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Tip From Friend Broke Case of Ohio Serial Sniper of '89

Dennis Cauchon, USA Today

COSHOCTON, Ohio -- The sniper traveled alone in a red pickup. He killed at random, murdering people who happened to be outside near a road. Over three years, five people died in five counties over a 50-mile area.

The serial killer was a nondescript man named Thomas Lee Dillon, a father with a young son, who lived in a ranch house and worked as a draftsman at the Canton, Ohio, water department. Most of his family and friends were shocked to learn this Ohio State University graduate was a serial killer.

Serial snipers are rare and hard to catch. The men who solved the Dillon case are following the case of the sniper who is terrorizing the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

The differences between the two cases are significant. Dillon roamed a rural area, not suburbia, from April 1989 until April 1992, He killed less frequently and selected different targets: two hunters, two fishermen and a jogger.

But the police work used to catch Dillon 10 years ago was similar to what law enforcement is doing now. It took more than three years to capture the Ohio sniper, but he was identified by the same three things that are key to the current sniper investigation:

* A tip from a suspicious friend.

* A helpful profile from the FBI.

* A killer who was not as smart as he thought.

After identifying Dillon as a suspect, police and the FBI used traditional techniques: matching guns and bullets, conducting searches and checking his schedule.

But it took more than three years to identify a suspect who had no connection to his victims or the area.

The key tip came from a high school friend who had an uneasy feeling about some things Dillon said and did. Dillon had killed hundreds of farm animals and pets.

Then, driving home from a gun show, Richard Fry and Dillon talked about serial killers. "He asked me if I thought he could, or had, killed somebody," Fry, who is now deceased, said in a January 1993 interview with the Akron Beacon Journal. "The way he looked at me chilled my blood. I thought he had a secret to tell. It was the look on his face and in his eyes."

Fry called Tuscarawas County detective Walter Wilson in August 1992. Thirty-nine months after the killings began, the task force working on the killings had heard Dillon's name for the first time.

"You absolutely have to have the help of the public in these cases. They are the eyes and ears of law enforcement," says Wilson, now the county sheriff. "In your normal homicide, there's a connection between the killer and victim. When you don't have that tool, you have to depend on a friend or loved one to do the right thing."

Fry thought police would quickly rule out his friend. Instead, police found that Dillon's work schedule matched the killer's. So did his truck and psychological profile.

The FBI had given a remarkably accurate 24-point profile of the killer. "When all was said and done, it was like reading his rsum," Coshocton detective Mike Carroll recalls.

FBI profiler Larry Ankrom described Dillon not only as an educated white male, but also as someone with a predilection for crimes, such as arson and killing pets and farm animals. The first weapon match police made was to a gun Dillon used to kill a dog.

But the profiler was wrong on two key points. He thought the killer was in his 20s. Dillon was 42 when arrested. And the profiler thought the killer was located near the center of the region where the killings took place, according to Lucien Young, Holmes County prosecutor at the time and now a judge.

Dillon lived in the city of Canton, about 75 to 125 miles north of the killings. He drove to the area, often bought beer in the early morning and then roamed the back roads. He shot his guns ceaselessly -- at electric meters, cows, dogs and sometimes people.

The release of information about the killings generated crucial tips. Lacking evidence to charge Dillon with murder, the FBI arrested him on gun charges. The prosecutor in the gun case said in court that Dillon was a prime suspect in the serial killings. News media reports prompted a man who had bought a Swedish Mauser rifle from Dillon at a gun show to turn it over to authorities. It was a murder weapon.

But Young warns against making parallels between Dillon and the sniper outside Washington.

"These cases are dissimilar in many ways," Young says. "About the only similarity is that people are dying and the killer used guns. But these cases are all so unique, you can find similarities to almost every serial killer case."

The biggest difference may be location. A sniper operating in a suburban area faces many potential witnesses and video cameras.

And the motivation of the serial killer in the Washington area could be very different from Dillon's.

"He said he was bored," Wilson recalls. After Dillon confessed, the detective drove with him around his county where Dillon described killing animals. "It was scary. It was like talking to a normal person," Wilson says.

Dillon is serving a life sentence in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, without a chance of parole for 165 years.

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