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Published: Thursday, 7/2/2009

Judge finds man guilty in strangulation of woman, 57

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The man charged with strangling Debra Pioterek was convicted of murder yesterday and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Dana Todd Rister, 42, of 2223 Laurel Valley Dr. was found guilty by Judge Gene Zmuda in Lucas County Common Pleas Court after a 1 1/2-day trial.

Judge Zmuda rendered his verdict after deliberating about four hours.

For months, Ms. Pioterek's family just wanted answers: They wanted to know how her lifeless body was left in a darkened, abandoned shed, and they wanted to know why.

Lynn Fournier, Ms. Pioterek's younger sister, said her family will always struggle with why.

"We don't hate you. We just wonder why you did this," Ms. Fournier said to Rister before he was sentenced.

The body of the 57-year-old woman was found June 26, 2008, inside the shed near the Southwyck Shopping Center, which is being demolished.

She had been strangled, and one of her wrists was viciously cut as if her assailant had tried to sever her hand.

Her murder remained unsolved for three months until a tip led Toledo police to Rister.

In September, he was arrested in California by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

Originally prosecuted for murder in late April, the first of Rister's trials ended in a mistrial because a machine failed several times to play a recorded statement for jurors.

In the middle of jury selection for the second trial, which started Monday, Rister waived his right to a jury and decided to have his case heard by Judge Zmuda.

During closing arguments yesterday, attorney David Klucas argued self-defense and asked the judge to put himself in the dark shed that June night and into a situation that was "immediate and intense."

Mr. Klucas said Rister was consistent in his statement to detectives that what he initially thought was a pile of clothing came alive, turning into a mass of screams and scratches.

The defense attorney said after the verdict that he was disappointed in the decision.

He added that presenting the case to the judge was appropriate because what happened was never in dispute, only what it meant.

And to figure it out took an application of the law, he said.

"It's a difficult set of circumstances, and it was unwitnessed, so it really does turn on Todd's statement," he said.

"The court had a different take than I did."

Assistant County Prosecutor Rob Miller countered during closing arguments that Rister made several choices on that June night that equated to murder and not self-defense.

He did not run out of the shed when he heard Ms. Pioterek's screams nor ever fully release his grip on her neck, Mr. Miller said.

"It takes several minutes to strangle someone to death," Mr. Miller asserted. "Before you strangle someone, he or she will lose consciousness.

"When the scratching stops, when the screaming stops, the defendant made a choice. He chose to continue squeezing Debra Pioterek's neck until she died of lack of oxygen to her brain."

Assistant County Prosecutor Jevne Meader said after the trial that despite defense claims that Rister feared for his life, "our position from the beginning was that this was a purposeful killing."

"This was a tragic meeting of two tragic people under circumstances which defy imagination," he said, agreeing with statements made earlier by the victim's family.

Surrounded by friends, family, and her three remaining siblings, Ms. Fournier said she was grateful someone came forward last September with information that eventually led to Rister's arrest.

She encouraged anyone who might know something about a crime to come forward - for the sake of the victim's family.

"There are people out there who don't have an answer, and we are fortunate to have one," she said.

"It's tragic," sister Sandy Pioterek added.

"His life was ruined, her life was ended. It's tragic."

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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