By Dan Trevas
A Supreme Court majority opinion released today upheld the three death sentences a Summit County Common Pleas Court imposed on Richard Beasley and the multiple convictions he received for other crimes connected with his scheme in remote southeastern Ohio.
“Over a period of three months, he methodically lured multiple victims through ads promising jobs, interviewing multiple candidates to eliminate those most likely to fight back or be missed,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote for the Court majority. “He killed Ralph Geiger to steal his identity, killed David Pauley and Tim Kern to steal their meager possessions, and tried to kill Scott Davis. And when he was arrested in November 2011, he had already posted a new ad to lure more victims.”
While the death penalties were affirmed, the majority remanded the case to the trial court to resentence Beasley for his noncapital convictions, stating the trial judge did not take the proper steps to impose consecutive prison sentences for crimes Beasley committed.
Justices Terrence O’Donnell and Patrick F. Fischer joined the chief justice’s opinion. Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Judith L. French concurred in judgment only without a written opinion.
Justice R. Patrick DeWine concurred with the majority on Beasley’s convictions and death sentences, but dissented on the order to resentence Beasley for his noncapital crimes. Justice DeWine noted that Beasley did not object when the trial court failed to recite required consecutive-sentence findings and that the outcome would not have been different had the court recited the findings.
Former Justice William M. O’Neill, who resigned on Jan. 26, joined the Court in affirming Beasley’s convictions, but dissented from imposing a sentence of death based on his dissent in State v. Wogenstahl (2013). In Wogenstahl, he concluded that the death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Crime Spree Begins with Identity Theft
In the summer of 2011 Beasley lived in the basement of his friend Joyce Grebelsky’s Akron home. He knew Ralph Geiger through their association with the Brothers Motorcycle gang, which Beasley described as a “violent organization.” Geiger had once operated a successful construction business, but by February 2011 he was homeless and living in a shelter. He told a friend in August 2011 that he had a job on a farm in southern Ohio. Geiger checked into a hotel in Caldwell, between Cambridge and Marietta, with two other adults. After that day, a friend of his who was in regular contact with Geiger said she never heard from him again.
Around the time Geiger disappeared, Grebelsky testified that Beasley asked her to start calling him Ralph Geiger and told her he wanted to change his identity to avoid going back to jail. Beasley used Geiger’s name to submit employment applications in August 2011, and in September he opened a bank account, identifying himself as Geiger.
Craigslist Ad Placed to Attract Victims
In October 2011, men began responding to an ad placed on Craigslist for a caretaker at a cattle farm in Caldwell. Beasley, using assumed names, interviewed the men, sometimes at an Akron area mall food court, but also at restaurants near Caldwell.
David Pauley of Norfolk, Virginia, responded to the ad. He had been unemployed for about two years at the time. Pauley set out for Ohio in his blue pickup truck, pulling a trailer with his belongings. Pauley’s sister said she spoke to Pauley twice as he was on his way to the new job and never heard from him again. The next day, Beasley appeared at a friend’s house with the pick-up and trailer and was accompanied by a young man, identified as Brogan Rafferty, who Beasley claimed to be his nephew. Beasley attempted to sell his friend some of Pauley’s possessions, saying that he had bought them.
Tim Kern also responded to the ad. His ex-wife and son drove him to a job interview at a Waffle House off Interstate 77 in southern Ohio where security video showed Kern meeting with a man who resembled Beasley. A few days later, Kern told his son he got the job and planned to leave right away. Kern’s ex-wife spoke to him the night before he left, and she and her son never heard from him again. Beasley later asked a friend to help him retrieve a broken-down Buick, which he said he bought. The friend found a vehicle registration in the car in the name of “Kern.”
Man Shot While Escaping Attempted Robbery
Scott Davis was a self-employed landscaper in South Carolina when he responded to Beasley’s Craigslist ad. Davis drove with Beasley and Rafferty through the rural roads of Noble County near the supposed cattle farm when Beasley offered to show Davis where he recently shot a deer. He lured Davis deeper into the woods and then shot Davis, hitting him in the elbow. Davis ran and hid in the woods. When it turned dark, he walked to a nearby house where the owner called for emergency medical treatment. Davis described to the homeowners and authorities the attempt by the two men to attract him to the area and kill him.
FBI agents and local authorities searched the scene of the woods where Davis was shot and discovered the bodies of the real Ralph Geiger and Pauley. Less than two weeks later, they found Kern’s body buried in a wooded area near a vacant Akron mall.
Letter Reveals Victim Information
Law enforcement traced the murders to Beasley and arrested him on Nov. 16, 2011. Nine days later Grebelsky received a letter from the Summit County Jail from a sender named “Chris Star.” Inside was a three-page letter and a hand-drawn map that contained the locations of Geiger’s wallet and the laptop computers that Beasley used to post the ads. In the letter Beasley instructed her to destroy what she found. Grebelsky gave the letter to authorities, who recovered the items.
Police also arrested Rafferty and discovered items connected to the robberies and shooting of the men. Investigators were able to link to the crimes several prepaid cell phones that revealed contact with the victims and acquaintances of Beasley who Beasley asked to assist him.
Beasley was indicted on 27 counts related to the robberies, murders, and attempted murders of the men. The jury convicted him of most of the charges, and unanimously recommended the death sentence for the murders of Geiger, Pauley, and Kern. He received several prison terms for the attempted murder and aggravated robbery of Davis, as well as sentences for related crimes including identity theft and illegally carrying a weapon. The trial judge ordered all the noncapital sentences to run consecutively.
Death sentences are automatically appealed to the Supreme Court, which considers the convictions and sentences.
Court Rejects Challenges to Sentences
Beasley raised 11 propositions of law in his objections to his convictions and death sentences. His claims included that the prosecutor committed misconduct in her opening statement depriving him a fair trial when she told the jury the term that best described Beasley was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” She then placed on a projected screen the origin of the term, which comes from the Bible.
Beasley’s attorney objected to the presentation before the prosecutor could finish explaining the phrase, and the trial judge instructed the jury to disregard anything they saw or read related to the prosecutor’s statement.
Beasley contended that specific remarks are uniquely prejudicial when they invoke the Bible. The Court majority noted that courts have found biblical quotations to be inappropriate in some cases, but concluded that no court has imposed a blanket prohibition against using biblical quotations in the courtroom.
“In the context of the entire trial, the prosecutor’s isolated remark did not substantially impair Beasley’s right to a fair trial,” the Court stated.
Court Weighs Factors before Sentencing
Although the trial court sentenced Beasley to death, the Supreme Court conducts its own independent weighing of the aggravating circumstances and mitigating factors presented in the case to determine if the death sentence is appropriate.
The Court found the evidence demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that Beasley committed the murders as part of a course of conduct, and that supports a death sentence. As mitigating evidence, Beasley, who denied committing the crimes, presented the testimony of his mother, a friend who visits him in prison, and a neuropsychologist. His mother told the court about Beasley’s difficult childhood, including that Beasley was sexually abused by neighborhood boys when he was young.
The neuropsychologist described Beasley as highly intelligent, but with cognitive problems that could be traced to “severe family dysfunction.” He diagnosed Beasley with two types of personality disorders, and stated he had a history of brain strokes that resulted from a motor vehicle accident, which also led to cognitive dysfunction.
The Court gave some weight to the mitigating evidence, but concluded that “[W]ithout question, the aggravating circumstances in this case, Beasley’s murder of three individuals as part of a single course of conduct, outweigh the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Noncapital Sentences Remanded for Resentencing
The Court considered Beasley’s contention that the trial court failed to follow the law when imposing consecutive sentences for the noncapital convictions. The opinion stated that a trial court must make three statutory findings at the sentencing hearing and in the sentencing entry to impose consecutive prison terms for multiple convictions pursuant to the Court’s 2014 decision in State v. Bonnell.
The Court found the trial judge did not make one of the necessary findings regarding whether the sentence was disproportionate compared with Beasley’s conduct and the danger he poses to the public. It remanded the case to the trial court for the limited purpose of resentencing on the noncapital convictions.