Murder suspects in court

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – Two suspects were arraigned Thursday for the murder of a 92-year-old Bellaire woman in late June and face the possibility of the death penalty for the crime.

After a special Wednesday session of the Belmont County grand jury, Devin Wayne Fuller, 19, 3567 Franklin St., Bellaire, and Brandon Michael Phelps, 20, 1281 Birch St., Bellaire, each pleaded not guilty to four counts of aggravated murder, committed in the course of rape, of aggravated burglary, of burglary and of trespassing. Each count carries a death penalty specification. Both face two additional counts of trespassing.

Fuller’s status conference was set for Oct. 26. His plea agreement deadline was set for Nov. 30. Trial was set for Dec. 17.

Phelps will have his pre-trial Nov. 5. His plea agreement deadline is Dec. 3. Trial is Dec. 11.

The crimes are alleged to have taken place June 29-30. The victim, Lydia Ashworth, was found dead in her home.

Public Defender Joseph Vavra represented Fuller. Public Defender Frank Pierce represented Phelps. Belmont County Prosecutor Chris Berhalter and Assistant Prosecutor Helen Yonak represented the state.

Judge John M. Solovan II presided.

In both cases, Berhalter asked for and was granted a bond of $1 million for each.

“This defendant stands accused of breaking into Ms. Ashworth’s home for the purpose of robbing her,” he said in Fuller’s case. “He also stands accused of raping her and murdering her. If these allegations are true, then he poses a serious threat to the public.”

He said the same of Phelps.

Solovan added that the state public defender will be appointed as lead council and second chair for Fuller’s case. Lead council for the defense will be appointed in Phelps’ case. Belmont County public defenders will serve as second chair in Phelps’ case. Solovan noted that Pierce and Public Defender Eric Costine are in the process of obtaining certification to provide council in a death penalty case.

“When you’re looking at the possibility of imposing the most severe sanction that the state of Ohio can impose, there is a requirement that the attorneys representing the defendants have and receive additional training as well as have additional experience,” Berhalter said afterward.

Berhalter added that this will be the third death penalty case during his tenure.

The investigation remains open.

“The investigation of this unthinkable crime is moving forward,” said Bellaire Police Chief Mike Kovalyk. “We ask that you keep the family of Lydia Ashworth in your thoughts are prayers.”

DeFrank can be reached at rdefrank@timesleader