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Jury convicts ex-deputy in 1981 murder of lieutenant

Silence filled the Washington County Common Pleas Courtroom of Judge Randall Burnworth Friday afternoon, even moments after 65-year-old Mitchell Ruble was found guilty of aggravated murder of a county deputy.

“This is not the Super Bowl, where one team wins and it’s a celebration,” said Washington County Sheriff’s Det. Lt. Jeff Seevers. “(Ruble’s) family is hurting, but it’s been hard for Clark’s family, and now they got the justice they’ve been waiting for.”

It has been just more than 35 years since Washington County Sheriff’s Lt. Ray “Joe” Clark was shot and killed through the window while he stood in the light of his kitchen on Dodd’s Run Road.

A two-week trial that was the second attempt to convict Ruble, a former deputy, ended after about eight total hours of deliberation from the six-man, six-woman jury which began Thursday afternoon and ended when the jury returned a guilty verdict just after 2 p.m. Friday.

Ruble’s expression following the reading of the verdict remained unchanged, and the courtroom remained silent after bailiff Renee Marshall had asked everyone to refrain from any outbursts.

Surrounded by family, Bob “Butch” Clark, younger brother of Joe Clark, wore a T-shirt depicting an image of his brother’s sheriff’s badge with a bar across it, noting that his end of watch was Feb. 7, 1981.

“I’m just glad it’s over,” Clark said. “I know where (Joe) is and we have our family here, and we can move on.”

Families on both sides exchanged hugs and tears Friday.

Washington County Sheriff’s deputies, including Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks, lined the courtroom, as other lawyers, courthouse staff and several witnesses filled up the rest of the room, all anxiously waiting to hear the case come to an end.

In October, the case was brought to trial for the first time just a year after Ruble was arrested for the murder, and ended in a 6-6 deadlocked jury.

Ruble is the first and only person to ever be arrested in connection to the case.

According to the Ohio Attorney General’s special prosecution team that took on the case, Ruble and Bob Smithberger, the key witness who finally came forward in 2014 and said that he had been the getaway driver that night, were the only two people who had never been ruled out as suspects.

Smithberger, in exchange for his testimony, was granted immunity from prosecution as well as protection from the sheriff’s office. Smithberger claimed during the trial that he has been afraid of Ruble since that night and reported several threats made against him.

“I thought he was guilty and have for awhile, but it was never up to me,” Bob Clark said. “It was up to those 12 jurors.”

Many members of both the Clark and Ruble families, including Clark’s widow Patricia and Ruble’s wife Sandy, have been in court at least once, if not the entire time, throughout both trials. Neither were in the courtroom Friday.

For others connected to the case in various ways, many thought the day would never come.

“Justice has been served,” said Belpre-area resident Wayne Venham. “I didn’t know Ruble, but I know how hard this is for both families. I’m just happy it’s over.”

Venham is the younger brother of former Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy Dan Venham, whose name surfaced in the case because Ruble had been involved in his 1980 campaign to become sheriff. Ruble was fired from the sheriff’s office in 1979.

“It was strange, hearing his name in there,” Venham said. “We sat through both, and it was a long time coming.”

Defense attorneys James Burdon and Lawrence Whitney could not be reached for comment. Ruble’s immediate family additionally declined to comment.

“I know (Ruble) will probably appeal, but for now it’s done, and that can wait for now,” Clark said.

Both the prosecution and defense attorneys declined to pull jurors or ask further questions about the verdict.

“It’s been a long time coming, and now, we can move on to another case,” Seevers said.

Seevers was part of the formation of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office cold case unit in 2011, made up of him, sheriff’s special deputy Bruce Schuck and Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation detective Jon Jenkins.

Clark’s case is the second the unit began investigating as part of the effort, and plans are to move forward with other cold cases now that Clark’s is complete.

Ruble faces life in prison for the aggravated murder conviction. His sentencing is scheduled for April 28 in Burnworth’s courtroom.