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Convicted killer has strange ties to three unsolved murders

By Shane Hoover • Apr 3, 2017 at 12:00 PM

Easter Sunday, 1991. It was nearing 10 p.m. when Stark County Sheriff's deputies and Plain Township medics got to the apartment complex at Fulton Drive and Wertz Avenue NW.

Patricia Murphy, the 51-year-old woman living in Apt. 4, had been strangled. No one had seen her for almost four days before her body was found.

Capt. James Shannon, the sheriff's chief investigator, drove to the scene a few blocks from his home, parked and walked to the buff-colored brick house where Murphy had lived.

"Who called?" Shannon asked.

"I called," said a man leaning against a vehicle. Shannon recognized the bearded, scruffy face of Kenneth A. Roth.

It was the second time in six years Shannon had crossed paths with Roth during a murder investigation. It wouldn't be the last.

"What are you doing here?" Shannon asked.

Person of interest

Roth is 26 years and 60 miles removed from that late-night murder scene. He's an inmate at Lorain Correctional Institution, a first stop for men entering Ohio's prison system. Roth is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole. A Stark County jury convicted him Feb. 10 for the 2009 aggravated murder of Linda Van Voorhis Smith of Osnaburg Township.

"He's a killer," said Shannon, who is now retired. "Only he knows how many."

Shannon and the Sheriff's Office never caught Murphy's killer, nor did they solve the murders of Kay Gulosh and Julia Harbourt, two other cases in which investigators questioned Roth.

The three women were killed in their homes from 1985 to 1993. Gulosh was strangled and stabbed. Murphy was strangled, gagged and hit on the head. Harbourt was shot in the head.

Roth, 67, formerly of Osnaburg Township, remains a "person of interest" in each case.

Witnesses spotted a car Roth used at Gulosh's home the day she died. Roth was Murphy's maintenance man and possibly a former boyfriend. He installed the security alarm in Harbourt's home.

"There's a lot of circumstantial things that would make a reasonable person think," Sheriff George T. Maier said.

Investigators questioned Roth about the murders when they occurred but never had enough evidence to file charges. The cases went cold for years.

Then Smith, a 61-year-old Aultman Hospital nurse, was killed in 2009. Roth was her handyman.

December 2009

Sheriff's deputies found Smith dead in her home on Orchard View Drive SE on Dec. 11, 2009, after her family told authorities they couldn't reach her.

Smith was facedown on a bedroom floor. Her nurse's scrub pants were around her ankles. Her shirt and cardigan had been cut in half. A bra cup was stuffed in her mouth, her underwear tied around her neck. Her body was mutilated.

Sheriff George T. Maier explains why his office reviewed cold cases with links to Kenneth A. Roth:

Investigators determined Smith had been dead for two days. Later that month, they interviewed Roth, who did odd jobs, such as moving furniture and electrical wiring, for Smith.

Roth said Smith was one of about a dozen older, single women for whom he worked. The last time he talked to her was Nov. 20, he told investigators.

But the Smith murder echoed the slayings of Kay Gulosh and Patricia Murphy.

Smith, Gulosh and Murphy were found naked or partially clothed. All three were strangled with their own clothing. There were no signs of forced entry to their homes. They were middle-age.

There was a "similar modus operandi which would lead investigators to believe it would be the same killer," Maier said.

September 1985

The first of the women to die was Kay Gulosh.

Her husband, Robert, found her on a bed in their Harmont Avenue NE home near Columbus Road in Plain Township on Sept. 19, 1985. (Robert Gulosh died in 2015).

Kay Gulosh, 46, had been stabbed in the back, cut across the right side of her neck and strangled, then-Stark County Coroner James Pritchard told The Canton Repository at the time. Pritchard is now retired. He didn't respond to calls seeking comment on these old cases.

"She was mutilated," Shannon, the now-retired chief investigator, recalled three decades later.

But her 7-month-old grandson was unharmed in a playpen in the garage.

Gulosh had held a garage sale at her home the day she died. Her mother, two daughters and son-in-law had stopped there for lunch. Her mother was the last to leave at 4 p.m.

The Canton Crime Lab and Coroner's Office searched for trace evidence, while sheriff's deputies interviewed people who had been at the home. The investigators focused on a 30-minute window around Gulosh's death, estimated at 4:30 p.m.

Two witnesses saw a car, identified as a pink 1963 Mercury, at Gulosh's home around the time she was killed, Shannon said. There was only one car like it registered in the county.

The owner said his older brother, Kenneth Roth, drove the car, recalled Shannon and Ronald Jeskey, another Sheriff's Office investigator at the time.

Roth had returned to Ohio on parole from Kansas in June 1985 after serving 16 years of a life sentence for fatally shooting a Topeka taxi driver in 1968 during a robbery.

Gulosh's house was on the route Roth drove from his parents' farm in Osnaburg Township to a flea market in Hartville, where he sold leather goods, Jeskey said.

Roth denied stopping at Gulosh's house, and detectives had no evidence that unquestionably placed Roth there.

"DNA was not an option for us back then," Shannon said.

He and Jeskey followed other leads and potential suspects, but Roth was the one they couldn't eliminate.

Jeskey polygraphed Roth; the results were inconclusive. Jeskey said he had prosecutors call Roth before a grand jury. Roth stuck to his story: He wasn't there.

Another time, Jeskey picked up Roth in downtown Canton and gave him his detective's spiel.

Kenny, I know you didn't kill this woman, but I think you were at the house. You may be a witness. What did you see? What did you hear?

Roth thought for about 30 seconds and replied: "I never stopped there."

March 1991

March 29, 1991, was Toni Crouch's 31st birthday. Her mother, Patricia Murphy, usually telephoned Crouch on birthdays and holidays.

Crouch's birthday and Easter passed. Murphy never called.

Crouch lived in California, moving from Ohio with her parents and sisters in 1977. Her mother hadn't liked the West Coast, however, and moved back to Ohio. She and Crouch's father divorced.

"I think she was missing all of her family," Crouch said. "I think that's what made her go back."

Another marriage and divorce followed.

In early January 1991, Murphy moved to an apartment in an old house on Fulton Drive NW in Plain Township, about a half-mile up the hill from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, according to a news report.

Kenneth Roth was her building's maintenance man. He introduced Murphy to the other tenants as his former girlfriend, recalled Christina Greer Hutton, who lived in the downstairs apartment.

Murphy worked at Solid Gold Tanning Salon and Cronie's, a bar in what was then a rough part of downtown Canton.

Hutton said she didn't know her neighbor well because Murphy hadn't lived long in the building, but Murphy passed Hutton's door on the way to her apartment, and sometimes they'd crack open a beer and chat.

"She was a nice, really small woman who always had a good tan," Hutton said.

Hutton also knew Roth. He was 15 years older than her, scruffy with dark hair and a beard, always helping around the apartments. He was married, but Hutton never met his wife, although she recalled meeting his son.

Roth gave her a puppy. He took her for a ride on his Honda Gold Wing and told her his biker name, "Cona," which he said meant "knife of the north." He told her he served time in prison for killing a cab driver.

"I've never had any fear of Ken," Hutton said.

Easter Sunday, March 31

Hutton came home from dinner with her family and grabbed a beer.

A man and a woman were upstairs at Murphy's door. Hutton asked what they wanted. They were distraught. Murphy hadn't been at work. She hadn't called her family. Something was wrong.

Hutton didn't know the couple, but she wasn't overly worried for Murphy. It was a holiday, and Murphy's car was gone. Still, she called the landlady, who sent Roth over with a key.

Hutton said she and Roth went upstairs to Murphy's apartment. The light at the top of the stairs wasn't working, so Roth went downstairs to get a flashlight. Hutton waited at the top in the dark.

After Roth unlocked Apt. 4, in the flashlight beam, Hutton saw Murphy's high heels placed next to the door with her purse and a bag from Lawson's.

"What the hell?" Hutton thought. "No one leaves without their purse."

Roth played the flashlight around the apartment. Hutton saw what appeared to be blankets on the bed.

Roth grabbed her arm.

"It's foul play! It's foul play, Chris!" he said, almost carrying Hutton down the steps to her apartment.

Murphy had been dead at least two days, then-Chief Deputy Bruce Umpleby told the Canton Repository at the time. (Umpleby died in 1999.) She was unclothed and had been hit on the head and strangled.

There was no sign of forced entry to Murphy's apartment, meaning her killer likely was invited in or had access, Maier said.

Investigators questioned Roth but didn't have conclusive physical evidence.

Crouch and her three sisters returned to Ohio for Murphy's funeral and to collect their mother's possessions.

Murphy never told her daughters about Roth, but after her second divorce she "wasn't really communicating well with us the last couple of years, so that's why we're a little confused with what was going on in her life at that time," Crouch said.

Murphy's daughters met Roth when they cleaned out her apartment. He was edgy and nervous.

"He has something to do with this; I know he does," Crouch told her sisters.

August 1993

Julia Harbourt was shot in the head, which makes her killing different from the strangling murders of Gulosh, Murphy and Smith. Still, Roth is a common denominator.

Phillip Harbourt reported he found his wife lying on a couch in their home on Downing Street SW in Pike Township on Aug. 23, 1993.

An ice pack was on Julia Harbourt's head, the cubes not yet melted. There were no signs of a break-in.

Julia, also known as Julie, was 56 and retired from Rold Gold. She and Phillip ran a couple of bars, including the Short Stop Inn on Navarre Road SW.

Investigators had only one reason to question Roth about the murder: He recently had installed an alarm system in the Harbourts' home.

"He was a convicted felon. He shouldn't have been putting in alarms anywhere," Maier said.

Investigators found no physical evidence that Roth killed Julia Harbourt.

Phillip Harbourt, who died in 2000, also was a suspect.

"They accused my father big-time," said the couple's son, Phillip Steven Harbourt.

In his living room, the younger Harbourt kept several photos of his parents, including one of them with his aunts and uncles at the Short Stop Inn. The allegation that his father killed his mother divided the family.

Phillip Steven Harbourt said he didn't know what to believe.

"My dad and I didn't speak over that for 5 years," he said.

A couple of years ago, an investigator with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation contacted Phillip Steven Harbourt. Roth's name came up in the conversation, but Harbourt said he doesn't know if the case ever will be solved.

"It's been so long," he said.

2013

After Maier took office in 2013, deputies reviewed the four cold cases. They sent evidence to BCI for more advanced DNA analysis. Former investigators, including Shannon and Jeskey, came in to compare notes. Investigators interviewed old witnesses.

Kenneth Roth wasn't the only suspect, and new evidence could lead investigators down another road in the future, but "part of the process when you're conducting an investigation of this nature is to eliminate people, which will lead you to your primary suspect," Maier said. "I think we did that in these cases as well."

After Roth's arrest in late 2014 on a weapons charge, then-Lt. C.J. Stantz, the deputy who found Smith's body, questioned Roth about the four murders.

Roth admitted he probably stopped by Smith's house the day she died, but he denied killing her. A forensic test revealed Roth could be the source of male DNA found on Smith's underwear. Two other men who knew Smith were ruled out as DNA sources.

Smith's murder was the only case to turn up useful DNA evidence and the only one the Stark County Prosecutor's Office took to trial, resulting in a jury finding Roth guilty of aggravated murder Feb. 10.

Roth declined interview requests from The Canton Repository before and after his trial. He is appealing his conviction.

Dennis Barr, the chief criminal prosecutor for the Prosecutor's Office, declined to comment on the cases because of Roth's appeal.

Maier said his investigators are open to new information on the unsolved cases, but prosecutors aren't going to take a circumstantial case to trial when Roth already is serving life in prison.

After Roth's conviction in the Smith case, Maier again asked him if he wanted to talk. Roth refused, citing his appeal.

Families still wait

"... And as the years go swiftly by

I know just what I'll do

I'll keep telling you I love you

For I know you love me too ..."

The words are from a poem Kay Gulosh wrote her daughter, Amy Rohrer, less than a year before she died. Gulosh loved poetry and was always writing.

"I've prayed and pray for justice, at least to know who did this," Rohrer said.

Her sister, Sherri Eckstein, said she gave up on the case being solved a long time ago.

"Having it solved? That would be amazing," Eckstein said. "Everybody could rest. You can't ever just let it go because there's no closure to it."

Both women knew Roth was a suspect in their mother's murder, but they didn't know of the Smith case until they read about Roth's conviction on social media.

Rohrer was sure Roth killed her mother. Eckstein said she wanted hard proof.

Both sisters hope someday to confront their mother's killer.

Because Roth is serving a life sentence, maybe he'll want forgiveness and come clean, Rohrer said. "I would like to ask him if he has ever truly cared and loved someone in his life, you know?"

Eckstein said she would ask why her mother died such a brutal death, but she wasn't sure she could resist a physical confrontation with Roth.

In California, Toni Crouch said she wouldn't stop pushing investigators until her mother, Patricia Murphy, has peace.

For two decades Crouch had dreams in which she would cry out, "Mommy, don't go." She hasn't had them the past couple of years. Maybe it was because she knew Roth was behind bars, she said.

He can expect to hear from her.

"I'm going to write Mr. Roth a letter once I find out what prison he's in," Crouch said, "and just tell him how I'm feeling and that I know that he killed my mom and I knew from the beginning and I hope he rots in hell."

EDITOR’S NOTE: Information for this story was obtained from multiple interviews with more than 15 sources, including current and former investigators, witnesses and family members and acquaintances of the victims and Kenneth Roth; press archives; and records from the following government sources: Stark County Clerk of Courts, Stark County Probate Court, Stark County Sheriff's Office, Stark County Coroner's Office, Kansas Department of Corrections, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.

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