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Killer who tried to beat system set to die

Investigator says murder of a pregnant Joy Stewart was ‘personal to me.’

Had Joy Stewart never crossed paths with Dennis McGuire, the baby the newlywed carried would have turned 25 this year.

His name was to be Carl, according to their shared grave marker.

Instead, the milestone her family will mark today will be the execution of the man who brutally raped the nearly eight-month-pregnant expectant mother, cut her throat and left her body in the woods alongside Bantas Creek Road outside of Eaton.

“Her murderer destroyed more than one life that day,” says a letter from Stewart’s sister, Carol Avery, that was sent to the newspaper Wednesday. “It is time — past time — for him to pay for what he did to my sister.”

The case also had an effect on David Lindloff, the investigator for the Preble County Prosecutor’s Office who arrested Stewart’s killer.

“I’ve been involved in every (Preble County) homicide in the last 40 years,” he said. “They say they aren’t supposed to be personal. But that baby and that pregnant woman made it personal to me.”

In the quarter century since Stewart’s death, the family and Lindloff watched as McGuire tried repeatedly to beat the system. He attempted to pin the killing on several other men, and up to the last minute threw up numerous legal roadblocks to his execution. He finally admitted guilt in a letter to the governor last month, and is scheduled for lethal injection at 10 a.m. today at the state prison in Lucasville.

Stewart’s husband Kenny committed suicide before he was cleared of suspicion in the case. Her parents both passed away and are buried next to her at the Preble Memorial Gardens off of U.S. 35 between West Alexandria and Eaton. Her grave marker carries her maiden name, Morningstar.

“The grief of (Stewart’s murder) destroyed my parents,” her sister’s letter says. “They never fully recovered and both died know(ing) that her killer still lived.”

For many in the village of West Alexandria, the murder still resonates.

“I hate to see a man die, but he deserves what he gets for what he did to that child,” said Randall York, 58, as he got into his car outside the Village Carryout and Pizza.

The fateful day

Across Main Street from the carryout is the red brick building where the 22-year-old Stewart lived in a small efficiency apartment above a family-owned insurance business. Her husband of two months had a job hauling grain for local farms. He was at work the morning of Feb. 11, 1989, the last day she was seen alive.

That morning Stewart had breakfast with neighbors, then walked to some nearby businesses to get change for laundry, Lindloff recalls. Later she would get into a car with McGuire after he said he would get some marijuana for her, according to court testimony from McGuire’s brother-in-law, Jerry Richardson.

McGuire had been hired by Stewart’s friend, Chris Deaton, to clean ice out of the gutters of a two-story duplex where Deaton and his mother Juanita lived. McGuire may have been on the building’s roof when Stewart showed up at the home. Juanita Deaton told investigators that Stewart was talking with two strangers in a dark-colored vehicle, then said “she was going to catch a ride somewhere.”

Richardson testified that McGuire and Stewart came to his house that afternoon and that Stewart wanted marijuana. McGuire offered to get her some, and the two left in McGuire’s car. She was not seen alive again.

The following day — unseasonably warm for February — two hikers walking along Bantas Creek found Stewart’s body in a clump of trees maybe 10 yards from the road. Lindloff remembers she was wearing tangerine slacks, a tan coat and a yellow shirt that read, “I Love a Farmer.”

The shirt was soaked with blood.

Investigators determined that Stewart was raped and stabbed in the neck and throat. It wasn’t until three years later, however, that McGuire would be identified as the killer.

Lives cut short

Stewart’s life was one of struggles faced with optimism, her family recalls. She was born on Christmas Day and adopted when she was months old.

“Her birth name wasn’t Joy, but Joy is what our parents felt when this tiny baby girl entered our lives and stole our hearts,” her older sister wrote.

Stewart didn’t graduate from high school, and had been married before; her first pregnancy ended in the still-born birth of a son.

But in February 1989 she was expecting another baby, was newly married and “looking forward to so much,” her sister wrote.

“She was outgoing, always had a smile and a kind word for everyone,” the letter says. “Joy never met a stranger and trusted everyone.”

Criminal mastermind?

The murder investigation went cold quickly and may have remained unsolved had McGuire not cast suspicion on himself in an attempt to reduce his sentence in another crime.

Ten months after killing Stewart, McGuire was arrested and later sentenced to 15 years for kidnapping and assaulting a 15-year-old girl at knife point in Eaton. He tried to get his sentence reduced by pinning Stewart’s murder on Richardson, his brother-in-law.

This was a theme for McGuire, Lindloff recalls, describing McGuire as “dumb as a box of rocks,” but fancying himself a criminal mastermind. In fact, Lindloff met McGuire for the first time when McGuire attempted to collect reward money after implicating his uncle in an unsolved arson.

“He was a guy I identified right off the bat as playing both sides of the fence,” Lindloff said.

When investigators met with McGuire about his Richardson claim he wasn’t even on their radar. But Lindloff said McGuire knew details about the killing that had never been released in the press, and he seemed far too specific about the events of that day.

“Right then I’m thinking to myself, ‘Your brother-in-law didn’t do this,’” Lindloff said.

McGuire then led them to the murder weapon, hidden behind a beam in a hay loft at a horse barn north of Lewisburg. McGuire and Richardson had been hired to clean out the stalls at the barn.

McGuire’s claims that Richardson did the killing didn’t add up. And McGuire had told different versions of the story to police and fellow inmates, telling at least one inmate that he killed Stewart because he didn’t want to go to jail for raping a pregnant woman.

Lindloff, meanwhile, had been reading about a new field of DNA testing. In 1992, after Lindloff got permission to use some of the money seized in a drug bust for the then-expensive lab work, McGuire was tied through DNA testing to the Stewart murder.

Fearing a jury wouldn’t understand the evidence, the county prosecutor offered McGuire a plea bargain that would have spared his life. He refused, insisting he was innocent. A jury then found him guilty and recommended the death penalty.

“He’s a perfect candidate to be put to death,” Lindloff said. “I just wish I could be there to watch it.”

Belated confession

McGuire is the first of six executions scheduled in Ohio this year, and the first ever to use a lethal injection cocktail that replaces the hard-to-get pentobarbital that European manufacturers have held back for use in death cases.

He met with family and his spiritual leader Wednesday evening. He ordered a “last meal” of roast beef, fried chicken, a bagel with cream cheese, fried potatoes with onions, potato salad, butter pecan ice cream and a Coke.

McGuire did not want to die.

“I worry about it every day,” he told this newspaper in a 1995 jailhouse interview. “It bothered me so bad when I first came here, I was on medication.”

McGuire said his mother was “playing private eye,” talking to witnesses and trying to prove his innocence. He hadn’t seen his children, whose names and birthdates he has tattooed on his arms, since 1993.

At a later point, he tried to get another inmate who is known to confess to murders he didn’t commit to take responsibility for killing Stewart. That plan was thwarted when prison officials intercepted a letter about the plot.

McGuire finally admitted his guilt in a letter to Gov. John Kasich last month. In it, he claims he and Stewart were having an affair and they had an argument because she wanted him to leave his wife.

“We got into a very heated fight over it and she made me pull my car over and she jumped out and I went after her and she got so loud that I lost control and the next thing I knew I have taken her life,” the handwritten letter says, going on to plead for clemency.

McGuire’s story doesn’t match other evidence, including that the two had never met until the morning of the day she disappeared. The governor on Jan. 7 denied clemency for McGuire.

The clemency plea to Kasich was just one of several last-minute appeals.

One filing with the U.S. Supreme Court says the jury in his trial never heard about his chaotic childhood: that he was abused physcially and mentally and that he was so malnourished he had a distended stomach until he was 9 or 10 years old.

McGuire’s brother, Genis McGuire Jr., said in the pleading that he was never asked to testify about how their father was violent and abusive. Genis is currently in prison, one of two men found guilty of the 1995 murder of a Franklin convenience store clerk who refused to sell them beer.

Another 11th hour appeal, shot down by a federal judge Monday, argued that the never-tried execution method to be used on McGuire won’t properly sedate him and may cause him agony and terror.

Stewart’s family is unmoved by that concern.

“Joy bled to death in a cold field — alone and scared,” the letter from her sister says. “I try not to think about the terror she must have felt that day as McGuire forced himself on her, choked her, then stabbed her to death.”

“Sometimes I am successful.”

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