I came to learn that the name in lights that I saw spelled out in front of a house on Route 8– JON– was the name of the homeowner’s son who had recently passed away, and as a way to remember him, his name was spelled out on the hillside. This Jon is in no way connected to the Jon from Cheryll’s case. But seeing it in the manner that I did, really made me feel like I was meant to see it, and it further ignited the fire within myself to learn about this new person of interest. Hearing from Cheryll’s brothers that there were rumblings about Jon back in the 1970s, Bridget and I began to dig, and we dug so deep that when we finally felt like we had made it to the bottom of the hole, we were exhausted from the laborious work that was the research of Jon’s life and were also amazed at the mounds of figurative dirt piled up around us.
Jon was employed at a manufacturing company in Ohio during the day. From what we can tell, he would leave his home in Kenton County and report to work in the mornings during the week. His wife would head to work in Highland Heights each day and would run the business until Jon came there in the evenings after work. It has been stated that his wife really took pride in the ownership of the business and was proud of her store, managing it oftentimes without her husband being present within it. Many of the guys associated with the car theft ring knew Jon and sometimes they would be spotted hanging out around his store, as well as coming and going from it. I’ve discovered old newspaper articles with tales of neighbors filing noise complaints with the city as the cars would cause a stir in the parking lot and late hour noise could be heard coming from his business.
Jon was hiding a secret– the kind of dark and nasty secret most offenders don’t ever want brought to the light. Throughout the 1970s, when he wasn’t working or helping run his business, Jon was molesting girls with whom he had access. But eventually in the late 1970s, one of his victims must have found the courage to confide in someone about what he had been doing, because Jon’s secret was exposed. He was arrested and charged with the sexual crimes and he chose to plead guilty. After some of the charges were dropped and because he did plead guilty, he was given a sentence of five years probation. This information is so difficult to stomach. As if assaults like these against children aren’t despicable and disgusting enough, the slap-on-the-wrist type consequence is just as revolting. We’ve learned that Jon told his victims that he’d killed a girl named Cheryll–he’d raped her and stabbed her to death and left her in a creek–and he’d do the same to them if they ever told on him. Upon learning of her husband’s crimes and him eventually admitting to and pleading guilty to those crimes, Jon’s wife left him, took their children, and eventually moved out of state. Shortly after, his business in Highland Heights was sold and Jon seemed to somehow live quietly under the radar until he died in the 1990s.
When all of these crimes were reported to the police and Jon was arrested in 1977 for the sex crimes, the story of Jon talking about Cheryll’s murder and telling other children he’d killed her came out as well. It was at this time that Jon did become a person of interest in Cheryll’s case. I asked the detective assigned to Cheryll’s case about this and why Jon was never charged with the murder, and he explained that though someone telling authorities that someone said they committed a murder is a good lead, without evidence to prove it to be true, the police had little else to go on at that time. I inferred from our conversation that though Jon’s victims recounted that Jon told them he killed Cheryll, and even if we absolutely believe them (which I do), we don’t know if Jon DID murder Cheryll or just said that he did. I asked if Jon had taken a polygraph examination and the detective confirmed that he had and that there was no indication of deception. In other words, Jon passed the polygraph. Because he wasn’t identified as a person of interest in 1971 and years had passed, his work records weren’t checked, his car and business weren’t searched, etc. and those details are forever lost. Having nothing besides Jon’s own mouth tying him to the murder, he was not investigated further for the crime. Jon’s name has continued to come up however, because some members of his own family are convinced he DID commit the murder and have wanted to keep his name on the investigators’ radar over the years.
Bridget and I found people who knew Jon, and they began to share curious details of his life in the early 1970s. One of those tales is very interesting, and I’ll admit, also convoluted. Supposedly in the late 1960s/early 1970s, a man somewhat younger than Jon lived on Jon’s property in Kenton County. We’ve heard that a female family member of Jon’s may have been dating and even married to this man during that time. None of this really seemed significant until we learned this man’s name: Dennis Smith. Bridget and I both were aghast when we discovered this name caught up in the web of people surrounding Jon. We’d heard that name before. A man with that name was a supposed member of a biker gang in Ohio in 1970. A man with that name was buddies with and related by marriage to James Findley, the man in prison for killing Cheryl Segal in Ohio in 1970. A man with that name was fingered by Findley for Segal’s murder and was referenced by Findley in court when he said, “you will know it wasn’t me when you get another one.” Is it the same Dennis Smith? Could HE be the link between the murders of the two girls named Cheryl/Cheryll? To be perfectly frank here–we don’t know. We cannot prove that this IS the same Dennis Smith, but boy, it is mighty strange to encounter that name twice. We also could find no paper trail for what became of a man named Dennis Smith, but we were also told that the “biker gang Dennis Smith” disappeared sometime in the late 1970s, never to be seen or heard from again. There were whispers of the gang “taking care of” members who committed egregious acts. (Blog entry #53. “I Wasn’t Alone” discusses Cheryl Segal, James Findley, and Dennis Smith in detail.)
I found local people who remembered Jon from his business in Highland Heights in the early 1970s and they described him as a “large man” who was “imposing and scary.” Most remember him with facial hair, either a mustache or bearded, with a sort of “shady” appearance. It also seems that some locals knew that Jon had “connections”, wasn’t always on the up and up with his business practices, and was not a man to cross. I have yet to meet anyone with anything positive to say about Jon.
There ARE some questions about Jon that we cannot answer, and this is where someone who knew him and his activities in October of 1971 could help supply some answers. If we believe Jon’s victims when they say Jon told them he killed Cheryll, why did he tell them? Because he was her murderer and he wanted to boast about his crime or because he wanted to scare his victims into complying with his demands? How well did he know Billy Joe and his kids? Did Jon know Billy Joe had a young daughter and he then targeted Cheryll? Was Jon ever in a position outside of his store to interact with Cheryll to have won her trust enough that she’d get in a car with him? Was there ever some sort of bad blood between Jon and Billy Joe that caused Cheryll to be targeted? But one of the biggest questions for me is logistical. How would Jon have been available on a random Tuesday morning around 6:30 a.m. to have seen Cheryll alone on dark and foggy Rose Avenue and pluck her off of the street undetected? How could he possibly have known that she’d overslept that morning and would be alone? Or, was this prearranged with Cheryll? And if so, how did he communicate this with her? Or, did he possibly decide to go to his store early that morning and Cheryll was a victim of opportunity–he happened to drive by, see her alone, and get her in his car? There are just too many unanswered questions to make the leap and say Jon did kill Cheryll, but I hope some of these questions will be answered.
And last, there is another twisted knot in this story, because in another curious coincidence, I have discovered that Jon is buried one section away from my father-in-law in Highland Cemetery. His grave is just steps away from Tom’s whose grave is just steps away from Cheryll’s. I can’t help but sometimes think about how tragically ironic it would be if victim, investigator, and killer were all unknowingly buried in such close proximity to each other, each laying underground, buried under the earth, with a piece of stone marking the place where they lay for eternity, all having traveled vastly different journeys in life only to have a hauntingly similar finality in their final repose. I shudder to think of it at times and pray it isn’t the case. And yet, even with all this newly discovered material, the question continues to gnaw at my insides….Who killed Cheryll?