Execution set for slayer of Arcadia co-ed

Richard Fox: Scheduled to be executed on Wednesday.
Richard Fox: Scheduled to be executed on Wednesday.

COLUMBUS - Richard E. Fox studied the Bible, sang in the church choir, raised rabbits, and took his young daughter to the zoo and the movies.

He also stabbed 18-year-old co-ed Leslie Renae Keckler six times in the back and then strangled her “just to make sure she was dead” in 1989.

Fox is scheduled to pay for his crime with his life at 10 a.m. Wednesday, nine days after his 47th birthday. Thirteen years after the murder, Fox, his family, and friends still try to reconcile the man they knew with the one who sits on death row in Mansfield Correctional Institution.

For the family of the victim - an Owens Technical School freshman from Arcadia, Ohio, studying early-childhood development - it's time that justice is served.

To the outside world, “Dick” Fox's life was a normal one. Part of a respected Tontogony family, he was an average student and a Boy Scout. He played on his high school football and baseball teams, earned an associate's degree in hotel and restaurant management, worked as a cook, married, and became a father.

“He was very active in the church and would do anything we asked him to do: be an usher, clear the snow,” said Bruce Bellard, a family friend and former Bowling Green mayor.

“I was impressed with the fact that he seemed to be a normal, cheerful young man who had a great concern for his daughter, who at the time was only 6 years old,” he said. “Frankly, I never saw Dick mad or lose his temper about anything.”

But appearances were deceiving.

IN JANUARY, 1956, a pregnant Lela Low watched helplessly from the shore of the Maumee River as her husband, Walter, fell through the ice and drowned near Vollmar's Park. Their son, Richard, was born three weeks later.

Mrs. Low later married Dale Fox, who would serve on the Otsego School Board and Tontogany Board of Public Affairs. At the age of 12, the boy was legally adopted by his stepfather and took his name, prompting his natural paternal grandparents to disown him.

According to court documents, he stood 6-feet, 1-inch tall and weighed more than 300 pounds in high school. He played sports but never really excelled. Those days were cut short when he shot himself in the knee during a hunting accident at the age of 17.

After high school, he jumped from job to job, working at 20 restaurants in 15 years, earning close to minimum wage and never really getting on the management track.

In 1980 he married Kim Swinehart, and they had a daughter, Jessica. But the marriage soured. Shortly before a divorce hearing in December, 1983, Mrs. Fox was found dead with her head and arms over the side of a bathtub in her Oregon apartment.

It appeared to be suicide. Her wrists had been slit, and a razor blade was found in the tub, but the coroner determined she died from asphyxiation because of neck compression, not from blood loss. The cause of death was listed as “undetermined.”

There was talk of reopening the case following Fox's arrest for Ms. Keckler's murder, but nothing came of it. Following his wife's death, Fox and 1-year-old Jessica moved in with his parents.

Later he became engaged to another woman, but she called off the marriage in April, 1989, informing him the baby she carried belonged to her estranged husband, not Fox.

Prosecutors painted a picture of a man who sexually harassed young female job applicants during interviews at the restaurants where he worked. On May 8, 1989, Fox took his behavior to the next level.

He called Marla Ritchey, a 23-year-old Bowling Green State University student who'd applied for a job at a local restaurant. Using a false name, he asked whether she was interested in a restaurant-supply sales job.

Ms. Ritchey agreed to meet with Fox in a local hotel lobby. She got into his car under his pretext of continuing the interview as he drove his fictional sales route.

She became uncomfortable with the questions Fox asked. Her discomfort escalated to alarm when he took back roads on the way back to the hotel parking lot. She considered jumping from the moving car, but they eventually returned to the hotel.

“He asked me what I would do if someone would pull a knife on me and ask me for all my money,” she testified at his 1990 murder trial. “And then he said, `Better yet, if they pulled a knife on you and asked you to do other things.'”

She said Fox grabbed for her as she jumped from the car and “told me to come back, that he wasn't finished with me yet. ...” Then he drove off.

Ms. Ritchey has since married and is now teaching out of state. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

ADOPTED WHEN she was 4 days old by Lester and Linda Keckler, pretty and black-haired Leslie hoped to someday run her own day-care center and preschool.

“My mom described Leslie as being like a rubber ball, bouncing everywhere, always upbeat,” said Mike Crego of McComb, Hancock County, the man she planned to marry.

“She could make me laugh when I had a crappy day,” he said. “She was a really good, caring person who was great with kids.”

No warning bells went off for Mr. Crego when his soon-to-be fiancee received a call to interview for a job paying 50 cents more an hour than she was earning.

Fox had again gotten her phone number from a job application she'd filled out at the restaurant where he worked. On Sept. 26, 1989, he lured Ms. Keckler to the same hotel lobby where he'd met Ms. Ritchey. At some point they ended up at Woodland Mall north of downtown where, like Ms. Ritchey, she was persuaded to get into his car to travel a sales route that didn't exist.

This is where the script departed from the Ritchey incident five months earlier. Fox didn't return to the mall where Ms. Keckler had parked her car. Instead he drove along rural roads northwest of Bowling Green toward Tontogany.

“He wasn't going to make the same mistakes that he did with Marla so that she could get away,” said Gary Bishop, Wood County's chief assistant prosecuting attorney. “I think his intent that day was that he was going to get what he wanted no matter what it took.”

According to the scenario described by both Fox and prosecutors, Ms. Keckler rejected his advances and demonstrated the spirit her family and friends fondly remember. She called Fox a derogatory name and tried to get out of the car.

Fox, according to what he later told police, grabbed Ms. Keckler's coat and pulled her back into the car. He stabbed her repeatedly with a knife, one he used to kill rabbits. After driving a short distance, he stopped again and used a nylon rope he'd retrieved from his car trunk to strangle her. He drove farther north to leave her body in a deep, partially filled drainage ditch along sparsely populated Pargillis Road.

Mr. Crego said he believes that his girlfriend took her dignity with her when she died that night along that dark rural road.

“That was Leslie,” he said. “She always had dignity. ... He didn't take that away from her. She wasn't raped. He's a big man. She was a very small girl. For him to have to stab her and strangle her, I think she did okay. She did all right.”

Fox did not respond to a request for an interview. But in his letter to the parole board, he wrote: “I snapped, and all I could see was someone who needed to feel the pain I did. And I didn't think. I just reacted and started swinging and letting out my anger. I didn't see what it could mean to act like that. All I wanted was revenge.”

Ms. Keckler's body was found four days later when a young boy fell off his bicycle, nearly falling into the canal-like drainage ditch. The abduction and violent end of a college student shocked the college community.

The case reminded investigators of the report Ms. Ritchey had filed months earlier. She helped them update a composite sketch and provided a description of Fox's car.

Ms. Keckler's aunts distributed flyers to area businesses when their niece was still missing. They walked into the restaurant where Fox was working, not realizing they were standing in front of her murderer.

Peggy Mundy told the parole board that Fox turned to the manager and joked, “Don't laugh. That car looks like mine.”

A former friend of Fox tipped police off that the publicized sketch resembled Fox. A search of his home uncovered the knife and the rope, both with blood on them, and bloodstains in his car.

When confronted with the evidence, Fox confessed. Although he has changed the details and the motives over the years, he has consistently admitted he killed Ms. Keckler.

“I was unbelievably shocked he had done this, but I realized, when he admitted it, that it was characteristic of him that he would admit that he did it,” said Mr. Bellard.

Following a nonjury trial, a panel of three judges convicted him of aggravated murder and kidnapping and sentenced him to death.

PSYCHIATRISTS HAVE diagnosed Fox with a narcissistic personality disorder, marked by such poor self-esteem that he overcompensated with fantasies. His attorneys have argued that Ms. Keckler's rejection of him that night burst his bubble, causing his outburst.

The state, however, has compared him to an animal that, after having failed with Ms. Ritchey, was determined to fulfill a long-held rape fantasy.

While in prison, Fox's most frequent family visitor was his adoptive father. Dale Fox died Dec. 28.

“My grandmother will not be able to handle the loss of her husband and the loss of her son in less than two months of each other,” Fox's daughter, Jessica, told the parole board.

Now engaged to be married, she plans to witness her father's execution Wednesday in the Southern Ohio Correctional Institution.

“Richard is torn,” said Greg Meyers of the Ohio Public Defender's office. “He doesn't want his daughter hurt. He doesn't know what would hurt more - watching him die or not watching him die.”

Fox remains the sole death row resident from Wood County, and his attorneys argue that his clean criminal record prior to the murder and his good behavior behind bars demonstrate he isn't among the worst-of-the-worst criminals deserving of death.

Even former county prosecutor and now Common Pleas Judge Alan Mayberry said this isn't the worst murder case he's prosecuted.

“I could think of at least one other that I think was worse: John Umbel, who kidnapped, raped, and sodomized a little 3-year-old boy, killed him, stuffed him in a garbage bag, and set him out with the trash [in 1992].

“For me, that case - John Umbel's criminal record - was worse and deserved the death penalty,” he said. “But for whatever reason, the three-judge panel did not agree.”

Umbel, a Bowling Green native, is serving a sentence of 10 years to life at the Oakwood psychiatric prison in Lima. Still, Mr. Mayberry insists Fox deserves death.

“There was substantial evidence brought to us by the Oregon police department that he'd been involved in his wife's murder, even though it hadn't been ruled that way,” he said.

“Other minor bizarre behavior of his with employees and prospective employees over a long period of time and his actions with Marla Ritchey showed that he was a predatory type of offender who'd finally gotten to the point of killing his prey,” he said.

Fox would be the sixth inmate executed since the state resumed carrying out the death penalty in 1999. The last person from northwest Ohio to die at the hand of the state was Bennie Collins, 55, of Toledo on Dec. 19, 1958. Collins died in the electric chair for shooting Donald E. Hattery during a quarrel over a minor traffic accident.

“Richard is as prepared to meet his maker next Wednesday as any man can be,” said Mr. Meyers. “His Christian faith, sincere sense of remorse, and acceptance of punishment have equipped him with amazing peace and strength in face of certain death.”

Mr. Crego has since married and become a father. He plans to be at the prison near Lucasville Wednesday to support the Kecklers, a family he once planned to join.

Unlike Ms. Keckler's father, Lester, and brothers, Chad and Brad, he doesn't want to witness Fox's execution. But he believes the execution by injection should take place.

“I really do feel bad for his daughter, God bless her,” he said. “I don't know what to tell her, but I don't think him not dying is going to do her much good behind bars.

“He not only screwed up our family's lives, he screwed up his own family's lives, all in one night, because he didn't get his way.”