August 22, 2014

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Police: Death staged to look like suicide

AVON LAKE — Michael Gabel’s death three years ago was staged to look like a suicide, but following a lengthy investigation Avon Lake police now believe his estranged wife suffocated him with plastic wrap.

Jeane Harrington, who was arrested Thursday on a murder charge, admitted to police that she used a stun gun on Gabel during a physical altercation the couple had the night before she reported finding his body on Aug. 16, 2011, Avon Lake Police Chief Duane Streator said Friday.

The argument appears to have centered on the couple’s financial woes, which included mounting debts and the loss of their home to foreclosure, Streator said. The couple’s home at 33400 Karen Drive was sold at sheriff’s sale the day after Gabel died.

Streator said Harrington, 56, told police that following a verbal argument, she left the den where Gabel mostly lived and retrieved the stun gun. The argument turned physical on both sides, he said, and Harrington told police she used the stun gun on her 55-year-old husband.

Streator said Harrington had a small cut on a finger the day she reported her husband dead.

She told police that after the altercation ,she left the room and heard Gabel use the bathroom around 2 a.m., but didn’t see him again until she discovered his body.

“I just came home from the store and it looks like my husband is deceased,” Harrington told Avon Lake police during an 11:30 a.m. 911 call on the day Gabel died.

Her voice broke as she gave her name and inquired about what to do about the couple’s then-11-year-old son, who was in another room of the house.

She then went on to describe the scene, saying that there was plastic wrap around Gabel’s head and that he was cold to the touch. A roll of the plastic wrap, which Streator said was of the size used in restaurants, was on the floor near the couch where Gabel’s body was found.

Harrington told the dispatcher that Gabel had received letters from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and a debt collector seeking a total of around $33,000.

She also told the dispatcher that Gabel had left behind a one-line note.

Chief Deputy Lorain County Coroner Frank Miller said the note was typewritten, but had been signed by hand. He said the note is a key piece of evidence in the case.

Miller said he estimates that Gabel died around 3 a.m., but that time could be off by an hour or two on either side. He said Gabel died of asphyxia from the plastic wrap that covered his entire head, including his nose and mouth.

He said Gabel also had a split lip and bruising on the inside of his mouth, a little bruising on his scalp and some scrapes on his chest and legs. Gabel also had at least eight sets of contact burns from a stun gun, most of which were found on his chest, Miller said.

Miller classified Gabel’s death as undetermined, but Streator said police don’t believe it was a suicide.

“Our investigation supported the fact that suicide in this manner was very unusual and that the crime scene was possibly staged to look like a suicide, so our investigation proceeded from there,” Streator said.

He said although Harrington gave her initial story to police, she has retained a lawyer and has stopped cooperating. He said she came to the Avon Lake Police Department on Thursday at the request of officers, but she didn’t know she would be arrested on the murder charge when she arrived.

The couple’s son is now in the custody of Harrington’s son from a previous marriage, Streator said. The boy told police he wasn’t aware of anything that happened the night his father died, the chief said.

Streator said the couple, who court records show married in 1999 and sought a divorce in 2005 before reconciling in 2006, had a troubled relationship.

“(The investigation showed) their relationship was very strained and that she had no problems telling people how much she disliked and had disdain for her husband,” he said.

Court records indicate that Gabel, who worked as a car salesman at Pat O’Brien Chevrolet and as a clerk at the GetGo gas station in Avon, had substantial gambling debts around the time of the couple’s divorce proceedings. Streator said police found no evidence that Gabel had gambling debts at the time of his death.

Avon Lake police also had been called to the home for domestic disturbances between Harrington and Gabel on multiple occasions, but neither appears to have been arrested in connection with those incidents.

Louis and Geneva Nadasdi, who have lived on Karen Drive for approximately 30 years, recalled the police coming out to the quiet cul-de-sac because of disputes between Gabel and Harrington several times.

Geneva Nadasdi said she recalled Harrington complaining about her husband’s gambling, but in general she thought of both Harrington and Gabel as nice people.

Harrington was unemployed at the time of Gabel’s death, but she had been selling miscellaneous things on eBay, and Streator said police found numerous items wrapped in the same plastic wrap used to kill her husband.

Streator said police are still investigating if there was a life insurance policy on Gabel and, if so, if Harrington collected any money.

Harrington is being held without bond in the Lorain County Jail and is due in Avon Lake Municipal Court for an initial appearance on July 16.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.