Friday was Elza Hill’s 73rd birthday.
Minutes after the verdicts in the Denny Ross retrial were announced — guilty of all charges in the 1999 slaying of 18-year-old Hannah Hill of Akron — he stood in the rear of the courtroom with a pained look on his face, fighting back tears.
“Best birthday I ever had,” Hill said softly, as his wife, Kimberly Hill, sat quietly beside him on the back bench of the public gallery.
The guilty verdicts — two counts of murder, felonious assault, tampering with evidence and abuse of a corpse — were announced by Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter about 12:40 p.m. Friday after the bailiff handed the jury’s decision to her.
The question that has loomed over the Summit County justice system for more than 13 years — Who killed Hannah Hill? — finally was answered.
Elza Hill was asked if he had any worries after the jury was out for three full days and parts of two additional days, after receiving the case late Monday afternoon.
“No, I just put it in God’s hands and dealt with it,” he said.
“It’s been a long time coming. It’s been hard on the family.”
Ross, now 33, sat with a stoic look at the defense table, showing no outward emotion when he heard the decision on his fate.
Moments after the verdicts were announced, he stood silently in a white shirt and dark slacks, placed his hands behind his back and said nothing as a deputy snapped closed the clasps of the handcuffs to take him away.
Ross was escorted quickly out of the courtroom by nine sheriff’s deputies.
Hunter scheduled sentencing for 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Ross, already imprisoned for 25 years in the 2004 assault and rape of another Akron woman, was free on bond then during the protracted appeals after his first trial in October 2000. He faces life in prison in the Hill slaying.
Akron police Capt. Daniel Zampelli sat near the far end of the back bench in the gallery as the verdicts were read.
When word came, Zampelli said quietly: “It’s been a long, hard journey.”
Afterward in the courtroom hallway, away from the television crews capturing the proceedings — including a crew from Dateline NBC — Zampelli was firm about the department’s convictions in the case.
“We’ve always felt we had the right individual since Day One when he was originally arrested. It’s been a long, long journey, and I give a great deal of credit to Lt. Jerry Hughes, who was assigned on Day One and never let go of the case,” Zampelli said.
Hughes, now commander of the department’s training bureau, sat at the prosecution table as an adviser throughout the seven-week retrial.
There were more than 70 witnesses, and the jury received more than 700 exhibits and trial documents approved by the judge.
Zampelli said Hughes, through it all, “was determined to make sure he had the correct evidence, represented the department with professionalism and just let the evidence speak for itself.”
The captain said he hoped the verdicts would bring some closure to Hannah Hill’s family.
“They’ve been here every day during this trial, as they were for the first one. I can’t imagine the life they’ve lived since this occurred in 1999, and our hearts go out to them,” Zampelli said.
Ken Masich, Hunter’s bailiff, said the jury — nine members of the panel were women, including the foreman — did not wish to speak to the media.
The panel left the courthouse minutes after 1 p.m., asking for and receiving a sheriff’s escort as they were led out of the building, Masich said.
Lead defense counsel Roger Synenberg spoke to the panel before its departure, he said, and expressed acceptance and respect for the verdicts while addressing the media.
He was asked if there will be an appeal of the retrial verdicts.
“Absolutely,” Synenberg said. “This isn’t the time to talk about it, but we do intend to appeal it. There are some significant issues, we think, but again, I’m not taking away from the work that the jury’s done on this case. They put a lot of work into it.”
Although Synenberg said the defense team was “disappointed” by the verdicts, he said that in talking to jurors, he heard things he described as “very interesting.”
It was apparently a reference to what is known in legal circles as “other acts evidence,” which Hunter allowed jurors to hear from several other women, including Ross’ 2004 victim, who testified during the retrial about his penchant for violence during sex.
Prosecutors have long theorized, in both cases, that Ross killed Hill during a violent sexual struggle at his Springfield Township apartment.
Hunter allowed the other women to take the stand, she said in bench conferences out of earshot of the jury, under Ohio case law permitting such testimony to show the scheme or plan of the alleged perpetrator.
Ross’ first trial, 12 years ago, ended in a mistrial after the jury signed verdict forms finding him not guilty of aggravated murder, murder and rape.
He was not charged with any sex-related crimes in the retrial.
The 2000 mistrial ruling, over alleged misconduct by one juror, sent the Hill case into years of state and federal appeals, primarily over the issue of double jeopardy.
Advances in testing
Hannah Hill went missing on the night of May 19, 1999, after leaving her parents’ home in the Kenmore area of Akron, following dinner, to visit Ross at his apartment.
Her body was found one week later in the trunk of her gold Geo Prizm on Caine Road in Ellet, a little more than a mile from Ross’ apartment, after at least five calls from neighbors attempting to alert police about the car.
Prosecutors in the retrial tied Ross to Hill’s car with DNA evidence that did not come to light in his first trial.
Cuyahoga County Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Meyer, stressing in closing arguments that the revelation became possible through advances in genetic testing, said the blood spot was found in the left armpit of Hill’s shirt.
Hannah Hill’s mother, Kimberly, remained seated on the back bench in the aftermath of Friday’s guilty verdicts. She was surrounded by five of her daughter’s close friends and cousins, all weeping as they consoled her.
Kimberly Hill finally spoke when she was asked to express her feelings.
“I’m just grateful to God. That’s all I have to say,” she said.
Hannah Hill’s former boyfriend, Brad Oborn, who was 19 at the time of her death, was seated next to Hill’s friends throughout Friday’s verdicts. He sat there silently, shaking his head up and down in agreement as the judge polled the panel on its decision — all jurors saying the verdicts were, in fact, theirs.
Afterward, Oborn said he was relieved for Hannah Hill’s family, that they finally got justice through a decision rooted in the law.
“You know, she never would have met Denny Ross if it wasn’t for me. I don’t know, it doesn’t bring Hannah back, but this is going to loom over my head,” he said, “for the rest of my life.”
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or email@example.com.