Lucas County assistant prosecutor Dean Mandros acknowledged yesterday that prosecutors initially had doubts two years ago when cold-case investigators wanted to reopen the 1980 murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.
And Toledo police Sgt. Steve Forrester and Tom Ross, an investigator with the Lucas County prosecutor's office, were constantly hammered by defense attorneys for Catholic priest Gerald Robinson during his trial for the 71-year-old nun's murder.
So Mr. Ross said he felt "vindicated" yesterday with the conviction of the 68-year-old retired priest in a crime that took 26 years to be resolved.
"This is a vindication as much as for us as the [detectives] back in 1980," Mr. Ross said during a news conference. "If they had the technology we have today they would have brought this to a successful conclusion in 1980. I think it was handled quite well. Back in 1980, they focused on the right suspect."
Sergeant Forrester agreed.
"You've got to have faith in the system," he said. "I don't think anyone will be critical of the defense because they tried their best to create reasonable doubt. I don't think anyone will be critical of the prosecution because they put the evidence out there and the jury made their decision. The jury spoke and that's how the system works."
The cold-case unit, formed in 1997 to reopen criminal investigations that had stalled over the years, often works behind the scenes on matters forgotten by most except the relatives of the victims.
None of the unit's 50-some cases has attracted the national media attention of the Robinson case. The case involving the murder of a Catholic nun by a priest was wrought with controversy from inside the Toledo police department and the community from the start, including allegations of a cover-up between some police officials and the Toledo Catholic Diocese at the time of the murder.
Mr. Ross and Sergeant Forrester said none of that mattered when they took a second look at the case two years ago.
"There was no apprehension [in reopening the case]," Sergeant Forrester said. "We can't worry about mistakes that were made or not made way back then. We can't undo things that have been done."
The sergeant added that the cold-case unit has "never been asked not to investigate a certain case. We've never been asked to investigate a certain case, either from the police department or our chief. Our chief gives us a free hand and [Lucas County prosecutor] Julia Bates has never interfered in any case we ever wanted to investigate or thrown a case to us and said, 'Put this at the top of your list.'●"
"We are autonomous, and they have faith in us, and we try our best to reward that feeling they have in us," Sergeant Forrester said.
The Robinson case is one of a string of successful prosecutions the cold-case unit has assisted in since its creation. Mr. Ross said the unit has won convictions in 35 of the 50 cases brought to prosecutors, including a 1999 plea agreement based on their work linking brothers Nathaniel and Anthony Cook to numerous murders dating back as far as 1973.
"This case had a lot of notoriety and it brought closure to a family," Mr. Ross said of the Robinson conviction. "With the Cooks' case, we were able to bring closure to nine families."
Toledo police Deputy Chief Mike Navarre was chief when the cold-case unit was developed. He said police departments nationwide created the units in connection with advances in technology that helped investigators identify possible suspects.
New technology, such as the blood transfer pattern analysis that was not around in 1980, aided detectives and prosecutors in proving its case against Robinson.
Mr. Ross emphasized that he believed it was science that helped in the prosecution.
Retired Deputy Chief Ray Vetter, who was in charge of the 1980 murder investigation, agreed with Mr. Ross that technology put the case against Robinson over the top.
"I was surprised by the quickness of the verdict, but I agree with the verdict," Mr. Vetter said.
"It was a very horrible murder. I wish we could have solved it in 1980 instead of 2006. We didn't even have DNA in 1980. They had other advances they presented at trial, forensic improvements we didn't have then," he said.
The retired deputy chief, who some detectives testified had interfered with the 1980 investigation in which Robinson was a main suspect, called "an absolute lie" suggestions that he may have worked too closely with the Catholic church on Robinson's behalf.
He testified during the trial this week that he was not part of any cover-up.
"We ran down every lead we could come up with," Mr. Vetter said. "The investigators in the case spent their entire days out at Mercy Hospital because they had so many people to interrogate. We spent a lot of man hours and tried our best. We did everything we possibly could, but didn't have enough to present the case to trial after discussion with the Lucas County prosecutor.
"We needed more evidence. We were hoping to get it, but never got it," he said.
Mrs. Bates said detectives Terry Cousino, Frank Stiles, and Tom Staff all played important roles in assisting the cold-case unit.
She said Mr. Ross' years as a Toledo Police homicide detective before joining her staff has been critical in some of her office's biggest cases.
"The information he has in his head, you can't find in textbooks," Ms. Bates said. "His experience is invaluable."
Mr. Ross said his biggest concern is that the verdict against Robinson may cause more Catholics, already disillusioned by sex-abuse allegations, to abandon their religion.
"I hope this case doesn't shake the faith of millions of followers out there in the Catholic church. I hope they stay behind their church," he said.
"This is just one bad person who was within the church."
Contact Clyde Hughes