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Rally opposes teen felon parole

Trumbull County Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Becker spent time in Columbus Friday speaking against mandatory parole eligibility for violent teen felons.

Becker joined other officials and victims of crime at the Statehouse “Rally Against Revictimization.”

The rally late last week was staged to oppose Senate Bill 256, a 2021 law that mandates parole eligibility for Marie Belcastro’s murderer Jacob LaRosa and other violent juvenile offenders.

Belcastro’s grandson, Brian Kirk, could not make it to the rally in person because he had family commitments at home in Florida this weekend, but he also wanted to send a message to Ohio lawmakers: Either support victims or support criminals.

“As strange as it sounds, the emotional damage inflicted on my family by SB 256 has been worse than the murder itself,” Kirk said from his Florida home. “When my grandmother died, there was a beautiful funeral, people praying for us, lots of closeness. But today, there’s no Hallmark card for folks in our current situation.”

Kirk said there is mental anguish from putting up with a possible parole hearing for LaRosa, the convicted murderer of his loved one.

“I ask myself: ‘What will parole hearings be like? Will I have to speak? Why every five years? Will it continue even after mom and dad are gone?'” he said.

Kirk’s children were young and innocent seven years ago when Belcastro died.

“Now they have access to the news. Instead of closure, there’s a bunch of questions,” Kirk said.

‘SLASHER FILM’

Becker had written in a court document that Belcastro’s murder was “straight out of a slasher film.”

Kirk recalled the day in 2015 when he learned that his 94-year-old grandmother was murdered.

“It was the shock of my life,” said the 48-year-old father of three, who described his grandmother as “full of energy, love, laughter and light.”

Kirk and his family would later learn through the documents of the case that Belcastro’s then 15-year-old neighbor, LaRosa, kicked his way into her modest Niles ranch house and inflicted unspeakable horrors upon the roughly 4 feet, 7 inches, 80- to 85-pound woman.

“Using a Mag flashlight, LaRosa beat my grandmother to death in a manner so violent that an open-casket funeral was not an option,” Kirk said. “Her own blood made its way from the hardwood floors of her bedroom to the basement walls and appliances.”

LaRosa ultimately pleaded no contest to aggravated murder, attempted rape and other charges. Three-and-a-half-years after Belcastro’s death, LaRosa was given life without parole plus 31 years, a sentence Belcastro’s family said was appropriate given his criminal history, his likelihood of recidivism, and the nature of his crimes.

Kirk said his family had thought it had closure, but the state’s elected officials wouldn’t let them move on.

EFFECTS of SB256

Then came SB 256, which mandates parole eligibility for most juvenile offenders after 18 to 30 years, depending on their crimes. The bill is retroactive and makes LaRosa eligible for parole.

“And we had been doing just fine with our grief once Judge (W. Wyatt) McKay’s sentence of life (for LaRosa) without parole came out in 2018,” Kirk said. “The thing about accepting the murder is that you tell yourself that LaRosa was either so evil or so deranged, that he acted the only way he could. I don’t give elected politicians (with few exceptions) in Columbus that benefit of the doubt. They should have known better.”

Kirk calls it a betrayal.

“I had given a large part of my life to the Ohio Republican Party and for Governor DeWine, who I’ve known since I was 16, to sign such a bill, is outrageous,” he said. “The state of Ohio has given my family and other families no choice but to fight back and work to end this unjust law. And this Rally Against Revictimization was a step toward that.”

Laura E. Austin of the Ohio Public Defender’s Office defended the enacting of SB 256 into Ohio law.

“Legislators made the correct and necessary decision by passing Senate Bill 256 in order to comply with U.S. Supreme Court precedent. This law was carefully considered and shaped by the Legislature for over a year, receiving overwhelming support in the Ohio Legislature,” Austin said in quoting Senate President Larry Obhof in saying “We are a nation that believes in redemption.”

Austin said her office believes Senate Bill 256 in application is working well, and individuals who were children at the time they were convicted should have their cases reviewed for possible parole after 18, 25, or 30 years depending on their case.

Also at the Statehouse rally was the family of Margaret Douglas of Wadsworth, who was murdered and sexually assaulted by 17-year-old Gavon Ramsay in 2018. The details of that murder were similar to the LaRosa / Belcastro case.

SB 256 also benefited other violent offenders, such as Clinton Dickens, who raped and murdered University of Akron students Dawn McCreery and Wendy Offredo; Billy Wayne Smith, who kidnapped, tortured and murdered Kevin Burks in Columbiana County; and Mincey Meece, who murdered 86-year-old Stella Ellison in July 1995 in the Ohio village of Ellwood Place. Meece recently was granted parole.

gvogrin@tribtoday.com

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