The Case of Inmate No. A246292
by Alexander Gelfand
Dean Gillispie has spent 20 years in prison for kidnapping and rape. Jim Petro '70 believes he is innocent–and has made it his job to free him.
“This is dumb. I’m just going to break the law.”
And with that, Jim Petro–former auditor and attorney general of Ohio, former Cuyahoga County commissioner, one-time candidate in the Republican primary for governor of the state, and a lawyer for nearly 37 years–made a left turn of questionable legality at a traffic light in downtown Dayton.
In his defense, the light had been red for a while, and Petro had good reason to be in a hurry. It was 8:00 a.m. on the Monday of Thanksgiving week, and he and his wife, Nancy Bero Petro ’70, were heading to the Montgomery County Courthouse to attend the latest hearing in the case of convicted rapist Roger Dean Gillispie: Petro as pro bono co-counsel with the Ohio Innocence Project, which was pushing for a new trial that would spring Gillispie from London Correctional Facility, where he has been imprisoned for the past 20 years; and Nancy as a witness for the defense. (Gillispie himself would remain in his cell.) The rear seat of their silver Toyota Avalon was occupied by an enormous poster Nancy had made demonstrating the numerous similarities between the perpetrator in the Gillispie case and the man who Petro believes actually committed the crimes. Needless to say, husband and wife are both convinced that Gillispie is innocent.
Roger Dean Gillispie–Dean to his friends–did not match the physical description of the perpetrator whom the victims originally described to the police back in 1988 when the crimes were committed. That man was a smoker with reddish-brown hair, a deep tan, and noticeable acne along his jaw line; he wore a chain and medallion around his neck, and had no chest hair. Gillispie, whose hair is now completely white, was already going prematurely gray–his high school nickname had been “Silver Fox”– and he was so fair that he burned rather than tanned. His skin was clear, his chest hair was so thick that he couldn’t wear jewelry around his neck, and he so disliked the odor of cigarette smoke that he kept a “No Smoking” sign in his truck. In addition, Gillispie was out of town on a camp- ing trip when two of the victims–twin sisters, abducted in the parking lot of the Dayton Mall–were forced at gunpoint to perform oral sex. And he had already been eliminated as a credible suspect by two detectives in the Miami Township Police Department.
In 1990, those detectives received a tip from Gillispie’s former supervisor in the security division at the local GM plant. Gillispie and his supervisor did not get along, and shortly after Gillispie was fired, his supervisor presented Gillispie’s employment photo to the detectives, claiming that it resembled the composite police sketch of the Dayton-area rapist that had been posted in the plant lunchroom for nearly two years. They disagreed.
But the supervisor didn’t give up so easily. When the senior detective on the case retired later that year, the supervisor tried again with his replacement–a 22-year-old rookie who was also the son of the chief of police. This time, Gillispie became the prime suspect.
Petro believes that the young detective battened onto Gillispie in an effort to make his bones in the department by solving a cold case. In any event, Gillispie was indicted by the Montgomery County prosecutor and convicted on all charges in 1991. A second trial was ordered months later when new physical evidence came to light, but while the jury initially hung 8-4 for acquittal, Gillispie was ultimately found guilty yet again.