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Published: Monday, 3/16/2009

Swanton girl's '85 slaying reopened

BY LAREN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

SWANTON - Former Swanton police Chief Tom Bates vividly remembers sitting in his office with the father of a missing 14-year-old girl one fall afternoon more than two decades ago.

In the midst of their conversation, the phone rang.

Authorities had found the body of a female in a rural Wauseon field not far from where Lori Hill was last seen.

Without a word, Mr. Bates left for the scene.

The beaten and unclothed body was that of Miss Hill, a sophomore at Swanton High School.

Her father, still in the police chief's office, broke down when he heard the news.

"It's not just the victims that suffer, it's those that are left behind," said Mr. Bates, now a minister at the Neapolis Church of Christ in Lucas County's Providence Township.

"We read it in the paper and it's [just] black and white. When you really see what people suffer through, it's just not right."

The Fulton County Sheriff's Office, with assistance from the Toledo-Lucas County cold-case unit, recently reopened the case.

It has remained unsolved for nearly 24 years.

The girl's relatives sought out Toledo police late last year after they learned of a National Institute of Justice grant that provides federal money to the cold-case unit to investigate unsolved murders. The funds are not available to law enforcement officials in rural Fulton County.

"It just didn't seem fair to them," said Sgt. Steve Forrester, of the cold-case unit. "It was agreed we would assist them because of the resources we have available to do this kind of thing."

Fulton County Sheriff Darrell Merillat said he's seen the successes of the cold-case unit, which was responsible for reopening the investigation of the 1980 murder of a nun, resulting in the conviction of the Rev. Gerald Robinson in 2006.

It also helped recently to bring about an arrest in the kidnapping, rape, and 1967 murder of a Sylvania Township girl who, like Miss Hill, died at age 14.

Sheriff Merillat said he looks forward to a time when - with the unit's help - the book on Miss Hill's murder can be closed.

"I'd feel real good about it just knowing the people involved and responsible would be brought to justice," he said. "It would feel good to put some closure on it, particularly for the family."

Sheriff Merillat was in his first year as sheriff when Miss Hill was killed. Her case remains the only unsolved murder of his term.

"I was always hoping that someone, even though it's been this time period, would come forward knowing it's the right thing to do," he said.

Miss Hill was at a Halloween party on South Munson Road in Swanton on Oct. 25, 1985, and left upset about 9 p.m. after a quarrel with her boyfriend, Sergeant Forrester said.

She was picked up on Dodge Street and taken a short distance to the former Mr. G's Pizza on Main Street.

According to witnesses, Miss Hill made a phone call while inside the restaurant and also spoke with another female.

Sergeant Forrester said authorities are seeking help from anyone who may have been at Mr. G's that night and have spoken with Miss Hill.

"We would love to know who the girl was who talked to her inside Mr. G's Pizza," he said. "We think that girl can tell us who she called."

After leaving Mr. G's, Miss Hill was seen crying while walking north on Main Street. She was then seen in and around a blue pickup truck on the Hallett Avenue overpass.

Miss Hill continued walking down Shaffer Road to Scott Road and was last seen on South Berkey-Southern Road about 100 yards from her house, Sergeant Forrester said.

She was reported missing early the next day after she failed to return home.

Mr. Bates said law enforcement officials from Fulton and Lucas counties immediately began a search.

Classmates, friends, and Air National Guard volunteers joined in the search. Several community members also went door to door in the village hoping to turn up clues.

"It had a big impact on the community," Sheriff Merillat said. "I still get asked about the case once in a while. It's never really been forgotten."

The girl's body, unclothed except for a sock, was found by a hunter seven miles northeast of Wauseon on Oct. 29, four days after she disappeared. She had died of blunt-force trauma to her head, Sergeant Forrester said.

Although the wounds to her head initially appeared to have been from a gunshot, the coroner ruled that she was beaten, possibly by an object such as a tire iron.

A denim jacket was near her body, but no other clothing was found.

In addition to helping with the murder investigation, Mr. Bates officiated at the funeral for Miss Hill and tried to help her family through the traumatic ordeal.

Her parents since have died, but Mr. Bates has kept in contact with the victim's sister.

"They never got over it," Mr. Bates said. "It was really devastating to that family."

Miss Hill was described as a spunky girl who got along well with her friends and family.

She was born in Florida and her family moved to Lucas County when she was 11 or 12 to be close to Toledo's Historic Woodlawn Cemetery, where Miss Hill's father sold vaults and markers.

A year after his daughter's death, Roger Hill, then 57, told The Blade: "It never goes away. It's an awful strain and burden on everyday living. I feel absolutely helpless."

Sergeant Forrester said investigators also are looking for information about a Halloween party held the same night Miss Hill disappeared.

The party was given by a female employee of El Matador restaurant who also was a student at the University of Toledo.

Sergeant Forrester could not provide additional details, but he said the party is related to the Hill murder investigation.

Sergeant Forrester is urging anyone with information about the case, no matter how insignificant it may seem, to contact him at 419-245-1594.

Staff writer Meghan Gilbert contributed to this report.

Contact Laren Weber at:

lweber@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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