By JOE GORMAN
Investigators say a man indicted Thursday in a 1974 triple homicide in Canfield Township, in which one of the victims was a 4-year-old girl, walked around for nine years before he was convicted of two other murders.
A Mahoning County grand jury indicted James P. Ferrara, 64, who is in the Marion Correctional Institution, in the Dec. 14, 1974, murders of Benjamin Marsh, 33; his wife, Marilyn, 32; and their 4-year-old daughter, Heather. They were found brutally slain inside the family’s 5540 S. Turner Road home in Canfield Township by county sheriff’s deputies. Their 1-year-old son, Christopher, was found crawling in the blood of his mother and sister, trying to awaken his mother. He was unharmed.
At a news conference to announce the indictment, Prosecutor Paul Gains said sheriff’s detectives Pat Mondora and Dave Benigas submitted fingerprint evidence collected at the crime scene to the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation database in 2009 and got a match on three different prints to Ferrara.
From there, the investigation picked up steam, Mondora said.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” Mondora said. “All of a sudden it was like a piece moved over. It steamrolled.”
Benigas, who retired in 2011 but continued to help out, said the case took so long after the fingerprint match was confirmed because of the difficulty of reopening a case more than 30 years old, which included finding witnesses and looking for any new evidence.
“It was a long process, but it finally panned out,” Benigas said.
Mondora said the family was notified that the case was being reopened and there is a suspect.
“They’re very happy,” Mondora said.
Efforts to reach the family were unsuccessful Thursday.
Ferrara is serving a life sentence for two murders he committed in Worthington in 1983 that were drug-related. Two other men, Joseph Weeks of Kinsman and Mark Jennings of Niles, also received prison sentences for their roles in those murders, according to Vindicator archives.
Ferrara was indicted on three counts of aggravated murder and single counts of aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary. Gains said Ferrara will be in court after the county puts a detainer on him and asks that he be transferred to Mahoning County to be arraigned.
Benjamin Marsh was a security guard at General Motors Lordstown at the time of the murders. Investigators speculated someone got inside the home through a back door that was kicked in, and Marsh heard the noise and went to investigate.
Gains would not comment on a motive Thursday or on many details of the case. Mondora did say that Ferrara had lived in the area at the time of the murders, but he was never a suspect until 2009 when investigators received a match on fingerprints left at the crime scene.
Marsh was found in his bed, shot several times. Authorities theorized at the time that whoever broke in heard Marsh moving and fired a shot into the ceiling as a warning, then the pair struggled in a hallway with Marsh being shot in the hand before Marsh went back to his bedroom to get a gun, and was shot twice more in the bed by the intruder.
Authorities further speculated that the intruder waited for Marilyn Marsh to come home, then sneaked up on her from behind and hit her before shooting her twice in the head, and then struck and killed Heather.
Marilyn Marsh’s car was taken and was found at the Kmart on Mahoning Avenue in Austintown.
Deputies responded to the home after family members could not get their telephone calls answered. It is estimated the family was dead for almost 24 hours before being found.
During the initial investigation, detectives recovered six spent .38-caliber slugs, a cigarette butt with a fingerprint, and a shoe print in the backyard. Fingerprints also were found on Marilyn Marsh’s car.
Investigators had some suspects, but they all provided solid alibis. There were several theories to the crime, each disproved including a burglary because no major items were taken from the home.
“Back then, they were given names of numerous suspects by the Mahoning sheriff’s office, but none of them panned out,” Gains said.
Other theories that were disproved at the time included that Marsh was a police informant; the murder was drug-related; and that Marsh was part of a theft ring at the car plant.
Christopher Marsh was taken to the home of an aunt and uncle in suburban Cleveland, according to a Vindicator story a year after the crime. At that time, the couple said Christopher was believed to have no memory of being with his mother when she was killed and trying to wake her up. They said they would tell Christopher of the killings when he was old enough to understand.
In 1975, GM was offering a $10,000 reward for anyone who had information about the killings. Tom Mock, spokesman at the Lordstown plant, said he was not sure if the reward was still good and he was trying to check Thursday.
Gains also would not comment on whether more people were involved, but he did say the case is still open.
“The case is not closed,” Gains said. “The case is going to continue to be investigated.”
Court documents show that Ferrara has been denied parole for the Franklin County murders three times — in 2006, 2009 and in January of this year. He was convicted by a panel of judges in 1984 for the crimes. He is next eligible for parole in 2016.
In notes he made for the parole board after his 2009 hearing, Ferrara said he had never been convicted of a crime or in trouble with the law before he was convicted of the murders. He told the board he regretted the murders every day, according to his notes.
A woman who called herself a “substitute mother” wrote a letter to a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge May 31 asking that Ferrara be allowed a medical release because of several medical problems, including adult-onset diabetes.
Gains said he was thankful BCI preserved the evidence all these years. He said prints collected at a crime scene at that time had to be matched up to other prints on file cards.
The system BCI has did not come online until 1985, and Ferrara’s prints may not have been in the system until way after then, Gains said. He said he could not answer why it took so long for someone to finally submit the prints to BCI.
Sheriff Jerry Greene, who became sheriff in January, said former Sheriff Randall Wellington gave the detectives time to work on the case once they got a match on the fingerprints and Greene was able to give them more time when they came close to having enough evidence to indict Ferrara.
Mondora said the thing that grabbed him instantly when he first reviewed the file are the photos, especially of the youngest victim.
“When you see the crime scene photos of that little girl ...,” he said, before his voice trailed off.