Wednesday, November 29, 2000

TV reporter recalls chilling interview

Suspect in '63 told him he'd hit Patty

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Television reporter Tom Schell says he asked Michael Wehrung many questions in 1963 about the night a Greenhills cheerleader was beaten to death.

        One day, Mr. Schell says, he asked the 15-year-old boy the most important question: “Did you hit her?”

        “I slapped her,” he recalls the boy saying. “She fell down.”

        Mr. Schell described the conversation Tuesday in a sworn statement that could be played for a jury next year when Mr. Wehrung goes on trial for the murder of 15-year-old Patty Rebholz.

        Mr. Schell's testimony is crucial to the case because he is the first person in 37 years to directly link Mr. Wehrung to the crime scene on the night of Patty's death.

        Prosecutors accuse Mr. Wehrung, now 53, of ambushing Patty about a block from his house on Aug. 8, 1963, and beating her to death with a fence post.

        Although the case has remained unsolved since 1963, prosecutors say a new investigation last year found enough evidence to charge Mr. Wehrung with murder.

        Mr. Schell's testimony is a reason prosecutors went forward with the case.

        His comments Tuesday suggest he had extraordinary access to Mr. Wehrung in the weeks after Patty's death. Mr. Schell, then a WCPO-TV (Channel 9) reporter, said he spent hours talking to the boy about his life, family and Patty.

        He said Mr. Wehrung seemed like a typical teen-ager until singled out by police as a suspect, in part because he was dating Patty.

        As the investigation dragged on, Mr. Schell said, some of the boy's relatives began to question his innocence.

        He said Mr. Wehrung's father, Bud, wanted to find out if his son was involved in Patty's death so the family could “get him help.” Mr. Schell said Bud Wehrung asked him to talk to Michael.

        “I've got to ask you a big favor,” Mr. Schell recalled the father saying. “He likes you. If he's going to tell anybody, he'll tell you. Could you please do anything you can to get it out of him?”

        Mr. Schell agreed. “I was working for Channel 9,” Mr. Schell explained Tuesday. “And I was trying to help the Wehrungs.”

        He said he sat with Michael in the basement of Michael's home and asked him to describe the night Patty died. He said the boy had consistently denied seeing Patty that night, saying only he went looking for her after learning she was coming to his house.

        But this time, Mr. Schell said, Mr. Wehrung told him he spotted Patty walking down the street, returning from a teen dance. Mr. Wehrung had asked her to stop going to dances because he found out she had kissed another boy at one, Mr. Schell said.

        Mr. Schell said he asked Mr. Wehrung if he hit Patty, and Mr. Wehrung said he had slapped her.

        When he asked Mr. Wehrung if he later changed his clothes, Mr. Schell said, the teen pointed to a washtub in the basement.

        Mr. Schell said he then called two police investigators, who came over that night to interview Mr. Wehrung. At that point, he said, Mr. Wehrung made an unusual statement.

        “Michael said (to police) he didn't remember doing it,” Mr. Schell recalled. “He said, "It might have been another self.'”

        After hearing the remark, Mr. Schell said, he told Mr. Wehrung's grandmother: “That boy sitting down there right now didn't do it.” Mr. Schell said he made the comment because he did not want to be the one to tell her about the incriminating statement.

        As Mr. Schell testified Tuesday, Mr. Wehrung sat silently across from him at a table. But Mr. Wehrung's attorney, Earle Maiman, spoke up often to challenge Mr. Schell's testimony.

        He questioned why a reporter like Mr. Schell did not record his conversations with the young suspect. And he asked Mr. Schell why he never broadcast anything about those conversations.

        “You were reporting on things Michael said and did,” Mr. Maiman said. “But one thing you never reported was that Michael said anything in the least bit incriminating.”

        Mr. Schell, who is now retired, said he and his bosses at Channel 9 agreed not to broadcast the statement. “We were dealing with a juvenile,” he said. “You just didn't mention juvenile names.”

        Mr. Maiman, however, noted that local media already had named Mr. Wehrung as a suspect. “You had used his name every day,” Mr. Maiman told Mr. Schell. “It was out in public.”

        Although Mr. Schell never told TV viewers about his conversation with Mr. Wehrung, he said he did tell Juvenile Court Judge Benjamin Schwartz.

        He said he gave Judge Schwartz, now deceased, a memo about Mr. Wehrung's comments.

        A few days later, the judge declared Mr. Wehrung a ward of the court, essentially taking custody of the boy from his parents. Mr. Wehrung was later sent to a military school in North Carolina.

        “It was nothing but a political mess,” Mr. Schell said.

        Mr. Schell testified for nearly three hours Tuesday, but Common Pleas Judge Patrick Dinkelacker will decide how much of his statement will be heard by a jury. Mr. Wehrung's attorneys are expected to object to several of his comments.

        The case still could be moved from adult court to juvenile court if defense attorneys win an appeal before the Ohio Supreme Court.


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