The Long Goodbye
All his victims were people who had changed courses in life, seeking a second chance. Now, 25 years after Frank Spisak's serial murders terrified Cleveland State University, the death-row inmate gets a second chance at avoiding execution. In a courtroom,
He attacked five people, killing three. He would have killed more if his aim were better.
Their bodies and lives were torn by the tumbling slugs from a .22-caliber automatic.
Their bodies and lives were torn by the tumbling slugs from a .22-caliber automatic.
Now, 25 years after Frank Spisak wandered the city streets with a pistol popping like the devil snapping his bubble gum, he will walk again in the minds of his victims and their families. Old case files will be reopened. Healed wounds will be torn apart.
Spisak, convicted of a series of 1982 murders and sentenced to death, has fought hard to live. The state of Ohio - navigating a gauntlet of court appeals - has tried just as hard to kill him.
Last October, three federal appeals court judges struck down Spisak's death sentence and ordered him resentenced. The judges said Spisak's lawyer had been ineffective and that the judge had given the jury improper instructions during his 1983 sentencing.
Although Spisak's guilty verdict still stands, a new jury may deliver a sentence as early as this summer. Spisak's lawyer plans to argue that he killed because he was insane and should be spared from death.
Raised by emotionally distant parents, Frank Spisak was beset by gender issues from childhood. He blamed "an extremely strict mother who humiliated and hit him when he displayed sexual behavior," says one court document. She "taught him to hate people of color and others whom she deemed to be 'undesirable' or 'repulsive.' "
Even as Spisak married, he took female hormones, anticipating a sex-change operation that would never happen. He used his quick and inquisitive mind to mentally rebuild the Third Reich, joining the National Socialist White People's Party and fancying himself a storm trooper. He collected guns.
Today Spisak's world is a prison cell at the Mansfield Correctional Institution. Inside it he lives as a woman, corresponding through prison pen-pal Web sites, trolling for "very special girlfriends." He signs his letters Frances Ann, under "With love" or "Every best wish." And no one - not even his psychiatrists - can say with certainty where the invented Frank ends and the real Frank Spisak begins.
The story of Spisak and those he killed and tried to kill is a morality play with the moral still to be written. At first, the victims seem like random choices. Separated by age and race and gender and class, they would not have found themselves side by side on the same city bus.
The city we live in was born that summer. Four years after default, and after 13 years of burning river jokes, we declared ourselves back on track. As The Cleveland Press closed and Halle's department store faded, Time magazine pronounced us one of the country's most desirable cities and the "CBS Evening News" reported we were on the road to recovery.
We did not feel like a city under siege. As crime scene investigators were pulling slugs from a campus wall, Duran Duran was opening for Blondie a few blocks away at the Agora. As another victim lay bleeding, moving vans emptied the Williamson and Cuyahoga buildings on Public Square for demolition before the building of the new Standard Oil Tower. Everywhere, the 19th century was making way for the 21st.
Second chances seemed very real then.
Now, Frank Spisak has a simple request: Give me a second chance. Twelve jurors will decide how far second chances extend.
A gavel will bang like a pistol shot. Suddenly it will be 1982 all over again.
"I'm on death row for killing three men. ... Although I've been locked up a long time, I still feel like I am young and have a lot of life left in me to live; I don't want to have to waste it rotting in some prison! ... I devote all my energies toward trying to win my appeal and get me out of here before it is too late for me to have a real second chance in succeeding in life."
Frank Spisak, in prison letters posted on the Web site mansonfamilypicnic.com.
After the cops and the coroners finish their work, the flattened slugs and photographs of spent bodies go into a fat manila folder in the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office. The folder lands on the desk of a young assistant prosecutor named Donald Nugent. He is an ice pick in a nice suit. He is 34, with a diploma from Xavier University and a Cleveland Marshall law degree folded neatly around a stint in the Marine Corps. He is halfway through a career that would see him try 50 murder cases and prosecute at least that many rapes. The graying prosecutors in the office have dubbed him "Jack Armstrong," like the "All-American Boy" of old radio shows, and he is golden.
It is 1983, and Nugent reaches into a manila folder. He looks at pictures of what seems like half of Cleveland, bleeding.
Here is the Rev. Horace T. Rickerson, dead, shot seven times on Feb. 1, 1982. "Four spent bullet casings were recovered from the scene," a court document reads in the same flat prose that lists ingredients on a cereal box.
The pastor of the Open Door Missionary Baptist Church, Rickerson had looked at its cramped home on East 83rd Street and dreamed, because dreams not only turned into classrooms and towers, but into spires and pulpits, too. In December 1975, a ground-breaking ceremony was held, and in March 1977, Rickerson dedicated the brand-new church on Woodland Avenue, just up the street from the borrowed room above a laundromat where the congregation had started 50 years before.
A weekly radio show called "Heart to Heart" on WJMO carried Rickerson's sermons. His last broadcast, aired the night before he died, was titled "How to Know You Are Saved."
Rickerson left to research a sermon at Cleveland State's library and never returned. He went home. That's the way church people say it: He went home. That August, Rickerson's congregation gathered without him for a ceremony to burn the paid-off mortgage.
Here is John Hardaway, a working man. He had spent his young life looking at the world from inside a bottle. He battled alcohol's demons and wrestled them to a draw, remaining sober for 17 years. "It was really a tribute to John that he stayed with it," Nugent says now, remembering. "Every Friday night he'd go to the Black Horse Tavern and have two little cans of orange juice, cash his paycheck, and walk over and take the Rapid home."
Hardaway was shot seven times on the evening of June 4, 1982, while waiting for an RTA train at the West 117th Street Rapid station. His one quirk, for jewelry, saved his life: A medallion he wore on his chest deflected the killing bullet aimed at his heart. "Three pellets and seven shell casings were recovered," the court document reads.
"Just imagine the Rapid driver," says Nugent. "She pulls up to the stop at 11:30 at night and she sees Hardaway there, bleeding. And then she calls police."
Here is Coletta Dartt, a Cleveland State University employee, who at 5 p.m. on Aug. 9, 1982, left her office to use the restroom. Exiting the stall, she encountered Spisak, holding a gun, who ordered her back into the stall. Dartt -- a black belt in karate -- shoved him out of the way and ran down the hallway. Spisak fired a shot as she fled. "A pellet was later removed from a wall in the hallway."
Here are Timothy Sheehan, Cleveland State University's assistant superintendent of buildings and grounds, and CSU student Brian Warford. Sheehan had crossed an ocean and Warford had ridden a city bus to end up at the school. There they ran afoul of a man on a different career path, and both died.
Sheehan, dead at 50, was discovered by a campus security guard on Aug. 27, 1982. He had been "shot four times, and two pellets were retrieved from the scene." Warford was found three days later at a Euclid Avenue bus stop, dead at 17 of a "single gunshot wound to the head, although five spent .22-caliber casings were recovered from the scene."
"This was not some random spree," Nugent says now. "Here was a guy who was a pervert right from the beginning. And who had a gun. And the gun gave him power."
It's June 1983, the day of trial. The court-appointed defense team huddles at the table across the aisle from Nugent. The accused squints through Coke-bottle glasses from behind a belly-warmer tie. The Sheehan family survivors watch from the back.
And here comes Judge James Sweeney in his black robe. As the bailiff calls, "All rise," the courtroom stirs.
The people in the folder do not move.
"The Brendan I saw was a frightened, devastated young man surrounded by his three sisters and his mom, not knowing what to make of the fact his dad, his best friend, was gone. And then trying to take his dad's place and not knowing really how to do it."
"He loved his yard, his garden," says Brendan Sheehan, Timothy's son. "It's funny: A few weeks prior to my dad's death, my sister had graduated high school. For a graduation present, my sister wanted to go to Ireland, and she and my dad went. He had said, 'Brendan, you stay home and make sure the lawn is cut,' stuff like that.
"He came back, and it was, 'OK, here's the thing -- you didn't cut the lawn right; here's how you work the hedger.' It's kind of ironic, like he was preparing me."
Tim's own college career had been full of bicycle rides across ancient lawns with professors. Born in County Cork, Sheehan attended Maynooth College, west of Dublin. Now Sheehan was an American, with a mortgage to prove it. He got up at 5 or 6 in the morning to catch the bus to work and returned at 6 in the evening. Nothing ever happened on his shady street in Fairview Park, and people worked themselves woozy to keep it that way.
The day someone decided to kill Tim Sheehan, the family planned to celebrate Brendan's 15th birthday with dinner at a restaurant.
Bad news flooded the family room.
"It was surreal," Brendan remembers. "You're looking at your mom. You're thinking, 'He died? How'd he die?' He was murdered. Who would do that?"
"I like classical music and games like chess. I used to enjoy collecting stamps -- 'the quiet hobby' it is called." -- Frank Spisak
"He is a coward. When you hide in darkness and in-wait for an unsuspecting person, and you have a gun and they don't know what's happening, and you ambush them -- which is what he did to everybody -- that shows he's a coward." Donald Nugent
"Slayings end myth of CSU as urban oasis" Plain Dealer headline, Sunday, Sept. 5, 1982
He was a little man in search of a soapbox.
Frank Spisak dressed sharp, drove a candy-apple-red Mustang and considered himself a self-taught student of history. At Midpark High School, Class of '69, he had been a scrawny library aide, singing in the choir and glee club. He liked to talk race hate and fascist politics, using words that hit like fists.
"After graduation from high school I had planned to study history in college," Spisak wrote from his cell, "but went to work in a factory instead because I wanted money to buy myself a car and do other things." He entered Cleveland State in 1969 but dropped out after 40 credit hours.
By 1972, he was working at a factory on Cleveland's East Side. Spisak courted a co-worker, Laverne Lampert, with flowers and Elvis Presley records. They married within a year and had a daughter.
By 1977 or 1978, after a car accident that Laverne thought had "messed his mind up," Frank started wearing dresses during neighborhood strolls. He listened to albums of Hitler speeches. After he brought home another cross-dressing man and slept with him, Laverne walked out. They briefly reconciled two years later, but then he confided that he had always wanted to become a woman. Hormone treatments would be great, he said. Be a man, she said. She left again.
Spisak took a job that year as a machinist at the Edward Daniel Co. on St. Clair, with a Teamsters Local 507 card in his wallet and $220 every payday. He collected guns, dressed as a woman on weekends and discussed the finer points of Nazism and gay porn with any co-worker who'd listen. He took home men and partied with a black prostitute, substituting firearms for payment when he was short of cash.
Spisak stalked his victims in the city's lonely corners. He hunted where he felt most comfortable. He returned to Cleveland State to wander the campus and study Nazi history in the university library.
And there was Brian Warford, waiting.
If good luck were pocket change, Warford would not have had bus fare. Two years before, in 1980, he had dropped out of Collinwood High as a sophomore. He'd been kicked out of the house after he stole his father's van and his credit cards. "A loner who lacked discipline," his father growled. Brian went to live with a sister.
But at 17, Warford saw that his life needed to come around, or he would die on the streets. Warford enrolled in an alternative education program offered at CSU, and suddenly his GED was not just a pretty thought. After late classes, he waited at a bus stop on Euclid Avenue.
A pistol barked and Brian Warford fell to the sidewalk.
They found him sprawled on the cold pavement, on his right side. A single bullet rested in Warford's head. In his trouser pockets were two lottery tickets; both tickets were losers.
"Instead of defending the mentally ill and standing up for their civil rights (rights to which they are entitled as American citizens), the lawyers in our communities have joined prosecutors and tough minded 'hard-on-crime' judges in sending mentally ill persons to prison and death row - treating us like we are habitual criminals!" -- Frank Spisak
"First he's trying to say he didn't do it. And when he came to the point when he realized the gig was up, that's when -- for the first time -- he turns to this White Power BS, this Nazi stuff. Which he had an interest in. But that wasn't why he was killing. The reason he was doing these killings was that he was a pervert and was looking for his own self-gratification." Donald Nugent
On Sept. 4, 1982, two Cleveland patrolmen climbed the stairs to a second-story walk-up at 1367 E. 53rd St. Labor Day weekend had just begun, and here was a call about shots fired from an apartment window, proof that when you mix alcohol and gunpowder, you get handcuffs.
Two days later, the street swarmed with bulletproof vests. Two tips had told police that the gun used in the CSU murders was already in their possession. Ballistics tests linked Spisak's .22 to Sheehan's and Warford's murders. Inside the apartment police found newspaper clippings detailing the killings, but no Spisak. He was pulled later that day from a friend's basement, crouching next to a getaway suitcase. Detectives pawed through the contents: Inside was Tim Sheehan's beeper.
Reporters barreled down I-71 to Midpark High, where old yearbooks were mined. One ex-classmate remembered the argumentative glee clubber, the library geek who talked himself into trouble and thought he could talk his way out again. He didn't know why Spisak would murder, but "I suspect Frank has a logical explanation."
Spisak told court-appointed psychiatrists "he tried to kill Coletta Dartt because he became angry when he heard people making fun of the White People's Party," a court document reads. "He decided to teach her a lesson and intended to slap the shit out of her and rob her' when she came out of the ladies' room at Cleveland State."
He said he "felt good" about shooting Warford. His biggest worry was "getting back across to the other side of the campus" to his car, according to one psychiatrist. "I figured in the early morning hours it was so quiet, somebody was bound to hear all the shots."
After murdering Sheehan, he said, he "picked up the brass casings from his gun because the brass is worth money and also because it's sloppy to leave it laying around.' "
"Spisak has come to a deep and intelligent understanding of the mental illness and gender identity disorders that drove his unfortunate and painful actions. The understanding underlies his deep remorse. " -- defense attorney Alan C. Rossman
"Twenty-five years later, to somehow say, 'Well, he's got some mental problems ...' The jury heard all that. And the jury said he was responsible." Donald Nugent
At the trial, Frank Spisak never said he was sorry. To the families, he offered no apology.
The monthlong trial began on Monday, June 13, 1983, in the common pleas courtroom of Judge James J. Sweeney.
"Part of the job that you've undertaken is going to be sitting in judgment of a sick and demented mind that spews forth a philosophy that will offend each and every one of you," defense lawyer Thomas M. Shaughnessy told the jury. "Make no mistake about that, you will be offended."
Spisak grew a Hitler mustache for the trial. He greeted his lawyers with a Nazi salute. He answered Judge Sweeney's questions with a German "jawohl" instead of "yes." On the stand, he spoke of race war and of killing "the enemy" -- Rickerson, Warford and Hardaway were black, and Sheehan "looked like a Jew professor," Spisak said.
Faced with ballistics evidence linking Spisak to the murders and eyewitness identification from the survivors, Shaughnessy bet his client's life on an insanity defense. But on July 11, Dr. Oscar B. Markey, the only psychiatrist called by the defense, testified that Spisak was the victim of several known mental disorders -- none of which could be characterized as mental illness.
Judge Sweeney asked Markey for clarification. Was Spisak mentally ill when he committed the crimes he was accused of? Was Spisak mentally ill now?
"No," Markey said. "No."
Sweeney then instructed the jury not to consider Markey's testimony in its deliberations. Two days later, he ruled that Spisak knew right from wrong and understood the consequences of his actions, so he could not plead "not guilty by reason of insanity."
Resigned to a guilty verdict, Spisak's defense looked ahead toward finding mercy in the sentencing part of the trial. "In this segment of the trial, the defense has no defense," Shaughnessy told the jury in summation. He would see them again, he promised, during the penalty phase.
A reporter asked Spisak if he could think of any reason he shouldn't be electrocuted. "Not offhand; can you?" Spisak said. Then he grinned.
During the penalty phase, a line of psychiatrists took the stand for the defense. "Mentally unwell," Dr. Oscar B. Markey called Spisak. "He lacks finer feelings. He is governed by fear, by anger, by circumstance, and not by remorse, by tenderness, or feelings of modesty."
Dr. Sandra B. McPherson, a clinical psychologist, said Spisak detailed the killings to her matter-of-factly, showing no remorse. "It was like," she testified, "discussing what I had for breakfast." She was visibly shaken as she recalled Spisak's inkblot test - Spisak, she said, saw only bloodstains and body parts.
But none of the experts could pronounce Spisak legally insane. "Troubled" and "unwell" would not save his life.
The back of the courtroom had already reached a decision. "He's a cold-blooded killer, and he's no good," a recovering John Hardaway told reporters. "He was killing people for no good reason, and he should be electrocuted."
Even Spisak's defense attorney seemed eager to help throw the switch. As his client's life hung in the balance, Shaughnessy's summation murdered each victim again.
"Every one of us who went through this trial, we know we can feel that cold day [and] see Horace Rickerson dead on the cold floor," Shaughnessy said. "And we can all know the terror that John Hardaway felt when he turned and looked into those thick glasses and looked into the muzzle of a gun that kept spitting out bullets."
Shaughnessy did argue that Spisak was mentally ill, but soon undermined his own argument. "Don't look to him for sympathy, because he demands none," Shaughnessy said. "He is sick, he is twisted. He is demented, and he is never going to be any different." Summing up, Shaughnessy told the jury, "Whatever you do, we are going to be proud of you."
After five hours of weighing testimony and balancing death against life with the possibility of parole, the jury voted with John Hardaway, for a death sentence.
Judge James J. Sweeney thanked the jury. Spisak rocked in his chair.
Spisak's final address to the court was the soapbox he'd lusted after for 32 years. "Even though this court may pronounce me guilty a thousand times, the higher court of our great Aryan warrior god pronounces me innocent," he shouted. "Heil Hitler!"
Asked about his victims' families afterward, Spisak was bitter. "If it makes them happy, if it makes the whole city of Cleveland happy, if they're going to dance and celebrate my death, then let them dance and celebrate because today I die and tomorrow it will be them." But he would not run to the electric chair. "Now [my lawyers] are going through the appeals process ... until they no doubt exhaust all the different options open to them."
He expected to buy time, but not a second chance. The appeals might win him "a year, two years, or maybe 10." Then, Spisak said, it would be time to ride "old blunderbolt."
Instead, Frank Spisak would outlive his lawyer and the memory of most of the city.
For 25 years, Spisak has lived on prison food and court appeals. In a series of colorful filings, Spisak has argued that since transsexualism is considered a "mental defect" under Ohio case law, the state of Ohio should pay for a sex-change operation for him. He has also asked to be allowed to resume collecting stamps and corresponding with other collectors - a request denied when he mentioned, "My specialty is collecting old German postage stamps, especially those from Nazi Germany."
Last year a three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals went into the fat folder filled with bodies and shells and balled-up crime scene tape, and hope sprung again in a cell in the Mansfield Correctional Institution.
The judges upheld Spisak's conviction, but ordered the case back for a new sentencing proceeding. They cited improper instructions given to the jury that suggested they needed to decide between life and death unanimously. Actually, only a death sentence must be unanimous. One dissenting juror can spare a defendant and force a life sentence instead.
The judges also hammered the late Thomas Shaughnessy for representing Spisak ineffectively. They criticized him for graphically recounting the crimes in his closing argument, expressing hostility and disgust for his own client and saying very little to offset either. Much of his argument "could have been made by the prosecution," noted one judge dryly, "and if it had, would likely have been grounds for a successful prosecutorial misconduct claim."
A new jury has to resentence Spisak -- weighing "mitigating factors" such as his mental state. The Ohio Attorney General's Office is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it's a long shot. Most likely, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason will have to argue all over again that Spisak deserves to die.
Attorney Alan C. Rossman now represents Spisak. For Rossman, the "mitigating factors" are clear: We should not execute the mentally ill, and Frank Spisak is mentally ill.
"The Nazism was very much a part of the identity disorder," says Rossman. "What attracted him to the White People's Party was the uniform and the structure - and the identity. It was a symptom of his illness as opposed to a driving force."
Rossman calls the first trial "a circus," in part because Shaughnessy let Spisak portray himself as a Nazi. "When reviewing the trial record, there was no question in my mind that his trial counsel had nothing but contempt for him," Rossman says.
Rossman passed the bar in 1981. He was still hanging his law degree during that summer of 1982. He's worked on several capital punishment cases. Each is a mental challenge for him. "You never divorce yourself from the victims," he says. But when he tries to "understand the human side" of his clients, he realizes "how broken they are."
"The difficult thing is to suspend judgment and get beyond the fangs and talons that are being portrayed, and find out how they got to where they are. Which is not to condone anything that's happened."
"I got down to the trial a couple of times and sat in the back of the courtroom. I met Donald Nugent and saw how he worked, how the system works. It gave me a little inspiration to do that. That someday I'd like to help someone else sitting in the back of the courtroom." -- Brendan Sheehan
The girl's feet do not touch the floor. She's wearing Dora the Explorer socks in SpongeBob tennis shoes and sitting in a too-big chair. The littlest victim stares past the framed photos in the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office lobby -- full of old men in stiff collars and Herbert Hoover haircuts -- to the TV. A cartoon aardvark named Arthur soars over his troubles in a magic plane.
She and her mother have come to see Brendan Sheehan.
An assistant county prosecutor, Sheehan is director of the Internet Crimes Against Children division. When the investigators are through, everything -- the pedophiles and abuse and monsters that swallow childhood -- goes into a fat folder that lands on his desk.
"Right now I have 40 pending cases on my docket," he says, motioning at an office the size of a generous chimney.
A small man can cross a courtroom in a few steps. It took Brendan Sheehan 25 years to do it. After Sheehan graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College, Don Nugent pointed him toward a bailiff job and law school.
Being a prosecutor, Sheehan says, is "my dream job."
Frank Spisak is an almost-forgotten nightmare.
"I've always prided myself on the fact our family doesn't talk about Frank Spisak, doesn't think about Frank Spisak," Sheehan says. Now he will.
It will be left to Sheehan's co-workers, his fellow prosecutors, to try this case. But he plans to be there, "sitting in the back of the courtroom, like I did 25 years ago." As the surviving head of the Sheehan clan, sworn to protect his mother and sisters, how can he not?
He believes that keeping Spisak on death row is not impossible, but resentencing him will be tricky.
"How do you recapture what was said 20-some years ago to a jury on how this guy deserves the death penalty?" Sheehan asks. "Times have changed."
Donald Nugent is now U.S. District Judge Nugent, presiding over a courtroom in the federal courthouse on Huron Road and an office the size of the 14th green at Firestone Country Club. Spisak's name comes up, and suddenly we are talking about marriage chapels.
"I've gone to every one of Brendan's sisters' weddings and his wedding," Nugent says, "and in the Irish tradition they have a father's prayer. Well, he's not there. And they always have someone say the father's prayer in place of Tim. That comes home to Kathleen and the kids. In the happiest moment of their lives, the Sheehans are reminded of the butchering of Spisak and the loss of their father."
No matter how the case ends, Nugent says, "All of the victims' families will know that the police, the prosecutors and everyone who was charged of representing them did everything that was legal and proper and appropriate to see that justice was done. And the fact that someone, maybe, didn't was not something they had control over."
If he weren't a judge, would Nugent like another crack at prosecuting Spisak?
You do not ask a barber if you need a haircut. "In a minute," Nugent says. "And I would be his worst nightmare."
Sometime soon, perhaps this summer, another jury will be handed a fat folder filled with spent slugs and bleeding bodies and crime scene tape. They will weigh whether a damaged man deserves a second chance, though he took such chances away from three others.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason will seek another death penalty for Frank Spisak. He has promised to deliver his office's lead arguments himself.
A gavel will bang like a pistol shot, and Spisak will live or die.
Another judge will enter a courtroom a
12:00 AM EST
April 23, 2007