On June 4, 1997, police responding to an anonymous 911 call found 74-year-old Alice Lucy Zolkowski bound to a chair in her ransacked home in Cleveland. Zolkowski had been severely beaten after being tied to the chair with strips of cloth ripped from her nightgown. She was alive, but unconscious.
Police interviewed neighbors and learned that 40-year-old Walter Zimmer
and 41-year-old Thomas Siller were contractors who frequently worked at Zolkowski’s home. On June 5, Siller told detectives that he had worked for Zolkowski since the fall of 1996 and that the day before she was attacked, he drove her to the bank and dropped her at home around 4 p.m.
Siller said that in the early morning hours of June 4, he started getting paged by Rosie Crowder, a friend, so he went to her home where he found Zimmer. Zimmer said that he had discovered Zolkowski tied to the chair and beaten, and that he then went to Crowder’s home. Zimmer said he had not called police because there was a warrant out for his arrest on a charge of driving on a suspended license. Siller told detectives that he drove Zimmer home and stopped at a payphone to make the 911 call that alerted police. Siller also said that he had borrowed $200 from Zolkowski the day of the attack, and that he had borrowed about $12,000 from her since he began working for her.
Zimmer and Crowder also voluntarily came to speak with detectives that day. Zimmer said that he was walking to Crowder’s home sometime after midnight and, when he passed Zolkowski’s home, noticed that her lights were on. He said he knocked, got no answer and went to the back door which was open. He said he looked inside and saw cabinets open and items strewn about. He walked into the kitchen and discovered Zolkowski severely beaten and tied to a chair in the living room. He immediately left and went to Crowder’s home. Zimmer said he had borrowed about $5,000 from Zolkowski over the prior eight months. In fact, tally sheets in the home showed Siller owed Zolkowski $12,155 and Zimmer owed her $7,640.
On June 13, Siller gave another statement to detectives, saying he had been in a bar with Zimmer on the night of June 3 and that he actually had borrowed $240, not $200, from Zolkowski that afternoon.
Evidence technicians found Zimmer’s and Siller’s fingerprints in the home as well as the fingerprints of 28-year-old Jason Smith, who had prior convictions for aggravated assault, drug trafficking, possession of criminal tools, receiving stolen property and vehicle theft. Unlike Zimmer and Siller, who had worked in the home in numerous prior occasions, Smith had no known relationship with Zolkowski. Smith’s prints were found on a dresser drawer.
On June 14, police went looking for Smith at the home of his girlfriend, Jenean Harper. She said Smith wasn’t there, but police searched the home and found him in a closet. Smith was charged with attacking Zolkowski and Harper was charged with obstruction of justice for attempting to hide Smith. Police confiscated a pair of Smith’s pants bearing what appeared to be bloodstains.
Two days later, Smith denied involvement in the crime in an interview with detectives, but said he had seen Siller and Zimmer doing work on Zolkowski’s sidewalk at some previous time. Police obtained a sample of Smith’s blood for testing.
At about the same time, Smith began talking to other men in the jail where he was being held. One of them, Ed Farrell, went to detectives and said Smith had bragged of breaking into a home and beating up an elderly woman, but that he would not be convicted because friends in Kentucky were going to supply an alibi. Farrell said Smith wasn’t worried about anyone snitching on him because he had been alone.
On June 17, detectives interviewed Smith again and he claimed he was in Kentucky at the time of the crime. He said he had been working in a restaurant and had cut his leg and blood got onto his pants.
Smith’s pants were sent to the Cleveland police crime laboratory and Joseph Serowik, a blood analyst, reported that there were stains inside the right knee area and there were small stains on the front legs—“spatter patterns.” Serowik said the stains were not blood.
In 1998, when Smith learned that Harper was going to plead guilty to the obstruction of justice charge and testify against him, he agreed to plead guilty to the attack on Zolkowski, and admitted he was at Zolkowski’s home on the night of the crime. On March 4, 1998, Smith, in a deal an appellate court later called “breathtakingly favorable,” pled guilty to aggravated burglary, and charges of attempted aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, felonious assault and kidnapping were all dismissed. He said that Siller and Zimmer had attacked
Zolkowski and that he was outside the home at the time, but later went in to search for valuables.
Siller and Zimmer were then arrested and charged with attempted aggravated murder, felonious assault, aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery and kidnapping. They went on trial together in the summer of 1998 in Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. Siller and Zimmer maintained they were not at the scene of the crime.
Smith testified that he waited in a car while Siller and Zimmer went inside. He said he later came inside and saw Zimmer standing over Zolkowski, yelling at her. Smith said he didn’t enter the room where she was. He said that he noticed the back door trim had been “messed up” as he left the house.
Serowik, the blood analyst, testified that there were no blood spots or spatters matching Zolkowski’s blood on the pants confiscated from Smith. He said that he may not have tested some spots of “questionable color” because they did not appear to be blood.
The prosecution argued that the lack of blood on Smith’s pants was proof that he was not near Zolkowski when she was beaten and that whoever “did this vicious beating probably got some blood spattered on the clothes.”
On July 2, 1998, Siller and Zimmer were convicted of all charges. Siller was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Zimmer received a 40-year sentence.
On April 26, 1999, Zolkowski died without ever regaining consciousness. Siller and Zimmer were then indicted for murder. They were tried separately, and Siller went on trial first.
Smith again testified, but this time he added to his account—saying he saw Zimmer strike Zolkowski in the face. It was also revealed that Smith had cut deals with prosecutors to testify against other defendants in three unrelated cases in which he was charged with criminal conduct.
A jail inmate testified that Siller had confessed to him, although the inmate’s account did not match the physical evidence or Smith’s version of the crime. Another jail inmate testified that he heard Siller deny involvement in the crime. And two other inmates testified that Smith had bragged he had beaten a murder charge by falsely implicating two innocent men.
Serowik again testified and, under cross-examination, he said he had tested every stain on Smith’s pants. When Siller’s lawyer noted that Serowik testified at the first trial that he had not tested all the stains, the judge halted the trial and the pants were sent back to the lab for further testing. Six days later, Serowik returned to court and said a stain on the back of the left leg tested positive for Zolkowski’s blood. He said he had gotten that result in the original testing prior to the first trial. He explained the lack of documentation for such testing as an “oversight.”
Serowik said he had found no other bloodstains on the pants. The prosecution then argued that this single spot on the back of Smith’s pants could have gotten there by brushing against Siller. The prosecution argued that if Smith had beaten Zolkowski there would “be more blood and it would be on the front of his pants.”
In August 2001, Siller was convicted of aggravated murder and, after the jury rejected the death penalty, was sentenced to 30 years to life to be served concurrently with his prior 20 year sentence.
In November 2001, Zimmer pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter in order to avoid the death penalty, and received 10 years in prison to be served consecutively to the 40 years he received for his prior convictions.
Just a month earlier, in October 2001, Anthony Michael Green
was exonerated of a rape in Cleveland after DNA testing excluded him and matched to the actual rapist, who then confessed to the crime. Serowik was the analyst in Green’s case and an examination of his reports and testimony conducted as part of a civil lawsuit subsequently filed by Green revealed that Serowik’s work and conclusions were fabricated—Green actually had been excluded by Serowik’s testing though Serowik testified to the contrary.
In 2004, as part of a $1.6 million settlement of Green’s lawsuit, the City of Cleveland agreed to audit Serowik’s work in over 100 other cases. Experts conducted a wholesale review of Serowik’s cases and concluded that Serowik’s work was pockmarked by fraud and errors.
Siller, represented by the Innocence Project in New York, sought DNA testing in 2005. The tests came back in 2006 and showed that contrary to Serowik’s trial testimony that there was no blood on the front of Smith’s pants, there were in fact 20 blood spatters on the front of the pants. Nine were tested and seven matched Zolkowski’s blood. The other two belonged to Smith.
Siller then sought a new trial in both of his cases. The motion in his murder case—the second case—was denied when a judge ruled the new evidence would not have convinced the jury to acquit Siller. The motion in the first case remained pending while Siller appealed.
In 2009, the Ohio Court of Appeals reversed the conviction in the murder case. The court concluded that if the jury had known about the new DNA evidence, it might have acquitted Siller. While a new trial was pending, more DNA tests were conducted on the pieces of Zolkowski’s nightgown that had been used to bind her to the chair. Male DNA was found that excluded both Siller and Zimmer. Smith, however, could not be excluded as the source of the DNA.
At that point, the prosecution offered a deal to Siller and Zimmer, who was represented by the Ohio Innocence Project: plead guilty to charges of theft of more than $300,000 for the money they had borrowed from Zolkowski, and all pending charges would be dismissed. These new charges were not related to the attack on Zolkowski and had no factual basis in the amounts each actually had borrowed from her.
On March 24, 2011, Siller entered a plea to the new theft charges and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Because he had already served 13 years, he was immediately released. Zimmer entered a similar guilty plea to theft on April 1, received the same sentence and also was also immediately released.
Both men filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against the city of Cleveland and Serowik in 2013. In 2014, the city of Cleveland agreed to pay each man $650,000.
In 2012, Smith was charged with perjury for his testimony against Siller and Zimmer. He pled guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison.
– Maurice Possley