Joanne Robbins says she kept the birthday card and the $50 bill inside that her older brother John gave her only a week or two before he was killed in the line of duty by two teenage drug informants.
John Utlak, a Niles police officer, was 26 years old when he was shot to death by Randy Fellows and Fred Joseph Jr. on Dec. 8, 1982.
The two teens were convicted and are now up for their first parole hearings next month after nearly 30 years behind bars.
Tribune Chronicle file photo
The funeral for slain Niles police officer John Utlak was held Dec. 13, 1982. The officer was killed by two drug informants five days prior.
Robbins, along with local police and family friends, are mounting an online petition drive to formally oppose any parole for Fellows, whose hearing is scheduled for Oct. 11 at Trumbull Correctional Institution, and Joseph, whose hearing is scheduled for Oct. 3 at Toledo Correctional Institution.
''They left my family devastated. There was never any remorse. Never any apologies. Fellows even tried to claim he was set up later on,'' said Robbins, who still has the birthday card.
''I never spent that money either. And that was a lot of money back then,'' she said recalling the tragedy surrounding her 17th birthday. ''He was the greatest big brother. He gave me a key to his apartment, which was right by our family's home. He said I could hang out there if I wanted."
So far Robbins has had a victim conference with two members of Ohio's Parole Board.
''I told them about my plight. I know even if (Fellows and Joseph) are turned down for parole, they will be up again in 10 years or so. I'll have to prepare for this down the road as well,'' said Robbins, who now lives in Tennessee with her husband, John, who happens to be the younger brother of Niles police Det. Jim Robbins.
''I knew John before I even got on the force here,'' said John Robbins. ''We were both bowlers and hung out at McKinley Lanes.''
John Robbins said members of the Niles Police Department are showing their support by signing his wife's petition drive at www.change.org/petitions. To find the petition, search for "Utlak."
Joanne Robbins hopes at least 1,500 sign the petition. As of late Saturday there were 1,495 supporters.
Robbins' message on the website states that she misses her brother ''more than words could ever express. We are serving the maximum sentence of life without him. The inmates should serve a life sentence in prison.''
Former Niles police Capt. William Catlin wrote that he had supper with Utlak the same evening he was scheduled to meet with Fellows and Joseph and arrange to make undercover drug buys.
''His killing was a premeditated act and they showed no concern for his life, letting him die in the snow on a dead-end road. They do not deserve to walk the streets of freedom ever again,'' Catlin wrote on the site.
''I can recall telling John, 'Be careful, don't go out there alone,''' said Robert Jacola, former Bazetta police chief who previously was a Niles police officer. ''You know there is a danger there, but you don't expect it to happen to one of your own officers.''
Jacola recalled hearing that a murder victim had been found earlier in the day in Niles before he went to work. ''I was out putting up Christmas decorations on the house, and one of the guys stopped by to tell me that it was John who was murdered.''
Another retired officer from Niles, Bernie Profato, discovered Utlak's body the morning after the shooting.
''I remember getting a call that somebody on the way to work saw what looked like a guy passed out near his car. I thought it was near the first day of hunting season and someone probably suffered a heart attack in the cold air,'' Profato said.
''When I came around the corner, I noticed the car and it had Missouri plates on it. I had given John those plates to use for undercover work. Then I knew it was him. It's something you never forget,'' Profato said.
Utlak's .357-caliber handgun, 12-gauge shotgun, portable radio and $200 were missing from the scene.
The Trumbull County coroner ruled Utlak had been shot with a .22-caliber weapon, later determined to belong to Fellows, who was 19 at the time of the murder.
Utlak had been working with a partner, officer Robert Ludt, but went to the abandoned parking lot alone because Ludt had the day off. Utlak and Ludt had been using the teens as drug informants, and they had met twice before in the parking lot on Hunter Street where Utlak was shot.
Fellows and Joseph, who was only 17 at the time of the murder, are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole in 30 years on aggravated murder charges. The two were arrested only days after the murder in Cheyenne, Wyo., when Joseph was stopped for erratic driving.
Fellows was found in a hotel bedroom with a 12-gauge pump shotgun beside him.
The two young fugitives admitted their crime to a hitchhiker they picked up on the way to Wyoming. The hitchhiker was located and held here as a material witness as both Fellows and Joseph were tried.
Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins remembers how Fellows was tried first as a capital case. In fact it was the first capital murder case in Trumbull County after the state lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in 1981.
''The jury never opted for the death penalty once they learned that Joseph was the actual triggerman, even though Fellows was instrumental in planning the murder and giving Joseph the gun,'' Watkins said.
Joseph - since he was a juvenile at the time - was not eligible to receive the death sentence.
Watkins remembers how Utlak was shot two or three times in the head inside his car and then dragged outside and left in the snow.
One or two of the bullets were completely damaged after bouncing around the interior of the car. But one bullet was swallowed by Utlak and eventually recovered and used for comparison purposes with another bullet retrieved from Fellows home.
''Randy Fellows had a habit of actually target practicing in his bedroom. We got permission to search and found a bullet from the same gun buried in the wall of that bedroom,'' Watkins said.