BY CHRISTINE WOLFF
The Cincinnati Enquirer
BLANCHESTER -- Carrie Culberson disappeared two years ago today,dying in a last beating from her boyfriend and triggering events that would bring marked changes to the tenor of her hometown.
Debbie Culberson wants to move now that all the trials connected with her daughter's death are over.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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Where she is today remains a mystery; her body and red Honda haven't been found. But her boyfriend and his half-brother are in prison, convicted in connection with the 22-year-old's murder. Blanchester's longtime police chief -- accused of mishandling the investigation -- avoided jail but is out as chief.
The police department now is run by acting Chief Robert Gable, a retired Ohio State Highway Patrol post commander, who brings a level of sophistication and modern policing new to this Clinton County village of about 4,500 people, 17 miles north of Interstate 275 on Ohio 28. Most villagers and business owners applaud the changes, happy to see the end of what they describe as lax law enforcement that played favorites.
"This new chief's not part of the good ole boy society of looking the other way," said Steve Bowman, 32, manager of his parents' TV repair shop in Blanchester. "The police department was an embarrassment. It was the chief's department, and he did it his way. The changes are good changes."
Debbie Culberson, Carrie's mother, wants to move from Blanchester, home since she was 16, in the aftermath of the disappearance of the dark-haired girl with the contagious laugh.
It's time to change scenery and shelve two years of sitting through criminal trials, waiting out too many false leads to Carrie's body and enduring the tension of accusing a well-known Blanchester family of murder.
Boxed under a table in her living room are the hundreds of angel ornaments that hung for months on a tall blue spruce next to the Culbersons' porch. The angels, given by friends and supporters, became the community's symbol of Carrie. But defense attorneys asked that they be taken down when the trials began, afraid the dangling angels would evoke sympathy from jurors.
"I'll be putting the angels back up, for as long as I live here," she said. "Blanchester is a wonderful place. Everybody is kind and generous. But like any place, you have a few bad apples and bad politics."
She's trying to use Carrie's death for some good, to help inspire women to get out of abusive relationships. This spring, she took a different twist, accepting an invitation from Talbert House in Cincinnati's East Walnut Hills. Officials at the social service center wanted her to talk to men charged with battering women.
Acting Police Chief Robert Gable, left, gets high marks from the mayor for upgrading the force.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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In thank-you letters to her, the men said Carrie's story helped them see the consequences of their behavior.
"I told them, Carrie's suffering is over. Those left behind will suffer for the rest of their lives," Mrs. Culberson said.
The latest trial in the Culberson case ended Tuesday, when a Clinton County jury acquitted Lawrence Baker of obstructing justice and tampering with evidence. Mr. Baker's sons are Vincent Doan, Carrie's boyfriend -- serving a life sentence for kidnapping and murder -- and Tracey Baker, Mr. Doan's half brother -- serving eight years for helping cover up the crime.
Mr. Baker said Thursday his family is innocent in Carrie's death. "We're good people. They (Carrie's family) need to look in her own back yard. They'll find her alive. One day, she'll walk in here. I'll bet $1,000 she will, and say, "I'm 22 -- I don't have to write home.'
"There's no blood, no body, no crime scene," he said. "They tried to hold me and Tracey for ransom. But you can't tell what you don't know."
The same day Mr. Baker won his freedom, Blanchester Police Chief Richard Payton pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor counts of dereliction of duty after prosecutors agreed to drop two felony counts of obstruction of justice. Mr. Payton was fined, received a suspended jail sentence and was placed on a one-year probation. If the trials generated talk among villagers, the real buzz is about village officials' agreement to pay Chief Payton about $85,000 in back pay, sick leave and retirement benefits. It's his due, said Blanchester Mayor Harry Brumbaugh, for serving as a Blanchester police office for 25 years and as chief since about 1978.
Mayor Brumbaugh's been hearing plenty from people who disagree. Kathleen Strider, a Blanchester resident for 40 years, said outside the IGA grocery Thursday that she differed with the village's decision to pay Mr. Payton.
"The police department was not good, but it is now," she said. "Before, the cops didn't pay attention to anybody; and if he knew them, he'd let them do anything. The new department is doing their job. Before, they just hung out at the ice-cream shop."
Mr. Payton doesn't "deserve a dime of Blanchester money," said Lisa Zimmer, shopping for antiques in the village where her husband's family are longtime residents.
"This wasn't about a lost dog, not a stolen bike. This was a human being, and he messed up."
The agreement signed last week reinstated Mr. Payton to the force -- he was on a leave of absence without pay since his September 1997 indictment -- but placed him on immediate sick leave. He'll remain an employee until his leave runs out -- about nine months -- or he retires.
In return, Mr. Payton agreed not to return to active police duty or take any role in the police department, ending a tenure some villagers say had been sloppy for many years. The indictment for mishandling the Culberson case -- probably the biggest criminal case in Blanchester since a cop was killed in the late 1940s -- gave village officials reason to remove Mr. Payton as chief.
"Up to this point (Carrie's disappearance), the (chief's) not doing of things and not completing of things didn't make a difference," Mr. Brumbaugh said. "Now, all of a sudden, it did. Chief Payton is a very intelligent man but not highly motivated."
Despite dissatisfaction with Mr. Payton's job performance, "his file was void of any reprimands," the mayor said.
"Whether he was a good chief or not, there was no documentation," Mr. Brumbaugh said, acknowledging that village officials had been lax in demanding improvements in job performance for all employees. "There was no personnel policy until two years ago. We're now doing evaluations" of employees.
Mr. Payton declined to comment. His attorney, Jerry Bryant, said his client -- though in poor health -- is a "good, fair and knowledgeable police officer."
"I think he was professional, but in a small town, you're not as called upon to use all the training. I honestly don't think he did anything wrong."
Under Chief Gable, hired since September on a month-to-month contract, Mayor Brumbaugh said he is "100 percent prouder of my police department now."
"There is more unity. The officers have respect for his authority. The police are more visible. We have more officers on duty, better response time, and investigations are moving."
Chief Gable, 51, took over a department "that needed some discipline, some guidance and a little more team effort," he said.
"Morale was as low as it could be. The department was under fire as a result of the Culberson case. It appeared to be a department not supervised, just basically taking things for granted," Chief Gable said.
With help from federal and state grant money and business donations, Chief Gable increased the force from five to eight full-time officers, replaced two worn-out police cars, started a bicycle patrol and put his cops in new uniforms. His officers spend more time with Blanchester schoolchildren, doing fingerprinting of elementary youngsters for a safety record and talking to high-school students about the dangers of drinking.
Still, he's not pleasing everyone. In May, a vote from the mayor broke a 3-3 tie as village council voted whether to keep Chief Gable. The division on council worries Chief Gable's supporters.
"I am seriously scared that this man is going to get away from us," Mr. Bowman said, "and that will mean the old guard will put in another "yes man.' "