other, I would have a lot to say."
The murder victim's relatives were not in the courtroom when Judge Walters announced the jury was hung, but in the parking lot outside the courthouse they were distraught.
Rachel Hill Barton, the victim's sister, walked angrily in the direction of a minivan that defense attorney Amber VanGunten had entered, but a deputy approached her and defused the situation.
She and other family members then met privately with Mr. Haselman. They declined to comment afterward.
Miss Hill, a freshman at Swanton High School, disappeared the night of Oct. 25, 1985, after attending a Halloween party at a friend's home in Swanton. She was last seen walking nearby on South Berkey-Southern Road but never came home.
Four days later, a deer hunter found her naked body in a wooded area north of Wauseon. The coroner ruled she had beaten with a blunt object, such as a tire iron.
At the time, Mr. Zimbeck was her 18-year-old ex-boyfriend. Prosecutors said Miss Hill had recently broken up with him, and he was jealous. Still, scant physical evidence was presented at trial to directly tie Mr. Zimbeck to her disappearance and death.
Ms. VanGunten declined to talk about the case because of the likelihood that she and her father, Gregory VanGunten, will be representing Mr. Zimbeck in a retrial.
"That's what it's looking like," she said.
Mr. Zimbeck, who has no criminal record, was questioned but was not charged in the case in 1985.
It was not until the Toledo-Lucas County cold-case unit reopened the investigation late in 2008 that detectives began focusing on Mr. Zimbeck, largely because they discovered he had given different alibis to different agencies that worked on Miss Hill's murder.
Mr. Zimbeck was indicted by a Fulton County grand jury in July, 2009, on charges of murder and aggravated murder, but in January, 2010, Fulton County Common Pleas Judge James Barber dismissed the case, saying it was unlikely Mr. Zimbeck could get a fair trial after so many years.
In May, 2011, the 6th District Court of Appeals reversed the ruling, and Mr. Zimbeck again was charged with Miss Hill's murder. At that time, Mrs. Barton told The Blade she was relieved.
"I am so grateful," she said last year. "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."
After the defense rested Tuesday, Judge Walters dismissed the more serious charge of aggravated murder against Mr. Zimbeck. Ms. VanGunten said if her client is retried, he would be tried only for murder, not aggravated murder.
Prosecutors had painted Mr. Zimbeck as a jealous, possessive, and controlling ex-boyfriend of Miss Hill's who was distraught over their recent break-up. The defense contended the state had no physical evidence to tie Mr. Zimbeck to the crime, that the male DNA found on a pubic hair from Miss Hill did not match his DNA, and that prosecutors had built their case largely on the grounds that he had lied to investigators.
If convicted of murder, Mr. Zimbeck would have faced 15 years to life in prison.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.