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Published: Friday, 11/7/2008

Rapist released in '07 suspected in 3 area deaths


KENTON, Ohio - Authorities say they have a man in custody who is suspected in the deaths of three women whose bodies were found in two separate fires.

The suspect, a convicted rapist who spent nearly 21 years in prison and was paroled in December, is being held on a parole violation. He has not been charged in the deaths of the women, authorities said.

But Hardin County Chief Deputy Sheriff Ken Hilty said that authorities now feel confident they have the killer in custody. "We put this word out because people have to not be so fearful," he said, noting that the murders have terrified area residents.

Sheriff's detectives from Hardin, Hancock, and Wyandot counties as well as agents from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation and the state fire marshal's office are participating in the multijurisdictional investigation of the two fires, authorities said.

The first occurred about 1 a.m. Sept. 28 near Wharton. Firefighters were sent to a home at 20752 Wyandot County Highway 47 in Richland Township less than four miles from the Hardin County line.

When they arrived, the house was engulfed in flames and Claradell Keller, 78, the homeowner, could not be found. Her car, a light blue, four-door, 1995 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, also was missing.

Her body was found on a burned mattress under a pile of rubble about 12 hours after the fire was reported, authorities said.

The next day, Ms. Keller's car was found burning in a cornfield in Hancock County, not far from the Hardin County line.

Meanwhile, in Kenton, friends Judy Kearly, 56, and Deborah England, 52, were last seen Oct. 12.

Ms. Kearly, an Air Force veteran and mother of two grown sons, came to Ohio in December to help care for her older sister, Marilyn Pratt.

Ms. England, also a mother of two grown children, had been staying with the two of them until she could get back on her feet after suffering health problems and a financial setback.

Ms. Pratt said the two women left the house the night of Oct. 12, telling her they were going to give a man a ride because his motorcycle had broken down. They didn't identify the man.

She said cell-phone records indicate that within 10 minutes of leaving the house, Ms. Kearly called 911, but the call was disconnected. A return call from a 911 operator went unanswered.

About 12:30 a.m. the next day, remains described by authorities as human and female were found near the foundation of an abandoned rural home in Hardin County that burned to the ground.

Authorities have not provided any further information about the remains.

The truck the women were driving was found behind the Kenton house where the suspect had been staying.

Following a scuffle, he was taken into custody at another Kenton home.

Neither Chief Deputy Hilty nor Kenton Police Chief John Vermission would say that Ms. Kearley and Ms. England are dead, but Chief Deputy Hilty said "certain assumptions can clearly be drawn."

Relatives said investigators have led them to believe that both women died at the scene of a fire.

Yesterday marked the first time authorities have confirmed the Kenton fire was a murder scene, and also was the first time they have positively linked that crime to the death of Ms. Keller.

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