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Hidden room, bloody freezer, handcuffs found in student slaying probe

The room was hidden inside a barn, behind tall hay bales, on James Dean Worley’s three-acre property west of Toledo, Ohio.

Its furnishings were chilling: restraints attached to the walls and a freezer lined with blood-stained carpet.

Almost as chilling were the contents of Worley’s truck: zip ties, a ski mask, two sets of handcuffs, rope, tape and recording equipment.

Scattered around his property were more rope, tape, zip ties, handcuffs, firearms and ammunition, alongside several video recording devices and film, according to an arrest warrant released Thursday and obtained by the Toledo Blade.

Worley was arrested last Friday and has been charged with the abduction and aggravated murder of 20-year-old University of Toledo student Sierah Joughin. The judge has ordered him to remain in jail.

Authorities believe this may not be the first abduction allegedly committed by Worley.

“Worley fits the profile of a serial offender and could potentially have additional unknown victims who could have been kept at the above described location,” Sgt. Matthew Smithmyer of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department, said in court documents obtained by the Toledo Blade.

With long brown hair — sometimes curled, sometimes straightened — and a white, toothy smile, Sierah Joughin looked like many young college girls with their lives ahead of them. She loved horses and was a member of the University of Toledo’s business fraternity, Alpha Kappa Psi, according to her obituary.

On her Facebook page, she shared videos of cute, floppy puppies, recipes for no-bake chocolate peanut butter bars and messages encouraging beginners to try a barre workout.

Her profile photo showed her and her mother, Sheila Vaculik, their arms wrapped around each other, smiles on their faces.

Tuesday, July 19, Joughin went for a bike ride around her hometown of Lyons, Ohio, a tiny hamlet of 562 people about 30 miles west of Toledo. Out there, the flat landscape stretches on endlessly, punctuated periodically by cornfields.

Perched on a purple bicycle, clad in neon yellow tennis shorts and shirt and bright teal shoes, Joughin was a flash of bright color amid all that green.

Her boyfriend, Josh Kolasinksi, rode slowly alongside her on his motorcycle, People magazine reported. Eventually, it was growing late, and the two parted ways. They assumed they would have much more time together — after all, they’d been dating since middle school.

Joughin didn’t come home that night. Or the next. Or the next.

“We are struggling and trying to stay hopeful,” Tara Shaffer Ice, Joughin’s aunt, told People the day after Joughin’s disappearance. “We just want her to come home safe and [whoever has her] to just leave her where she is and let us have her back.”

“It’s the worst nightmare I’ve ever experienced,” Ice added.

“I just want her to come home,” Vaculik said.

She never would.

After three days of searching, police found Joughin’s remains resting in a shallow grave in a cornfield just a mile away from Worley’s property, on July 22.

That same day, police arrested 57-year-old James Dean Worley, crediting “old-fashioned police work” for the collar.

Police originally questioned Worley while they were canvassing houses near his property. He told them he had been riding his motorcycle at the time of Joughin’s doomed bike ride, but that his motorbike had broken down. He claimed to have lost his helmet, screwdriver, sunglasses and fuses when he pushed his motorcycle into a nearby field, presumably to work on it.

All of those items were found near Joughin’s bicycle. Human blood coated the helmet.

The court documents released Thursday and obtained by the Toledo Blade show that, after arresting Worley, police searched his three-acre property.

In addition to the hidden room, outfitted with restraints and a freezer lined with bloody carpet, they found several pairs of women’s underwear.

One pair was bloodied.

Sgt. Matthew Smithmyer of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department wrote in a statement he knows “based upon his knowledge and experience that these types of offenders will often keep trophies.”

The property was also littered with hidden cameras.

If convicted, this wouldn’t be Worley’s first time in prison for abduction. The details behind his first imprisonment are eerily similar to those in Joughin’s case.

On Independence Day in 1990, the sun bore down on 26-year-old Robin Gardner, who was sweating as she rode her bike through the endless rows of tall cornstalks. Obee Road was still, quiet. It was peaceful.

That peace was shattered when a red flat-bed truck zoomed by her.

Gardner kept pedaling anyway.

Suddenly, the truck re-appeared, slamming into the back tire of her bike.

She was thrown from it and rolled into a roadside ditch. Worley jumped out of the truck and ran over to her, asking if she was okay.

After she said “yes,” he struck her on the back of her head and dragged her out of the ditch and across the road to his truck, threatening to kill her the entire way.

He reached inside the car and produced handcuffs, as she screamed.

He forced her into the truck.

“I was screaming in the cornfield at the top of my lungs — a blood-curdling scream, a scream I didn’t know I had in me,” Gardner told the Toledo Blade.

Using “every ounce of energy,” she scratched and kicked her way out of the vehicle and away from Worley. Once back on the road, she ran toward a motorcyclist who had stopped after witnessing the scuffle.

Though he, too, was a stranger, Gardner hopped on the back of the bike, and the two sped off.

Gardner may have gotten away, but the incident lingered in the form of a concussion and a skull fracture. In fact, it still lingers — the emotional scars she suffered from the near-abduction have yet to heal. She even ended up moving to an urban area, because the rural countryside now frightened her.

“I can’t walk in the woods alone, I can’t hike, camp, bird watch,” she told the Associated Press. “I get very afraid if people aren’t around to help me if I’m in need.”

This case brought those memories flooding back to Gardner.

“It’s like this guy strikes when the corn is high,” she told the Toledo Blade. “My heart hurts.”

Worley was sentenced to four to 10 years in prison. He entered in November 1990 and was paroled in December 1993.

Worley didn’t stay out of prison long, though. He returned in 2000, this time for the illegal manufacture or cultivation of marijuana and having weapons while under disability, according to the Toledo Blade. He was released in 2002.

Adding to the suspicion that Worley has abducted and killed more women is a frightening statement he made to a court-mandated therapist after his original stint in prison. He said he “learned from each abduction he had done and the next one he was going to bury.”

Gardner certainly thinks he did.

“Of course, I think he’s done it before and after me,” she said.

Worley is currently being held in the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio without bond. The Associated Press reported that Worley has declined interview requests from the media and that Worley’s attorney said Thursday he had not seen the warrants and could not comment. It is not clear from media reports if Worley has entered a plea since being arrested a week ago.

Joughin’s family has established a scholarship fund in her name to benefit one graduate of Evergreen High School, her alma mater, each year. Thus far, the crowd-sourcing campaign has raised more than $36,000, according to its Web page.