It has been said that the wheels of justice turn slowly.
Unfortunately, in the case of accused killer Claudia Hoerig, the wheels of justice not only ground to a halt for more than a decade, they could well have fallen off, but for the persistence of Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins.
Watkins launched an international battle to make sure Hoerig stood trial in Warren for the murder of her husband, Air Force Maj. Karl Hoerig.
Karl’s body was found March 15, 2007, in their Newton Falls home. He had been shot to death.
Claudia fled the area and returned to her native Brazil, where she lived in freedom for years – even after a Trumbull County grand jury indicted her on a charge of aggravated murder with a gun specification.
But Watkins refused to give up his quest for justice for Karl, a highly decorated Air Force pilot, and was undaunted by the Brazilian government’s intransigence.
But then fate intervened. In April 2016, Claudia was arrested after Brazil’s Supreme Court revoked her Brazilian citizenship, which she had maintained, along with her U.S. citizenship.
But even after the justices voted 4-1 to extradite her to the U.S. to stand trial for murder, there were impediments to her return. The high court said the accused killer should not receive the death penalty or life in prison, which are prohibited in Brazil.
Watkins, who has had Congressman Tim Ryan, D-Howland, former congressman and now state Rep. John Boccieri, D-New Middletown, and others by his side from the start of the long battle, let it be known that the death penalty does not apply in this case.
Thus, on Wednesday, with little fanfare, Claudia Hoerig was brought back to Trumbull County by the U.S. Marshals Service and booked into the county jail.
On Friday, the Most Wanted criminal in the Mahoning Valley’s recent history shuffled into the courtroom of common pleas Judge Andrew Logan dressed in prison garb, with her hands and feet chained.
She entered a not guilty plea during the brief arraignment, and Judge Logan set her bail at $10 million.
After being on the lam for so long, Claudia Hoerig has become a symbol of justice delayed and almost denied.
Karl’s brother and other relatives, who maintained a vigil on Facebook, were in the courtroom to observe the woman who was once part of their lives.
There also was a large contingent of reporters who have been following this story, not only because of the brutal nature of the murder, but also because of the international intrigue.
Yet, after the brief hearing, Watkins was subdued when he and three officials from the federal government held a press conference.
“It’s been a long journey, but you know, justice is a journey,” the veteran prosecutor said. “It doesn’t end until it’s done.”
Watkins is aware the nation will be watching as the trial unfolds. Chris Becker, an assistant prosecutor, will be sitting second chair.
One of Claudia Hoerig’s lawyers is Mike Penz from the Ohio Public Defenders Office, who entered the not- guilty plea on her behalf.
But because of the 11 years she was in Brazil out of reach of the American criminal justice system, there undoubtedly are Valley residents who believe she committed the crime and that a trial is simply a waste of time and money.
But in this country, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Watkins has earned a well-deserved reputation for prosecuting cases by the book. He has amassed an impressive record of convictions in high-profile trials, which is a testament to his dedication to the law and to the criminal- justice system.
He insists that the return of Claudia Hoerig to stand trial for the slaying of her husband is the result of the effort put forth by many people. But Stephen Anthony, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Cleveland office, had it right when he told reporters the accused killer is behind bars in Warren “because of one man, and that man is Dennis Watkins.”
“I have 40 counties in my jurisdiction. I have never seen a more passionate prosecutor than Dennis Watkins,” Anthony said.
It’s an opinion shared by most long-time observers of the man of the hour.