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Ohio Man, 74, Accused of Wife's Murder, May Become State's Oldest Death Row Inmate

Her father waits behind a glass wall, clothed in the jail standard gray-and-white striped shirt and pants. He has tidied up some since their last visit: What's left of his thinning hair has been trimmed, and his face is clean of stubble.

Debby Crabtree approaches the row of prisoners. They are seated in small glass pods — like telephone booths, she thinks. The inmates have just 30 minutes to connect with the outside world before the guards will lead them away.

"I wanted to know, was he OK, was he getting his medications?" Crabtree explains. "You know, things you would want to know about your dad. It's almost as if he were in a hospital."

Instead, her father, 74-year-old David Evans Sr., is one of the oldest souls locked up in the Scioto County Jail. If convicted at trial in January, he could become one of the oldest people ever sentenced to death in Ohio.

The story of how Evans got here began decades ago, when he was just a teenager who fell head-over-heels in love and married his high school sweetheart. Together they raised an old-fashioned farming family, tilling land in a lush valley of southern Ohio.

But now his wife, Carol Evans, is gone — and police say he hired someone to kill her. Day by day, memory by memory, their eldest daughter looks into the past and struggles to understand what might has happened.

"By the time it all settles out, I've lost my mom, I've lost my dad," Crabtree says, fighting back tears. "I've never seen my father as a person capable of this kind of evil."

Dave Evans has pleaded not guilty to murder, aggravated murder and conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, among other charges.

During these fleeting jail visits, Crabtree, 55, does not dwell on what she calls the ugliness.

"Over the years," she observes later, "love and hate can get mixed up."

She tries to forget how, on a sunny morning in March, she drove along a road rimmed with cornstalks to the sand-colored farmhouse where she grew up. She tries to forget climbing the staircase to her mother's bedroom, and the sight of her mother's body, strangled with an extension cord.

Crabtree takes a seat on a stool facing the window and picks up the phone.

———

The man came alone, and he had a key.

A few hours before dawn on March 26, he slipped inside the house where Carol Evans was sleeping.

Spotless as usual, the brown-paneled home bore signs of her orderly routine — shoes laid out neatly in front of the couch, suitcase packed for an upcoming trip.

At the foot of the stairs, arranged in a perfect row in order of age, hung the photographs of her five children: Dave Jr., Debby, Mike, Randy and Ellen.

"She used to tell people that she would pray for her kids in order at night," Crabtree says. "And sometimes she fell asleep before she got to Randy, and she felt bad about that."

Her assailant climbed the stairs. When police arrived, they found closet doors ajar, blankets and sheets pulled from shelves and tossed around the upstairs hallway.

The man stole a revolver and a lockbox containing cash and jewelry. The gun and some of the jewelry were later recovered.

Left untouched was the display case filled with Carol Evans' prized collection of elephant figurines: elephants made of glass and brass, some with their trunks raised to the sky, for good luck.

The crime rattled this town of about 6,000 people where murders are rare, according to Lt. John Manering of the Jackson County sheriff's office.

Carol Evans was a gracious, well-respected former high school principal, and the family name is prominent locally. There's the Evans Center, a downtown strip mall, and the Evans-owned Chevron gas station, which shut down last fall. And there's the Evans farmland, more than 900 acres of it, trampled by cattle and hogs, planted with corn and soybeans.

The clan is among a fading breed of farming families here. They work and play together — aunts, uncles and cousins included. They go to high school football games, cook Sunday dinners. They've always lived this way, Crabtree says, only they used to congregate at her mother's house.

"One time at Myrtle Beach last summer, a lady came up and asked if she could take a picture of us because she could see that we were four generations of women," she said. "She just thought that was wonderful."

But the investigation into her mother's death led police to the center of the family. On June 9, police arrested Dave Evans Sr.

"He was a prime suspect from the beginning," says Jackson County Sheriff John Shasteen. "As for motive, as far as I'm concerned it's just pure greed. He wanted all the assets, all the money."

———

He was a football player, she was a cheerleader. They were picture-perfect sweethearts, their images sealed forever in the pages of their high school yearbook: the broad-shouldered, athletic boy and the pretty, dark-haired girl.

Dave Evans and Carol Miller got married on March 1, 1952, when she was president of the junior class and he was a senior at Oak Hill High School, a few miles outside of Jackson. Nine months later, their first child was born.

"They were just young and crazy in love," Crabtree says.

They had four more babies, purchased a large plot of farmland and set about raising their children. Carol Evans would drive a tractor while her sons helped their father in the fields.

She went back to school and steadily climbed the ranks as an educator. Her husband farmed and ran a string of successful small businesses.

"He liked to start things and watch them grow," Crabtree says. "And then move on to the next thing."

Their land holdings grew, and so did the family's assets. At the time of Carol's death, the couple's revocable trust was worth at least $1 million. Her life insurance policy amounted to $500,000.

But as the years passed and the children grew up, the marriage began to disintegrate.

"I knew there were times maybe Dave and Carol had marital problems," says Mayor Randy Heath. "It's not a big town. Everybody talks."

The courts documented their fractured relationship. Dave Evans filed for divorce in 1984. They remarried 10 years later. Four months after that, he filed for divorce again.

"I mean, what can you say?" Crabtree says. "We used to joke about it. `Does anyone know if Mom and Dad are married right now?"'

They remarried for the last time in 1996.

Her father was the driving force behind each divorce, Crabtree says.

"My mom never left. She stayed at the farm," she said. "My mom has always been the heart of the family. She has always been his rock."

In the weeks before the slaying, Dave Evans spent most nights in his apartment downtown. But Carol still looked after him, arranging his medications — aftereffects of a debilitating stroke in 2006 — in small pill containers so that he wouldn't forget to take them, Shasteen says.

"Dave was a hard-working man who made some very bad decisions," says county Prosecutor Jonathan Blanton.

"At what point do you make a decision that your wife ought to be dead?" he asks. "That's the $64,000 question. When did this seem like a good idea?"

———

Sometime during the summer of 2007, police say Dave Evans Sr. began offering money for the killing of his wife.

At the time, according to authorities, he was having a relationship with a 28-year-old named Heather Speakman. She was a drug addict who often ran into trouble with the law, police say. Her criminal record lists charges ranging from petty theft to assault. Her mother, Rhonda Bailey, ran the Evans Chevron station.

"When Heather was in jail, that was the first time we really suspected something," Crabtree says. "Someone told us Dad went to visit her."

Her father was behaving strangely — taking phone calls from strange people, handing out money to people who couldn't pay him back, Crabtree says. Speakman later told police that Evans gave her more than $100,000, but denied having a sexual relationship with him.

Privately, the family wondered if Evans had fully recovered from the stroke, suffered as he was climbing into the back of a pickup truck. They wondered if he might be getting himself into some kind of trouble. It never occurred to them, Crabtree says, that their mother might be in danger.

Police say the scheme to kill Carol Evans dragged on for months.

The turning point came on March 19, a week before her death. Speakman introduced Evans to a friend of hers: Terry Vance, 30, who had been convicted years earlier of drug possession.

Vance agreed to kill Carol Evans for $50,000, police say. To facilitate the crime, Dave Evans Sr. obtained a 1999 Mazda Protege and a key to the house, Manering says.

Arrests came in quick succession.

Vance and Speakman struck deals, pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, among other charges, and agreeing to testify against Evans. Vance later confessed to the slaying but was sentenced to 18 years in prison on the original charges, Blanton says.

A third person, 49-year-old Randy Faught, pleaded guilty to extortion and was sentenced to five years in prison. Authorities say Faught blackmailed Evans and threatened to expose the alleged plot to police.

Blanton says all three — rooted in Jackson's illicit drug scene — accepted money to kill Carol Evans at some point during the past two years.

"No one came forward and gave police the opportunity to stop this — in spite of all the knowing," Blanton says.

Evans' attorney, Rick Faulkner, insists that his client is not guilty.

Crabtree says the notion that her father could have arranged her mother's death for the money is incomprehensible. Her siblings declined to be interviewed.

"If it's about numbers, there's always been a lot of money," she says. "I can't reconcile that."

As the days grow shorter in southern Ohio and Crabtree watches autumn bleed into winter, every day brings a new reminder of her mother's absence.

Crabtree's daughter Sarah, who says her grandmother was her best friend, is adamant that this tragedy will not define the family's legacy.

"It's so far from what our family is and has ever been and ever will be," says the 31-year-old law student. "It's not my Grandma's legacy, I know that for sure."

But as family members wait for this chapter to be committed to history, they struggle to make sense of it.

"It's not all about my dad, for lack of a better word, losing his mind and coming up with a plan to do away with Mom," Crabtree says. "He wasn't going to replace Mom with Heather Speakman."

She pauses, thinking.

"But maybe it'll be just this simple. Maybe it'll be exactly what they say it is."