Wednesday, November 17, 1999

Tracking a killer, 36 years later


In 1963, the beating death of a 15-year-old cheerleader shattered the calm of Greenhills. No one was ever charged with the crime. Now, armed with new investigative tools, police are back on the case.

BY DAN HORN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Patricia Ann Rebholz
        They found Patricia Ann Rebholz at dawn, face down in the grass next to an old, wire fence. The Greenhills cheerleader was wearing the same clothes she had on the night before at a teen dance. Her slacks were damp with morning dew, and her blouse was spattered with blood.

        As police officers swarmed around the 15-year-old's battered body, they searched in vain for clues that might lead them to her killer.

        Thirty-six years later, they are ready to try again.

        Prosecutor Mike Allen confirmed Tuesday that his office has launched a new investigation into one of Hamilton County's oldest and most confounding unsolved homicides.

        He said investigators are interviewing possible witnesses — many for the first time — and are awaiting the results of DNA tests that were not available to police in 1963.

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Patty's boyfriend, Michael Wehrung (center), watches investigators at the murder scene. "He is a suspect," the prosecutor says.
(File photo)
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        “Whoever killed Patty Rebholz has gotten away with murder for 36 years,” Mr. Allen said. “We're going to do everything in our power to bring this person to justice.”

        He said the case was one of several “cold case files” he reviewed after becoming prosecu tor earlier this year. He pursued it, he said, because clothing, witness statements and other evidence was still available and in reasonably good condition.

        Although he would not say how many suspects there may be, Mr. Allen acknowledged that Patty's boyfriend at the time, Michael Wehrung, is among them.

        “He is a suspect,” Mr. Allen said.

        Mr. Wehrung, who still lives in the Cincinnati area, was questioned several times by police in 1963 but was never charged with a crime. His attorney, Jack Rubenstein, said his client would not comment.

        “He has always professed his innocence and he stands by that,” Mr. Rubenstein said.

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        No matter where the new investigation leads, Mr. Allen said the case deserves another look. Those closest to it, including Patty's family, say they support the effort.

        “It's terrible to have a beautiful little girl die in such a senseless way, and then to have no one explain it,” said her brother, Mel Rebholz, who now lives out of state. “It's just been hanging out there.”

        The mystery began when a police officer spotted Patty's body in a vacant lot along Jennings Road in the early morning of Aug. 9, 1963.

        By midafternoon, the corner of Jennings and Illona was overrun with police, TV cameras, reporters and neighbors. It wasn't just the crime that was so stunning, it was where it happened.

        “It was just such a shocking incident,” said Chip Harrod, who grew up there and went to school with Patty. “It was something we always thought about and talked about.”

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        The Greenhills of 1963 was a quiet, bedroom community with about 5,000 mostly middle-class residents. It was the kind of place that had not yet outgrown the 1950s, the kind of place where getting into trouble meant skipping school or breaking curfew.

        Violent gangs, high school shootouts and teen-age murder victims were still three decades away from becoming routine news.

        But when Patty was found beaten to death, a bloodied piece of fence post next to her body, Greenhills suddenly found itself in uncharted territory.

        “Everybody was just really shaken up by it,” recalled Bob Harrod, Chip's father and a former Cincinnati Enquirer reporter and editor who covered the story. “It was just out of the blue.”

        Almost immediately, the case confounded investigators as much as it horrified Patty's classmates and neighbors.

        Every promising lead went nowhere: A witness said he saw “two figures” on the lot that night, but he couldn't identify them. The suspected murder weapon was next to the body, but it yielded no fingerprints.

        “It was frustrating,” said Ray Shannon, the former prosecutor who handled the case. “It preoccupied us.”

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        The first step for investigators was to retrace Patty's steps on the night she died. What they found was, for the most part, a typical night in the life of a 15-year-old girl.

        She left home with a girlfriend around 7:30 p.m. and walked several blocks to the American Legion hall, which hosted teen dances almost every week.

        At 9:30, friends told police, Patty called her boyfriend's house to see whether she could come over.

        “After Pat called, I went upstairs to get cleaned up,” Mr. Wehrung, then 15, said in a 1963 newspaper article. “When I thought it was about time for her to show up, I started to watch at the window.”

        Police said several of the boy's friends were at his house when Patty called, but they left to buy some hamburgers a short time later. Assuming Patty would be there soon, they brought one home for her, too.

        But about a half-block from the Wehrung home, someone grabbed Patty as she crossed the unlit lot on Jennings.

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        The coroner said bruises on her neck indicated she may have been grabbed from behind and choked before she was bludgeoned with the 2-foot-long piece of fence post.

        Another teen-ager, Craig Smith, told police he saw two people — one kneeling and one lying on the ground — around 9:45 p.m. Because there was no sign of a struggle, he said, he didn't stop to look at their faces.

        Less than two hours later, at a drug store not far from the Legion hall, Patty's older brother, Mel, sat in his car waiting for his sister to show up. He had arranged to pick her up from the dance at midnight.

        It was a role he had grown accustomed to that summer: Drive Patty to cheerleading practice. Take Patty and her friends to a burger joint. Pick Patty up at a friend's house.

        “I had my own car, so I was doing a lot of that,” Mr. Rebholz said. “My sister and I were very close. We were buddies.”

        When she didn't show up, Mr. Rebholz drove home and told his parents. Right away, they called police and went looking for her.

        Mr. Rebholz said everyone who knew her was devastated when they got the news at daybreak.

        Although only a freshman, Patty already was among the most popular girls in school. “Everybody liked Patty,” Chip Harrod said. “Without her, there was clearly a void.”

        None felt it more than her parents. Mr. Rebholz said his mom and dad, who were deeply religious before Patty's death, would never recover.

        “My parents tried to work out what happened in terms of their beliefs, but they couldn't do it,” he said of his parents, who died several years ago. “They basically lost their religion.

        “They were very sad and unhappy people because of this.”

        In the days following her death, the investigation began to focus on Mr. Wehrung. Police questioned the teen for six hours one day, and for nine hours on another.

        Through it all, Mr. Wehrung denied any involvement in Patty's death. “Kids know that when you like a girl, you'd not even slap her,” he told a newspaper at the time. “Unless a boy is crazy, he would never kill her.”

        “He was questioned, but it led nowhere,” Mr. Shannon said. “He certainly didn't make any admissions against his own interest.”

        As prosecutors continued to press the teen-age suspect, a now-deceased juvenile court judge, Benjamin Schwartz, stepped in and gave the boy court protection as a “dependent of the state.”

        “This court became convinced that any statement that could be obtained from him under these conditions would be illegal and contrary to law,” the judge explained.

        In essence, Mr. Allen said, the judge told investigators to leave the kid alone.

        “Judge Schwartz took a paternalistic approach to this suspect,” Mr. Allen said. “Is that the way things were done in 1963? I don't know. Is it right? In my mind, absolutely not.”

        Within months, Mr. Wehrung left Greenhills for two years at a military school in North Carolina. He was never questioned by police again.

        “After that,” Mr. Shannon said, “we had a cold trail.”

        Mr. Allen readily admits that picking up that trail 36 years later hasn't been easy. But he said several attorneys and two full-time investigators have been working on the case for weeks.

        He said articles of clothing — he would not say whose — and the bloodied fence post have been submitted for DNA testing.

        He also said that new leads are possible from several witnesses, including a former reporter for WCPO-TV (Channel 9).

        Mr. Allen said the reporter, Tom Schell, is expected to give a statement to prosecutors soon. Mr. Schell, who interviewed Mr. Wehrung several times in 1963, declined to comment on his involvement in the case.

        “If anyone knows anything, we want them to come forward,” Mr. Allen said. “I think we have something to work with or we would not have invested the time that we have.”

        For Mr. Rebholz, the renewed interest in his sister's case stirs some mixed feelings. He wants a resolution, he said, but thoughts of that morning in 1963 always bring back painful memories.

        To ease them, he said, he tries to remember Patty as she was before she became the tragic figure in a murder-mystery. To him, she is the kid sister who never got to learn how to drive, or to go to college, or to start a family of her own.

        He has no doubt she would have done all of those things.

        “You just can't understand it,” he said. “She was friends to everybody. She was very much an ideal person.”

       



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