Thursday, January 30, 2003

As inmate faces possible retrial, son relives grief

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mrs. Doench


Mildred Ruth Doench's family has agonized over the 72-year-old retired educator's rape, stabbing and mutilation - and the suspect's overturned conviction - for almost three decades.

Butler County authorities say they are ready to again try Indiana prison inmate Donald L. Korn for her murder - and the recent action in the case has rekindled painful memories for her only child.

"It's been difficult. The grief and tragedy of mom's death keeps coming back for our whole family, especially since they reopened the case," said Robert Doench, now 65. "We feel it's necessary, in a sense, to go through this to get some justice and some closure."

He won't talk about the last phone conversation he had with his mother. He explained that he might have to testify about it if there is a Korn retrial.

Doench talked with his mother a few hours before she was attacked in her Fairfield Township home July 13, 1974. Her killer raped her and left a mattock, an ax-like gardening tool, embedded in her forehead. She probably had already died from knife wounds inflicted to her chest, a Butler County coroner's report says.

Korn, a former tenant of Mildred Doench, has been serving a potential life sentence for a 1975 Clark County, Ind., rape in which the victim's throat was slashed but she survived. Previously turned down for parole, he is eligible for possible release again in December 2005.

HAMILTON - What happened to Mildred Ruth Doench was unforgettable. But so was she, say those who knew her.

"The most striking thing about her was how astute she was," says Patricia Gay, principal at Hayes Elementary School, where her memory lives on. "She was a very understanding person, yet she always challenged everyone to stretch a little - students and teachers."

Doench was a principal there for years until she retired in 1969.

"People who knew Mrs. Doench basically loved and respected her," said Fairfield Township Police Chief Richard St. John.

Johnny Clark, a veteran Cincinnati Enquirer reporter who covered the crime, said: "It's not the kind of thing that you forget."

Janice Morse

Butler County authorities, who filed a new warrant for Korn, 58, a month ago, won't say when they expect him to be arraigned on the still-active 1976 aggravated murder indictment in Mildred Doench's death.

They say they have gathered new evidence, which they won't discuss, since reopening this case and several other "cold" murder cases 3 years ago.

Had it not been for the Indiana conviction, Korn would have gone free in 1979, when an appeals court said his confession to the slaying was improperly obtained. The judges said police should have stopped questioning Korn after he asked for a lawyer.

"Thank God he was in prison" for the Indiana case, Robert Doench said.

The victim of the Indiana attack testified during Korn's aggravated murder trial in Mrs. Doench's slaying almost 26 years ago, Doench said. That victim died in 1997.

Despite obstacles to pursuing a 29-year-old murder case in which some witnesses died years ago, Doench is confident that Korn will be convicted again for his mother's slaying.

"I have confidence in the prosecutors and the sheriff," he said. "They have done a tremendous job."

Doench said he and his extended family especially appreciated the efforts of Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper, First Assistant Prosecutor Dan Eichel and Sheriff's Detective Frank Smith.

Smith, who says he has amassed 10,000 pages of investigative notes and other documents over the past few years, "has been like a bulldog, traveling all over the country" to collect evidence, Doench said.

If Korn is again found guilty, he cannot face the death penalty, Eichel said. That's because the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 found Ohio's death penalty law, which was in effect at the time of the slaying, unconstitutional.

That now-unconstitutional law would apply to this case, Eichel said, so life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 20 years is the harshest sentence that could be imposed if Korn is convicted.

Still, if a guilty verdict is again on the books, Doench said he thinks it will be easier to focus on the pleasant memories of his mother, who doted on her grandchildren so much that she had been planning to sell her Tylersville Road home and move closer to them.

At the time of her death, Mildred Doench had two granddaughters, ages 5 and 7. "They remember their grandma," her son said.

Because of their tender years and the horrifying nature of his mother's death, Doench couldn't bring himself to tell them what had happened to her. Finally, years later, they learned about the crimes against her - and Korn's overturned conviction - when they found a copy of a U.S. Supreme Court brief in a drawer, he said. That court refused to hear the case.

Doench is saddened to think about the new additions to the family who never got to know his mother.

And every family trip is tinged with longing for her, said Doench, recalling how his mother used travel as an educational tool.

Doench's mother was a long-time principal at Hayes Elementary School in Hamilton; his father, Paul, worked for Mosler Safe Co. Their work schedules allowed for six-week-long summer vacations. "We had these wonderful trips almost every summer," Doench said. "I had visited almost every state when I was a kid."

After Paul Doench died of a stroke, his wife planned to visit Europe - something she had always wanted to do. She bought tickets, but she was killed before she had a chance to go, Doench said.

"It's been difficult every year since it happened," Doench said.

But the fact that Butler County authorities haven't forgotten his mother is heartening, he said. "It makes you maybe have a belief in the system."


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