Journalists recall 1986 Timothy Combs trial
WARREN — The morning after Raymond Fife’s nearly lifeless body was found off of Palmyra Road SW in September 1985, investigators escorted a small group of journalists to the scene.
“You could just sense something horrific had happened there, behind the grocery store in the wooded area. It was just in the air,” said Mike Semple, Tribune Chronicle photographer.
As sickening details about the last hours of the 12-year-old Boy Scout’s life emerged, police officers and prosecutors built cases against 17-year-old Timothy Combs and 18-year-old Danny Lee Hill, and local journalists shared the information with the public.
Andy Gray, the Tribune Chronicle’s entertainment writer, was 23 and had just been assigned the court beat at the newspaper when Fife was murdered.
Burton Cole, the Tribune Chronicle’s features editor, was 26 and covering the court beat for the Record-Courier in Ravenna.
Semple, Gray and Cole each covered Combs’ case in Portage County Common Pleas Court, where the trial had been moved because of the media attention the Hill trial had garnered when it was heard in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court months before.
Both Combs and Hill were eventually convicted. Combs was sentenced to consecutive life sentences behind bars because he was three months shy of 18 when Fife was killed and not eligible for the death penalty.
But he died Nov. 9 at Select Specialty Hospital in Franklin County, even before the death sentence meted out to Hill could be carried out.
A cause of death for Combs is still pending, according to the Franklin County Department of Health.
“In some ways, there is an ironic, poetic justice to Combs dying before Hill,” Gray said. “I always felt like if it had just been Tim Combs in the woods that day, that what happened may have still happened. He seemed to be the main leader. A lot of people, though some may feel differently, think that Combs was the aggressor. Combs had a juvenile history of homosexual rape, and though Hill had a juvenile record for rape too, his crimes were man against woman.”
Gray had returned from vacation ready to start the court beat, and found the Fife case was his first assignment, after covering the cleanup in Lordstown and Newton Falls from the 1985 tornado. He made the 45-minute drive every day court was in session, and covered it before modern conveniences like a cell phone or computer.
It was the only trial Cole covered that brought him to tears, he said.
“I broke down. I don’t know if I cried that much since,” Cole said.
Cole said he has purposely forgotten many of the details brought out in the trial. Fife was beaten, sexually tortured, strangled with his underwear and set afire.
“I heard things and saw exhibits that I never want to hear or see again,” Cole said. “There were medical experts and investigators that had to detail what they saw, and how the injuries and wounds would have occurred — all of these gory, step-by-step, sickening details.
“We covered all murder trials gavel-to-gavel. Some of them were pretty bad, but nothing affected me like this. The other trials, I could kind of get lost in the games prosecutors and defense attorneys play, especially after covering multiple trials with the same attorneys. I could detach myself from some of the bad stuff I covered.
“This was just a whole different thing. I could not believe human beings would be capable of doing this type of stuff to each other.”
One thing that sticks in the photographer’s mind, besides the dark court room, which made taking photos difficult in the time before digital cameras were used in the newsroom, was angering Combs with his camera on the first day of the trial.
“I was taking his photo, and apparently I had irritated Combs because from across the room, he appeared to try to lunge over the banister at me. It was over before I knew it, the sheriff’s deputies were on either side of him and pulled him back. But I’ll never forget it,” said Semple, who was 30 at the time.
There was less tension for the Combs trial, not that the courtroom wasn’t crowded, after Hill’s conviction, Gray and Semple both said.
“It seemed like it was a foregone conclusion. It was a quick trial, over and done rather quickly. But still, 32 years later, it hasn’t ended, really. We are still talking about it,” Semple said.
Hill’s status on death row is in question after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals found he is mentally disabled, and therefore ineligible for the death sentence, though other judges have rejected claims Hill is disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court may intervene.