The Ashland County Killer
The nightmare phone call leading to Shawn Grate's capture lasted 20 minutes before help arrived.
Shawn Grate via Ashland County Sheriff’s Office
Shawn Grate had a long history of violence, but his good looks and charisma meant he charmed everyone he met. He was known as a ‘nice guy’, and that’s what made him even more deadly.
On the 16th of August 2016, Elizabeth Griffith disappeared from a car park in Ashland, Ohio. According to CCTV, the 29-year-old was shopping in Walmart at the time of her abduction, and from there, her movements are unknown.
The local media picked up Elizabeth’s story, but the police did very little about her disappearance. Stacey Stanley’s disappearance was handled similarly.
The 43-year-old went missing less than a month later, in September 2016, but police did little to help find her because of her history with drugs.
Stacey went missing after she stopped at a petrol station. She’d got a flat tyre, so she called her sister to ask her or another family member to come and help. While they were on the phone, trying to devise a plan, her sister heard a man offer her his assistance, which she took.
Stacey had been drug-free for six months and had begun to get her life back on track. The grandmother had recently moved to Greenwich, around a 20-minute drive from Ashland, but would still call her sister to catch up with her every day.
The day after Stacey went missing, her family knew something was wrong and immediately contacted the police. Because of Stacey’s run-ins with police in the past, they assumed she’d gone to get high somewhere, and despite an official missing person’s report being filed, they did little to aid in the search. When police eventually found Stacey’s car, a few roads from the petrol station, with her purse still inside.
Without help from law enforcement, the family made flyers and went door to door, asking residents if they’d seen anything that night. No witnesses were found, but the family began to notice activity in abandoned houses nearby as days passed. They again asked the police to help and called on them to search the derelict properties, but they refused to investigate the buildings. The media didn’t pick up Stacey’s disappearance, and apart from a few people, no one knew she was missing.
Help from the police would come too late for Stacey and Elizabeth, but for one woman, it came just in time.
On the 13th of September, ‘Jane Doe’ called 911 to report her own abduction. The call, which lasted 20 minutes, was made from an abandoned house that Grate had broken into and was now living in, with ‘Jane’ as his captive.
Via Law & Crime YouTube
The woman who’d regarded Grate as an older brother had been imprisoned by him from the 11th of September to the early hours of the 13th. During that time, he’d beaten and raped her continuously.
The 38-year-old managed to free herself from her bindings and take Grate’s phone to call emergency services, but as she quietly told the operator where she was, the situation was quickly realised. Her abductor was asleep next to her.
“Oh shit. Oh shit, I just woke him up,” she breathed into the phone before going silent.
Grate had set traps in the room, specifically around the door in the bedroom, so that she couldn’t escape. He’d also taken the outside doorknob off, so no one could get into the property from the street.
Jane Doe told the operator where she was being held and that she couldn’t leave the room, “He can catch me and he’s strong”, she said, but the operator stayed with her as the police zeroed in on her location.
When officers arrived at the house, they couldn’t get inside as there wasn’t a doorknob, but they eventually managed to get the door open and arrest her attacker, who was still asleep in the bedroom.
Shawn Grate was taken into custody, and a search of the house began, where horrific scenes greeted officers.
In the basement of the abandoned property, a body was found hidden under a pile of rubbish bags. Lying face down on the floor, she’d started to decompose, but she still had identification on her. The body was that of 43-year-old Stacey Stanley.
A search of the upper levels of the property found a wardrobe that had been taped shut. Inside was the deteriorating body of another woman, hogtied with ropes. She was unidentifiable at first glance due to decomposition, but dental records later identified her as 29-year-old Elizabeth Griffith.
363 Covert Court via Wikimedia Commons
The serial killer
Shawn Grate was born in 1976, and several weeks after his 18th birthday, he was arrested for domestic violence against the mother of his child. By 1999, he’d been arrested for choking the other mother of his child and for threatening her and her sister with a butcher’s knife when they attempted to leave. In 2000, he pleaded guilty to the abduction and spent three years in prison.
In 2011, Grate met Amber Bowman at church, and the pair got married and had a child together. Their marriage was short-lived and after a year, they’d divorced. By 2012, Amber had filed an order of protection against her ex-husband
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Grate’s mother said, “Yes, he’s good looking, but the Devil’s good looking, too. He ain’t no red horns and all that stuff. You find out he’s charming, and of course that charm can charm the pants off anybody.”
At the station, Grate had begun to talk brazenly about his crimes. He believed that the abducted women’s brains were empty, and he’d only taken their bodies. He told investigators that ‘Jane’ had been taken to become his wife, and he believed that she was there of her own accord. He claimed he never planned to kill her, unlike the others.
He rambled about his crimes for hours, but the conversation soon took a turn when Grate began to speak about other murders he’d committed.
The other missing women
He told police of another body, and he led them to the yard of a burned house in Richland county. They found the body of Candice Cunningham, one of Grate’s previous girlfriends, buried in a shallow grave.
Candice had issues with drugs, and when she told her mother that she was moving to North Carolina, she didn’t expect to hear from her daughter for a while. Candice had dated Grate earlier that year, and according to a Facebook status, they may have been married.
Soon after, Grate told investigators about another body. This time, the body had already been found in March 2015. Rebekah Leicy had been discovered in a wooded area off of County Road 1908, but at the time, police believed she’d died from an overdose. She, too, had a history with drugs, and her disappearance hadn’t been taken seriously by police at the time, either.
Grate met Rebekah in a bar, where they drank and played pool together. During their session, Rebekah stole four dollars from Grate, and he strangled her for the theft and disposed of her body.
The bodies were beginning to mount up, but Grate had one more to admit to.
In 2007, a body was found in Marion County, Ohio. Her identity was unknown for 12 years before Grate told investigators where to find his- apparent - first victim.
The woman was a door-to-door magazine saleswoman, and one day in 2005, she knocked on the door of Grate’s mother’s home. Grate was still living with his mother, who bought a subscription, but for whatever reason, the magazines never arrived.
By chance or choosing, Grate saw the woman in town sometime after the subscription purchase and told her of his mother’s magazines not arriving. Grate offered to buy another subscription and lured her away from crowds to abduct her.
When Grate told investigators about this murder, he couldn’t remember the woman’s name, but in June 2019, the DNA Doe Project became involved in the case, and she was identified as the 23-year-old mother of two, Dana Lowrey.
Grate initially pleaded guilty by reason of insanity, but in April 2017, the plea was withdrawn. The case was brought to trial at Ashland County Common Pleas Court a year later and lasted two weeks. Grate was brought up against 23 charges in total but only pleaded guilty to 15 of them.
Five mobile phones were found in the house, and two of them seemingly belonged to Grate. On the phones, forensics found videos of Grate sexually assaulting ‘Jane Doe’ and Stacey Stanley. On the video, Stacey told Grate, “You told me I could leave,” before an audible struggle was heard.
‘Jane Doe’ also took to the stand to tell the jury of her ordeal with Grate.
“He was kind of goofy, but he struck me as kind,” she said and told the court that he’d assaulted her ‘every way imaginable’. She recounted that he’d tied her to the bed and in different positions, raping her continuously throughout the day and a half that he held her captive.
On Monday the 7th of May 2018, Shawn Grate was found guilty of the murders of Stacey Stanley and Elizabeth Griffith, and he was sentenced to death. On the 1st of March 2019, Grate pleaded guilty to the murders of Rebekah Leicy and Candice Cunningham and received a life sentence with no parole plus 17 additional years to life for other charges. Six months later, Grate pleaded guilty to Dana Lowrey’s murder and again received a life sentence without parole, plus 16 years in prison.
Shawn Grate still resides in Chillicothe Correctional Institution, where he will live until his execution. In December 2020, Grate lost his death sentence appeal at the Ohio Supreme Court but has recently appointed a new lawyer to reopen his death penalty case.