YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – It’s an August Friday night in Youngstown, and Ron Barber and Antony Vitullo each have plans for the sunny, warm evening.
Barber and his wife are at an Austintown restaurant, about ready to order a fish dinner. Vitullo is about to head to the Fitch-Glen Oak football game to watch his niece, a cheerleader for the Falcons.
Barber never gets to eat his dinner and Vitullo never makes it to the game because at about the same time they are making their plans, a woman in an outlying area of the East Side is tramping through the woods looking for her dog, who she believes is dead.
The woman finds something she thinks is her dog, but it instead turns out to be the remains of a woman missing since 2017.
Barber and Vitullo are detective sergeants and homicide detectives for the Youngstown Police Department, a profession where it is hard to make any concrete plans when you’re the next man up.
Barber and Vitullo are part of a group of eight to 10 detectives who investigate homicides, shootings, stabbings, robberies and other serious crimes for the Youngstown Police Department. They operate in teams of two and rotate being on call along with their supervisors, Chief of Detectives Capt. Jason Simon and Lt. Mohammad Awad. For crimes involving multiple victims or a large crime scene, sometimes a third detective is called out.
Although the workload has decreased slightly this year for the members of The Bureau, as some call it, they still have rather large caseloads. As of this writing, the city has seen 19 homicides and 59 shootings, a decrease from last year when 139 people were shot, 31 of them fatally.
And those calls are on top of a detective’s regular caseload, working past cases and getting new ones for other crimes.
It’s a type of police work that is largely behind the scenes after the initial call comes in. There are interviews, phone calls, paperwork, warrants to type up, evidence to be sent out and visits to the coroner.
To take a look at that behind-the-scenes work, Simon agreed to allow a reporter to be on call with detectives, from the time they are called out until the case goes as far as it can. The first case in this series was the Aug. 26 discovery of an almost complete set of human remains that turned out to belong to Amy Hambrick, 29, who went missing in November 2017.
Aug. 26, 2022, 4:24 p.m.
The missing dog’s name was Shiloh, and the woman at 1392 Thorn Hill Road on the far East Side had been worried about her, so she decided to go into the nearby woods to see if she could find her there — dead or alive.
She found something wrapped in what looked like a sheet and brought it back to her house, but after pulling just one item out of the sheet, she called 911.
“I was in the woods looking for my dead dog and I thought I found what was my dead dog wrapped up in a sheet, and when I opened it up, it’s human,” she told the call-taker. “It’s a human skull.”
The call-taker asks her where she is.
“I’m actually home now,” she says. “I bought the bones home because I thought it was my dog. They’ve been at my house. I’m in my driveway.”
“You shouldn’t have touched them,” the call-taker tells her.
“I thought it was my dog,” she replies. “It’s in my driveway.”
From there, the two East Side cars — 104 and 106 — are called to go to her home, as well as their supervisor, Car 101.
“She was in her backyard and found a skull,” the dispatcher tells them, not saying she was in the woods. “Then she decided to take it home with her.”
The supervisor, Detective Sgt. Travis Kis, is able to read the call notes on the computer in his cruiser. “Am I reading this correct, that the woman took the skull and bones to her house?” he asks.
“Affirmative,” the dispatcher answers.
Kis wants someone to call her back and tell her not to touch or move anything else.
“We pretty much told her that already,” the dispatcher answers.
Right away a call is also made to Car 400, which is Simon, who is working a special detail with Officer Mike Bodnar. Bodnar answers for Simon and tells the dispatcher they are on their way.
Car 316, Detective Sgt. Jerry Fulmer, also answers that he is responding. Fulmer is a homicide detective also and is not in the on-call rotation but working a different special detail. Because he is the only detective who is on duty, he also responds.
Before any of them can arrive, Kis radios back and tells the dispatcher to get someone from the coroner’s office to the woman’s driveway. There is no doubt that the skull is human.
Thorn Hill Road is in an out-of-the-way spot on the far East Side, running east to west from Hubbard Road to Lansdowne Boulevard. It is a road that does not see much police activity but Barber says it is a “cut-through,” or used by people who want to take a shortcut from Lansdowne to Hubbard Road.
There is a small set of houses on the north side of the road, but the rest of the street is made up of woods. Late on a cold night in April 2020, a person was found lying in the street at the intersection of Lansdowne and Thorn Hill. Police said the person died of an overdose and was dumped there.
Typically in Youngstown, when a body is found in a heavily wooded area, it is on the Sharon Line, which is also on the far East Side. In fact, the body of a man who was shot to death was found in a cemetery there earlier this year. If any place can be more remote than the Sharon Line, it would be Thorn Hill.
Once Simon arrives, he puts in calls to Barber and Vitullo. They arrive separately, Barber carrying a legal pad. They arrive at about the same time the on-call coroner’s investigator, Kelsey Simon, no relation to Jason, arrives. Simon briefs all three in the bright sunshine, then Kelsey Simon goes back to her car to get a sheet. They spread it on the driveway and put the skull, a couple of other bones, and the cloth the bones are wrapped in on the sheet.
There are at least a half dozen people in the front yard watching police, and the smell of cigarettes wafts into the driveway. In the basement of the house where police are in the drive, a dog is barking rapidly — a small dog from the sound of it because of the yip-like barks. The dog will go on for several seconds, stop, then start up again several minutes later with no warning. A few doors down, a man in shorts and a t-shirt is sitting on his front lawn taking it all in, a large dog by his side rolled up into a ball and a cat looking over his shoulder. Someone can be heard saying: “I need a drink.”
Assisted by Officer Shakir Perkins, who is a member of the Crime Lab and on call as well, Kelsey points out the standard-issue gray duct tape that the cloth is bound in. The flower print cloth is either a sheet or a curtain. Someone asks, “Is there flesh?” but no one knows for sure.
Kelsey Simon takes a pair of scissors and begins to cut at the tape, taking a femur bone and setting it aside. The skull sits on a far corner of the sheet, almost like it’s watching. Kelsey Simon said she believes the bones belong to a male because of the large size of the femur, but she stresses her diagnosis is “very preliminary,” especially because so far most of the bones are wrapped up inside the cloth.
Kis is grateful for one thing: “This isn’t one of the ones that smell,” he says. Each cop has his own particular story of finding a decomposing body that smells, and Kis is no exception. In 2019, he was one of several officers who found a man who was decomposed in a home off of Atkinson Avenue that smelled so bad officers had to wear masks to go inside. The odor also drifted out into the street. The house was later burned to the ground in a suspected arson.
Kelsey Simon examines the skull and finds that the wisdom teeth are still intact, and she can spot at least one filling in the teeth. Several of the teeth have been scattered inside the cloth, and some fell onto the sheet in the drive when it was cut open. There are no obvious signs of trauma on the skull, but Barber says that can be deceiving: he had a homicide once on Trussit Avenue, he says, where the victim was shot in the head with a .22-caliber bullet, a small caliber round. No entrance wound was visible and the bullet wasn’t found until an autopsy was done.
It is at this point that Kelsey Simon suggests that they stop cutting the cloth open in the driveway and instead bundle everything up carefully and take it to the coroner’s office, where they can examine it further without it being exposed to the elements. Barber agrees.
“Why mess with it?” Barber asks. “Let’s do it in a controlled environment.”
Kelsey Simon and Perkins carefully wrap the sheet around the cloth and take it back to Kelsey Simon’s car. The few bones that were already out of the cloth are taken separately. As they do this, the detectives begin speculating on what might have happened and how the bones got to where they were.
Barber wonders if they will be able to get DNA somehow off the duct tape, then goes and talks to the woman who found the bones. When he is finished, they decide to go to the actual spot in the woods where the cloth was found, and they begin walking up the street to Car 104, which has been parked with its lights on at the spot so no one disturbs it. They pass a man in an orange shirt who asks why they are there. Is it a drug bust? he asks.
“It’s a body,” Barber replies in his gravelly voice.
“Oh, my God,” the man says.
Barber and Vitullo have both been in the department for 25 years, both grew up in the Cornersburg neighborhood of the West Side, and both graduated from Chaney High School. But there are some slight differences.
Vitullo went to Youngstown State for two years before dropping out after he took the entry-level civil service exam for the department. He had planned to go back but so far has not. Vitullo’s father also coached Barber in baseball when Barber was growing up.
Barber, who played basketball and baseball for the Cowboys while in high school, graduated from Hiram College and was taking tests and filling out applications for departments all over the state when he found out he passed Youngstown’s test and they wanted to hire him. It was a no-brainer on his part, he said.
“Youngstown hired me first, plus it’s where I’m from,” he said.
Vitullo joined The Bureau in 2017 and solved his first case, the shooting death of a man who was found in a burned-out house on Bennington Avenue.
Barber became a detective in 2015 and worked in The Bureau until 2020, when he transferred to the fiscal office. At the time he said it was a mixed blessing. He was glad to have a more traditional work schedule and to be free of some of the stress from handling homicides, but one thing he said he missed was the importance of the work. He said not very many people are entrusted to investigate the most serious of crimes, and the fact that he was one of those few was something that is important to him.
He was not sure if he would ever end up back on The Fourth Floor, where the Detective Bureau is located in the police department. But last year, two longtime detectives decided they wanted a change and transferred to be supervisors in the Patrol Division, so Barber resumed his seat in The Bureau.
As a detective, Barber was the lead investigator in a 2018 triple homicide in which one of the victims was an infant. After over a year of investigating, two men were indicted for all three deaths. Earlier this summer, a jury found both men guilty.
The two had different partners before but were paired up for the first time this year. Because investigators alternate on who is the lead, it is Barber’s turn for this case to be in charge. However, Vitullo will get his chance just hours later when a man is shot at a North Side gas station and the man accused of killing him takes the body to the police department. But that is in the future…
Barber and Vitullo make it up a slight climb in the road to the spot where the bones were found. The other officers and Kelsey Simon follow. It had rained earlier and the air is filled with the smell of damp earth and leaves and rain and it is very humid. One of the dangers someone warns them about before they go into the woods is poison ivy and poison oak; it is everywhere, they are told.
“Can you even have poison oak in Ohio?” someone asks.
“Leaves of three, leave them be,” Vitullo says before they head into the woods. Everyone makes a note to look in front of them to make sure there are no leaves of three and if there are, to leave them be.
The spot where the cloth is found is about maybe 20 yards from the road but is down a very steep embankment, so steep that the investigators have to grab onto tree branches to keep their footing. Simon keeps on a pair of plastic gloves as they walk. A shoe was found near the cloth and was marked by Bodnar with a makeshift evidence marker. Perkins takes a picture of it before he puts it in a paper bag with a gloved hand. They doubt the shoe belongs to the person whose bones they found because the amount of litter is off the charts, so to speak, but it is bagged just in case.
Someone asks how long they think the bones had been in the woods. Kelsey Simon looks thoughtful while she mulls it over before Bodnar offers his own estimate; it’s been at least a year, he says.
Kelsey Simon also makes note of the fact that the cloth was not very deep in the woods. She wonders if it was disposed of in the winter, when it is colder and perhaps harder to get around if there was a lot of snow on the ground.
Barber, Vitullo and Simon check the exact spot where the cloth was found, but they find nothing. As they look, the woman who found the bones comes to the scene and begins talking about her dog. She makes it known how much she misses Shiloh.
The three probe the spot for about half an hour, finding nothing, before deciding to quit for the evening. There is nothing more to do until next week, when an anthropologist from Youngstown State University will help them put the bones together, and hopefully, they can find out more about the person who was dumped someplace where they were not expected to be found.
NEXT: The Morgue.
AND ALSO: Detectives call it The Grind. They sometimes work 24 hours straight or more and get called out at strange hours. What are their lives like? Some of them reveal the answer.
These stories will be published daily this week on WKBN.com.