Two and a half years ago, the judge assigned to the case of Youngstown killer Anthony Caulton was brutal in his assessment of the community because only two witnesses out of several hundred were willing to testify.
“It’s a sad commentary that those present at a lawful and beneficial event would not cooperate with police officials at the scene,” said retired Cuyahoga County Judge Thomas Curran, sitting by assignment in Youngstown.
Judge Curran was right about the absence of witnesses in the high-profile murder trial. But he was wrong in suggesting that it’s an indication of a care-less population.
Eye witnesses to violent crimes in the city see no evil because they are afraid — very afraid. Not only are the human predators brazen in their criminal activities, they have no qualms about threatening those who might cooperate with the authorities.
Case in point: Stanley Croom, 46, who was found guilty last week of aggravated robbery, attempted murder and retaliation, tried to hire someone to kill a witness who may have testified against him. Croom was sitting in jail while he attempted to make the deal.
According to Mahoning County prosecutors, Croom offered a would-be hit man 3 pounds of marijuana to silence the witness. Prosecutors say he even told the man where and when the individual worked.
Also last week, the father of the alleged killer of 80-year-old Angeline Fimognari was arraigned on charges of threatening a witness. According to police, John Houser Sr., 47, was at a gas station on Glenwood Avenue Monday evening when he saw the 22-year-old witness leaving the station.
“You know who I am? You know what it is. I’ll pull a cap back when I see you,” Houser reportedly said to the man.
When the man left the parking lot in his car, Houser followed in his and tried to run him off the road.
John Houser Jr. is charged with aggravated murder and aggravated robbery with death penalty specifications in Fimognari’s killing in 2010. The deeply religious lady was sitting in her car in the parking lot of St. Dominic Church on the South Side when she was shot at point blank range.
Felony retaliation charge
Houser Sr. and his wife were charged with felony retaliation in February 2010 after they made oral threats to kill a witness in the case against their son. They pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of obstruction of justice and were sentenced to five years probation.
Houser Sr. ended up serving 10 months in jail for violating probation. He was nabbed driving a vehicle while his driver’s license was suspended.
In the most recent killing in Youngstown, no arrests have been made because police have been unable to secure the necessary information from people who may have witnessed the shooting of 17-year-old Carlos Crues Jr.
“We know there were a number of witnesses to this, but people coming forward has been terrible,” said Capt. Mark Milstead. “We are trying to deal with issues of intimidation as well as still having trouble getting anyone to come forward.”
Milstead said police have an unnamed suspect and several people of interest they want to speak to in relation to the shooting. Police believe there may have been more than one shooter.
What’s to be done?
The county prosecutor’s office needs a witness protection program similar to what the federal government operates. The major barrier to the development of such a system in Mahoning County is money. Local governments can’t afford the cost of not only providing witnesses with safe houses while they are waiting to testify, but relocating them when the trial is over.
Nonetheless, the situation demands action. The federal and state governments have a responsibility to help the county establish the program and then fund it.
Criminals don’t need an advantage.
WFMJ-TV Channel 21 will host a debate Feb. 22 featuring Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains and his challenger for the Democratic nomination, Youngstown City Prosecutor Jay Macejko.
There will be a panel of journalists asking questions, but residents are also encouraged to submit their own.
Post them on the WFMJ’s facebook page, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or post your questions on Twitter using the hashtag 21 debate.