Frustration, dedication drive pursuit of cold cases

By joe gorman


Although it doesn’t happen often, sometimes investigators hit the mother lode and solve a murder case that has been on their mind for years.

Beaver Township Police Chief Carl Frost and former Youngs-town Detective William Blanchard have each experienced that feeling, although both had suspects initially.

Others, however, are still looking for a big break or tip in their “cold case,” the name commonly given to unsolved homicides.

The term has grown more familiar recently since authorities earlier this month indicted James Ferrara, 64, in the Dec. 14, 1974, murders of Benjamin Marsh; his wife, Marilyn; and their 4-year-old daughter, Heather, inside their South Turner Road in Canfield Township. Their 1-year-old son, Christopher, was found crawling in his mother’s blood but had not been harmed. He later was adopted by relatives.

Ferrara was arraigned on three counts of aggravated murder and single counts of aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary earlier this month in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court. He has a status hearing in his case before Judge R. Scott Krichbaum at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Frost was able in 2007 to solve the murders of two couples killed in September and November of 1977: David and Mary Hamilton and John and Linda Davis. Edward Surratt, who is serving a life sentence in South Carolina and is thought to be responsible for at least 30 killings, confessed the killings, Frost said. He is a strong suspect in the March 28, 1978, death of 70-year-old Katherine Filicky of Hitchcock Road in Boardman, but he has not confessed that killing.

Frost said he reopened both cases in the 1990s after he became a detective and he knew Surratt was a suspect. He said there was hardly any physical evidence linking him to the crime. He said his biggest challenge over the years was getting Surratt to talk to him. He still would not, but Frost managed to get a person from the former television show “America’s Most Wanted” and also a retired police chief to interview Surratt for him, and Surratt provided details only a person who was there would know.

Some doubted Surratt was responsible, but Frost said he has no doubt. “I’m convinced,” Frost said.

Surratt was a suspect because the way the murders were carried out matched other crimes with which he was involved, Frost said.

“It made me feel great,” he added. “But on the other hand, I wished I could get even more details from him.”

One thing that gnawed at him was he was never able to find out what happened to Linda Hamilton, whose body was never found.

At the time of those murders, the area had other unsolved killings as well, all revolving around the Marsh case.

There was the murder of Ivan Hall, 55, of Austintown, who was found beaten and shot to death in his North Turner Road residence Sept. 14, 1977. Austintown Police Capt. Bryan Kloss said that case has not been solved. Kloss said detectives reopened the case a few years ago and got a little more evidence, but not nearly enough to prosecute. He said there was not much evidence to start with and police never had a suspect.

Also around the same time, John Vodhamel Jr., 63, of North Jackson was found shot 14 times on April 17, 1978, and his dog was shot seven times at Vodhamel’s Milton Township farm. The home had been ransacked as if it had been robbed. There is no record of the case being solved.

Blanchard was one of the detectives investigating the death of Youngstown State University student Gina Tenney, 19, raped and strangled Dec. 29, 1985. Her frozen body was found in the Mahoning River the next day.

Bennie Adams was a suspect early on, and police tried to get prosecutors in Mahoning County and even Trumbull County to indict him, but they would not. He said as the years went on he was frustrated that the case was still open because he was positive the person who did it was walking around free.

“It was very frustrating for us,” Blanchard said.

One of the things keeping the case alive was the fact investigators felt so bad the case could not be prosecuted, they kept it in the forefront of their minds, especially the late Detective Sgt. Joe DeMatteo, who headed up the department’s crime lab before he retired. DeMatteo preserved all the evidence for the Tenney case so it could be used someday.

“Everyone felt so bad about it,” Blanchard said.

In 2007 former Attorney General Marc Dann asked departments to submit evidence to the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation in any cold cases. The DNA evidence DeMatteo collected was submitted and it matched with Adams. He was convicted of Tenney’s death in 2008 and sentenced to death. He still is waiting for the sentence to be carried out.

Other cases through the years have gone unsolved as well.

At the height of World War II in 1943, The Vindicator ran a story about several unsolved murders that were haunting local law enforcement. Most of them were gangster-related, such as the Feb. 17, 1942, death of “Billy The Greek” Scodras, who was killed in front of a dairy store at Fifth and Madison avenues; or the unsolved killing of Roy “Happy” Marino, who was found riddled with bullets in a field in Rogers on Sept. 10, 1937.

Two days earlier, Jim Tisone, who ran a beer garden in Haselton, was robbed of $9,283 and shot and killed. Police thought he was targeted because he usually came into money for his business on paydays for the railroad workers in the nearby Haselton Yards.

The most baffling case was the death of 13-year-old Frank Suhovecky. He headed for Idora Park from his Millet Avenue home on the West Side on Feb. 18, 1935, to look for a bag he had stashed there with some buddies. He never came home. His body was found 10 days later in the mouth of the lake at Axe Factory Run. The case was never solved.

Blanchard said every detective has a case that has gotten away from them, but he said he was thankful that he was able to get closure with the Tenney case before he left the department.

“To get this guy prosecuted before I retired was the best feeling in the world,” Blanchard said.

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