Thursday, 5 June 2008

Cold-Case Murder May Lead to Death Penalty

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — At 63 years of age, Eugene Blake has spent more than half his life in West Virginia’s penal system for the murder of two women. If convicted in the 1982 murder of Lansing resident Mark Withers, he could be taking up residence on Ohio’s death row.

Blake was named in a three-count indictment Wednesday charging him with the March 19, 1982, murder of then 21-year-old Withers, who resided at 13 East Center St., Lansing.

Withers was shot to death, and his 17-year-old female companion was raped during the early morning hours while the two were parked at Gould Park in Bridgeport.

During a Thursday news conference, Belmont County Prosecutor Christopher Berhalter said Blake is charged with three counts of aggravated murder. Berhalter said the three murder charges stem from different specifications associated with the Withers murder, pointing out that Blake faces the death penalty if convicted.

Blake had been housed at the Mountain State’s medium security Huttonsville Correctional Center but was moved recently to the Mount Olive Correctional Complex, West Virginia’s only maximum security prison.

Berhalter said Blake was moved within the past couple of months after Ohio authorities expressed interest in him. The Mount Olive facility was opened Feb. 14, 1995, as a replacement for the aged West Virginia Penitentiary at Moundsville.

Blake’s prison time began in the late 1960s in Wayne County, W.Va.

He was convicted March 29, 1968, of the Jan. 15, 1967, stabbing death of Donna Jean Ball, 18, a Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. operator who was on her way home after work. Trial documents indicate Blake forced Ball’s car off the road on a secluded area of W.Va. 75 in Wayne County. He stabbed her eight times before she broke away long enough to stop a passing motorist.

After getting into the motorist’s vehicle, Ball pointed toward Blake.

“That’s the car. That’s the man,” she screamed.

Blake sped away. The motorist drove to Ball’s home to alert her family then continued to Cabell-Huntington Hospital, where Ball was pronounced dead. The woman died in the rear seat of the car en route to the hospital.

Blake was sentenced to life without mercy in the West Virginia Penitentiary, but he only served 10 years because on Dec. 23, 1976, then-Gov. Arch Moore commuted Blake’s sentence to life with mercy. Blake was paroled in 1979.

Moore could not be reached for comment Thursday.

While awaiting trial for the Ball murder, Blake was sent to the Weston State Hospital for mental evaluation and on Aug. 25, 1967, he and eight others escaped from the facility.

Blake was recaptured three days later in a car he had stolen after overpowering a Pickle Street farmer and his wife. Police found a shotgun in the stolen car.

Another murder conviction for Blake came in Ohio County on Oct. 18, 1985, when Blake was found guilty of the Oct. 17, 1984, rape and murder of Maryann Hope Helmbright, a 13-year-old Wheeling girl. Prosecutors proved Blake had taken Helmbright from the former Silver Fox Bar he managed on Market Street.

A former bartender testified he saw Blake and Helmbright emerge from a back room of the bar between 1:30 and 2 a.m. on Oct. 24. The witness said as the two were leaving the bar, Blake muttered to him, “Take a good look ..., it’s the last time you’ll see her pretty young face.”

Testimony said Blake took Helmbright to Wheeling Island, where he shot her in the head. He then transported her body to the Morgantown area, where a hunter found her body 75 feet off Chapline Hill Road.

Blake was again sentenced to life without mercy. In addition, under West Virginia’s three strikes law he received yet another life without mercy sentence to be served consecutively with his sentence for for killing Helmbright.

Those sentences were later vacated by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals; Blake was returned to Ohio County for a new trial.

Rather than face another jury, Blake pleaded guilty to the charge and, as part of a plea agreement, he was sentenced to 15 years to life. As a result of that plea agreement, he is eligible for parole again in 2011.

At Thursday’s news conference, Berhalter said Ohio authorities are seeking to have Blake extradited from West Virginia to face the Withers murder charges. Berhalter also credited work of the Bridgeport Police Department, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation in solving the case.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t specifically note all the outstanding work of BCI&I Agent Charles Snyder,” Berhalter added.

BCI&I Superintendent Robert Fiatal commended those who solved the crime and pointed to the expertise of forensic scientists who developed DNA evidence.

“DNA was a lead producer in this case,” he said.

Berhalter also read a statement from the Withers family in which they expressed gratitude for the case being solved.

“For our family, these past few days have been bittersweet,” the family wrote. “Even though we now have some resolution, it has caused us to relive a horrible event from the past. We ask you (the media) respect our privacy.”

At the time of the Withers murder, Bridgeport Patrolman Tony Leonard told reporters the assailant walked up to the car, knocked on the window and began screaming for Withers to unlock the door and give him their money.

A newspaper account of the crime reported there were two theories of what had happened: One source reported the man knocked on the car window and when Withers rolled down the glass, he was shot in the temple; another report said Withers was dragged from the car and then shot.

The reports said the female companion, a Wheeling resident at the time, described the assailant as a white male, 6 feet, 4 inches tall, between 250 and 260 pounds with blond hair. She said he was wearing a ski mask, tan cowboy boots, a silver wrist watch and a silver belt buckle with the initial “G” on it.

Police told reporters after Withers was shot, “his body was thrown over a fence down a hill near the park.”

Published reports said the girl was raped after Withers was killed and, when the assailant left the area, she walked to a nearby residence and awakened the residents and called the police.

Former Bridgeport Patrolman Brad Johnson said he and Leonard found the body and later found the girl, who “took off from the park by herself.”

The girl reportedly told authorities that after the shooter threw Withers’ body over the fence, he returned to the vehicle and demanded she have sex with him or he would kill her.

According to the report, the girl was forced into a wooded area, raped three times within one and one-half hours and told to walk for several minutes before returning to the car.

The assailant then walked out of the woods. She was treated and released at the former Martins Ferry Hospital.

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