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Published: Monday, 8/20/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Judge drops murder charges in 1985 case

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Walter Zimbeck, 45, is joined by Amber VanGunten, one of his defense attorneys, at her law office in Delta, Ohio. He learned Monday that Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman filed a motion to dismiss all charges against him, and visiting Judge Sumner Walters granted the motion. Walter Zimbeck, 45, is joined by Amber VanGunten, one of his defense attorneys, at her law office in Delta, Ohio. He learned Monday that Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman filed a motion to dismiss all charges against him, and visiting Judge Sumner Walters granted the motion.
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DELTA, Ohio -- Walter Zimbeck misunderstood his attorney Monday morning when he told him, "We're done."

The former Maumee man charged in the 1985 murder of 14-year-old Lori Ann Hill of Swanton thought Gregory VanGunten meant the pretrial hearing was over. In fact, he meant the murder case that had been hanging over his head since 2009 was done.

To everyone's surprise, Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman filed a motion to dismiss all charges against Mr. Zimbeck, and visiting Judge Sumner Walters granted that motion.

"It was a shock," Mr. Zimbeck said during an interview Monday afternoon at his attorneys' office in Delta. "It was a relief. It's been a long, pressing -- it's been emotional. It's been up and down. … It's all hopefully in the past and I can move forward, but maybe the prosecution's job is not over.

"Maybe they'll continue on. Maybe they'll actually look for the person or persons who did this."

Mr. Zimbeck's jury trial ended in a mistrial last month after all 12 jurors were unable to agree on a verdict. A week later, Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman announced he would retry Mr. Zimbeck on the charges.

Mr. Haselman declined to comment Monday but issued a statement saying that his office had spoken with the jurors in the case and decided to dismiss it for now. What the jurors told him, he said, caused him "to conclude that, while a majority of the members of any future jury would, in all likelihood and in a manner similar to the original jury, vote to convict the defendant of Miss Hill's murder, the chances of another 'hung jury' are so significant that a retrial of this matter should not be undertaken at this time."

Mr. Zimbeck, 45, of Strawberry Plains, Tenn., promptly turned in the electronic monitoring device he has worn around his ankle since December. He is a free man, free to return to his home in Tennessee and his 5-year-old daughter, though he said he will stay in Ohio until he has completed some home remodeling jobs he'd been working on while awaiting his second trial in September.

Though the dismissal was a welcome turn of events, he said he had hoped to be exonerated at a second trial. He had declined multiple plea deals, the last of which would have had him entering an Alford plea to two misdemeanors -- negligent homicide and assault -- and receiving credit for the six months he spent in jail after his 2009 indictment.

"If I plead guilty to something that I didn't do then they will never go looking for the person who actually killed Lori, and I wasn't willing to compromise that," Mr. Zimbeck said.

He spoke fondly of Miss Hill, whom he had dated for a year when he was 18. A freshman at Swanton High School, she had been at a friend's Halloween party in Swanton Oct. 25, 1985. She was last seen later that night walking near her home on South Berkey-Southern Road but never arrived there. A hunter found her naked body in a wooded area north of Wauseon four days later.

Mr. Zimbeck said investigators talked to him at the time of her death, but he passed a polygraph exam and was told he was not a suspect. He said he remained close to Miss Hill's parents and visited her grave for years after her death.

He said that when cold-case investigators knocked on his door in 2009, he was happy to talk with them, to share what he could recall about Miss Hill.

"Biggest mistake of my life," he said about his conversations with detectives. His words were twisted, used against him, he said, and he wound up indicted by a Fulton County grand jury in July, 2009.

Fulton County Common Pleas Judge James Barber threw the charges out in January, 2010, saying it was unlikely Mr. Zimbeck could get a fair trial after so many years had passed, but an appeals court reversed that decision and the case again moved forward.

He said he believed he would be exonerated eventually. DNA evidence found on Miss Hill did not match his DNA. He was not seen in or near Swanton the night she disappeared.

Mr. Zimbeck said he "most definitely" wants to see the case remain open.

"I would like to see the person or persons responsible for this actually do their time in jail if they're not in the grave," he said.

Defense attorney Amber VanGunten said she and her father, who were appointed by the court to represent Mr. Zimbeck, feel strongly that members of a local motorcycle gang abducted Miss Hill as she was walking home that night and beat her to death.

Three of those possible suspects now are deceased, she said, although she's convinced there are people still living who know what happened to Miss Hill.

"A number of tips have come in to our office," Ms. VanGunten said. "We would certainly still invite any tips because we do have all of the evidence, and we do have a private investigator, and we would like to see the people brought to justice who we believe are responsible."

Bart Beavers, a Toledo police detective assigned to the cold case unit, said investigators would continue to follow up on any leads they receive.

"The case is dismissed without prejudice, so Fulton County does have an option of retrying this at some point," he said. "Obviously we honor the decision that Mr. Haselman made, and it's still an open case, and we're still working it."

Mr. Zimbeck said he does not expect to have to go through another indictment and trial.

"Twenty-seven years ago they couldn't find any evidence because I didn't do it. I don't see in the next 27 years they're going to find anything so, yes, I can probably put it behind me because I have to," he said. "I think the memory of Lori will always be there. She's in my heart all the time. I feel sorry for her and her family."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.



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