NEWARK, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio judge says he will be haunted forever by his decision to grant early release to a domestic violence offender who authorities say killed his ex-girlfriend, her co-worker and a police chief.
Licking County Municipal Judge Michael Higgins said Friday he was heartbroken after the fatal shootings at a nursing home in Kirkersville.
Investigators say Thomas Hartless, 43, killed himself after the shootings May 12, just one month after he was released early from jail. He had served 20 days of a 90-day sentence.
“I will go to my grave regretting the fact that I did not know Thomas Hartless’ name,” the judge said in explaining his unfamiliarity with the domestic violence case. “Not an excuse, but I probably come in contact with 400 defendants. When I signed that entry releasing him, I had no idea who he was.”
Kirkersville Police Chief Steven Eric DiSario died from a shotgun wound outside the town’s Pine Kirk Care Center, about 25 miles (39 kilometers) east of Columbus. Nurse Marlina Medrano, who had previously sought protective orders against Hartless in connection with domestic violence, was shot multiple times with a handgun and a shotgun. Nurse’s aide Cindy Krantz was killed with a shotgun.
Higgins said that up until Hartless’ case, the county’s early-release screening process had worked well; he said he relies on probation officers who are supposed to assess probation candidates for risk.
“You think everything is OK,” Higgins said. “Maybe you become complacent, then something horrible, horrible, like this happens and then it’s easy to see some deficiencies.”
A review of how Hartless gained early release found a lack of checks and balances in the court’s early-release process. Hartless wasn’t supposed to have weapons, but a probation officer never checked his home, where authorities later found over 60 guns.
The review also found that the recommendation of just one probation officer led to the early release and that the probation officer had not reviewed the court file or read all three incident reports about the assaults against his ex-girlfriend.
Kevin Saad, director of the court’s Adult Probation Department, said Friday that three probation officers face disciplinary action and that he could face discipline also.
Changes will be made to improve the process and another judge will do a review to decide on the discipline for the probation officers, Saad said.
Higgins, 68, said he has no plans to step down as judge.