ELYRIA — Perry Strader, the key witness linking Bobbie New to the 1976 slaying of Dorothy Spencer, said Thursday he can’t fathom why a county judge threw out the murder charge against his uncle during a hearing earlier this week.
“I don’t understand how a man can let somebody walk when they think they’re guilty,” Strader said.
Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge said before dismissing the charge that he was convinced that New, now 70, was the one who killed Spencer, but the passage of time had left witnesses dead and made it impossible for New to mount a fair defense against the allegations leveled against him.
Spencer, 45, was found beaten and shot in the head in her Camden Township trailer on March 14, 1976, and died three days later. New, who had an on-again, off-again relationship with Spencer, was long considered the prime suspect, but refused to cooperate with investigators.
A county grand jury declined to indict him in 1976 and the case went cold until Strader approached county Sheriff’s deputies in 2010 following the death of his mother. He told deputies that New came to his parents’ house that night more than three decades ago and confessed to beating and shooting Spencer.
The family helped New cover up his involvement in the killing and his now-deceased parents, Ezra and Zula Strader, lied to the grand jury about what happened that night, Strader said. Despite a rift between the Straders and New, the family kept their dark secret for years.
Strader said they were wracked with guilt over their complicity and before his mother died, he told her he was going to come forward to deputies. Although his mother was bedridden and could barely speak, he said she approved of his decision.
“She smiled, squeezed my hand and was able to say, ‘Good,’ ” Strader, 54, said.
After he told deputies what he had done, Strader agreed to call New on a recorded line and tell him a fabricated story of a letter his mother had written detailing the cover-up. During the call, New reportedly said he always feared his sister would do something like that and told his nephew not to show the letter to anyone.
Prosecutors have argued that New never denied killing Spencer during his conversations with Strader.
Strader said he felt he had to right the old wrong, even if meant going against his uncle, who he fears might seek retribution against him.
“Her family deserves closure, just like what’s left of my family does,” Strader said.
Lynette Burgess, Spencer’s daughter, said she and her family are grateful for what Strader is trying to do, but she also understands why he remained silent for so long. He was protecting his family, she said.
“I know he’s struggled for 30 years and he had to,” Burgess said. “He’s a better man than Bobbie New.”
Burgess and her family have long been convinced that New, whom they have accused of abusing Spencer, was responsible for killing the mother of three.
She said she was disappointed in Burge’s decision to dismiss the case against New and sobbed when the judge announced his ruling on Wednesday. She said she was angry at first, but now just feels numb.
If Burge was following the law, and Burgess said she doesn’t doubt the judge believed he was doing the right thing, then it was a technicality that prevented the justice she has long sought for her mother. She said she doesn’t hold any ill will toward Burge.
“I guess he had to do what he had to do,” she said. “I didn’t like it.”
Lanata Parson, Burgess’ cousin, said she too wasn’t pleased with Burge’s decision, which came as a surprise.
“We were quite confident with all the evidence that surely, surely there would be a different verdict,” Parson said.
Burge said during Wednesday’s hearing that he too felt the evidence against New was strong and he had no doubt if the case had gone to trial decades ago, New would have been convicted. But he also said he believed the original investigation was mishandled, allowing New to avoid prosecution for years.
Burgess also said she was unhappy with how the original investigation was handled, but the renewed investigation had given her hope at the same time it forced her to relive the death of her mother in vivid detail. If there wasn’t going to be a conviction, she said she almost wished the case had never been reopened.
“I went on with life and now it’s like it’s yesterday,” she said.
New’s lawyers, who did not return calls seeking comment, have called the investigation botched and argued that prosecutors waited to bring charges until many of the witnesses, including Strader’s parents, who would have testified on New’s behalf, were dead.
The defense attorneys have argued that New was at a bar called the Honky Tonk when Spencer was beaten and shot, and a bartender there testified to that effect during an earlier hearing. She said she and other bar patrons were with New from late March 13, 1976, until breakfast the next day.
County Prosecutor Dennis Will has said his office likely will appeal Burge’s ruling, a legal maneuver Strader, Burgess and Parson all said they hope is successful.
“I don’t care what your age is,” Strader said. “Just because you did it when you’re younger doesn’t mean you shouldn’t answer for it.”
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or email@example.com.