Sunday, November 30, 2003

Police officer's trial has county spinning

Allegations of cover-up surround Clinton Co. murder case

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

WILMINGTON - In his 15 years as sheriff, Ralph Fizer Sr. says rural Clinton County has seen only five homicides - including the one in which a police officer is the suspect and five other officials are accused of a cover-up.

On Monday, David Michael Mueller, 31, is to become the first police officer to go on trial for murder in Clinton County in nearly three decades. The Hamilton resident's trial is expected to last all week in Common Pleas Court, about 40 miles northeast of Cincinnati.

The long-awaited trial is being watched with great interest because of its unusual nature and because of its implications for the alleged cover-up cases, authorities said.

"We'll be so happy to get it started and over with - and, also with the other people that are indicted, it can't be a pleasant thing for them sitting around waiting," Fizer said.

Suspended from the police force in the 1,000-person village of New Vienna, Mueller is at the heart of a case that led to allegations that the village mayor, three other police officers and Mueller's former attorney tried to hide evidence about the events of Feb. 4, 2002.

In the early morning hours that day, Mueller responded to a 911 domestic violence call on Rice Street - and Robert Cundiff, 32, was fatally shot in the face with a 9 mm handgun.

"As a result, we have a very unique situation with a police officer on trial for murder," said Clinton County Prosecutor William E. Peele. If Mueller is convicted of murder and evidence tampering, he faces two decades in prison.

The last time a police officer stood trial for murder in Clinton County was 1974, officials said. A jury convicted Wilmington Patrolman Dale A. Powell, then 26, in the slaying of an alleged drug dealer.

Sentenced to 15 years to life, Powell spent 81/2 years in Ohio prisons before he was released on parole in 1983.

Mueller says he is not guilty.

"It's his position he did nothing wrong," said his lawyer, Michael P. Kelly of Mount Orab. "This has just changed every aspect of his life."

Mueller has been free on $100,000 bond since late March 2002. Mueller, who has a pregnant wife, has found work outside law enforcement, Kelly said.

Officials allege Mueller and others took steps to conceal his original statements about Cundiff's death. Authorities say some documents were allegedly shredded and/or withheld from sheriff's investigators.

Virgil Lanham, who resigned from the New Vienna force, pleaded guilty to obstructing official business, a misdemeanor, earlier this year.

Peele said charges are still pending against four people: Diane Menashe, a Columbus lawyer who formerly represented Mueller; Timothy W. Bentz, the New Vienna mayor; and New Vienna officers Jami Powell and Terry Hardesty.

"There are many people that are interested in the ultimate outcome of this case," Peele said.


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