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ASHLAND — The vacant duplexes are flanked by a gutted factory on one side and several churches on the other.Directly across the street, customers fold laundry, feed coins and gaze through windows at Fourth Street Laundry, the landmark used Sept. 13 by a...

Ashland residents horrified that jailed man may be serial killer

ASHLAND — The vacant duplexes are flanked by a gutted factory on one side and several churches on the other.Directly across the street, customers fold laundry, feed coins and gaze through windows at Fourth Street Laundry, the landmark used Sept. 13 by a...

Ashland residents horrified that jailed man may be serial killer

ASHLAND — The vacant duplexes are flanked by a gutted factory on one side and several churches on the other.

Directly across the street, customers fold laundry, feed coins and gaze through windows at Fourth Street Laundry, the landmark used Sept. 13 by a kidnapped woman who, during a 20-minute 911 call, guided Ashland police to her captor in a frantic whisper. Shawn M. Grate is charged with raping and murdering two women and is being investigated in the deaths of at least three others.

Residents in this college town of about 21,000 are struggling emotionally with the crimes that Ashland County Prosecutor Chris Tunnell called among the worst he has seen. “Given these depraved actions and the gruesome evidence, I will be strongly recommending the death penalty if a jury finds this defendant guilty,” he said through his office’s Twitter feed.

Grate, a 40-year-old drifter, career criminal and father of two, according to records, had a talent for woodworking and a penchant for picking up women in distress. Of his 100 Facebook friends, about 80 were young women.

He was indicted last week on 23 counts, including aggravated murder, kidnapping, rape, abuse of a corpse and burglary. He is in the Ashland County Jail in lieu of a $1 million cash bond.

Authorities are investigating Grate’s role in three additional deaths: two in Richland County and one in Marion. He allegedly confessed to two of those, including one involving the remains of a woman found behind a burned-out home in Richland County two weeks ago.

Flowers, cards and messages are piled in front of the Covert Court home where police say Grate kept the bodies of Stacey Stanley and Elizabeth Griffith: one on the second floor, the other in the basement. Authorities say he was asleep there on Sept. 13, unaware that the woman he had tied up in a first-floor bedroom had freed herself and was calling 911 with his cellphone.

Since then, cars drive by, and people leave those messages and flowers. Others ponder that a man accused of being a serial killer was in their midst. The Ashland University men’s cross-country team stopped during a training run; one runner knelt in prayer.

People want answers. Should Grate have been caught sooner? Should people have been more suspicious? Are other missing women possible victims?

“It is horrific,” said Dennis May, 39, who lives nearby. “In Ashland, Ohio. A small community. This guy kind of squeaked through everything.”

May recalled a visit this summer to his sister’s home in Stony Creek Apartments when Grate was playing badminton with Griffith.

“We were kind of creeped out by him,” he said.

Authorities are not releasing how the women died or Grate’s connection to other victims.

Stanley, 43, of Greenwich in Huron County, was last seen six days before her body was found. With a flat tire and no cash, she had asked Amado Herrera, who was buying beer, for help. He directed her to a BP station not far away that had free air.

“Being one of the last people to see her kind of messes with your head,” said Herrera, 44.

Griffith, 29, a longtime Ashland resident, had no car and frequently walked to get food or visit friends. She was reported missing weeks earlier, and posters were put up around town.

The Salvation Army’s Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center might have connected Grate to friends and possible victims of other crimes, said a worker not authorized to speak publicly.

A sign-in log showed that Grate was there as recently as this month, said Maj. Brett DeMichael, pastor of the center, where grief counselors were aiding workers who knew him.

“We’re devastated by the losses,” he said. “Could we have done more? You always feel like that."

At the crime scene, Bruce Wilkinson’s office window looks out at the vacant duplexes, about 100 yards away, where the last paying tenant left in February. His nonprofit Pump House Ministries had wanted to rehab the homes. Neither he nor any of his employees who cut the grass or checked the locks twice a week saw anything out of place.

Grate “hadn’t paid for a place in a long, long time, and was really good at what he did,” Wilkinson said, referring to his ability to sneak into and out of homes to squat there.

Griffith, 29, was generous and had a contagious smile, said Pastor Jim Norris of Eastgate Bible Church, which she had attended regularly the past two years.

The unnamed 911 caller also attended but had left the small church a couple of years ago.

Norris said the caller had befriended Grate. “They were friends, and she was trying to help him with his faith.”

Norris now tells his small congregation: “We all believe that there was evil in our community the past two weeks. ... We can only hope that this brings more unity. We’re all in this together, and we can’t fight it alone.”

Ashland officials want to help.

“It cripples the whole community,” said Ashland Mayor Glen P. Stewart, who serves as safety director. “We thought that this happens in other towns.”

Stewart, who has attended vigils for both women, said he’s struck by the community’s reaction. Healing, he said, is already beginning, but slowly.

“It’s very difficult to accept what’s happened, that we’ve replaced our label of someplace special with nice people ... by a nasty situation.”

dnarciso@dispatch.com

@DeanNarciso

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