Friday, November 23, 2001

Suspect on trial - 38 years later

Proceedings begin Monday in slaying of Greenhills teen

By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The president was John F. Kennedy. The Angels' “My Boyfriend's Back” was a top hit. Pete Rose was in his debut season as a second baseman with the Cincinnati Reds.

        It was August 1963, a time imbued with a sense of innocence — a time when Cincinnati teens could walk home from a dance in the dark without fear of danger.

        Then Patty Rebholz, a pretty 15-year-old cheerleader, was found beaten to death in a vacant Greenhills lot.

        The first incident of its kind in thissuburban community 20 miles northwest of Cincinnati, her homicide shocked Greenhills residents almost as much as news that police suspected her boyfriend, 15-year-old Michael Wehrung.

        Investigators questioned him for weeks and learned from the girl's friends that Patty intended to break up with Michael. But a juvenile-court judge intervened and sent the boy out of state to military school.

        The investigation into Patty's death stalled, her family anguished, and the tragic story became part of Greenhills history, rehashed at dinner parties, school reunions and in anniversary media reports.

Patricia Ann Rebholz
        It wasn't until last year, following a new investigation into one of Hamilton County's oldest unsolved murder cases, that someone was finally charged with killing the popular teen.

        On Monday, Mr. Wehrung — now a 54-year-old grandfather and executive with a suburban roofing company — goes to trial charged with second-degree murder.

        Some hope the trial brings closure to a case that changed the middle-class community of 5,000 people forever.

        “It was like living on a pillow,” Richard Kuhlman, a Greenhills native who now lives in Los Angeles, said of the village in 1963. “It was easy. It was sweet. It was sunshine all the time. ... Greenhills was about as Americana as some of those novels can spin it. It was Pleasantville. All of a sudden this happened.”

        So moved by the case, Mr. Kuhlman returned to Greenhills in 1993 intent on researching the murder. An actor and playwright, he used his findings to write a stage play based on the case.

        “(The slaying) didn't cause panic in the streets,” he recalled. “But, the very least it was sacrilegious to her. Here was a 15-year-old girl, beautiful and had her life ahead of her, and all she was doing was apparently changing boyfriends.”

After the dance

        Patricia Ann Rebholz's body was found in the early hours of Aug. 9, 1963, face down near a wire fence in a vacant lot. Her skull had been fractured by repeated blows from a piece of fence post.

        She'd attended a dance the evening before at the local American Legion post.

Wehrung (center), watches investigators at the murder scene.
(1963 photo)
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        She'd gone with her best friend and told her that she planned to end her months-long relationship with Michael Wehrung because she wished to see someone else.

        Patty called Michael from the dance about 9:30 p.m. and told him she would walk the five blocks to his house.

        The place where her body was found the next day was about 50 yards from the Wehrung home.

        Witnesses told police they saw a person leaning over another person in the vacant lot where Patty's body was found.

        Michael repeatedly told police that he was home waiting for Patty to arrive. But he told a TV reporter a different story in which he believed his “other self” might have killed Patty. That reporter's recollections became key in the new investigation.

        About a month after police first talked to Michael, Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Benjamin Schwartz declared him a ward of the court and forbade investigators from speaking to him.

        He sent Michael to military school in North Carolina.

        For some, the boy's departure effectively put an end to the case.

        “It was as if it had been settled and that was going to be that,” said Betty Senior, 70, who moved to Greenhills in 1962 and still lives there. “It never struck me as anything more than what it was — that was how it was going to be handled.”

        But to others — none more than Patty's family — the decision was unacceptable.

        “Everything just stopped at that point, the police investigations, the reporting, everything else,” said Mel Rebholz, Patty's brother.

        He was 17 in 1963. He now lives out of state.

        “We were never given any full explanation of why he wasn't charged at the time and basically it was kept pretty much of a secret where he went,” Mr. Rebholz said. “We didn't know. All we knew was that at that time, the juvenile-court system under Schwartz had taken him. ... we never knew why that happened.

        “It devastated our lives, my mom, my dad and myself. But I think the people in the community all of a sudden realized that there was evil out there and that it did exist.

        “I think it basically changed everybody in that area, if not in the Cincinnati area.”

Grim coincidence

        Two months later, President Kennedy's assassination stunned the world.

        In a grim coincidence, the trial of Michael Wehrung begins days after the Connecticut Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel, clearing the way for his murder trial in the 1975 beating death of Greenwich neighbor when both were teen-agers.

Patty's blood-stained blouse, held by assistant prosecutor Mark Piepmeier last January.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        The Wehrung trial comes after a new team of investigators submitted blood samples and clothing for DNA analysis, and reviewed audiotapes of police interviews that were so old they could not be played on modern equipment. Investigators also re-interviewed every person still alive who was questioned about Patty's death.

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen and Mr. Wehrung's attorneys, Earle Jay Maiman and James Perry, declined comment about the case in the days before trial. Opposing sides have made “a gentlemen's agreement” not to discuss it outside of court.

        Mr. Wehrung will receive a jury trial. The proceedings will be before Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Patrick Dinkelacker, who ruled this week that prosecutors may use as trial evidence the notes of a police interview from that year.

        Chris Waldeck, the officer who interviewed the youth in 1963, wrote that Mr. Wehrung confessed to Patty's slaying at the time.

        “He thought it was him that killed Pat,” Officer Waldeck wrote in notes the prosecution has gathered as evidence against Mr. Wehrung. “In fact, he was sure he did, but he couldn't remember anything about it.”

        Mr. Wehrung's lawyers opposed use of the notes from Officer Waldeck, who now is deceased.

        The judge ruled that prosecutors cannot use statements from four other now-deceased witnesses against Mr. Wehrung. Those statements — transcripts of statements by the witnesses to police in 1963 — amount to hearsay and could not be used as evidence, the judge ruled.

        Michael Wehrung has pleaded not guilty and has been free on bond. If convicted, he could be sentenced to prison for life.

        Associated Press material was used in this report.


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