COLUMBUS — Gallia Prosecutor Jason Holdren and Gallia Sheriff Matt Champlin presented before the Ohio House of Representatives Criminal Justice Committee Thursday morning to make a case for an increase in penalties for crimes violating gross abuse of a corpse law.
State Representative Ryan Smith (R-Bidwell) of the 93rd District was present in the audience for the presentation as well as Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association Executive Director Louis Tobin and Assistant Director Steve Hall. Champlin and Holdren provided testimony for their support of House Bill 161 which would change gross abuse of a corpse crimes from fifth-degree felonies into third-degree felonies in Ohio.
“I thought testimony went well and I feel good about where we’re headed with the bill,” said Smith. “I think everybody understands the need for it especially with the explanation of the scenario that this is clearly not just happening in Gallia County. It’s happening all over the state. We appreciate Sheriff Champlin and Prosecutor Holdren testifying as people who are affected by it professionally.”
“Since taking office in January of 2017, our main focus and objective has been to combat our local drug epidemic that regularly steals our loved ones from us,” said Holdren in his testimony. “In our county of 30,000 people, we have lost 58 lives to overdose in the last four years. Forty-nine of those lives were lost to heroin and or fentanyl. In our battle, we use proactive tactics and aggressively prosecute drug traffickers.”
Holdren referenced drug courts in both the Gallia Court of Common Pleas and the Gallipolis Municipal Court and what he and Champlin felt were successes in helping others get treatment. Holdren cited a rapid response team utilized by the sheriff’s office to push options for individuals who have overdosed to receive treatment. In the last two years, Gallia law enforcement has put over 120 individuals into community-based corrections facilities to avoid prison.
Gallia has prosecuted three abuse of a corpse cases while Holdren and Champlin have been in office. All involved the discarding of a body following reported overdose situations. Of those, seven convictions were found against seven individuals violating Ohio’s gross abuse of a corpse law. Two separate investigations revolving around the deaths of Terry Rothgeb and Brian Scott Caldwell, both of Gallipolis, revealed that witnesses attempted to clean crime scenes and place bodies in vehicles before abandoning them in wooded sections of Gallia County. Rothgeb reportedly died in early 2017 and Caldwell in the summer of 2018.
“It wasn’t until summer of 2016, that Ohio Revised Code Section 2927.01(B) came under fire in Gallia County,” said Holdren. “It reads ’ No person, except as authorized by law, shall treat a human corpse in a way that would outrage reasonable community sensibilities.’ Whoever violates this section is guilty of gross abuse of a corpse, a felony of the fifth-degree…On July 19, 2016, (Gallia resident) Jessica Berry was first reported missing. On July 31, 2016, Jessica Berry was located. Her body had been cut into 12 separate pieces. The investigation revealed that Berry, who was in an active addiction and had overdosed on prior occasions, was with a male acquaintance when (she died). The male acquaintance dismembered her body, placed her body in trash bags, relocated her body across the Ohio River into West Virginia and buried the remains.”
Richard Hurt of Gallipolis confessed to the disposal of Berry’s remains and their dismemberment in February 2017 in the Gallia Court of Common Pleas. Holdren said that Berry was first reported missing July 19, 2016. On July 31, 2016, she was discovered cut in 12 separate pieces, reportedly with a reciprocating saw. Hurt was convicted of the fifth-degree felony of gross abuse of a corpse and the third-degree felony of tampering with evidence. He was sentenced to 48 months in an Ohio facility. He was later sentenced in West Virginia to a minimum of one year in a state facility and no more than five years for the illegal concealment of a deceased human body.
Berry’s autopsy reports deemed the reason of her death inconclusive.
“This case shook our community and continues to haunt many,” said Holdren. “This type of conduct is read about in books and portrayed in movies but does not happen in Gallia County, or so we thought…The toughest part of my job is discussing these cases with the family of the victim and explaining the legal process. It is difficult to look them in the eye and inform them that the law only allows for a maximum 12-month sentence on such an outrageous and heinous act. Although I attempt to explain how laws are changed, the family only seeks justice for their loved one and would rather not hear my explanation.”
Holdren lauded the efforts of Smith for bringing House Bill 161 forward and his support to turn gross abuse of a corpse offenses from fifth-degree felonies to third-degree felonies.
Dean Wright can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2103.