Less than a year after wrapping up the latest murder trial in Morgan County Common Pleas Court, the prosecutor's office is busily preparing to take another two murder cases to trial.
A man who allegedly stabbed an acquaintance in November and a son who allegedly killed his mother by hitting her in the head with a frying pan in March are the latest in what seems to be a regular stream of murders in the small county, with a population of less than 15,000.
"The last four years, we've had about one a year," said Morgan County Prosecutor Mark Howdyshell, who has been on the job five years.
The trial against 51-year-old Thomas M. Pace is scheduled for next month. Pace, of 10784 State Route 37, Malta, was allegedly involved in a verbal fight on Nov. 2 with acquaintance Dustin Drone, which escalated to the point of the men meeting to fight, said Howdyshell.
"They were jawing back and forth, and Pace drove to the house where Dustin Drone was," he said.
Pace reportedly came to the fight armed, pulled out a knife and stabbed Drone. He was arrested hours later.
Morgan County murder timeline
Sept. 24, 2008-Rodney Spencer, 49, is seriously beaten and then burned alive in his home in McConnelsville. Christopher Border and Stephanie Hoskinson, of Morgan County and Christopher Clark, of Athens County, are charged with his death.
June 3, 2009-Travis L. Fischer, who is 17 years old at the time, rapes and kills 35-year-old Abi S. Matthews.
July 7, 2009-Charles Turner, of Deerfield Township in Morgan County, shoots sister Rosemary Brown and burns down her home before returning to his nearby home to shoot himself.
June 12, 2012-Timmy Stevens, of Zanesville, shoots his good friend John Davis III just south of Malta and then disposes of the body into a wooded area in the county.
Nov. 2, 2013-Thomas Pace allegedly stabs Dustin Drone during a dispute in Morgan County resulting in Drone's death.
March 25-Jacob M. Harrod reportedly kills his mother, 46-year-old Lisa Kangas, at her McConnelsville residence, hitting her with a frying pan and choking her to death before dumping her body in the Muskingum River.
A year prior to Pace's scheduled trial, a similar incident-familiar men involved in a fight that somehow quickly escalated to death-resulted in a murder conviction and life sentence for 41-year-old Timothy Stevens, who shot his good friend John Davis III and then hid his body in a densely wooded area of the county.
The most recent murder, a matricide that is believed to have happened March 25, could possibly see a trial this year as well.
That will depend on whether 22-year-old Jacob M. Harrod is found competent to stand trial for reportedly killing his mother in their shared McConnelsville home at the behest of voices in his head.
Harrod allegedly hit his mother, 46-year-old Lisa Kangas, with a frying pan and then choked her to death before wrapping her body in a blanket and disposing of it in the Muskingum River.
A hearing regarding Harrod's competency and potential insanity plea has yet to be scheduled, but will be the next hearing in his case, according to Morgan County Clerk of Courts Carma Johnson.
Also in Howdyshell's tenure, a 17-year-old boy was tried as an adult for raping and murdering a woman that relatives described as a mother figure to the boy.
Travis L. Fischer was sentenced in November 2009 to life in prison for the June killing of Abi S. Matthews, a 35-year-old mother of three.
The spat of murders is unusual, said Johnson, who has worked in the local legal community for more than 30 years. Typically, years will pass between such violent crimes. And when one does happen in the small communities of Morgan County-where practically everyone knows one another-it hits hard, said Johnson.
"In a small community you know everybody. You know the families involved," she said.
While the once-a-year murder rate is admittedly high for a county that is comparable to the city of Marietta in population size, the trend is not indicative of a culture of violence, said Howdyshell.
"I don't consider them to be Franklin County type of murders," he said.
The murders are not random acts of violence like drive-by shootings or muggings burglaries gone wrong, he noted. Rather, most of them have domestic roots.
"All of these are just odd ball things," said Howdyshell.
In fact, the trend stretches back to before 2008. Since then, the county has had six murders.
One, a murder-suicide involving a brother and sister in Deerfield Township in July 2009, never resulted in criminal charges.
In 2008-before Howdyshell took office-three young adults were guests in the home of 49-year-old Rodney Spencer when an argument led to the three beating Spencer and then burning him alive in his home.
The six murders equal the number that Washington County-more than four times larger than Morgan County in terms of population-has seen in the same six year time frame.
Morgan County Commissioner Tim VanHorn noted that crime as a whole seems to be on the rise in Morgan County lately.
"There seems to be a lot more breaking and entering and stealing," said VanHorn, tying the rise in property crime in with the increased value of scrap metal among other things.
There have already been three bank robberies in the county this year alone.
But VanHorn said he is hopeful that the violent crimes are an anomaly and not part of the overall trend.
"I don't know if it's just the fact that we had not had any murders for so many years, and it just catches up with you or if it is a problem with the crime rate," he said. "I hope it's not the latter."
VanHorn pointed to the county's mental health services levy and available mental health care as a shining light. While plenty of individuals use the services and while the court uses it as a component for sentencing, not everyone is aware of its availability, he said.
"It's used quite a bit, but maybe not as much as it could be," he said.