Walter Ogrod: Mentally-disabled man gives confession to detectives with tainted record

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This story is the ninth 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.

Four years after the naked and battered body of four-year-old Barbara Jean Horn was found in a trash bag in Philadelphia, the police had made no arrests despite having a series of suspects.

Barbara had died of five blows to the head with what the medical examiner suspected could have been a two-by-four. There were no signs of sexual assault.

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Unrequited Innocence

Four witnesses said that just before her body was discovered they saw a man carrying the box; they described him as in his mid-twenties or early thirties, five-six to five-nine, weighing 165 to 175 pounds and with dark or sandy hair. Another witness who knew the child had seen her walking with a man who matched the description. A police artist prepared a sketch based on the descriptions.

Walter Ogrod

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Walter Ogrod

Police collected organic evidence from the potential suspects’ homes and the box and bag the body was in, though none of it was subjected to DNA testing.

The police had considered several suspects: The victim’s step-father, who fit the description; the man who bought a television set that came in the box in which the body was found; and a third man whom witnesses identified as the man they saw carrying the box. But none were charged.

More than three years after the murder, the case was reassigned to Philadelphia detectives Martin Devlin and Paul Worrell. Four months earlier, Devlin obtained a confession of a man who said that he raped a 77-year old woman — though, years later, DNA testing led to the defendant’s exoneration. In another case, courts found Devlin and Worrell threatened and physically coerced witness statements and false confessions that culminated in the conviction of an innocent man for the murder of a 78-year-old businessman.

The pair began conducting reinterviews, including one of Walter Ogrod, then 27, who had shared a house in the neighborhood with a couple whose son, known as Charliebird, was a friend of Barbara Jean Horn. After receiving a message that police wanted to talk to him, Ogrod, who suffered mental disabilities, drove to the Philadelphia police headquarters to be interviewed not as a suspect, the detectives said, but as an “informational witness.”

Ogrod had no criminal record and did not match the physical description of the man carrying the box. He had attended a school for youths with learning disabilities and graduated two years late. He had briefly served in the military before a medical discharge that cited a “mixed personality disorder characterized by extreme dependency.”

According to his post-conviction petition, Ogrod had been awake for 30 hours, including an 18-hour shift as a driver for a bakery, when he arrived at the police station.

The interview with Ogrod was not electronically recorded, but went on for hours.

By the end of it, Ogrod signed each page of a 16-page statement, supposedly in his own words but in Devlin’s handwriting, confessing to the murder and attempted sexual assault of Barbara Jean Horn.

According to the statement, the four-year-old had come to his house to play with Charliebird, when Ogrod lured her into the basement and tried to force her to perform oral sex. She screamed, after which he struck her head at least four times with “what felt like a pipe,” but could have been a bar from his weight set. He said he then washed her body, put it into a plastic bag, and disposed of it in the box that was found.

Ogrod was charged with murder and related sex crimes.

Almost immediately afterwards, Ogrod began recanting the confession.

A psychiatrist later would testify that the confession was not in Ogrod’s style of speaking. Common Pleas Judge Juanita Kidd Stout ruled it admissible at the 1993 trial.

The prosecution relied primarily on the signed confession. Ogrod took the stand to deny the crime and asserted that during the interrogation the detectives persuaded him – briefly – that he had to have done it. None of the physical evidence linked him to the crime, he did not match the witnesses’ descriptions and the murder weapon was never found.

The jury announced after nine hours that it was deadlocked, 11 to one. Then, when reconvening, the foreman announced they had decided in favor of acquittal, but when they were polled, one juror said, “I do not agree with the verdict.” Judge Stout declared a mistrial.

As the retrial neared, the prosecution told Ogrod’s attorney that two repeat felons, Jay Wolchansky and John Hall, had come forward 18 months earlier to claim Ogrod had confessed to them when they were in jail together.

Hall was a serial informant known as “the Monsignor” for his success in claiming to obtain jailhouse confessions, according to the prison’s chaplain. Because he “had a lot of baggage,” according to the prosecutor, he would not be called to testify, but Wolchansky, whom another inmate described as a follower of Hall, became a principal witness for the prosecution.

Wolchansky testified that Ogrod admitted luring the girl into his house and trying to force her to perform oral sex, but when “she became hysterical … he grabbed a weight bar and smacked her in the head with it.” Wolchansky said he expected nothing in exchange for his testimony, and added that Ogrod said his mother, by then deceased, had accused him of the killing, to which he’d replied, “Damn right I did, and if you know what’s best for you, you’ll keep quiet.”

Ogrod did not testify at his retrial, on the advice of his court-appointed attorney Mark Greenberg. Greenberg did not present evidence to rebut the confession testimony, but focused instead on the possibility that one of the initial suspects had committed the crime.

In closing, Assistant District Attorney Judith Rubino suggested that Ogrod’s silence was indicative of guilt, telling the jury that the “defendant admitted to his mother that he killed Barbara Jean and threatened his own mother; there had been no denial of that.” The judge sustained Greenberg’s objection.

The jury found Ogrod guilty of murder and attempted involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. The next day, in less than 90 minutes, the jurors agreed to the death penalty. The sentence was imposed on Nov. 8, 1996.

One appeal after another failed to bring any relief.

In 2003, Raymond Sheehan, one of the alternate suspects, pleaded guilty and was given a life sentence for the murder and rape of a ten-year-old girl the year before Horn’s death in the same neighborhood.

In 2011, Ogrod filed a petition to overturn his conviction based on evidence that “affirmatively demonstrates” his innocence and “undermines and refutes” the prosecution case. It included an affidavit from John Hall, who had since died, who said Jay Wolchansky had never talked to Ogrod “in any detail” and had obtained the information he offered at trial from Hall. Wolchansky, like Hall, was no longer alive. The petition also included an affidavit from Hall’s widow stating Hall had told her that Ogrod had not confessed in jail.

The petition included, as well, affidavits from a man who had been in Ogrod’s basement shortly after the girl’s body was found and said he did not see blood or signs of a clean-up, from a pathologist who helped perform Horn’s autopsy who said the murder weapon could not have been the weight bar, from a witness stating the man carrying the box had lit a cigarette, and from associates of Ogrod who said he did not smoke.

The petition contended Greenberg had failed to effectively represent Ogrod, including his failure to present an expert witness on the phenomena of false confessions and Ogrod’s susceptibility to coercive interrogation techniques. It also accused the prosecution of withholding evidence and said that Wolchansky and Hall had received leniency in exchange for their cooperation.

Eight years later, the judge overseeing the petition has not yet ruled on it.

But in March, 2018, the newly-elected district attorney, Lawrence Krasner, informed the court that his office has agreed to state-of-the-art DNA testing which could potentially result in Ogrod’s full exoneration.