Cold cases are pursued until solved

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When Ben, Marilyn and Heather Marsh were killed in Canfield Township 1974, detectives assigned to the case did give it their full attention for months.

But over time, other crimes took priority and the trail in the Marsh case grew cold. Eventually, other investigators were assigned to have another set of eyes look over the file and see if they could come up with another missing piece of the puzzle or a thread to pull that might lead to something new.

So how do investigators decide which of their cold cases to re-open and which to leave for another day?

“Something comes up, where we go through the files and we look at the cases that there’s evidence that we can work with, where there’s something to go on,” said retired detective Dave Benigas, who was one of the lead investigators in the Marsh case.

He said he and partner Pat Mondora worked the Marsh murders on their off time, at night and on weekends, so they could keep up with their current caseload. Benigas even kept investigating it after he retired two years ago.

And Benigas said while police are utilizing state-of-the-art technology for collecting fingerprints, DNA and other evidence, sometimes it’s something as simple as a phone call or seeing pictures of a 4-year-old victim that pushes investigators to solve a case.

“Evidence is a key anymore, especially with DNA and fingerprints. You know, there’s new systems and new ways to lift them. And with DNA, I mean, there’s ‘touch’ DNA now, which really, really helps. So evidence is a key when you’re looking through these cases,” Benigas said. “But that little girl. That was just the incentive for Pat and I to just give it an all-out try.”

Benigas said a good bit of luck was involved in being able to solve the Marsh case.

“I don’t remember exactly why we picked it up. Somebody asked about it, or something was said. We went, we pulled the case out, we went through it,” he said.

The Mahoning County Coroner’s office is still working to identify nearly a dozen cold case victims, including one dating back to the mid-1970’s.

“We are entering, in a methodical way, information into the databases,” said Mahoning County forensic pathologist Dr. Joseph Ohr.

He said he and his staff hope today’s technology may yield new clues.

“Needle in a haystack is a really good way of putting it. And that needle doesn’t always lead to the identification, but just another piece of the puzzle. As time marches on, then we find another puzzle piece,” Dr. Ohr said.

One of those remaining cold cases for the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department involves Eileen Zarlenga of Girard, 30, whose body was found off Gladstone Road in Jackson Township in January of 1988 after she was reported missing several days earlier. Police said she was stabbed multiple times and there was evidence of sexual assault.

Benigas said Zarlenga’s sister calls twice a year to put a bug in investigators’ ears about the case. Benigas said he was never able to solve that case, but investigators will keep looking.

The following is a list of unsolved homicide cases from Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties taken from the Ohio Attorney General’s cold case database:

  • Stephen Shonn, 34, who was found by his wife in the basement of their Austintown home on Jan. 19, 2011. A coroner’s report showed he died of strangulation.
  • Mark Dereich, 21, who police found dead of a gunshot wound in an upstairs apartment on Illinois Avenue in Youngstown on Dec. 6, 1982.
  • John Cotton, 66, who was found dead of a gunshot wound inside his business, Cotton’s Automotive Repair Shop in Youngstown, on May 22, 2008.
  • Donyell Johnson, 40, who was found dead by Howland Township Police on Basswood Avenue N.E. on Nov. 16, 2011.
  • John McCulley, 34, who went missing in Bazetta on Sept. 26, 1992. His body was found by a hunter on Oct. 17, 1992, in the woods behind the cemetery where McCulley worked.
  • Richard Altomare Sr., 59, who was found dead of multiple gunshot wounds inside the old Crestview Middle School in Columbiana on Sept. 19, 1999.
  • Michael Williams, 37, who was found dead inside his vehicle near Rogers on Aug. 30, 2005. The coroner ruled he died of blunt force trauma.
  • Gerald Klusch, 71, who went missing Sept. 29, 2011. His body was found seven weeks later in Salineville. Police said he was shot twice in the head.

To see unsolved homicide cases in Ohio and to submit tips, click here for the Ohio Attorney General’s cold case database.

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