This story is the twelfth in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.
John George Spirko, Jr. was a criminal with a system he believed would help cut his time in prison: He made up information for authorities, pretending to have knowledge that would help solve crimes.
He once had falsely told investigators in Michigan that he had first-hand knowledge of a series of unsolved rape-murders, a story he intended to help him avoid prison time.
So there were reasons to wonder in 1982, when Spirko told authorities after he was arrested for assaulting a woman in a bar near Toledo, that he had information about the postmaster general of the small town of Elgin, Ohio, whose skeletal remains had been found wrapped in a paint-splattered tarp days earlier.
Though officials were dubious, as they already had a suspect, their interest grew when the initial suspect’s alibi checked out.
Spirko gave shifting accounts of what he claimed to know: In one account, he attended a party where he heard details of the killing of Betty Jane Mottinger; In another, he was present while she was raped, beaten and stabbed to death by a man he knew as “Rooster.”
Some of his claims contradicted the known evidence — he described Mottinger as a “fat bitch” though she was only 104 pounds, he said she wore a gold necklace and watch though her family said she had neither, and he claimed she had been stabbed in the back, though she had only been stabbed in the chest.
There were no known witnesses to the kidnapping, but two witnesses said they saw a man and a brown two-tone sedan outside the Elgin post office around the time she disappeared. One said the man was clean-shaven with dark hair and a long-sleeved blue shirt. The other said the man was slightly pot-bellied, about 240 pounds, with sandy brown or reddish hair, a light mustache and a green short-sleeved shirt with orange stripes. Neither description matched Spirko, blond and 180 pounds.
A detective who reviewed a scrapbook belonging to Spirko noticed a photo of one of his former cellmates, Delaney Gibson, Jr., who appeared to match the witness’s description of a clean-shaven man. Soon after, Spirko told investigators that it was Gibson who had robbed, kidnapped, raped and murdered Mottinger.
In September 1983, Spirko and Gibson were indicted for aggravated murder and kidnapping, though Gibson would remain a fugitive until after the August 1984 trial. The prosecution’s theory was that the two committed the crime together: After all, the witness who saw a clean-shaven man outside the post office testified that she was “100 percent sure” that Gibson was the man she’d seen, and the lead investigator testified that Spirko had admitted committing the crime with Gibson.
Other evidence against Spirko was underwhelming. The other witness at the scene that he was “70 percent certain” it was Spirko he saw that day, despite the weight discrepancy and the fact that the witness initially had identified another man entirely. Two jailhouse informants also claimed that Spirko had confessed while they were locked up together.
The defense argued the crime might have been committed by an 18-year-old local drug dealer, John Willier, who had worked in the summer of 1982 as a house painter and had access to tarps like the paint-splattered one Mottinger’s body was found in. Five witnesses reported seeing Willier around the time of the crime driving a brown sedan like the one the witnesses described.
The jury found Spirko, whose record included a previous murder conviction, guilty and sentenced him to death. After his conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal, his attorneys discovered that Gibson could not have been involved in the crime: He and his wife were working in North Carolina on a crew of tomato pickers, an alibi corroborated by the crew leader, friends who visited him hours before the abduction, by the friends’ motel receipt and by photos of Gibson that showed him at the time with a full beard, not clean-shaven.
The lead investigator acknowledged that he had verified the North Carolina alibi even before trial.
Both jailhouse informants also recanted their testimony that Spirko confessed.
Even so, the federal courts refused to overturn the verdict, ruling that the new evidence by Spirko of the investigator’s doubts about Gibson’s role did not merit a new trial. The appeals court agreed, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene despite a brief filed on behalf of Spirko by a former FBI director, two retired federal appeals judges and a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois who all asserted that Spirko had been wrongly convicted due to suppression of exculpatory evidence.
But there were enough doubts about the case that Spirko’s scheduled execution was postponed seven times by the Ohio governor. Finally in 2008 Governor Ted Strickland commuted Spirko’s sentence to life in prison without parole, saying that the “lack of physical evidence” against Spirko, as well as “the slim residual doubt about his responsibility for the murder … makes the imposition of the death penalty inappropriate.”
Spirko continues to serve his life sentence more than a decade later.