Punishment looming

MORRISTOWN – When Donald Lester “Duke” Palmer, 46, was sentenced to the death penalty last week by the Ohio Supreme Court, the former Belmont County sheriff in charge of the 1989 case had “mixed emotions.”

“I always kind of thought the other defendant was the more guilty of the two,” Tom McCort said Saturday afternoon while leafing through a photo album containing numerous stories about the double-murder which occurred north of Martins Ferry.

McCort was referring to Palmer’s co-defendant, Edward Allen Hill. The two were found guilty of shooting Steven R. Vargo, 41, and Charles W. Sponhaltz, 43, in early May, just over 22 years ago.

Hill was sentenced to a pair of life terms in prison, while Palmer was sentenced to 26 years in prison on Oct. 26, 1989, by Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Knapp. The sentence was later to add the possibility of the death penalty.

“I was starting to think that he (Palmer) was going to outlive me,” said Knapp, who is now 87. “It was an easy case to try because he took the stand against his attorney’s advice and admitted his guilt.”

“I always felt that he showed genuine remorse,” McCort said of Palmer, who was 24 at the time of the murders. Hill is a year younger.

Following the shootings, which took place on County Road 2 (Deep Run Road) just off Ohio 647 near the Belmont-Jefferson County line, Palmer and Hill fled to their apartment in Columbus.

McCort said his department received a tip of their whereabouts and traveled to Columbus and arrested the pair without incident on May 16..

“With the help of the Columbus Police Department’s homicide division, we were able to apprehend the pair and take them in for questioning,” McCort went on. “The first thing we noticed were the shoes that Hill had on matched footprints left at the scene of the crimes. The size and tread were perfect matches.”

But, according to McCort, Hill denied everything.

The former sheriff noted that while transporting Palmer back to the eastern Ohio is when he started to confess.

“We separated them on the way home. Neither of them said much during the interrogations. Nothing that we could really use.”

While driving the car Palmer was riding in, McCort described the prisoner as “a basket case. We were half way home and he started crying and saying some things. Then he kind of clammed up.”

McCort recalled telling both individuals that if they ever wanted to talk to him with their attorneys, he would listen.

“I don’t even think Mr. Palmer was done in booking when he told the jailer he wanted to talk to the sheriff. He (Palmer) took us out to where some of the evidence was, such as wallets and the firearm that was used.

“His attorney was with us the entire time and told him not to say anything else, but he told his attorney to shut up, that he couldn’t keep quiet anymore.”

McCort said Palmer even took them to the clothes that he had been wearing on the night of the murders.

“To me, he was very cooperative in the investigation,” McCort allowed. “He was a model prisoner, while Mr. Hill was always uncooperative and very belligerent.

“I understand how the family feels,” McCort said of the Palmers. “I was always hoping that he would be commuted to life without parole, but that didn’t happen.”

In fact, McCort’s belief that Hill was the guiltier of the two came from the fact Hill had some type of issue with Vargo, which prompted his murder.

McCort said, through the investigation, that Vargo was shot first. Hill and Palmer were placing Vargo’s body in the bed of his own pickup truck when Sponhaltz just happened by.

“He stopped to see if he could help and that’s when Hill directed Palmer to shoot him as well,” McCort said. “It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

McCort described Sponhaltz as a huge man with a huge heart. “He was just trying to see if he could help someone in distress.”

Newspaper reports from the trial said that Sponhaltz had just delivered some chairs and tables that he had borrowed from the Polish Club on Nixon’s Run Road. He had also stopped at a bar and had a couple of drinks before heading home. Vargo, meanwhile, was on his way home to Mount Pleasant to take his stepson to a ballgame. Neither made it.

The Mt. Pleasant VFD received a call at 5:25 p.m. on May 8 that a body was lying near the side of the road. That’s when Vargo’s body was discovered. A little more than two hours later, according to reports, Sponhaltz’s body was found one mile from Vargo’s.

While McCort had mixed emotions over the recent ruling, two family members of Sponhaltz’s weren’t so lenient.

“I felt it should’ve been done a long time ago,” daughter-in-law Marjorie Sponhaltz said via telephone last week. “I’ve always believed in an eye-for-an-eye. This family has gone through pure hell for all these years.”

A sister-in-law, Charlene Farkas, who resides in Virginia, said. “I’ve got a lot of feelings, but I’m glad it’s coming to an end.”

Belmont County Prosecutor Chris Berhalter had the following comments.

“Nearly 23 years of appeals is unacceptable. I can’t imagine what the victims’ families have endured from the loss of their loved ones, but I understand the need to make sure of the guilt before the ultimate penalty is carried out.”

Palmer’s execution date by lethal injection was scheduled by the state’s highest court for Sept. 20, 2012, but Berhalter indicated that a clemency hearing will be scheduled prior to that.

“My office will be present,” Berhalter said of the hearing, which could come a month before the execution. “It will be one last chance at life for this defendant, something his victims didn’t get.”

North can be reached at knorth@timesleaderonline.com