AKRON, Ohio — Richard Beasley is no saint. He’s also not a triple murderer, his attorney told a jury Monday.
The opening remarks by defense attorney James Burdon reflected the first public defense of Beasley, the self-proclaimed Akron minister and purported mastermind of the 2011 Craigslist killings.
Burdon urged a newly seated Summit County jury to reserve judgment on Beasley and consider the lack of direct evidence linking the 53-year-old to any of the three killings of men who answered the Internet ad for a bogus farmhand job in rural southeast Ohio.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, countered that Beasley is merely a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who preyed on down-on-their-luck men in need of work.
One of those victims is the state’s key witness, Scott Davis, a Stark County resident who answered the help-wanted ad and wound up being shot while visiting the rural site in November 2011.
It was only after Davis survived being shot that authorities learned of three other men who were killed after responding to a similar ad. The investigation led to the arrest of Beasley and his co-defendant, Stow teenager Brogan Rafferty.
Burdon, however, told jurors that Davis wasn’t targeted for murder. He implied instead that Beasley may have acted in self-defense during a “violent encounter” with Davis.
It was Davis’ identification of Beasley, along with computer and cellphone records linking Beasley to the ad, that led authorities to arrest the onetime street minister. Burdon said law enforcement followed the wrong path.
“He is not a saint. He has done a lot of things wrong in his life,” Burdon said of his client.
However, he said, Davis is accusing Beasley “of something he did not do.”
Among Beasley’s wrongdoings, Burdon said, was befriending members of two area motorcycle clubs with a reputation for violence. One of those friends, Burdon said, owns property near the site of the Davis shooting and the shallow graves of two other men.
Burdon did not accuse the bikers or anyone of the killings. He did, however, imply that Beasley’s personal links to the clubs might have led prosecutors to the wrong conclusion.
Burdon also referred to Beasley’s physical health and the 2006 work-related crash that led to his deteriorating physical condition. Beasley, as he has since his arrest, appeared in court seated in a wheelchair.
Defense attorneys are expected to suggest that Beasley was too fragile to kill three men and bury them in shallow graves.
Emily Pelphrey, an assistant Ohio attorney general, tried to expound in her opening statement about her theory that Beasley was a wolf in disguise. She was about one minute into her remarks when Burdon objected to the biblical reference.
“Beware the false prophet which comes to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves,” Pelphrey wrote, quoting a Bible verse on an overhead projector for jurors to see.
Judge Lynne Callahan granted Burdon’s objection, and Pelphrey took down the Bible verse and never spoke of it again. She also never referred by name to Rafferty, who could be called as a state’s witness.
Last year, prosecutors convicted Rafferty, 17, for his role in the shootings and Callahan sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
Instead of referencing the Bible, Pelphrey instead told jurors of the cellphone and computer evidence that authorities believe ties Beasley to the four victims. She unveiled new evidence of how Beasley assumed numerous names as well as the identity of Ralph Geiger, a homeless man whose body was found on the farmland in Noble County.
She showed jurors a job application in which Geiger’s name was used long after the 56-year-old man disappeared in August 2011. She also showed an identification card bearing Geiger’s name with a photograph that appeared to be Beasley.
In the job application, the worker gave the name of an Akron woman as an emergency contact. The woman is said to be a friend of Beasley and the same person prosecutors say Beasley wrote after his arrest in an effort to recover a wallet and computer belonging to one of the victims.
Police found the items buried in the woman’s backyard, just as a map allegedly drawn by Beasley showed.
“(Beasley) wanted a new identity and he got it,” Pelphrey said. “(But) he had to kill to get it.”
In all, three men died and a fourth was shot during a three-month span between August and November 2011. Geiger’s body was found in November on the same day the body of Timothy Kern, 47, of Massillon, was found in a wooded area near Rolling Acres Mall in Akron.
Authorities believe Kern was killed Nov. 13, 2011. The remains of David Pauley, another victim who answered the ad, were found in Noble County on Oct. 23, 2011.
During his own trial, Rafferty said he helped Beasley, a family friend, bury the men out of fear of the self-proclaimed religious man, who volunteered for a local church and acted as a minister for recovering addicts and prostitutes.
Rafferty said Beasley shot each of the four men in an effort to steal what little property they had.