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High corn now symbol of Sierah Joughin tragedy

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    The purple bike belonging to Sierah Joughin was found in a cornfield, several rows in, that day in July. A year later, her grave in Amboy Township Cemetery is surrounded by trinkets and a poem saying, ‘Your memory is our keepsake.’

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    County Road 6 where James D. Worley, charged in the abduction and murder of Sierah Joughin, lived.

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    James Dean Worley, 57, enters the Fulton County Common Pleas Courtroom where he was arraigned on a charge of aggravated murder in the in the death of Sierah Joughin.

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METAMORA, Ohio — Investigators found her purple bicycle before they found Sierah Joughin’s body.

It was that scene — the bike discarded amid trampled corn, discovered hours after the 20-year-old University of Toledo student was last seen pedaling along a rural stretch of Fulton County — that convinced police something was seriously amiss.

It was about midnight, one year ago. A seasoned deputy called Sheriff Roy Miller at home. He rarely receives such calls.

“That was enough for me to raise red flags,” he said. “I went out there to see what he was seeing.”

A local mother had reported her daughter missing. Ms. Joughin had not returned from a bike ride after visiting with her boyfriend the evening of July 19, 2016.

A deputy took the initiative to search for clues. He came across her bike in a suspicious spot, three or four rows deep in the corn field.

There were disturbing signs of a struggle: Bent corn stalks and a motorcycle helmet with a bloody partial palm print, court documents later showed.

Gut instinct kicked in.

“I think of it is as, I have children the same age; [they] played ball with her,” Sheriff Miller said. “Your mind is running a million miles a minute.”

It’s been one year since a five-day frenzy began with Ms. Joughin’s disappearance. The investigation reached a fever pitch in the following days. As the reward for information grew, volunteers combed the countryside, and authorities canvassed nearby houses.

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James Dean Worley, 57, enters the Fulton County Common Pleas Courtroom where he was arraigned on a charge of aggravated murder in the in the death of Sierah Joughin.

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Hope dimmed with the July 22 arrest of James Worley of rural Delta. The next day, police publicly acknowledged that they had found her body in a shallow grave in a nearby cornfield.

An autopsy determined she died of asphyxiation from a large plastic gag in her mouth.

This week in July, when the corn is once again high, the pain of a year ago persists as family and friends await the conclusion of civil and criminal cases.

“You can’t get by it. You know the date,” said attorney Jerry Phillips, who is representing Ms. Joughin’s family in a wrongful-death lawsuit against Worley. “You can’t forget those dates.”

Worley, now 58, sits in jail awaiting a death-penalty trial, scheduled for January. He entered not guilty pleas to numerous charges, including aggravated murder and abduction.

His lead counsel, Mark Berling, said the defense team is poring through “tens of thousands of pages” of discovery in preparation.

“We continue to receive discovery items from the state on a weekly basis,” Mr. Berling said. “It’s just a long, tedious process to go through all of that information, and we have to make sure we understand everything that’s contained in their documents.”

A pretrial hearing in the case is set for Thursday.

Grisly details emerged about the man who had lived for years in the same community as the young woman.

A search of Worley’s three-acre property on County Road 6 revealed a hidden room in his barn. In it, a carpet-lined freezer was secured by a ratchet strap. Investigators found blood on the walls of the room and restraints described in court documents as used to hold humans against their will.

The search turned up video surveillance equipment and cameras, jewelry stashed in a crawl space, and a photograph of an unknown woman. To investigators, the evidence suggested Worley was a serial offender.

In 1990, he was found guilty of abducting another woman, Robin Gardner, after he struck her bicycle with his truck while she was pedaling past farm fields near Whitehouse. He dragged her to the side of the truck and threatened to kill her. She suffered a concussion but escaped by jumping onto the back of a passing motorcyclist who had stopped down the road.

Worley served just over three years in prison before he was paroled in December, 1993.

After Ms. Joughin’s killing, tips poured in and rumors swirled about possible connections to other cold cases.

Sheriff Miller had quickly asked for outside experts to assist with the search for Ms. Joughin. Help arrived even though law enforcement was stretched thin because of the Republican National Convention taking place at the same time in Cleveland.

But for all the ongoing work by the FBI and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, no additional charges have been brought against Worley.

FBI spokesman Vicki Anderson said the case will remain open until prosecution in the Worley case is complete. There has not been “an investigative development that warranted public announcement,” she said.

She would not elaborate on specifics, including how many agents remain assigned to the case.

State investigators deferred comment to the FBI. Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman declined to comment.

Ms. Joughin’s loved ones pay tribute to her in ways big and small.

Her family is advocating for an Ohio law that would create a statewide registry of violent offenders. The bill has been referred to the senate’s judiciary committee.

“Why shouldn’t law enforcement be provided as much knowledge and as much information as possible to protect the public?” asked State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), one of the co-sponsors of the bill.

The chief aim of the family’s civil suit is to gain control of Worley’s property so they can demolish the barn, Mr. Phillips said. It stands as an ugly reminder each time they drive by it, he said.

The windows on Worley’s house are boarded. No one answered at the front door this week. A sign advertising Worley’s engine-repair business still stands at the front of the property.

At the edge of Amboy Township Cemetery, Ms. Joughin’s gravestone is surrounded by flowers, colorful trinkets, and four small American flags.

“Your memory is our keepsake,” reads a poem inscribed on the back of the marker.

Her boyfriend, Josh Kolasinski, and his mother, Nikki Kolasinski, are among organizers of a motorcycle ride that raises money for Keeping our Girls Safe, an effort to promote self-defense education for women.

They “try to push through the pain” because that’s what Ms. Joughin would want and “because the love Josh and her shared trumps the evil,” Ms. Kolasinski said in a written statement.

This year’s ride will be held July 30. More information can be found online at kogsafe.com.

Staff writers David Yaffe-Bellany, Lauren Lindstrom, and Jennifer Feehan contributed to this report.

Contact Vanessa McCray at vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6065 or on Twitter @vanmccray.

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