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‘The Road to Justice’

Pa. investigator writes book on 1988 Howland murder

Tribune Chronicle file photo Marie Poling, center, is led from the Trumbull County jail to court during her 1988 murder trial. Her husband Richard was killed then beheaded in the basement of their Howland home. Poling dumped his body, and later his severed head, along Interstate 79 in Washington County, Pa. Retired Pennsylvania State trooper Bernard Stanek has written a book about the murder.

Retired Pennsylvania State trooper Bernard Stanek worked on about 50 homicides over his nearly four-decade career.

But the one that began with the discovery of a man’s headless body along Interstate 79 south of Pittsburgh in January 1988 left enough of an impression for Stanek to write a book about it.

Through hard work and good fortune, Stanek, now 84, and other investigators learned the body belonged to Howland steelworker Richard Poling, 33, and that his wife, Marie Poling, 29, killed him.

The killing and surprising details of Marie Poling and her boyfriend, Rafael Garcia, mutilating the body and driving it to Washington County, Pa., dumping the body in one place and the head in another, drew lots of attention.

The murder trial in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court that ensued that summer sealed the case’s fate as one of the most intriguing in Mahoning Valley history.

Marie Poling admitted to the killing during the trial and was convicted of aggravated murder and abuse of a corpse. Poling, 61, remains in the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville serving a 20-years-to-life sentence. She is eligible for parole in October 2022 after having been denied parole six previous times.

The 247-page book, “The Road to Justice,” will be available on Amazon.

Stanek started writing the book shortly after he retired in 1990, but experienced some health setbacks that slowed the book’s progress, he said by telephone recently.

STRANGE CASE

The case was strange from the start. Investigators from the state police barracks in Washington, Pa., were alerted to a body off the highway Jan. 21, 1988.

“It was wrapped up in all kinds of blankets and a garbage bag, and a foot was sticking out of it. When we unwrapped it, we noticed he didn’t have a head,” Stanek recalled.

Fingerprints were used to identify the body as that of Richard Poling on Jan. 29. Poling’s fingerprints were on file because he had been arrested as a young man. That led Stanek and his fellow investigators to Marie Poling.

Stanek learned the Polings lived in Warren with their three children, ages 6, 4 and 6 months. A Howland police officer went to the house on Niles Road just south of the Warren city limits and notified her.

She agreed to have an officer drive her to Washington, Pa., at 1:30 a.m. Jan. 30 to meet with Stanek and identify the body. Two hours later, Stanek sat with Marie Poling, getting basic information — the first of many interviews with the 29-year-old nurse’s aide.

Marie worked at a nursing home on North Road in Warren. Richard worked as a craneman at LTV in Youngstown.

Marie told Stanek the last time she saw her husband was when he left Jan. 9, filling some plastic bags with clothing and telling her he was leaving her for another woman. She said she heard from him again around Jan. 12 when he called to tell her he was leaving $100 in the mailbox for her. She said she found the money that night.

Around 5 a.m., Stanek took Marie to a nearby funeral home, and she identified the body by looking at a tattoo on Richard’s arm.

“Mrs. Poling then just rubbed the arm of her husband and cried and appeared to be very upset,” Stanek wrote in his report. Stanek took her back to the police station to continue the interview. It began a pattern — Marie responded promptly and helpfully when Stanek asked for additional information.

In a few days, Marie notified Stanek of Richard’s calling hours in Mineral Ridge. Stanek and other officers spent two days in Trumbull County interviewing the people who knew Richard. Before they arrived, Stanek contacted then-Howland police Chief Thomas Altiere, who helped them secure rooms at the Avalon Inn in Howland.

Altiere and some of his officers assisted in the investigation. It was weeks before it became clear that the homicide had occurred in Howland and was therefore in Howland’s jurisdiction, not the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania troopers.

Stanek’s first stop when he and fellow investigators arrived was the Youngstown Police Department to get help in arranging a meeting with the security manager at LTV on Poland Avenue. At the funeral home that night, Stanek learned that none of Richard’s friends ever knew Richard to “run around on his wife.” It was a comment the investigator heard many more times.

Stanek interviewed Marie again that night at the house, looking at the house, including the basement, learning she had thrown away his clothes and a love letter from a woman named Diana and a receipt she said she found indicating Richard had bought flowers at an Adgate florist shop for Diana.

The investigation proceeded at a slow, methodical pace, as people Richard and Marie knew helped the investigators follow leads, such as asking the florist to provide information about Richard buying flowers. The florist later said he had not.

‘SHE DID IT’

About three weeks into the investigation, Stanek awoke in his bed and told his wife, “Alma, I know who killed him! She did it, his wife Marie.”

Stanek and the other Pennslvania troopers used the Howland Police Department as their interviewing, telephoning and office space.

Robert Lowe, a cousin of Richard Poling, told Stanek to talk to another cousin, Pam Mayer, who later told investigators she and her husband had given the Polings a set of red drapes, which Marie had hung in the house.

“I really don’t know what happened to them or where they are. I know I read in the paper that one of the items Richard was wrapped in was a red drape,” she told Stanek.

Not long afterward, Stanek interviewed Dolores Dziedzic, who lived across the street from the Polings, who told Stanek about light blue bed sheets with butterflies on them she had given the Polings for Christmas. Stanek showed her a photograph of the sheets that were wrapped around Richard’s body when it was found.

“Those are the bed sheets I gave Marie for a Christmas present last Christmas,” Dziedzic said.

Charlie Kirkwood, a friend of Richard’s who was owner of the Main Auto junk yard in Niles, told investigators to speak with Christine Wilkinson, a friend of Marie’s.

When they walked into Wilkinson’s home on Valacamp Road, “she began crying and became hysterical,” telling Stanek: “Marie is going to kill me.”

Wilkinson then told Stanek of Marie’s plans to kill her husband; she said Marie discussed it the previous August. “One of the ways she told me she would do it was to cut the body up in parts and dump them in different places,” she said.

The reason Marie wanted her husband dead was “because she wants to be with Rafael (Garcia Jr.) — her boyfriend,” Wilkinson said. “She told me Richard would never give her a divorce … She told me she would commit the perfect murder.”

When Stanek met Garcia, 24, he admitted he and Marie were lovers and that Marie had bought him a waterbed and clothes. Garcia and Marie saw each other in her car at work and spent time together in her house at night while Richard was at work. He denied knowing anything about Richard’s murder.

When asked about the bed sheets, Marie said Richard took them with him when he left. She said Richard apparently also took one of the red drapes.

She called Garcia and Wilkinson liars.

ABUSE OF A CORPSE

After Garcia was charged in the case, he agreed to speak to Stanek and Stanek’s partner, James Patt, and gave a 32-page statement in which he said Marie had shot Richard with his own gun as he slept on the couch, that co-worker Carleen Robinson, 27, came over to help clean up and move the body to the basement, and Garcia rented an ax for $4.20 from the Rental Corral on Mahoning Avenue. He used it to decapitate Richard on the basement floor, he said.

Then he and Marie drove the body to Pennsylvania, about two hours from home, took it out of the trunk and dumped it alongside of the highway. But they had to hurry because there was too much traffic.

They drove another 20 miles onto a back road, and Garcia took the head out of the car and laid it on the road. “I was going to run over it to make it look like it had been hit by a car, but a car came down the road the other way and stopped and asked us if we needed help,” Garcia told Stanek.

“I told him ‘no.’ And he said it looks like there’s something laying in front of your car. I said ‘NO,’ and then he kept going. Then I threw the bag with the head over the guard rail,” he said.

Garcia later helped Stanek and other officers find the head, but the gun never was recovered.

Garcia and Robinson testified at Poling’s trial. Garcia was sentenced to five to 25 years in prison after being convicted of aggravated burglary, abuse of a corpse and obstruction of justice and served 13 years, being released in 2001. Robinson was sentenced to 18 months in prison after being convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury.

During the trial, Marie’s defense attorney said Marie shot her husband Jan. 8 because he held a revolver to their infant son’s head and threatened to kill him earlier that day, according to news coverage in the Tribune Chronicle.

Stanek said the key to the case was talking so many times with Marie and being an “active” listener, enabling him to observe many inconsistencies. “The more we interviewed her the more lies she told,” he said. “Every time we talked to her, she told me different things. Over a period of time of talking to her over and over and over, she would always state things differently. I’m from the old school that if you lie once, you can’t remember the second time what you told me.”

John F. DiSalle, judge of the Washington County Court of Common Pleas, said Stanek’s book “recounts the events surrounding his investigation of this horrific murder as only a seasoned criminal detective can. His attention to detail and amazing gift of recall bring the crime scenes to life.”

In an interview, Stanek said Marie may have thought she was capable of committing the perfect murder, but she was wrong.

“I remember kiddingly saying to (Garcia), it was almost a perfect murder — but you should have never dumped that body in Washington County,” Stanek said.

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