Mom’s words bring tears
Testimony continues in civil trial
YOUNGSTOWN — Tears welled in the eyes of court observers during testimony Wednesday in a trial questioning an ambulance company’s civil liability in a 2015 murder and attempted murder that sent a man to Ohio’s death row.
“When a mother loses her child, it is like a big hole is left in their heart,” said Denise Johnson, after a pause, her eyes closed, her head hung low when asked by attorney David Engler how her daughter’s death affected her.
Erika Huff, 41, a mother who couldn’t walk after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in her senior year of college, was killed, and Johnson was brutally beaten Nov. 6, 2015.
Johnson prayed as she lay next to her daughter, wondering if she would die before she could tell authorities who beat her for 45 minutes, wondering if her daughter, who was still but warm, survived the attack at 44 Cleveland St., Youngstown, for which Lance Hundley was convicted in 2018.
The Mahoning County Common Pleas Court case is being heard before a jury of seven men and three women before visiting Judge Thomas Pokorny.
Engler and Huff’s family want the ambulance company American Medical Response to be held civilly liable because Huff’s medical alert device was pressed sometime during the attack. And, they claim, when a Youngstown dispatcher conveyed information from Guardian Medical Alert to an AMR dispatcher, the AMR dispatcher did not tell emergency medical technicians details about who the medical alert device belonged to or what her disability was.
Defense attorneys for AMR argue the company was not responsible for what happened — Hundley is. The EMTs did their job by responding and had no right to push Hundley to let them in the house. And, even though the dispatcher didn’t communicate some information to the responders, it did not amount to a willing desire for harm to come to Huff or Johnson, the defense argued.
Hundley, 49, is being held at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution.
When the EMTs knocked on Huff’s door and Hundley told them everything was fine, they left after spending 94 seconds at the scene, without speaking to Huff, before Johnson could arrive.
Johnson came to her daughter’s home to let the EMTs in, but they were already gone.
She walked into her daughter’s home and was met with her attacker, who turned on her, beating her repeatedly, leaving her with severe and lasting neurological damage.
As she testified, her raspy voice cracked when speaking about what she was thinking as Hundley beat her about the head dozens of times with a claw hammer from Huff’s garage.
Johnson was “pretty much Erika’s legs” because of her MS diagnosis. And when Huff pressed her medical alert button in the past, EMTs always asked to see Huff to ensure she was OK, because they knew who the device was registered to, Johnson said. The defense objected to that question.
The EMTs that night weren’t told the device belonged to a woman who couldn’t walk and didn’t ask to see her, taking the word of Hundley that the activation of the device was accidental.
When Huff walked into her daughter’s house, she saw Hundley in the living room with a gas can.
“At 2 in the morning, nobody needs a gas can in their house,” Johnson said.
She asked Hundley what he was doing with it and where her daughter was. He told her the EMTs came and went and Huff was in her room.
Johnson took the gas can from Hundley and put it in the garage. She turned around and Hundley was holding a hammer.
“‘You better get right with your lord, because you’re going to meet your maker tonight,'” Johnson said Hundley told her before attacking her.
The attack lasted for what felt like hours, Johnson said.
“‘God, just keep my mind, keep my mind,'” Johnson said she said to herself, praying that she would be able to tell police who did this to her and Huff.
When Hundley dragged Johnson into Huff’s room after the beating, she lay next to her daughter.
“‘I hope you’re still alive,'” she remembers thinking.
She herself was “practically dead,” Johnson said.
She remembers crawling to an air conditioner and trying to shove it out of the window in an attempt to escape.
Police officers, called by Johnson’s husband who went to the scene when too much time passed since Johnson, now 71, left their home to help Huff, pulled the air conditioner out and pulled Johnson through the window. In and out of consciousness, she made sure to tell them Hundley attacked them, not sure if she would live long enough to tell them later, she said.
The accelerant Hundley poured over the two did not ignite on Johnson because she was covered in blood, she said. He was convicted of two counts of aggravated arson.
But the fire and water subsequently poured on the medical alert device did destroy potential evidence that might have shown if Huff pressed the medical alert button herself, or if it was pressed accidentally during the attack. Huff died from blunt force trauma, the coroner ruled, but she was also strangled with the device. Hundley was found hiding under a table “playing victim” when officers arrived, apparently spoiling his plan to destroy evidence before fleeing.
Testimony and cross examination from now-retired Youngstown police detective sergeant Ron Rodway earlier in the day concentrated on whether Huff was still alive when the EMTs arrived.
The medical alert device was pressed at 2 a.m. EMTs arrived at 2:09 a.m. and left at 2:11 a.m. Johnson is thought to have arrived around 2:15 a.m., give or take a few minutes.
AMR defense attorney Don Swtizer’s line of questioning suggested they believe Huff was already dead, and that Hundley wouldn’t have had enough time between the departure of EMTs and the arrival of Johnson to kill her.
Rodway said he can’t know for sure, and no one except Hundley knows for sure, but he believes Hundley levied more violence on Huff after the EMTs left.
“I believe she was alive when the paramedics arrived,” Rodway said.
Switzer said Rodway’s opinion is “speculation.” Engler argued Rodway’s speculation was based on evidence from the crime scene, interviews of witnesses, more than 200 homicide investigations and more than 20 years of experience.
Switzer said it would have been impossible for Hundley to continue an assault on Huff, clean up and go get a gas can from the garage in three to four minutes.
“That’s impossible, isn’t it?” Switzer said.
“I don’t believe so,” Rodway said.
Rodway said it makes sense that Huff would have pressed the medical alert device during the attack and that Hundley would have been enraged that EMTs were called and finished the job after they left.
EMTs did not see anything they deemed suspicious, they testified Tuesday.
The trial continues today.