'It's more to it than she's a slow learner'

Cary Ashby • Nov 8, 2014 at 10:07 AM

A jury acquitted former Willard resident Howard R. Zerkle on all charges Thursday stemming from a sex-related incident involving an 18-year-old mentally impaired female.

The Huron County jurors found Zerkle, 81, "not guilty" of one count each of kidnapping, rape and sexual battery. Jurors deliberated for about 12 hours over two days.

After a series of texts starting Jan. 19 -- beginning with the teenager possibly misdialing a contact on her cell phone, Zerkle reportedly picked up the teenager, who is now 19, from her Plymouth apartment Jan. 31. He drove her to Country Kitchen in Willard, where they ate eggs. Zerkle was accused of then taking the victim to the bedroom of his Crestwood Drive apartment and sexually violating her.

"It's an extremely tough case because of the allegations, the age difference and the impairment issue," defense attorney Geoffrey Oglesby told the Reflector.

"I feel for the victim," added Oglesby, who believes Zerkle's accuser has the right to have sex like any other 18-year-old.

The victim's family couldn't be reached for comment immediately after the verdicts were read.

Visiting Judge Roger Binette made sure Zerkle and his attorney were out of the courtroom for several minutes before allowing the spectators to leave. The pair left under the guidance of two Huron County sheriff's deputies. Huron County Common Pleas Judge Jim Conway, who oversaw the case, wasn't available Thursday afternoon and requested Binette accept the verdicts on his behalf.

The lead investigator, Willard Police Detective Jeremy Draper, declined to comment on the case.

"The state is very disappointed with the verdicts," Huron County Assistant Prosecutor Daivia Kasper said.

She believes the jury carefully considered the evidence and testimony presented, but declined to say what influenced the jurors' decision on the three felonies. Kasper and Binette spent nearly 30 minutes speaking to the jurors behind closed doors after the verdicts were announced.

"I respect their decision, but I'm very disappointed," Kasper added.

Two of the jurors who walked past this reporter in the hallway declined to comment.

After an afternoon of jury selection, there were five days of testimony from many state's witnesses.

"The state was arguing against themselves," Oglesby said, referring to the victim's mental impairment.

When asked to clarify, Zerkle's attorney said the state wanted jurors to believe the teenager was mentally impaired yet competent enough to have sex, but also capable of testifying "to put the man away for 20 years."

"It's more to it than she's a slow learner. She has to be incapable of taking care of herself," Oglesby said.

About some of the missing texts between Zerkle and his accuser, Oglesby said the chances that both people erased their messages "would be astronomical."

"The whole case is a fabrication," he added. "There's a reason the Richland County prosecutor didn't want to take it and there's a reason the (Norwalk) law director didn't want to take it."

Zerkle didn't take the stand Tuesday and his attorney declined to offer any witnesses.

"He's ecstatic. Now he sees the justice system in a different way," Oglesby said.

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