LORAIN - A Lorain man who saw murder charges dropped against him Thursday has left town, fearing for his safety, his attorney said.
Mike Duff declined to say where Marlo Sanford, 20, has gone.
Sanford had been accused in the June 22 shooting of 16-year-old Christopher Hill, who was shot as he sat in a parked car at the cormer of Long Avenue and West 18th Street. Hill was shot in the face and died the next day in a Cleveland hospital.
Police arrested Sanford on June 27 at Duff's Lorain office after witnesses told detectives that he was the shooter.
Those witnesses refused to testify before a county grand jury that could have indicted Sanford before a scheduled preliminary hearing Thursday in Lorain Municipal Court. Instead of a preliminary hearing, prosecutors instead used the hearing to drop the murder charge, retaining the right to refile it in the future.
Sanford was released from the Lorain County Jail, where he had been held on a $2.5 million bond, Thursday night.
Lorain police Sgt. Mark Carpentiere said he believes the witnesses refused to testify because they feared retaliation from Sanford or his friends and family. Sanford remains a suspect in the case, he said.
With the witnesses refusing to testify, police are waiting for the results of tests on forensic evidence and looking for additional witnesses, he said.
This isn't the first time investigations have been hampered by witnesses refusing to testify because of either fear of reprisals or because of a street code against snitching, Carpentiere said.
"We can make them appear, but we can't make them talk," he said.
Trying to force a witness to testify could work against investigators later, Carpentiere said, because if the witness tells a different story in front of the grand jury than what he told police, it could put a case in jeopardy.
"A defense attorney could argue they made it up," Carpentiere said.
County Prosecutor Dennis Will said he couldn't comment on the specifics of the Sanford case, but in general a witness could refuse to testify because he feared incriminating himself.
A witness who didn't testify for another reason could be held in contempt of court, if prosecutors were able to convince a judge to do so, Will said.
Duff said Sanford had nothing to do with Hill's death.
"I think anyone who says Marlo was involved is a liar," he said.
Duff also said that if police and prosecutors were so confident in the case, they could have locked up the witnesses who had offered Sanford as a suspect until they testified before the grand jury.
"They could hold them as material witnesses until they testify," he said. "They've done it before."
But Will said he's only seen that done once before during his career, which included a long stint as an Elyria police officer before he became county prosecutor.
"It's an involved process and area of last resort because you're going to restrict them and lock them up," he said. "It's a pretty extreme measure."
Prosecutors would also have to convince a judge to hold a person as a material witness, Will said.
Police also are continuing to investigate two other shootings that took place around the same time Hill was killed, including the shooting death of 18-year-old Marquis McCall. McCall was shot in the chest on June 22, five blocks from where Hill was shot.
Police have not said whether the shootings are connected.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.