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Cover Story: Her Last Wish

Greenhills and the death that won't go away

By Jeffrey Hillard · January 10th, 2002 · Cover Story
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  Patricia Ann Rebholz
Patricia Ann Rebholz

In the evening heat and humidity of summer 1963, in an experimental suburb called Greenhills, a teen-ager's body lies slumped in the corner of a small, fenced backyard.

Many who live in the small town will agonize for years over the shock and mystery that followed discovery of the grotesquely slain body of Patricia Ann Rebholz. She is 15 years old.

It is past 10 p.m., and the darkness will conceal her body until a Greenhills Police officer finds her seven hours later, at 5:07 a.m.

Aug. 8, 1963: one of the hottest days of summer so far. Residents leave windows open most of the night.

Teens leaving a weekly dance at the American Legion Hall -- on a Thursday this time, instead of Wednesday -- wipe sweat from their necks and foreheads. When the dance ends at 9:30, some try to decide what to do next. Hang out at Winton Woods a mile away? Grab a hamburger at Henry's on Galbraith Road or a shake at Parkmore Restaurant up the street? A couple of guys suggest a quick drag race.

Earlier, even a few days before the dance, Patricia Ann Rebholz has a wish.

At the dance, her friend Jan Schroth asks Patty if she wants to go to a party in Wyoming. No, Patty says. She prefers tonight to see her boyfriend of four months, Michael Wehrung.

She doesn't reveal the wish to Jan, but it's something she wants to tell Michael, who lives on Illona Drive, just down the street from the Legion Hall, a 10-minute walk down Ingram Avenue. Mike doesn't like to dance, and he rarely attends the summer dances. So Patty calls first and talks to Mike's sister; then she walks. No problem. He's finishing a Ping-Pong game with a friend. He'll wait.

Patty might be happy with her wish, because several of her friends, the last to see her alive, saw her usual smile when she left the Legion.

Patty's big brother, Mel Jr., plans to pick her up at 11:30 p.m., either at the Legion or the shopping center across the street. She didn't tell Mel her wish, but she mentioned she planned to walk to Michael's after the dance.

Mel pulls up at the Legion at 11:30 and waits. He waits some more. It's 12:05 a.m. This is unusual; his little sister is usually prompt. Mel drives home and wakes his parents to see if Patty has called.

When he learns she hasn't, Mel drives and walks the neighborhood, especially near the Legion hall, much of the night; he searches with his friend Ed Hager and they go to Michael's house. Seeing him on the front porch, they ask if he'd like to help search for his girlfriend. Michael helps for about 20 minutes, seeming, Mel says later, distant and anxious to go home.

One can speculate that Patty didn't get to convey her wish.

She didn't make it to Wehrung's house, which is across Illona from that deep dark corner of the fenced backyard where she was strangled and beaten with a thick fence post.

Mel Rebholz Jr. drives every Greenhills street, impatient, looking for his sister, unaware of the heat or the dark corner of Al Udry's fenced yard, where his sister's body lies. Mel Jr. doesn't learn this night about the violence inflicted upon her head. That comes later.

For all his worry and bafflement, Mel Jr. doesn't give up easily, swinging his car a fifth and sixth time up and down Ingram. He heads home around 4:30 a.m. for a breather and to console his mother. But when his father, Mel Sr., arrives home at 5:30 a.m., after canvassing the streets with police for his missing daughter, his face bespeaks unwanted news.

"She's gone," Mel Sr. says to his wife and son.

"What do you mean, 'gone'?" his wife says.

"She's dead," Mel Sr. says.

Contaminated evidence
From Nov. 26 to Dec. 6, 2001, Michael Wehrung stood trial for second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend 38 years ago. At trial, Hamilton County prosecutors and Wehrung's attorneys unveiled live and videotaped testimony, CD-ROMs, elaborate poster boards and overhead projection of photographs. After about 10 hours of deliberation, a jury found Wehrung not guilty of the murder.

The legal struggle by which Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen sought to examine Patty's wish had its roots five years earlier. A 1996 change in Ohio law -- allowing prosecution of adults for offenses they were not charged with as juveniles -- inspired Allen and his investigators to entertain re-opening the cold case.

More importantly, Greenhills Police and the prosecutor's office saw it feasible to establish a case thanks to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation's (BCI) 1998 offer of free DNA testing for local governments.

But at BCI, all the objects presented for DNA testing from the 1963 murder investigation -- kept in a safe in the property room in the basement of Greenhills Police -- were too contaminated to be conclusive.

The prosecutor's office then sent the objects to the Hamilton County Coroner's Office for additional testing. Same results: Due to contamination, DNA couldn't be obtained from Patty's blouse, skirt and shoes or Mike Wehrung's pants or shirt.

Almost 40 years' worth of groundwater seepage and humidity in the basement and property room had produced enough mildew to contaminate the physical evidence, according to former Greenhills Police Officer Larry Zettler, whose push to re-open the case in January 1999 got the attention of the prosecutor's office.

Zettler, who always believed the death of Patty Rebholz could be solved, declared a personal stake in the case. He had graduated from Greenhills High School in 1961. He was in the Army, stationed in Vietnam, at the time of her death. When he heard about it later, the traumatic consequences on his fellow residents never left his mind, he says.

From 1972 to 1999, when he worked for Greenhills, Zettler witnessed the arrival and departure of officers who had few or no major resources with which to re-open the case. With the opportunity now to test for DNA, after 36 years, he felt a renewed sense of purpose.

Zettler might be dedicated, suggests one of Wehrung's attorneys, Earle Maiman. But between August 1963 and 2001, if there was such interest in Greenhills about the case, why such overt contamination? Why wasn't evidence preserved more carefully? Why was there no DNA discovery?

During the trial, Maiman asked how the interview transcripts and objects from the property room were handled.

He questioned Zettler's recollection about which transcripts did or did not exist -- in effect questioning whether the whole case file was intact from 1963.

For instance, the Rebholz case file didn't document the number of times or hours that Mike Wehrung was interviewed by police. Cheryl Wehrung, Michael's sister, testified he underwent "hours and hours" of police interviews.

Maiman also questioned the absence of lab reports of any sort other than the autopsy report, insinuating that papers and transcripts were handled loosely over the years.

When Maiman held up two pairs of Wehrung's pants, secured in August 1963, and asked Zettler if he could determine which pair Wehrung wore the night of Patty's death, Zettler said, "I'd have no way of knowing." Zettler said he couldn't know what the case file contained -- clothes, transcripts, reports or objects -- prior to 1972, the year the department hired him.

In May 2000, when the indictment was issued, Wehrung's attorneys challenged the 1996 law change. They argued Wehrung should be tried as a juvenile because he was 15 when Rebholz was killed and was never charged. They finally appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which last summer ordered Wehrung tried as an adult.

On Feb. 16, 2001, Wehrung's attorneys asked Common Pleas Judge Patrick Dinkelacker to dismiss the murder charge, arguing a lack of new and credible evidence. Dinkelacker refused.

Buying Greenhills
If Patricia Ann Rebholz's homicide disturbed the balance of a community still shaping its identity in 1963, Greenhills was fortunate to exist at all.

Greenhills was a product of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and his fledgling Resettlement Administration, whose director, Rexford G. Tugwell, was charged with designing what a suburb could look like and how it should operate.

FDR's mission to develop suburban America became mired in politics, which later jeopardized the town's progress. Were it not for the savvy business stance that Cincinnati real estate moguls took with the federal government in the 1950s, Greenhills might not have blossomed into the idyllic community it was in 1963.

Tugwell saw a future for dairy farms and woods in Greenhills, then owned mostly by German immigrants. The Resettlement Act addressed the growing plight of congested urban areas such as downtown Cincinnati and offered a plan to relocate blue-collar residents in other "greenbelt" areas outside the big city.

Cincinnati's industrial belt impressed FDR, and Tugwell predicted the city would mushroom northward at an extreme pace over the next 20 years.

Greenbelt towns were selected across the United States, the future Greenhills among them. Federal officials worried cities were becoming overcrowded and too industrially centralized. Suburbs sprouting near downtown Cincinnati convinced Tugwell to use Greenhills as a model for his experiment in controlling urban growth.

Tugwell wanted greenbelt locales such as Greenhills to prove the government could invent a community with an ethnic and economic balance and provide superior safety, convenience, beauty and community spirit.

But in Greenhills, even before the first streets were paved, opposition grew, and heated conflicts between locals and feds slowed down the construction of streets and homes.

Over the next 15 years, FDR's plan to pepper the country with greenbelt towns began to backfire. For Greenhills officials, the federal red tape and confusion over who owned public utilities and who controlled the political structure became too much for developers to endure. Development stalled.

Finally, in 1949, the Greenhills Home Owners Association offered about $3.5 million to incorporate the village of Greenhills. This created a way for residents to buy their homes from the government which, since it funded the greenbelt project, essentially owned the town. The Home Owners Association bought Greenhills from the government.

Patty's final walk
In mid-1999, Michael Wehrung informed the law firm of Thompson, Hine and Flory that investigators might be tinkering with re-examining the death of Patricia Ann Rebholz. The prosecutor's office had awakened Wehrung's sister, Cheryl, early one recent morning and brought her in for an interview.

Attorney Earle Maiman participated in the firm's early discussion of the prosecutor's intention. They were perplexed. The firm had no real clue, but Wehrung and his family were frustrated. Did prosecutors have new information -- perhaps DNA testing -- not available in 1963 that possibly linked a suspect to the crime? Or was the suspect still Mike Wehrung, who was interviewed by police in 1963 but never charged?

Thompson, Hine and Flory represented Ray St. Clair's roofing company, which employed Wehrung. St. Clair recommended that Wehrung, his longtime friend, seek representation from the firm.

Before summer was over, the law partners knew the prosecutor's office had serious intentions. Allen announced in November 1999 that his office would re-open the case.

Wehrung initially met with attorney Jack Rubenstein, but it became clear at a holiday dinner in December 1999 that Maiman would represent Wehrung.

A former professor who taught advanced communications at James Madison University, Maiman wanted the challenge of a nearly 40-year-old case. He was fascinated by the complexity of the murder investigation and how it was mishandled in 1963.

In May 2000, a grand jury indicted Wehrung on a charge of second-degree murder.

In February 2001, Judge Dinkelacker laid out stringent guidelines on evidence. For instance, prosecutors obtained an abundance of written notes compiled by investigators in 1963, many of which Dinkelacker considered hearsay and did not allow. On the other hand, he allowed any verbatim statements in old notes or transcripts attributed to Wehrung, the most prominent being the transcript of an interview with the then-15-year-old boy by Don Roney, chief investigator for the prosecutor's office and a Greenhills resident in 1963.

On the first day of testimony, it seemed imperative for Allen and Chief Assistant Prosecutor Mark Piepmeier to establish the time frame of Patty's final walk in order to establish evidence of a motive. That motive dealt with Patty's wish.

It was critical to establish Patty's phone call at 9:30 p.m. to the Wehrung home and that she turned the corner of Ingram onto Jennings Drive -- the short street leading to Illona and in the direction of the Wehrung home -- between 9:40 and 9:50.

Allen and Piepmeier, rotating their lines of questioning, sought to approximate the time the suspect attacked Patty, killed her and left the scene. Eyewitnesses had seen Patty leaving the dance and walking down Ingram around 9:30.

Through two days of testimony, prosecutors and defense scrutinized nearly every minute of that August 1963 night, sometimes to excruciating exactness. Allen insisted the motive for Patty's death could be linked to Wehrung's whereabouts for eight to 10 minutes -- minutes Allen argued could not be plausibly accounted for.

Allen depended heavily on Craig Smith to identify the time he might have witnessed the homicide. Smith, a teen at the time, shared the information with Greenhills Police the day after Rebholz died. Testifying on videotape from Denver, where he's now an art professor, Smith said he'd left a cleaning job at a doctor's office on Winton Road at 9:30 p.m. and walked down Ingram, heading to his home on Ireland Avenue.

Smith turned left on Jennings, walked by the dark backyard and noticed "two figures" in the corner, 20 to 30 feet away. He described the figures as one "kneeling, facing me" and one "reclined, facing me." Although the figures didn't move, Smith made eye contact with the kneeler but could not identify the figure in 1963.

This wasn't news until Smith gave a deadpan answer to the question about why he didn't explore the identities of the figures in the yard. Smith hurried from the scene, he said, frankly embarrassed because he felt he'd interrupted a romantic tryst.

In that short time, too, Smith saw Ray St. Clair pull his red Chevy Nova in front of the Wehrung home to pick up friends for a hamburger run. If that's the case, the defense claimed, family and friends in the Wehrung home could be accounted for.

The wish deferred
What about Patty's wish? It was connected to a possible motive police could not substantiate in 1963.

According to testimony by two of Patty's friends, she was ready to break up with Wehrung. Patty called one of them on the day of the dance and mentioned that Tom "Stoney" Stonefield wanted to go on a date. Patty felt she needed to break up with Mike first.

Stonefield testified that he and Patty kissed on the way to Parkmore Restaurant after a dance. The kiss wasn't fleeting, either. Dating was so "unpredictable" then anyway, with new likes and dislikes always surfacing, Stonefield said.

When Stoney had asked Patty in 1963 what their future might hold -- whether or not she might break up with Wehrung -- she said she had spoken to Mike and told him about the Parkmore kiss. She'd asked Mike if he wanted his ring back, and he said, "No." Patty then told Stoney she wouldn't break up with Wehrung right away.

Diane Fisher, who had known Patty since first grade, offers it "wasn't a secret" that Patty liked Stoney. Yet, Fisher says, Patty was mature and discreet about breaking up, mindful of how she might approach Wehrung, planning to tell him in person rather than on the phone.

After Patty's death, police never interviewed Fisher, one of her best friends. Wehrung's defense questioned how such an interview was overlooked.

But Fisher says she didn't go to the dance on Aug. 8, 1963, and never told anyone except her mother about her conversation with Patty. The only reason she didn't go to the police, Fisher says, was she assumed police had already uncovered information about Patty's interest in Stoney.

Among other evidence at the trial were a cut on Wehrung's wrist and dubious statements Wehrung made to police in 1963. Prosecutors concentrated on two stories Wehrung told, showing what they believe were attempts to cover up the truth: He either cut his hand under the hood of his car or he cut it working on the car. Nonetheless, it was a fresh cut.

At first Wehrung said the blood appeared on the pants as a result of Patty's sitting on his lap at a pool, wearing her bathing suit during her menstrual cycle. Another story had him his cutting his arm while working on his car, then wiping the blood on his pants.

In a provocative demonstration for the jury during his closing argument, Piepmeier grasped the fence post used to kill Patty, hoisted it and brought it down at an angle to show the post could have accidentally sliced Wehrung's hand.

But the defense argued photographs of the cut, if ever taken, weren't in the case file; neither did the coroner take scrapings from Patty's fingernails to determine any connection to the cut.

Wehrung's lengthy interviews with police, in which he commented on his relationship with Patty and his whereabouts Aug. 8, gave prosecutors ample room to explore remarks that shift between a cocky boldness and extreme vagueness.

In one instance, the jury listened to then-Chief Investigator Donald Roney's interview with Wehrung. The interview included a statement Wehrung made about "cutting across the Udrys' grass" in order to "see if I could see anything of her coming" -- around the time Patty was walking to his house.

For the naïve way it reads on the transcript, almost as an afterthought on Wehrung's part, prosecutors argued this admission puts Wehrung in or near the backyard in which Patty's body was found the next morning.

What observers of this trial tend to overlook, Maiman says, is the horrific number of hours Wehrung was interviewed by police, at the age of 15, without legal counsel and before the Miranda ruling guaranteed a criminal suspect the right to counsel.

From Aug. 11-15, 1963, The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Cincinnati Post and Times-Star carried extensive front-page stories about the homicide. Several stories detailed comments by investigators. Next to a Post and Times-Star banner headline -- "Prosecutor Calls Off Questioning Unless New Developments Are Found" -- appeared a photograph of firefighters stretching lines to control a crowd outside the building where Wehrung was interviewed.

Wehrung took lie detector tests at the Norwood Police Department, which had more modern equipment. By Aug. 15, he'd undergone three lie detector tests, according to an Enquirer article from 1963.

Although police were reluctant in 1963 to comment on the tests, one news article quoted Ray Shannon, then county prosecutor, saying Wehrung showed some emotion during tests. Roney was quoted as saying the tests "were not disappointing."

Doubts about the cops: What observers of the Rebholz case ...



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