On February 14, 1993, police found the body of 71-year-old Neal Rankin in his home in Akron, Ohio. He had been shot twice in the head and the home was ransacked.
Rankin was a lonely retiree who was known for sharing his home and giving money to numerous people, many who had criminal records and took advantage of him. He would sometimes bail prostitutes out of jail when they were arrested. He allowed people to stay in a spare room and paid some of them to do odd jobs, such as mowing his lawn and driving him around after he lost his driver’s license because of a drunken driving conviction. In the six years before his murder, Rankin reported being the victim of crimes such as burglary and robbery on 10 different occasions.
In June 1994, three people were charged with Rankin’s murder—Virginia Jones, Lori Jones and Gary Rusu. Lori Jones’ husband, Dewey, was charged with obstructing justice and tampering with evidence because a jailed inmate claimed that Jones had admitted helping dispose of the murder weapon.
In the fall of 1994 the inmate’s claim was exposed as a lie and the original charges were dropped against all four, but Summit County prosecutors charged Dewey Jones with the murder of Rankin. He was also charged with robbery and kidnapping.
Jones went on trial in Summit County Court of Common Pleas in February 1995. A man who lived across the street from Rankin testified that he saw Jones walking away from Rankin’s house on the evening of February 13.
A medical examiner testified that Rankin was shot sometime during the late afternoon or evening of February 13. A rope had been used to bind one of Rankin’s arms.
Another witness testified that he saw Jones going back and forth from a car to a house located in another part of Akron. The car was Rankin’s. Police believed the killer stole Rankin’s car after the murder because a neighbor saw it leave in a hurry in the late afternoon of February 13.
Both witnesses had only identified Jones after being shown numerous photographic lineups and after identifying other men instead of Jones. These discrepancies, detailed in police reports, were not brought out at trial by Jones’ defense attorney.
An inmate at the Summit County Jail testified that while he and Jones were working out, Jones admitted that he went to Rankin’s home with his wife, Lori, and with Gary Rusu to get some money and when things got out of hand, Jones shot Rankin.
The inmate was later exposed as having acted as a jailhouse informant for police on numerous occasions and; he was shot to death by police officers in 2000.
Ellen Mary Davis, Rankin’s daughter, testified that Jones and his wife, Lori, had lived with Rankin for about a year in 1988 or 1989. They were close enough that Lori took over Rankin’s finances because he managed them badly and often would not have money for food, Davis testified.
Davis testified that about 10 days before the murder, she was preparing to travel to Florida. She said Rankin asked her for her gun because he said he was afraid of Jones. She said she didn’t take it seriously. Her statement about that conversation was never recorded in any police report.
On February 28, 1995, Jones was convicted of first-degree murder with a firearm, robbery and kidnapping. He was sentenced to life in prison.
On appeal, the kidnapping conviction was vacated, but the other convictions were upheld.
In 2008, The Dispatch, a Columbus, Ohio newspaper, published a series of articles entitled “Test of Convictions,” which examined Ohio’s evidence-retention and DNA testing policies. The newspaper, along with the Ohio Innocence Project, reviewed more than 300 cases and profiled 30 convicted defendants as candidates for DNA testing. Jones was among those defendants and after the articles were published, the Ohio Innocence Project filed a motion for DNA testing in Jones’ case.
DNA tests were conducted on a piece of rope used to bind Rankin’s wrists, a knife, and pieces of Rankin’s shirtsleeves. In April 2012, the tests identified a partial male DNA profile that was neither Jones’ nor Rankin’s. Three months later, Summit County Common Pleas Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands vacated Jones’ conviction and ordered a new trial.
The prosecution appealed, but the appeal was denied in the fall of 2013. On December 13, 2013, Jones was released on bond. On January 30, 2014, the prosecution dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley