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Parole hearing recalls slaying of Niles officer

Submitted photo Joanne Robbins is shown with her brother, the late John Utlak, in a 1976 family photo. Utlak was a Niles police officer when he was shot and killed Dec. 8, 1982, in an isolated parking lot located near a steel mill off Hunter Street in Weathersfield. His killer, Fred E. Joseph Jr. — a juvenile at the time — has a parole hearing set for this month.

A juvenile killer of a Niles police officer in 1982 had his parole hearing moved up to this month because of a new state law, and Trumbull County’s prosecutor made sure the Ohio Adult Parole Authority got a letter voicing his “firm and total opposition” to any release of Fred E. Joseph Jr.

“I made sure to FedEx that packet of information to Columbus last Monday,” Prosecutor Dennis Watkins said. “You know they don’t usually tell you the date for these things, but I wanted to make sure it was in their hands by Sept. 1.”

Joseph, convicted in 1983 and sentenced to 30 years to life in the slaying of Niles patrolman John Utlak, will face a parole hearing sometime this month outside his cell at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.

Authorities originally had set a 2022 date for a parole hearing, after Joseph’s bid for parole in 2012 was rebuffed. But a new law, passed by the Ohio Legislature during a 2020 session and signed by Gov. Mike DeWine on Jan. 3, states all juvenile offenders must have a chance at parole.

Joseph, 17 at the time Utlak’s murder, would be eligible for release Nov. 1 if the parole board looks favorably on his case.

But Watkins said he is pulling out all stops for this hearing, which was made possible by Senate Bill 256 that provides violent juvenile offenders with “a panoply of additional rights,” Watkins wrote.

“Furthermore, I understand from this point on, Joseph will get a parole hearing every five years,” Watkins said. “It is my hope that on the merits, inmate Joseph will not now or in the future be released from prison. We will take every step and make every suggestion to you (the parole board) in a respectful and professional manner.”

Watkins, in his 11-page letter, mentioned John Utlak is not here today, but inmate Joseph is alive and able to present himself in person and give reasons why he has earned a release date.

“Inmate Joseph’s present rights to an impartial board hearing deciding his parole release must be fully accorded because it is part of the law Officer Utlak swore to uphold and did every day he put his uniform on … frankly, there are no winners in this tragic case.”

Watkins’ letter continues to give the state’s perspective of Joseph — whom he calls “a portrait of a natural-born killer, a man who has, can and will spew out hatred and violence without a moment’s notice.”

Noting Joseph is being housed in a maximum security prison, Watkins wrote that his bad behavior in prison “only confirms what we saw from him as a juvenile in society — a dangerous psychopath with little or no conscience.”

As part of his correspondence, Watkins attached an affidavit from Doug Sollitto, a high school classmate of Joseph who also served as a corrections officer. Sollitto came into contact with Joseph on a few occasions in prison, including a chilling conversation that Sollitto said he will never forget.

Sollitto, in the affidavit, recalls talking to Joseph, who acknowledged being the triggerman in Utlak’s death and telling the prison guard: “When I get out, I’m going to sit across from the Niles Police Department and shoot the first five cops that come out the door.”

Sollitto said Joseph then pointed his finger, as if he had a gun, and pulled his finger like it was on a trigger — saying “bing, bing bing… all they can do is bring me back here.”

IN COLD BLOOD

Joseph’s talk about killing cops “seems more like an obsession or his personal pastime activity than anything else,” Watkins said in noting that Joseph’s actions resemble the characters in Truman Capote’s real-life novel, “In Cold Blood.”

In referring to records from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, Watkins ticks off a list of infractions committed by Joseph in prison between 2012 and 2016:

• Making a verbal threat of harming a correction officer who was searching his cell and found numerous altered items such as copper wire, razor blade and cable cord connectors;

• Yelling several obscenities and threats because a guard brought a dinner tray in a Styrofoam container;

• Refusing a direct order to cuff up and come out of the recreation cage. “(expletive) off, hoe, I’m coming out when I’m ready to come out,” Joseph said;

• Being involved in a disturbance in the prison chow hall, where Joseph and a corrections officer tangled on the ground. During the skirmish, Joseph bit the officer several times and a mace-like substance had to be applied to the inmate’s eyes.

Watkins said these incidents caused Joseph in 2015 to be transferred from Trumbull Correctional to maximum-security prisons in Youngstown and then Lucasville.

“Please keep Joseph locked up and protect our police and everyone else,” Watkins writes at the end of his letter.

According to Watkins, both codefendant Randy Fellows and Joseph had criminal histories and, in fact, had a working relationship with the Niles Police Department, especially with officers Utlak and his partner, Robert Ludt. Both Fellows and Joseph were undercover drug-trafficking informants. But Watkins said on Dec. 8, 1982, this trust was broken.

“Fellows telephoned Utlak requesting Utlak to bring a lot of money with him so they could make some drug buys,” Watkins wrote. “Then in an ‘In Cold-Blood’-like scenario, Utlak went to a prearranged isolated parking lot located near a steel mill off Hunter Street in Weathersfield. He was approached by Joseph, who was dropped off by Fellows, who was driving his mother’s car. Joseph ambushed the helpless officer, Watkins said, shooting him twice in the head. The fallen officer was robbed of his money, his department-issued .357-caliber handgun, a 12-gauge pump shotgun and a portable radio. Utlak’s body was found about 6:30 a.m. the next day by a Gibraltar Steel Corp. worker.

OTHERS INTERESTED

Laura Austen, with the Ohio Public Defender’s office, did not return calls or an email seeking comment about possible representation of Joseph at this month’s parole hearing.

Utlak’s patrol partner, Ludt, who is now the Vienna police chief, testified at Joseph’s parole hearing in 2012. Watkins mentioned that Ludt also was targeted by the killers.

Ludt earlier this year said he plans to go to the parole hearing in September to testify against Joseph’s release again. Also testifying will be Sollitto, who is a Niles councilman.

“If I crawl there, I plan on being there — no matter what,” Ludt said.

Watkins said Utlak’s late parents, Joe and Irene Sudano, carried the torch for John Utlak through the years.

“(They) actively did everything they could while they were alive to make sure justice was done for their son. They took part in many organizational events to honor him and other fallen officers,” Watkins said.

That torch has now been picked up by Utlak’s sister, Joanne Robbins, Watkins said.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. He was my best friend and hero. He adored me and I adored him,” she said.

Case facts

• On Dec. 8, 1982, Randy Fellows and Fred E. Joseph Jr. murdered and robbed Niles patrolman John A. Utlak, 26. Both then fled the state and were apprehended three days later in Cheyenne, Wyo. Both were tried by Trumbull County juries in 1983 and convicted of aggravated murder with aggravating circumstances and received life sentences. Fellows was 19 at the time and went to trial first, followed by the juvenile Joseph.

• After a jury found Joseph guilty of killing Utlak, Common Pleas Judge David F. McLain sentenced Joseph to 30 years to life in prison. A parole panel decided in 2012 to keep him in prison at least for another 10 years, until Gov. Mike DeWine picked up his pen earlier this year.

• Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, who was the lead prosecutor at both proceedings, said the juvenile pulled the trigger. “I know from talking to jurors in the Fellows case that the jury did not impose the death penalty because they knew the actual killer could not receive the death sentence since he was a juvenile at the time of the offense,” he said. Watkins said many who participated in the trial, including the jurors, have died.

• In the commission of this murder, Watkins said the two committed other crimes — Fellows stole his mother’s 1982 AMC Ambassador; Joseph had stolen his father’s jewelry worth about $10,000.

• According to an affidavit produced by sheriff’s detective Sgt. Dan D’Annunzio, the two told a relative and a girlfriend that they were leaving the area and Fellows added that “if a cop had tried to stop him, he would shoot him to get away.” Both men were armed when they were last seen — first by Fellows’ sister and then by Fellows’ girlfriend.

• In Wyoming, first Joseph was nabbed by police for driving erratically and shortly thereafter, Fellows was arrested at a motel. Both admitted to murdering the police officer and Cheyenne detective Leo Pando helped recover the murder weapon that was carried by Joseph. At the trials, ballistics evidence established the link between Joseph’s .22-caliber weapon and the bullets that killed Utlak.

• Among key witnesses was Arthur “Skip” Krause, who was a hitchhiker picked up by the pair of killers in Illinois on the way West. In fact, Krause testified he led the pair to where he lived in Cheyenne. Krause told local authorities the young men bragged about killing a police officer.

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