A killer, but not legally a predator
Loophole could mean looser reins if he gets paroled
August 19, 2007
Barbara Carmen, The Columbus DIspatch
A photograph of Barbara Sue Caulley lies atop a scrapbook she kept as a child. She was murdered in 1988.
On the morning 14-year-old Barbara Sue Caulley was killed, a neighbor went out to his porch to smoke a cigarette. He later told police he heard a girl "screaming bloody murder" for six minutes.
He figured a kid was getting punished. He was wrong about that, but it was bloody.
The girl, killed July 17, 1988, was stabbed 56 times. Her body was found a day later, stuffed behind a ratty sofa in a relative's earthen cellar in Harrison West.
Columbus police think that Robert Lee Wells tried to rape Barbara Sue and killed her when she resisted. Wounds on her hands and arms showed that the eighth-grader fought hard to live. Her throat was slit.
Wells has served 19 years of a 25-year sentence and could walk free soon. Now 44, he was granted parole in June but remains in the Chillicothe Correctional Institution as the Caulley family fights his release.
"He is absolutely going to go after someone else's little girl" if he gets out of prison, Evelyn Caulley, Barbara Sue's mother, said last week.
Here's another thing that frightens her: Wells can't be branded a sexual predator. Ohio's law has a loophole.
Lawmakers attached the warning label to the crime of involuntary manslaughter but not to the crime of voluntary manslaughter, which a judge found Wells guilty of.
"She was just like any other teenager," Caulley recalled. Her daughter was enjoying the summer. Barbara Sue ran the neighborhood with her cousins and spent nights at the nearby homes of a grandmother, aunts and uncles.
But, Caulley said, a brother of her sister-in-law's who was visiting that summer made her nervous. "When Robert Lee Wells was around, we all kept our eyes on our kids."
Wells once carved messages on walls saying he'd sold his soul to the devil. He walked around his sister's house that summer eating handfuls of raw hamburger -- a habit that led his sister to overlook the blood splatters in her kitchen after the slaying.
A few years earlier, he was hospitalized because he said he saw "blood in women inside of him," his attorney recalled. The hospital dismissed it as "too much caffeine."
Wells confessed to killing Barbara Sue and was charged with aggravated murder. He wasn't charged with rape; he told police he sexually assaulted her after she was dead.
But police offered Wells psychiatric help to extract the confession, his attorney, Jeff Moore, said last week. Judge William T. Gillie, who has since died, decided that was improper and threw out the confession.
Gillie convicted Wells of voluntary manslaughter based on a bite mark on Barbara Sue's left breast that matched Wells' teeth.
Involuntary manslaughter usually involves accidentally killing someone while committing another crime. Voluntary manslaughter generally is a crime of passion provoked by the victim.
Victim advocate Bret Vinocur discovered the loophole in the sexual-predator law in late June, when he phoned Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien to ask why Wells hadn't been designated a sexual predator.
State law requires sexual predators to register their addresses with the sheriff in the county where they live and prohibits them from living within 1,000 feet of a school. Some towns have added day-care centers, libraries, parks, swimming pools and playgrounds to the 1,000-foot rule.
A rape conviction is not required. Any felon whose crime was sexually motivated can be labeled a predator -- even if the crime predated the 1997 so-called Megan's Law, as long as the person is still in prison when the hearing is held.
And Wells was about to walk.
"At first, I thought it might have fallen through the cracks," said O'Brien, who wasn't county prosecutor when the case was tried. "Certainly, the facts of this case would indicate that it was motivated by sexual conduct."
O'Brien's research uncovered the loophole.
"I really was surprised," he said. "I told Bret I would work with him to get the law changed."
O'Brien and Vinocur will join Caulley and her family at a parole hearing Sept. 12 to fight Wells' release. The three want to keep Wells in prison long enough to get the law fixed and get Wells designated a predator.
Moore said his former client was a hermit who didn't go looking for girls.
"I believe a mental institution is a more appropriate setting for Robert than a prison," Moore said. "The evidence was clear that she stabbed him; he had wounds on his hands."
But S. Michael Miller, county prosecutor at the time, wants Wells to stay locked up. "Mr. Wells appears to be a very dangerous and disturbed person," Miller wrote the parole board. "I believe Mr. Wells is still a danger to the community."
Wells declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
Vinocur hopes that public outcry also will sway the parole board. He has set up an online petition on his Web site, www.findmissingkids.com, and is asking for signatures.
Meanwhile, he is working with O'Brien and state Sen. Steve Stivers, R-Columbus, to close the loophole, using a pending victims' rights law.
"My little girl never got justice," Caulley said. "I still look at faces and think I'll see her. You wait for her to come in the door, and she doesn't come. You accidentally set the extra plate on the table.
"And now, I find out they can't even charge him with being a sexual predator."