Mother, unborn child slain 25 years ago today in city
By CARL E. FEATHER
Part 2 of a series
Editor's note: This story contains graphic details of a murder that occurred 25 years ago in Ashtabula.
Linda Hughart got the call around 6 a.m. Sept. 19, 1981.
"He said 'Anita's gone!' I said 'What are you talking about? 'She's dead! She's dead!'"
Married to a Jefferson Village Police officer at the time, Hughart asked her husband to check with Ashtabula City Police for official word; she thought the caller was pulling a cruel joke. But it wasn't. Anita Pratt, 22, had been found dead next to the baby bed of her 13-month-old son in their West Prospect Circle apartment.
Bill Colley, Anita's step-father who lived across the hall from the one-bedroom apartment, made the discovery. Colley would tell family that he heard Anita's son, Jeramy, crying and went across the hall to investigate. The door to the apartment was open; there was no sign of forced entry.
"My husband at the time came and got me," recalls Darlene Vaughan, Anita's sister. She will never forget the scene.
"Everything was covered in blood," she says.
"I think I would have gone out of my mind if I'd seen her face," says Hughart, who went to the crime scene while Anita's body was still on the floor of the bedroom. "I saw blood, blood, blood. Lots of blood."
"Anita was butchered," Vaughan says. "She fought like hell. Her fingers were cut to the bone. There was not a place on her body that wasn't stabbed - except her baby."
William Sweeney, Darlene's brother, was in the Army and serving in Korea when the murder occurred. He flew home and arrived just in time for the funeral. Two weeks after the murder, he and Anita's husband, Lawrence "Tree" Pratt, entered the apartment for the first time. All the blood stains were still present on the floor, mattress, walls, ceiling and crib in which Anita's and Tree's baby is believed to have been during the murder.
"(Tree) collapsed," says Sweeney. "It was terrible. There was a big spot of blood on the floor, and the crib rails were covered with blood. I saw her hand prints on the rails, where she reached in there to check on Jeramy."
Vaughan says her mother, Ruby Gladys Colley, was holding Jeramy when she arrived at the crime scene that morning. Jeramy was still dressed in the night clothes that bore a spot of his mother's blood below the neckline, where she'd checked to make sure he was still breathing in the wake of the murder.
"I saw the hand print where she'd reached in and touched that baby," Sweeney says. "She turned around and that's where she fell."
Anita Pratt had told Linda Hughart that if she bore a girl, she planned to name it "Jennifer."
Through Hughart's insistence, the baby was thus named and buried with Anita in her mother's wounded arms and hands. Family members were given the opportunity to view the baby before the burial.
"That baby was a Pratt up and down," Hughart says. "It was tall, it had the Pratt features. It was Pratt up and down. There were no two ways about that."
In the minds of the family members, Lawrence "Tree" Pratt was never a suspect. William Sweeney says Tree's reaction to the murder scene convinced him on the spot that he had no involvement in the crime.
"He's never been a suspect in my mind. He walked in there and hit the floor. That was it for him," Sweeney says.
"Tree was the only one I never suspected. He loved her to death. He would never do that," Sweeney adds.
Darlene Vaughan holds no suspicions toward Tree, either.
"I went to his place where he worked every day and sat and watched him cry," she says.
Twenty-five years after his wife was murdered and he had to go through the pain of an investigation on top of losing his wife and unborn child, Tree Pratt has no interest in re-living the horror.
"I don't feel like I have to defend myself again," Pratt said in an interview. "I don't feel like I have to do that again. I'm not putting myself through that."
Tree Pratt raised his son, Jeramy, but never remarried. Jeramy says he grew up knowing his mother was murdered, but the family shared few details. He feels that his father chooses to remain isolated from the case because he has been so disappointed in the investigation's failure to produce an arrest.
"My dad doesn't want to get let down again," Jeramy says. "If something were to happen, I think my dad would want to let this rest. He's tired of getting let down. It's hard for him. He was such a young person. You lose your wife and your daughter in the same night. It's hard for Dad, very hard for him."
Anita Pratt's murder remains a cold but open investigation at the Ashtabula City Police Department. Two months ago, upon the request of a Victims of Crime representative, the case was re-examined by Detective Sean Ward.
Ward reviewed the file with Robert Simons, a retired detective who now works as a parole officer. Simons worked the case back in the mid-1980s, after becoming a detective.
"They did a pretty thorough investigation," Ward says. "Bob Simons did an extensive amount of work on it, too."
Simons says he reviewed all the statements previously given by suspects, then re-interviewed them to look for any discrepancies in their stories. He says the suspects were cooperative and he could find virtually no deviation in their stories. But as he investigated the murder, which was about three years old at that time, the inordinately large amount of cooperation shown by William Colley jumped out at him.
"He was always too cooperative," says Simons.
Reviewing the case, Simons says he felt that Colley fed detectives too much useless information that served only to distract them. "I noticed he was more than anxious to offer information," Simons says.
However, when Simons suggested to Colley that he be hypnotized to recall missing details, Colley refused. That, coupled with a comment Colley made to Simons, raised his suspicions. Simons says Colley suggested that a magnet be dropped down the heat ducts of the house where Anita was murdered in an attempt to locate the missing murder weapon.
Simons wonders to this day if those ducts held the answer. No one will ever know - the house was razed several years ago.
"I got a gut feeling we would have found a knife in that duct work," he says.
He also has a gut feeling Colley knew the knife was in there.
"If I had to say right now, I'd have to go with him," Simons says. "There were too many things suspicious about him, too cooperative about him."
Some family members also place Colley high on their lists of suspects. His step-children say he was fond of liquor and had a short temper. But the liquor was also known to put him out cold.
"He was a drinker. He would drink a fifth and it would knock him out," Darlene Vaughan says.
Colley has three arrests on his city police record: domestic violence in 1979, felonious assault in 1983, and breaking and entering in 1990.
Vaughan says she'll never forget an incident she had with Colley a while before the murder.
"He told me he could kill my husband right before my eyes and make me believe it was the right thing to do," she says.
Simons believes Colley, a Conrail laborer, would have had the physical superiority to commit the crime, and perhaps the passion, as well. He speculates that Colley attempted to take advantage of Anita when she returned home from her night on the town. Although she was seven months pregnant and it was 4:30 a.m., family member says she would have put up a good fight.
But Colley told the family members he was sleeping and didn't hear anything until Jeramy's cries awoke him. They never believed that story. They say Colley was sensitive to any noise that would have interrupted his wife's sleep and was quick to complain if the other tenants so much as sneezed.
Vaughan says both Colley and her mother never wanted to talk about the murder with the family. She believes her mother was oblivious to the incident, however. Afflicted with emphysema and other health issues, Gladys Colley lived on pain and sleep medication. Her children say she would have been physically unable to commit the crime, and the medications she took knocked her out cold.
"She said she had taken extra sleeping pills and didn't hear anything," Hughart says. "She saw the body, she walked over to her apartment and checked her pulse."
Gladys Ruby Colley died in 1990.
Hughart says she will always haunted by something Anita told her a few days before she was murdered: Colley had sharpened all the kitchen knives in her apartment.
William Colley died in 1993 at the age of 73. Despite the suspicions surrounding him, if he ever confessed to the murder or had knowledge of it, that information never made it's way to the police.
"That was a very, very strange situation," Simons says. "What's even stranger is that, after all these years, you'd think somebody would have come forward. ... Not one person has come forward.
"Nobody has ever come forward and offered any information. That's why I have to believe that person and any witness to it are dead."
Simons admits, however, that other detectives and patrolmen close to the case felt the crime was the work of a jilted lover or jealous girlfriend. Police say that Anita was part of a network of young men and women with complex and intertwined relationships often driven by passion rather than commitment. The list of suspects included both males and females who could have, because of those passions, had reason for killing Anita.
"There was a web there, all these people had connections somehow, someway, they had all crossed each other's paths," says Simons.
The family, however, insists Anita was committed to Tree. "She had eyes only for him," Vaughan says.
Regardless of who did it, there is no doubt in William Sweeney's mind that his sister's murder was a crime of passion. He suspects it was someone who wanted to take Anita away from Tree, and when that failed, that person or persons retaliated.
"Whoever did that, they meant to do more than kill her, they made her suffer," he says.
William Sweeney went back to the Army after his bereavement leave was over. He'd planned to make a career of it, but after seeing the murder scene, he had to return home and try to find his sister's murderer.
He moved into the apartment building where she was murdered. He wasn't the only Sweeney in there. His mother and father-in-law had moved - - across the hall into the apartment where Anita was murdered, their bed in the same spot where Anita's was.
Sweeney says he doesn't know what he was looking for in that building and on that lot while he lived there, but he kept searching.
"I searched everything I could in the house, the grounds," he says. "I never found nothing."
He's still searching for Anita's murderer.
"It's all very hard for us," Vaughan says. "We loved her very much. They ripped a piece of our hearts out."
Sweeney and Vaughan feel that police did not give the investigation a high priority because their sister was a white woman married to a black man.
"Back then, it was like this girl was going with a (black person), so she ain't worth (expletive). They didn't do anything because she was married to a black man. I think the police shrugged her off. They shrugged her off because they didn't think she was worth anything."
But Ward, Simons and Capt. Robert Stell, head of the Ashtabula City Police Detective Bureau, vehemently disagree. They say the department aggressively worked the case and went through a long list of suspects, all of whom were cleared using the best available technology at that time.
"It's a pretty sizable case file," says Stell. "They put some time into it."
A photo of his late mother hangs in the living room of Jeramy Pratt's home. Darlene Vaughan says it was years before she could put her sister's photo back on the wall of her house. To this day, she grieves for her sister, as well as her own son, Joey, who was murdered nine years ago.
She attributes both tragedies to the Sweeney legacy.
"I'm worried about who's going to be next," Darlene says. "It's every generation. My dad, Anita, Joey ... who's going to be next? I'm afraid to let the kids leave home. I'm scared to death every time a cop comes to the door."
How does she cope with so much tragedy?
"I prayed a lot, and for a while, I drank a lot. I'll tell you the truth, I hit the bottle. I prayed and prayed to God to give me the strength. I still cry every day for my son, every day. .. I go to my room and cry. I cry in my sleep."
Vaughn, Sweeney and their aunts plan to place flowers on Anita's and Jennifer's grave this week. They'll talk about the theories, their frustration at not having closure, disappointment with the investigation and nagging sense that someone is still alive who knows the identity of Anita's murderer.
"Somebody ought to be courageous, step up to the plate and tell us what they know," Vaughan says. "Give this family some peace."
"They didn't kill her," Hughart says. "They were not content to stab her in the heart, they were not content to slit her throat. If I could find out one thing before I die, that's what I would want to find out, who did it and why."
Persons with information regarding this case are urged to call Detective Sean Ward of the Ashtabula City Police Department, 992-7176.