Thursday, April 20, 2000

Arrest made in '83 case

Missing man's body was in river

BY Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BATAVIA — Moments after a phone call this week prompted the resurrection of a 17-year-old murder investigation, a feeling washed over Clermont County investigator Dan Frazee.

        The details provided by the caller matched the disappearance of a Georgia man whose body was found in 1983 in the trunk of a car submerged in the Ohio River off Moscow, Clermont County.

        The whirlwind that began with that call Monday morning culminated Wednesdaywith the arrest of Gerald Washburn. The 53-year-old former Marine, who had been living with his wife in a Brown County mobile home park, was held on $2.5 million bond on a charge of aggravated murder. Police also were looking into two other slayings out of state.

        “It was kind of a creepy feeling. We got excited because we knew it was good information,” said investigator Frazee, who joined the sheriff's department in 1982 and recalled the initial investigation. “Info corroborated info in the case file from 17 years ago, so it gives credibility. ... Everything just fell into place. We were amazed.”

        Clermont County sheriff's investigators say Mr. Washburn and the victim, Clayton, Ga. resident Gary Houck, 24 when he disappeared, were associates in a drug trafficking operation that transported cocaine and Quaaludes between Georgia and Michigan.

        “It (arrest) was a shock,” the victim's father, Harold Houck, said when contacted by The Cincinnati Enquirer at his Clayton, Ga., home Wednesday night. “But that old detective died and I knew when he died the case was in trouble. He was on to something. Maybe he did pass it on, I don't know.”

        He said he didn't know Mr. Washburn, but another son, who lives in Pontiac, Mich., was familiar with him.

        Mr. Washburn, who was living in Clermont County at the time of Mr. Houck's disappearance, was known to police through the initial Houck investigation but police were unable to locate him.

        When he was arrested at 2 a.m. Wednesday at the Eastland Mobile Home Park in Georgetown, he was calm and polite. “He didn't seem surprised,” Mr. Frazee said.

        Following a bond hearing before Clermont County Municipal Magistrate Darren Miller, a preliminary hearing was set for April 28 in common pleas court. The case is expected to go to the grand jury next Wednesday.

        Police did not reveal a motive except to say that Mr. Houck “was killed because of his drug activity.”

        They also say Mr. Washburn was possibly involved in two other slayings, including that of a 14-year-old girl killed during a botched robbery in 1978 in Clayton, Ga. Police there told the Enquirer they were looking into that possibility.

        “He may have committed that crime,” Mr. Frazee emphasized.

        On the other case, which was prior to 1978, police said only that the victim was involved in a drug cartel and the killing occurred out of state. They've yet to identify that victim, but Mr. Frazee said “There is circumstantial evidence to pursue it aggressively.”

        Mr. Houck was reported missing on July 21, 1981, after he left his parents' home in Georgia and said he was going to work. For more than two years, the search went nowhere.

        Then, on Sept. 19, 1983, Moscow Police Chief Dennis Skeene and another scuba diver happened upon a 1973 Chevrolet submerged 20 feet in the river near the Moscow wharf.

        Mr. Washburn, who is unemployed and on disability, had been in police custody on occasion since then, but escaped detection because there was no active warrant for him.

        Last July 12, he was arrested in Boone County on charges of possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

        “Yeah, I remember the guy, I think he pled to that,” Boone County Sheriff Mike Helmig said Wednesday. His department assisted Clermont County investigators in determining that Mr. Washburn was living in Hebron as recently as November.


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