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Boyle -- An oral history from insiders to A Murder in Mansfield

Boyle Art

MANSFIELD -- It was a hot summer for news in Mansfield in 1990. A passerby was shot and killed downtown when he tried to intervene during the armed robbery of two armored vehicle guards outside a bank. There was a violent strike that ended with a riot outside a local factory. There were raids on local fraternal and social clubs, cracking down on illegal gambling.

But there was nothing like the murder trial of Dr. John Boyle, accused and convicted of killing his wife, Noreen, in a painful saga that became local, state and even national news. 

The horrific crime left lasting memories on everyone involved, including:

-- Retired Mansfield police officer David Messmore, the lead investigator;

-- Jerry Ault, the former chief assistant prosecutor in Richland County;

-- Robert Whitney, the veteran defense attorney who led Boyle's defense efforts;

-- Steve Hudak, the cops and courts reporter at the Mansfield News Journal; and

-- John Futty, a Mansfield native and one of the key reporters who helped to cover the trial for the News Journal.

Messmore has since retired as a captain from the Mansfield Police Department. Ault is now a Mansfield Municipal Court Judge. Whitney remains active as one of the most prominent defense attorneys in north central Ohio. Hudak is a reporter at the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel. Futty covers Franklin County courts for the Columbus Dispatch.

All of them recently shared memories about their roles.

THE CRIME

The Boyle residence at 616 Hawthorne Lane in Mansfield sat in a fashionable Woodland neighborhood. But it was not the idyllic home many believed it to be. John and Noreen Boyle moved to Mansfield in 1983, relocating here from Virginia, where John worked in a Navy clinic.

In fact, Noreen Boyle filed for divorce in November 1989, seeking to end a 22-year marriage, accusing her spouse of mental cruelty and gross neglect. The prominent Mansfield osteopathic physician decided to kill his wife while planning to close his local practice and move to Erie, Pa., with his alleged mistress. He planned to practice occupational medicine and review industrial injury claims in his new offices.

Authorities believe Boyle murdered his wife inside their home on Dec. 31, 1989, striking her in the head and then suffocating her with a plastic bag. The couple's son, Collier, then 11, told police he heard his parents arguing and then heard a loud thump, perhaps the sound of a body hitting a wall. Their adopted daughter, Elizabeth, then 3, told Messmore she saw her father strike her mommy in the head and wrap up her body.

Boyle then put the body of his wife in the rear of his Range Rover and drove it more than 177 miles to his new $300,000 house in Erie, Pa. He used a jackhammer, which he rented in Mansfield a couple of days before the murder, to dig up concrete in the basement, put Noreen's tarp-wrapped body in the hole, put new concrete on top and then covered the area with indoor-outdoor carpeting and a shelving unit.

Noreen was reported missing Jan. 1 by one of her friends, who didn't believe she would just leave her children.

THE INVESTIGATION

Messmore: "The crime was not identified immediately. I took Dr. Boyle’s refusal to talk and an attorney meeting me at the (Hawthorne Lane) door as suspicious. My (initial) brief discussions with Collier at first struck me as very sincere. He was adamant that his mother would not leave him. He was right."

Hudak: "I lived in Woodland. I heard chatter in the neighborhood saying no one had seen Noreen and she wasn't the type of person to leave her kids alone. There was an intense amount of interest and attention in the neighborhood. Everyone in the neighborhood thought Boyle did it and no one was going to see Noreen alive again." 

Messmore: "No one was (initially) interested in the investigation but me. My supervisor questioned my interest and didn’t want to embarrass a doctor. (Richland County Prosecutor) Jim Mayer almost refused to send anyone with me to Erie. The community and citizens in general are fascinated that a “healer” can perform a viscous act on a wife. That is puzzling. My thoughts were that no one is above the law."

Ault: "It was difficult to believe a successful doctor would commit such a crime. But as evidence started coming in, it became clear to me that he did indeed commit this crime."

Hudak: "I was talking to Messmore. I was asking questions right away. He told me there wasn't much he could tell me on the record or at all. He was fairly guarded."

Ault: "I went with Lt. Messmore to Erie. I worked with the Erie County prosecutor's office and we talked about the case. I wrote the search warrant, but they ran it through channels, typed it, took it to the judge there and got it signed. We went to the house with the search warrant in hand (Jan. 25), assisted by local police."

Messmore got phone tips alerting him to the fact Boyle had rented the jackhammer before the murder, a fact he was able to confirm.

Ault: "The jackhammer was a big tip. (Boyle) rented the jackhammer here and we strongly believed we would be looking for her under some cement. We talked to the real estate agent who sold the (Erie) house to him. She told us one thing that stuck out in her mind was John Boyle asked her what the ground was like under the floor. He told her he planned on lowering the floor to make a basketball court for Collier."

Messmore, Ault and other authorities went down into the basement and removed the indoor-outdoor carpeting and shelving units. They began examining the floor.

Ault: "After we started taking that apart, we found the irregular surface of the concrete in the basement. It was even in the shape of a grave."

A sinkhole made into the site and subsequent digging determined that Noreen Boyle's remains had been found. The arrest of a prominent Mansfield physician was in the offing. Ironically, the lead detective on the case was not the officer who put the cuffs on Boyle when the doctor returned to his home that night.

Messmore: "I was in Erie and requested my Captain (Wayne Cairns) and my Major Crimes detectives to prepare an arrest warrant for (Boyle). I had to stay and travel to Pittsburgh the next morning. When I returned to Mansfield I went directly to where Collier was staying and told him the bad news."

The arrest was first reported by Hudak, who went to the Cleveland Plain Dealer after the trial before accepting a reporting position in Orlando, Fla. The arrest shocked the community.

Hudak: "Someone called me from Erie. I can't remember who it was. I remember them saying, 'We're up in Erie. We found a body.'"

TRIAL PREPARATION

Mansfield defense attorney Charles Robinson was the first member of the Boyle defense team. Boyle's mother then also retained Whitney for her son. Richland County Prosecutor James Mayer Jr. and Ault handled the prosecution.

Whitney: "The first time I met (Boyle) was in the Richland County Jail. There was (already) a lot of public interest. He had a pretty good following in terms of patients. There were a lot of people Dr. Boyle had taken care of. They saw him as a good guy. I got a lot of calls expressing concern and offering their help before and during the trial."

Ault, who spent 21 years in the prosecutor's office, was a key asset to Mayer, in his first term as county prosecutor.

Ault: "The lead (attorney) makes the decisions. Jim was the lead. You can't have two guys equally trying a case where there may be disagreements. We split the work. We strategized. We put in a lot of work."

It was clear after Boyle's arrest that this case had captured the public's imagination. Local and statewide media outlets covered the build-up in the months between the arrest and the trial, including extensive coverage in the News Journal.

Hudak: "It had a lot of sensational elements. This wasn't a prison killing from the old Ohio State Reformatory. It wasn't a stupid drug killing. This was a a doctor ... a guy with a thriving medical practice, an attractive wife, a young family, adopted daughter. I would never call something the trial of the century, but this one amassed a lot of attention."

Hudak: "We didn't go outside the lines. It was sensational enough as it was. (Former News Journal editor) Tom Brennan gets credit for driving that."

Futty: "My recollections of the crime and the accused were probably the same as any Mansfield resident. It was shocking to have a respected doctor, who lived in one of the city's best neighborhoods, accused of murdering his wife and burying her body in the basement of a home where he planned to live with his girlfriend in Pennsylvania. Where do you get a scenario like that other than in the movies?"

Hudak: "I remember thinking (before the trial) this is going to be awful. The prosecution has this folksy guy and the defense has Bob Whitney and Charlie Robinson. This isn't a fair fight. The state is going to get its ass handed to them. God bless Jim Mayer. He did a great job. He was folksy and clumsy ... but he was committed to having the truth come out."

THE TRIAL

Richland County Common Pleas Court Judge James Henson was assigned to the trial, which began in the morning of Monday, June 4, and ran for four full weeks, ending with the jury verdict in the afternoon of Friday, June 29.

There was a seemingly endless supply of witnesses and pieces of evidence. Objections, sustainments and overrules. Statements and arguments. Stretches of boredom interspersed with moments of high and memorable drama.

The media was there to capture it all, including newspapers, TV and radio outlets from Columbus to Cleveland to Erie.

Futty: "I teamed up with Steve -- and sometimes Carl Hunnell -- to deliver the kind of trial coverage that I don't think the News Journal has ever provided to readers or ever will again."

The courtroom was packed every day during the trial. A live video feed was set up in the lobby outside the courtroom where an overflow crowd sat and watched and listened. Futty would report during the first hour and then call Hunnell in the newsroom at the News Journal, which printed a late-morning edition at that time with fresh details from the trial.

Futty: "For every minute of that long trial, one of us was in the courtroom while the other was monitoring it on a screen in the hallway. At the end of each day’s testimony, we’d write our stories for the next day and, using tape recordings, typed up lengthy transcripts of key testimony that also ran in the paper. We’d work late into the night, then be back at court the next morning. At times, out of sheer exhaustion, we’d get a bit slap-happy during those late nights in the newsroom."

Futty: "Looking back on it, the coverage was remarkable. I’ve been in the newspaper business for 38 years, much of it doing courts reporting, and I’ve never seen a trial that got such exhaustive, in-depth coverage in the local paper. It was driven by a public hunger and fascination with the case that also were unlike anything I’ve ever seen."

It wasn't just the newspaper. The local TV station, WMFD, replayed the testimony in its entirety every evening on tape delay. The town basically shut down every evening because everyone was home watching the trial.

Hunnell reported at a local city park where children were playing under the watchful eye of their mother. As the hour grew later, mom yelled out to her kids, "Come on! We gotta go! Boyle's about to start on TV."

KEY TRIAL MOMENTS

Collier Boyle testimony, implicating his own father in the murder

Hudak: "Collier was like a young stage actor. I remember thinking this kid must be dying deep down inside."

Futty: "There were too many compelling moments for me to recall just one. Certainly Boyle's testimony, as well as Collier's testimony, really stood out in terms of pure drama."

Ault: "If I had to pick (a moment), it would be Collier taking the stand. We were a little nervous. Like most witnesses, you don't know for sure how they will act when they are on the stand. We spent hours with him. We felt confident he would do a good job and he did an excellent job. I think he was apprehensive (about testifying against his father), I would not say reticent. He was a brave kid."

The jackhammer

The jackhammer was physically introduced into evidence in the courtroom. Prosecutors wanted to demonstrate to the jurors that the power tool worked. So they had it fired up ... and it made a considerable roaring racket that could be heard (and felt) throughout the county building. Henson made a joke that the jackhammer "would get us evicted."

During his own testimony, Boyle testified that he rented the jackhammer in order to fix the sidewalk outside his Mansfield home ... during winter.

Whitney: "I don't know if he was a handyman ... maybe he was."

 Ault: "As (Mayer) would say, Boyle was jackhammered."

Boyle takes the stand

Throughout the trial, observers wondered if Boyle would take the stand in his own defense. His defense team opposed the idea. But that didn't stop Boyle, setting the stage for an epic cross-examination from Mayer that stripped away vast layers of Boyle's stories, including his claims he was once a highly-decorated U.S. Navy pilot. Any credibility Boyle had left was shattered by the time Mayer finished.

Whitney: "Was I surprised he testified? Not really. That's the way he was. He wanted to testify. There were a lot of holes in his story that didn't work out."

The tarp

During the prosecution, Mayer and Ault introduced into evidence the tarp in which Noreen Boyle's body had been entombed in concrete. It created a stink in court.

Ault: "There were some embarrassing moments. The tarp was held sealed in evidence until the trial. Jim and I planned to unfurl the tarp, never even thinking what it might smell like. When we opened it up, it was putrid."

Boyle behavior

Boyle interacted with the media in often odd ways during the month-long trial.

Futty: "Boyle would joke with Hudak about giving interviews in exchange for Oreos. In the most bizarre moment, Hudak and I were back near the judge’s chambers during one break in the trial and Boyle was playing peek-a-boo with us from the open door of the room in which he was being held during breaks. It got that weird."

Futty: "I also recall Boyle providing interviews to reporters during breaks in testimony. I was a relatively young reporter at the time, so I’m not sure I realized how unusual that was. But it’s unheard of, particularly when the defendant is in custody. Just one more crazy element in a trial that, in my experience, has no equal."

THE VERDICT

It all came to an end on June 29. After deliberating for six hours, the jury returned a guilty verdict around 2 p.m. Henson immediately sentenced Boyle to life in prison for the murder, adding on a few years for the abuse of a corpse. Ault and Messmore lit up cigars in the courtroom as Boyle was quickly handcuffed and taken back into custody, where he has remained for the last 28 years. Now age 75, his next parole hearing is in 2020.

THE AFTERMATH

The News Journal produced a rare special edition after the verdict, featuring closing arguments from both sides, details from the verdict and photos from the moment, the most telling of which showed Boyle, Whitney and Robinson in the foreground with Hudak in the background as the verdict was announced. Just over an hour later, cars lined up on West Fourth Street to buy the extra from a "drive up" box outside the News Journal as thousands of copies sold out quickly.

Brennan gathered the reporting team into a meeting room even as the extra was being sold. Emotions ran high among Hudak, Futty, Hunnell, reporter Bentley Boyd, reporter Paul Corbitt, managing editor Jim Krumel, photo editor Alan King and others. The exhilaration of a job well done began to fade even as Brennan re-focused the staff with just a few terse words, "So what do we have for tomorrow's paper?"

Those words hit home.

Hudak: "It struck me we were celebrating the trial was over, the verdict was in and it was just. (Brennan's words) always stuck with me. I remember sitting in my car later that we were just celebrating the fact a guy is going to prison for killing his wife, destroying his family."

That moment crept back into Hudak's mind in 2017 when the Orlando Sentinel staff gathered to learn if they had won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of the Pulse nightclub shooting that saw 49 people die and 53 more wounded. The paper was a finalist, but didn't receive the coveted top prize.

Hudak: "I stood up on a chair (in the Orlando newsroom) and said, 'If we had won, I would have hoped no one would have celebrated. We did our jobs. We kept the community informed. We need to understand the gravity of what happened. We need to celebrate our public service to the community and we don't need an award to tell us we did that.' I was thinking of Dr. Boyle and Collier and Elizabeth and Noreen and all of the families affected by that killing. All we did was try to keep the community informed."

Ault: "Lasting impact? I guess increased awareness of domestic violence. In my 21 years as a prosecutor, close to half of the homicides were domestic related. That's a large part of why I started a domestic violence court in Municipal Court."

Messmore: "It has been excruciating for Collier over the years. He overcomes the grief with the examination of the crime and its effects."

Messmore: "(The crime) has had a profound effect on my wife and I. When we had Collier visiting after I had him removed from Dr. Boyle’s care, we bonded with him and he had no one else to care for him. No aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. He asked us to apply for custody and after discussing it, we did. The Court investigated and recommended his placement with us. Everything went fine until (Juvenile Court Judge) Paul Christ got Collier in front of him and said, 'You don’t think I’m going to put you with the guy who locked up your dad?' Collier broke down and cried and was removed from the court. I think everyone who knows about the case feels some sadness for Collier."

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"