Killer of Niles police officer denied parole

Prisoner’s next chance comes in Sept. 2026

A juvenile killer of a Niles police officer in 1982 was denied parole this month by the Ohio Adult Parole Authority.

Members of the board held a late September hearing outside Fred E. Joseph Jr.’s cell at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.

Joseph was 17 when he was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to 30 years to life in the slaying of Niles patrolman John Utlak. Joseph’s parole hearing was moved up a year because of a new state law that gives juvenile offenders more chances at gaining freedom.

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

Joseph, 56, now becomes eligible for parole on Sept. 1, 2026, with his next hearing scheduled for that July, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction website.

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins said he is pleased with the decision of the parole board. The longtime prosecutor had sent a letter to the Ohio Adult Parole Authority voicing his “firm and total opposition” to any release of Joseph.

“This man doesn’t deserve freedom. It would be an injustice and insult to officer Utlak’s family,” Watkins said.

Niles City Councilman Doug Sollitto, a high school classmate of Joseph, also submitted an affidavit to the parole board asking it to keep Joseph in prison. Sollitto had served as a corrections officer and came into contact with Joseph on a few occasions at the prison. His affidavit includes a chilling conversation that Sollitto said he will never forget.

Sollitto recalls talking to Joseph, who acknowledged being the triggerman in Utlak’s death, and Joseph telling the prison guard: “When I get out, I’m going to sit across from the he 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.”

Sollitto said he seconds Watkins’ desire to keep Joseph behind bars.

“This was a sound and intelligent move by the board, and it will make Niles much safer for the citizens and the police department as a whole,” Sollitto said.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s sister, who did not want her name published and now lives in California, said the media accounts surrounding the parole hearing have not been fair to her brother.

“They painted him to be some kind of monster, and he really isn’t anything like that,” the woman said.

Joseph’s co-defendant Randy Fellows, who was 19 at the time of the killing and also sentenced to 30 years to life in prison, is scheduled for a parole hearing in August 2022.


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