The woman read the newspaper story, the one about the man who’d been found dead in a West Side field.
Ron Vargo Jr. had been shot, the story said. He had been driving his aunt’s new Chevrolet Camaro, which was found a few days later abandoned in Columbus. With no leads on who killed him, police distributed Vargo’s photo and asked for the public’s help.
So the 42-year-old woman called the Crime Stoppers tip line back in October 1992 and told them what she’d seen.
"That man? I saw him. He was in that Camaro. He was riding in the back seat and yelling toward the window, 'Help me! They’re stealing my car!'"
The front-seat passenger turned around and threw his hand up as if to shut him up. They pulled away.
She didn’t know exactly what day she had seen the car but remembered she had just left a nearby Meijer store and it was during the week of Aug. 10 that year. She was confident the Camaro had pulled beside her at a traffic light at Georgesville Road and Atlanta Drive on the West Side. She remembered it clearly, she told police, because she’d found the whole episode sort of odd.
But this was before cellphones. And the men in the car — four in all — looked kind of young. Maybe they were just goofing around, she figured. Maybe it was a joke. She was concerned enough, though, that she noted the license-plate number before moving.
Police asked her to come in. “Did you get a good look at them?” a detective asked. Yes, she did.
“Would you help our sketch artist make some drawings?” the detective asked. Yes, she would.
“When she read that newspaper story, she realized, ‘Hey, what I saw was real,’” said Steve Eppert, Columbus police cold-case detective. “My view is we have no reason not to believe her information. And, really, she’s about all we’ve got.”
• • •
They called him a gentle giant. Ron was pushing 6 feet tall and weighed more than 300 pounds. “ Cherubic,” the detective calls him, with dark hair that curled onto his forehead if he let the shag get too long, and deep dimples that generally helped him get his way.
Paul Vargo, his younger brother by 15 months, said Ron had always been self-conscious about his weight; that made him shy at first. Once he knew someone, though, he really opened up. He saw the good in everything. He trusted everyone.
“If he’d had just a dollar in his pocket, he’d have given it to you,” said Rick Ernsberger, one of several foster children whom Dee and Ron Vargo Sr. took in over the years and raised alongside their two sons. “He was always happy.”
The boys all grew up together on the family’s farm in rural Fairfield County, just outside Carroll. They had a pond to swim in, hills to jump with their ATVs and plenty of land to roam.
It was a quiet life, one where they all felt safe. And, Paul said, one in which they’d been kind of sheltered. Especially Ron.
“I don’t think he was used to the way people would take advantage of him and how nice he was,” Paul said. “He was quiet and naive. He wasn’t street smart. Especially not the way we grew up.”
• • •
In August 1992, Ron, 26, was house-sitting in Clintonville for a vacationing aunt and taking care of her pets. He parked his old Plymouth Turismo and drove her loaded, forest-green Camaro instead — a good gig for a young, single man.
He called his parents’ home on Aug. 10, and Paul asked him to come back for Sunday dinner that evening. Ron said no.
“I wonder what would have happened if he had,” Paul says now, his eyes filling with tears. “ Maybe he wouldn’t have went missing.”
Later that Sunday, Ron took his grandmother on an errand. No one in his family saw him alive after that. The detective believes that Ron was killed sometime on Aug. 11 or Aug. 12.
Ron’s friends later told police that they knew of no specific plans he had. Neighbors said he had been polite as always. They had seen no strangers around.
When Ron didn’t show up for work at The Limited that week, his family filed a missing-person report. They knew something was wrong.
“He was dependable,” Dee said. “He would have called.”
Nothing about the case made much sense to detectives at the time, and nothing about it makes much sense to Eppert now. Ron didn’t drink much, he didn’t use drugs, and there was no sign that he was tangled up in anything that would have led to his death.
So, Eppert said, if you take the witness’s information for truth, maybe someone preyed on his kindness and trust. Maybe they befriended him and were only after that Camaro.
For Ron’s brother, that’s the rub: “He’d probably given them the car if they wanted it.”
• • •
Oscar Spillers II, a homeless man, bought himself a couple of 40-ounce bottles of Milwaukee’s Best beer at a UDF on W. Broad Street on Aug. 17, 1992, and started walking west. He wasn’t headed anywhere in particular, he later told police. He just liked to be in the quiet of the woods.
His wandering led him to a narrow access path on the Sears Distribution Center property and into a field off Fisher Road on the West Side. He made it about 100 yards in, past the tall trees and through thick, high brush. He came upon a pile of tires and some garbage.
Then he saw something else. He edged closer. It was a body, one badly decomposed in the summer heat.
He ran to the guard shack at the warehouse, and the guard — who said later that the hidden spot had been a problem with trespassers, mostly teens drinking and having sex — called police.
The body was a big man in blue jeans and a yellow T-shirt, lying on his back. He’d been shot multiple times in the head.
The first detectives to scour the scene made a note of the man’s new, clean white tennis shoes.
“He wasn’t dragged back to that area, and they didn’t park on a street and walk back there,” said Eppert, who is now reviewing the case. “He was killed where he laid.”
Police matched the body to the missing-person report that Ron’s parents had filed a couple of days earlier. In the early-morning hours of Aug. 18, detectives drove down the long, narrow lane of the Vargo home and delivered the news.
Even nearly 22 years later, everything about those days is fresh in Dee’s mind.
“They used to say time heals all things,” she said. “It doesn’t.”
• • •
For more than a year after his son’s death, Ron Vargo Sr. carried a newspaper clipping in his wallet of the police sketches — drawings of two white men, one sandy-haired, the other dark-haired, maybe in their early 20s.
He drove to the North Side and prowled the streets. He staked out bars in the University District. He stalked the neighborhood carryouts.
“He would just sit and see who was coming and going,” Dee said. “He wanted to see if anyone looked like them. It was hopeless.”
He died in 1995 never knowing who killed his son.
The case still frustrates police. Eppert, after an initial review of the file, was sure that the sketches would help solve it. He went to the evidence room to pull what he could in hopes that new DNA technology would help: Ron’s clothing, cigarette butts from the car, shell casings from the scene. It all was gone.
During a reorganization of the Columbus Division of Police evidence room in the 1990s, some cold-case evidence was misnumbered when refiled, and some might have been lost.
That is a constant irritation to the detectives, Eppert said. “These are the hurdles we have to overcome. But we owe it to families like the Vargos to still try and get answers.”
They have good fingerprints from the car, Eppert said, so that’s something.
Dee, now 78, said that rage against whoever killed her son initially consumed her. “I hated them. I wanted revenge.”
Now, she feels only pity: “They have to be lost, you know? It’s a burden they have to carry."
She doesn’t hold much hope of a conclusion. But Rick, now 54, prays otherwise.
He stopped to visit Dee one day not long ago and found her at the kitchen table reading her Bible. He noticed that her bookmark was a laminated copy of Ron’s obituary.
“You can see the sadness in her,” he said. “If she would die tomorrow ... I want her to go in peace.”
Central Ohio Crime Stoppers is offering up to $5,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction in this case. Tips can be submitted anonymously online at www.stopcrime.org, or by calling Crime Stoppers at 614-461-8477. Tips can also go to the Columbus Police Division’s unsolved-case review team at 614-645-4080.
By Holly Zachariah - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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