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February 26, 2010

After 28 years, Mary Ann Finegan case is solved

Detective work and DNA identify assailant, but ‘Finy’s’ companion is still in pain

Cleveland--What started out as a chance encounter between two friends 28 years ago ended in the murder of Mary Ann Finegan, 42, a popular teacher, coach and guidance counselor, and the vicious rape of the other, then 38, shot twice at close range and left to die in an overgrown lot in the Flats near downtown Cleveland.

It was a night the survivor has re-lived over and over in vivid flashbacks and nightmares that visited her in her sleep as well as during the most routine waking moments.

And for 28 years, her attacker escaped the law, at least for this murder and rape, until the hard work and tenacious digging of some grizzled detectives, teamed with renewed funding of Cleveland’s Cold Case Unit and a few lucky breaks, led them to an incarcerated felon.

Richard Anthony Wilson, 56, is currently serving time in Pennsylvania for another crime, but his DNA matched the rape kit from the case.

With the survivor standing by his side, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason announced the match on February 10. Wilson faces the death penalty for this crime. He is indicted on 16 charges including aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery.

Wilson was days from release when the new charges were made, according to Cold Case Director Rick Bell, whose unit reopened the case in 2009, assisted by a grant from the Ohio attorney general’s office.

The grant has allowed many cases to be re-examined. Most promising are ones with biological evidence, where DNA can be matched to other samples in the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

"We looked at hundreds and hundreds of files, pulling each one out one by one, reading through it with a fresh set of eyes," Bell said.

Finegan's was the ninth case police have solved so far, of the 257 they've narrowed the immediate search down to.

"Ninth and tenth," Bell added, as he included the survivor's previously unsolved rape in his count.

The ordeal began on a Friday night, June 4, 1982.

“I had gone out to dinner with a friend and we decided to stop by Isis,” the survivor began.

Isis was a popular bar at 1400 West 6th Street near the corner of Frankfort Avenue, “for the contemporary woman,” according to a July, 1982 ad in the gay monthly High Gear. It was known to women in Cleveland and Akron, where Finegan lived with her four dogs in nearby Barberton. Isis closed in 1989, and the space has since been home to a variety of businesses, though none gay or lesbian. It is now Crop Bistro and Bar.

“Mary Ann and I had broken up the week before and had no plans to meet up with each other that night,” continued the survivor, now 66, who asked that her name not be printed.

“We got to the bar around 9:30 or 10 pm,” said the friend who joined her for dinner that evening, who also asked that her name be kept private. She has helped care for the survivor and been a companion to her for almost three decades, and remains protective of her. “It was a nice evening. We parked the car and sat in the parking lot talking for awhile.”

Later, the friends noticed Mary Ann’s pickup truck and saw her walk toward the bar. “I knew she was probably looking for me,” the survivor recalled. She left her purse in her friend’s car and went to talk to ‘Finy’ while her dinner companion went inside the bar.

“We all called Mary Ann ‘Finy,’ ” she noted.

The two walked to Finegan’s truck and got in. “Mary Ann was a great listener but she had a hard time expressing herself.” That night, she seemed kind of upset, like she needed to talk.

They talked for a while and Finegan started the truck to move to a parking spot closer to the bar, according to early police reports of the incident. Before she could park, a man suddenly opened the passenger door, put a gun against the survivor’s chest while climbing in and told Finegan to drive “or I’ll kill her.”

One, two, three

Finegan had two vehicles, a faded red 1969 Ford pickup truck she used primarily for her part-time antique business, and a white Corvette she bought new.

“She really liked her cars but she loved that Corvette,” the survivor remembered. “Maybe she drove the pickup that night because she didn’t like to drive the Corvette when she’d have to park it in downtown Cleveland.”

“I’ve wondered if this could have happened to us if she had driven the Corvette, because it only seated two. He couldn’t have gotten in because there wasn’t any room, you know?”

He ordered Finegan to drive, telling both women repeatedly not to look at him. He asked if they were lesbians. They said they were.

He directed them to drive down into the Flats, past the busier part that made up the area’s nightlife at the time, far away from the bars and restaurants. He told Finegan to stop at an isolated spot.

Once stopped, the assailant ordered the women to remove their pants. When the survivor hesitated, he told her she had until the count of three or he’d shoot Finegan.

“He went, ‘one, two, three’ and fired, just that quick,” her companion recalled, before giving the survivor a chance to comply.

The bullet killed Finegan instantly, and she slumped over the steering wheel. The gunman then made the other woman get out of the truck and forced her to walk to a nearby area with tall grass and weeds and raped her at gunpoint. As soon as he finished, he stood up and shot her, first in the neck and then her chest, leaving her to die as well.

“She’s a strong woman with a tremendous will to live,” her companion added. “It had rained later that night, kind of a light drizzly rain and she kept, little by little, taking in a bit of water, a few drops every once in a while.”

“I never lost consciousness,” the survivor recalled. “I wouldn’t let myself go to sleep.”

“All our friends [at Isis] just thought we disappeared,” she continued. Her companion waited until the bar’s 2:30 am closing time for the women to return. “I was a little pissed when they didn’t come back. I was supposed to stay over [at the survivor’s home] and I’d had a little too much to drink. So I drove to her house and waited in my car. I remember waking up in her driveway around 6 am, realizing her purse was still in my trunk and thinking: Something’s wrong.”

She was pretty sure her friend would never just leave, not without her purse and keys. “I thought, ‘I should go look for them.’ But I had no idea where they were and just figured they went to Mary Ann’s. That wouldn’t have been unusual.”

“But still,” she continued, “I started calling around trying to find them, when the police called me. She [the victim] had asked them to contact me because she didn’t know what had happened to me either, if I was okay, you know? I went to the hospital right away and when I got there, they asked me not to tell her about Mary Ann. But she knew. The first thing she said to me, the very first words out of her mouth were, ‘He killed Mary Ann.’ She already knew.”

News reports say that a security guard making his rounds about 15 hours after the attack discovered the red Ford pickup.

“I don’t know who he found first but he thought he heard a cat crying in the weeds and went to investigate and found her,” said the companion. “She was bleeding profusely but was conscious. She had a collapsed lung and couldn’t speak very loudly. But she was alive.”

The secluded industrial area was isolated no more, as police officers and EMS workers arrived and took charge of what was now a horrific murder scene.

Today, this place, identified in police reports as 2531 West 4th Street, is still a desolate field, just down a hill from new houses at West 6th and Starkweather in Tremont. Coincidentally, a one-block street linking it to the Cuyahoga River is called Mary Ave.

Word spread quickly

Before she opened Code Blue, a women’s bar at 1946 St. Clair in a building occupied for decades by a number of lesbian and gay clubs, attorney M.L. Hejra was a litigator working downtown.

“My partner at the time worked walking distance to Isis and we made plans to meet there right after work that night,” she said.

The next evening, she turned on her television and learned about the attack and murder.

“I was watching the 6 o’clock news,” Hejra said. “I can still see that news reel to this day. It showed her [the survivor] being put into an ambulance. I remember her feet. I remember seeing her feet because they weren’t covered with the blanket.”

Early news reports didn’t yet name the victims but did report the location, and soon people were realizing something bad had happened outside of Isis.

“The calls started going around rather quickly,” Hejra continued, as more and more of their friends heard the news. “The shock of it was really dramatic.”

The investigation began immediately. “The police called me later to see if I had seen anyone,” Hejra said. “They were calling everyone they could find that was there that night. But I didn’t see anything unusual, as we had left the bar pretty early.”

“I heard about the attack from my sister who managed Isis at the time,” said Mary Stumpf, affectionately known as Li’l Mary by customers and coworkers alike. “My sister called me and I was instantly sick. I felt total disbelief that something like this could happen.”

Although Isis had not been open that long before the attack and murder, Stumpf had bartended in different clubs and was well-known in the women’s community.

“I felt like the den mother, the host and the one to take care of these girls and protect them,” she explained. “It sickened me. We were all enraged.”

The survivor was taken to Metro Hospital on West 25th in Cleveland.

“I was in the hospital for three months, paralyzed from the chest down until the swelling went down,” the survivor explained. “The bullet actually touched my spinal cord, damaging it.”

Because of how close the bullet was to her spinal cord, doctors were unable to remove it without putting her at further risk. It remains a permanent reminder of an event she could not possibly forget anyway.

‘I watched him murder my lover’

After her immediate injuries healed, the long road to recovery began, at least for the physical part of the damage her assailant inflicted.

“I was in rehab for five months because I couldn’t really walk yet,” the survivor said. “I was in chronic pain with a lot of nerve damage and I used a wheelchair because the most I could do was just take baby steps.”

She stayed with friends for a number of weeks following rehab before finally returning to her home for the first time in almost a year since the attack.

Then the years of therapy began for the part that you can’t see in just the way she uses her hands to lift her leg or the way she subconsciously touches her neck where the first bullet entered her body before exiting under her shoulder.

“I’ve had mucho therapy. I had a therapist who gave me her number and encouraged me to call her any time I needed her. Any time at all.”

But there’s really nothing anybody can offer and the idea of closure is something she just doesn’t think ever actually occurs, even after knowing her assailant has, at long last been identified.

“I witnessed him kill Mary Ann,” she stated. “I watched him murder my lover.”

“It was a long time before I dealt with the rape aspect. I mean, the murder of Mary Ann has always been the thing that affected me the most,” the survivor explained. “I saw her murdered right in front of me. I’d never seen anything like that before . . . or since. So it was quite a while, maybe sometime in 1988, before l dealt with the rape. I was just dead inside, like I was filled with cement. And when I finally did, I was enraged, just enraged 24/7.”

“I was so angry and I felt this anger all the time,” she continued, “around friends and around strangers. My mother would call me and I was just so angry and would go off. I finally told her that when I get like this that you can’t help me. You can only take care of yourself so when I get like this, I need you to just hang up on me.”

The survivor spoke of different things she did to cope, to make sense of that horrific night. “I read every book I could find on rape,” she said. “I just wanted to understand how someone could do this to another human being.”

She also made a deliberate attempt to seek happiness. “I decided to embrace joyous things. I had a wonderful family, had a wonderful childhood and I concentrated on things that made me happy, like baking cookies,” she recounted. “We didn’t have much money but we were happy. And so I did things that brought me joy, things that didn’t cost much money, lots of things that were free. I went to the library. I looked in the paper for events that seemed interesting. And I started to find my humor again.”

But the nightmares continued. “I used to dream about him all the time, nightmares every night. And I ‘saw’ him everywhere I went. That night, you see, he was in total control and I realized I needed to take my control back. I told myself I’m just gonna have to get this guy in my dreams.”

Soon after, she did just that.

“I used to be a teacher, too,” she said. “I dreamed I was at a school function, in a stadium when I saw him. I went up to two cops and said: That’s the guy that assaulted me.”

In her dream, they arrested him.

“I never had another nightmare about him again.”

Another turning point for the survivor happened one evening, somewhat out of the blue and unplanned.

“I remember one night I sat in my car. I rolled the windows up and locked the doors and I started pounding on my steering wheel with all my might,” she explained. “And I screamed and I screamed and I screamed. I’m sure people thought I was crazy. And maybe I was a little crazy. But you know, I was back at that moment, screaming like I was unable to that night, because right after he shot Finy, all I wanted to do was scream and I was forced to be quiet, I had to stifle them.”

Friends who knew the women, or knew of them, remember that there was a tremendous rallying by the community, not just the gay community and not just Cleveland. 

“A lot of people called and came by. There was a lot of support in the beginning, even a benefit concert in Akron. And then, of course it kind of died off. I’ve lost touch with so many friends.”

The victim, although unable to attend the services, remembers that there were over 4,000 people at Finegan’s funeral. She still cherishes a photo album filled with old snapshots and Polaroids of her with Finegan, with other friends, along with a couple of photos someone gave her of Finegan’s closed casket and a picture of the flowers she sent, a beautiful display of roses and daisies. “The roses were for Mary Ann,” she said. “The daisies were for me.”

“Mary Ann was a very special lady,” Hejra recalled. Her death “was a great shock. It was huge that someone that respected and loved was killed,” especially so near a place where so many mutual friends gathered frequently and without incident.

“I remember we never felt uncomfortable in that neighborhood. I mean, there was an adult bookstore on the corner near Isis where a restaurant is now, but I never remember even seeing anyone that made me uncomfortable. It was a clear shot to the well-lit parking lot right across the street. It was wide open, no fences or obstructions. It was in a non-residential area which made it even more comfortable. That was back in the day when most gay bars didn’t have signs, just a light bulb outside the door.”

“If you didn’t know the bar was there, well, you wouldn’t know the bar was there.”

“I’ve wondered if he [the assailant] worked near there or knew it was a gay bar and felt attacking two women would be easier than a straight couple where he’d have to deal with a man,” Hejra said. “I hope the younger kids going out to the bars know this kind of thing can happen anytime, anywhere really.”

“I’ve gone on with my life and I have certain limitations,” the survivor added. “I’ll never be 100 percent. The bullet is still there. It affects my gait, the way I walk and I have to watch my stress because of the nerve pain.”

But she is quick to point out that it could have ended differently. “Mary Ann was never able to go on with her life. He didn’t need to kill Mary Ann. I mean, it was so unnecessary.”

“I loved her so much, so very much. And she loved me too. I’ve never loved anyone like that since.”

“I don’t know if I ever will.”

_________________

The Coventry schools, where Mary Ann Finegan taught, have a memorial scholarship in her name. The Cleveland LGBT Center also had an anti-violence project named for her from 1990 to 1994.

Wilson is awaiting extradition to Ohio to face charges for this crime. If you have any information about it, please contact Rick Bell, director of the Cold Case Unit at 216-443‑6959.

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This material is copyrighted by the Gay People’s Chronicle. Permission is given to repost no more than the headline, byline, and one or two paragraphs, with the full name of the Gay People’s Chronicle and a link to the full article on our website. Reproduction of the entire article is prohibited without specific written permission.

 

 

 


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