They’ve done 12 years for rape and murder. Now, the convictions are void. Was it a setup?
Article published on the front page of the Sunday Akron Beacon Journal. Written by Ed Meyer.
FOR 2 MEN, ONLY A NEW TRIAL WILL TELL
Randy Resh and Bob Gondor had been imprisoned for 12 years, almost a third of their lives, when the decision came June 14.
Portage County Judge Charles J. Bannon nullified their convictions for the 1988 rape and murder of Connie Nardi and ordered new trials, saying they were denied their rights to effective counsel.
Bannon ruled the Resh and Gondor juries never heard point after point of potentially exonerating evidence and, therefore, their 1990 verdicts were “not worthy of confidence.”
Why, then, are Resh and Gondor still behind bars?
Portage County Prosecutor Victor V. Vigluicci, who appealed Bannon’s decision, said he will not decide whether to try them again until his appeal is settled.
The lawyers for Resh and Gondor say the appeal could drag on for two years.
Recently overturned convictions in Summit County quickly led to two men winning their freedom:
Nathaniel Lewis, convicted of raping a fellow University of Akron student in 1997, spent five years in prison before his release Oct. 22, two weeks after a federal court ruled that the jury should have been allowed to see his accuser’s journal.
Jimmy “Spunk” Williams of Akron served 10 years of a rape sentence before his accuser recanted last year. He was released within a month and is now pursuing a wrongful-imprisonment suit.
The difference in the cases of Resh and Gondor, said the man who launched the first serious probe into their claims of innocence, is arrogance among law-enforcement officials insistent on sticking to their star witness’ story.
Many innocent men and women get “buried alive and forgotten” by police and prosecutors who think their jobs begin and end with clearing a major crime from their busy dockets, said Jim McCloskey, a nationally known champion of the wrongly convicted.
“In case after case,” McCloskey said, “we’ve seen a co-defendant or a co-conspirator who offers false testimony against an innocent person to either buy their own ticket to freedom or to receive a sweet, reduced sentence. And that’s what happened here.”
McCloskey said he found police and prosecutorial misconduct, evidence suppression, exaggerated or falsified forensics and the star witness who lies in virtually every case he has won.
However, he said what drew him into the Resh-Gondor case in 1996 was that all of those elements contributed to their convictions when the two boyhood friends were just 24 years old and “easy targets for the police.”
“I have no doubt,” McCloskey said, “that these two men had absolutely nothing to do with the crime. It is quite obvious they were set up.”
WOMAN’S BODY FOUND
Nardi’s partly clothed body was found by a fisherman on Aug. 15, 1988, in a pond off Rapids Road in Geauga County’s Troy Township.
The Randolph Township woman was 31 years old, divorced and a mother of two.
An autopsy determined the cause of death was strangulation. It also found blunt-impact injuries to the right ear and nose.
Nardi was last seen alive on the night of Aug. 14 at the Upper Deck bar on state Route 44 in Mantua Township in Portage County.
The first man sent to prison for her killing was Troy J. Busta of Hiram, who was convicted of murder after a March 1989 plea bargain with the Geauga County prosecutor’s office.
That plea bargain, in which eight counts of the indictment were dropped in exchange for Busta’s guilty plea and testimony, saved him from a date with the electric chair.
Now 35 and serving his sentence at Chillicothe Correctional Institution, Busta was the state’s star witness against Resh and Gondor at their trials.
Everyone involved in the case agrees that the three men had been drinking at the Upper Deck on the night Nardi disappeared.
But Resh and Gondor say that’s the only part of Busta’s story that was true.
Busta, who declined to be interviewed for this story, testified he plotted with Resh in an Upper Deck restroom to lure Nardi to a nearby site along the Cuyahoga River off Allyn Road in Hiram Township.
Busta said he and Nardi got there first, about 8:30 p.m., on a motorcycle.
After 15 or 20 minutes, Busta testified, Resh and Gondor arrived in Gondor’s white pickup truck.
When Nardi refused to have sex with them, Busta testified, he and Gondor held her down while Resh tried to rape her.
Busta testified that, as Nardi tried to fight back, she kicked Gondor, that Resh struck her several times on each side of the head and that Resh then choked her to death.
Resh and Gondor, however, testified at their trials that they had nothing to do with the murder. They testified that their evening ended when they ordered a pizza from Domino’s and fell asleep in Resh’s trailer in Shalersville Township.
Although the crime occurred 14 years ago, Gondor, now 38, still remembers the words of a warning by the lead investigator, former Geauga County Sheriff’s Lt. David A. Easthon, before his arrest.
“Easthon said the first one who comes forward is going to get all the breaks,” Gondor said. “He didn’t like what I said, but I told him Randy and I didn’t need any breaks because we had nothing to do with it.”
That theme – an alleged setup – has been the focus of a string of appeals by Columbus lawyers James D. Owen and Tracey A. Leonard, who took over the case from McCloskey to relieve his heavy case load.
“The only thing they should have been convicted of that night,” Owen said, “was being drunk.”
Owen said the most compelling document in the case was a 50-page transcription of a taped interview of Busta by his two lawyers and their private investigator a month after the killing.
That interview — never used during the trials of Resh and Gondor — was entered into evidence in May during eight days of hearings before Bannon made his decision.
Bannon emphasized the interview contained passages in which Busta claimed he didn’t know who killed Nardi, followed by this comment: “I mean, I never witnessed any kind of hitting, they never hit here (sic), they never slapped her in front of me.”
And then there was this exchange between Busta and his public defender, Kenneth R. Callahan Jr.:
Callahan asked Busta if he was willing to go along with what Easthon, the lead detective, was proposing.
Busta answered: “What?”
Callahan said: “Setting up.”
Busta replied: “I’d do anything I have to do to get myself out of this. I ain’t sitting in no chair for somebody else.”
Richard J. Ofshe, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the nation’s leading experts on criminal interrogation techniques, testified in the May hearings that the interview was revealing for several reasons.
“I possibly reached a new all-time low in what I’d seen in the obvious willingness expressed by Busta in that recording to say anything that was going to get him off the hook,” Ofshe said in a recent interview.
“My understanding of that interview was that the prosecutor had this information and, with that, had the lack of integrity to proceed to trial. It’s hard to imagine anything substantially worse than that.”
The Portage County prosecutor in the Resh and Gondor cases was David W. Norris, who resigned from office in September 1994 after pleading guilty to a federal charge of cocaine possession.
Now 49 and working in the Florida public defender’s office, teaching trial preparation to new lawyers, Norris downplayed the importance of the interview.
Norris said, incorrectly, that it was “a police interview” and that it was done under conditions in which Busta was “controlled” by police.
“It was not testimony. I think his testimony at trial was credible,” Norris said.
Bannon also tore into the state’s claims that Resh and Gondor went to great lengths to establish an alibi before they knew they were suspects.
The state based that claim on a visit to Domino’s in which they asked a pizza shop employee if she remembered that they were there on the Sunday night that Nardi disappeared.
The Domino’s employee, Brenda Holcomb, testified that it was raining on the day of their visit and that they told her it was important to remember that they had been there because there had been a murder, and they were in trouble.
Both Holcomb and another Domino’s employee, Rick Hollibaugh, told authorities they remembered the visit and that it was a Tuesday.
Norris argued to the jury that the only way Resh and Gondor could have known about the murder that day was if they were involved.
But Owen and Leonard obtained Domino’s work records, which showed the following Friday – after Easthon questioned Resh and Gondor – was the only day Holcomb and Hollibaugh had worked together that week.
The lawyers also obtained a weather report from Akron-Canton Regional Airport that showed the area was in the midst of a severe drought and that the only days it rained that week were Thursday and Friday.
During a recent interview at Mansfield Correctional Institution, Resh said he and Gondor went to the pizza shop that Friday because of Easthon’s line of questioning about their activities on the night of the murder.
“We were both drinking that night, and Easthon was trying to misrepresent everything,” Resh said. “All we were trying to do was put together the past four or five days in our own minds.”
Easthon, who became Middlefield police chief three months after the murder, declined to comment on specifics of the case.
“My investigation went where it went. We did what we needed to do,” he said. “Two separate juries tried and convicted these people, and that’s the reality of it.”
To at least one juror, the alibi scenario was crucial to the state’s case. In a sworn affidavit filed in Bannon’s court but not admitted as evidence, juror Theresa Kinford said she would have voted to acquit Resh if she had known that he actually went to Domino’s after being contacted and questioned by Easthon.
STAINS IN PICKUP TRUCK
Perhaps the most devastating trial evidence against Resh and Gondor, according to Bannon’s decision, were stains found on the bed liner of Gondor’s pickup.
Dale Laux of the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation testified the stains – found in 1990 nearly two years after the murder – were “human blood.”
It was the only scientific evidence corroborating Busta’s testimony that Gondor’s truck was used to dispose of the body.
But further testing by Brian Wraxall of the nationally renowned Serological Research Institute in Richmond, Calif., found no DNA in the stains.
“The body fluid that best fits this scenario,” Wraxall said, “is perspiration.”
Owen, who is preparing to file another request for bond with the 11th District Court of Appeals, said Resh and Gondor might be forced to wait another two years before Vigluicci’s appeals are exhausted.
Resh and Gondor, who continue to communicate through letters from prison, said the appeal has been particularly frustrating because they felt they were so close to winning their freedom.
“It took 12 years for someone to finally do the right thing,” Resh said, “so all we can do now is hope it doesn’t take much longer.”