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‘He’s obviously a serial killer’: Deaths of at least 5 women now linked, probed by Ohio police

Police released Wednesday the 911 call they received from a woman who was being held against her will in Ashland, Ohio. (Video: WCPO)
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Shawn Grate was charged last week with murder and kidnapping, discovered only because the woman he was holding after tying her up in an abandoned house in Ashland County, Ohio, managed to get his cellphone, call 911 and whisper, desperately, “I’ve been kidnapped.”

‘I’ve been kidnapped’: Agonizing 911 call leads to 3 bodies, a terrified woman and a captor

In addition to the kidnapping victim, thankfully alive, police found two bodies in the house.

One has now been identified as Stacey Stanley, 43, a recovering drug addict whom Grate has been charged with beating to death.

The second has been named as Elizabeth Griffith, 29, of Ashland, who had been missing for about a month.

Once in custody, Grate opened up, police say. They don’t know why. Perhaps he just wanted to get it off his chest.

Grate led them to a third body buried in a wooded area in nearby Mansfield, Ohio. She was identified Monday as Candice Cunningham, 29, according to Fox 8 Live.

Cunningham, of Canton, Ohio, was killed inside a house in Mansfield and dumped in the woods in June, police said.

According to Cleveland 19 News, he also told them about Rebekah Leicy. In March 2015, police found her body in a field in Ashland. Her death had originally been attributed to an overdose, but Grate told authorities he strangled her.

And he told police about the first woman he killed, police say, in Marion County.

She has no name, at least not yet. And until this week, she had no killer or cause of death linked to her.

That’s been haunting Marion County Sheriff Tim Bailey for over a decade. He remembers well where they found the body in March 2007.

It was near the dump, which nowadays goes by the name of “transfer station,” along a street named Victory Road.

A man, down on his luck, was searching for cans he could exchange “for a little pocket money,” as the Columbus Dispatch reported a year later, when he came across what the paper described as “a skull and a pile of bones in a ditch.”

About all they could determine, Bailey recalled at a news conference Monday, was that it was the body of a woman. She carried no identification.

“This wasn’t the first body that we’ve found,” he said.

 “Typically,” he said, “there’s some feature” police can use to identify a body, some item of clothing” or a driver’s license. “This time there was nothing.”

They didn’t even know how long the body had been where it was found. No missing person report was available to guide them.

The only clue to her fate, and they weren’t even sure at the time it was one, were the leaves in a tree near the body. They had been burned.

So when he learned last week that Grate, who had lived about a mile from the site at the time, had been arrested up in Ashland County, he thought immediately of those remains from Victory Road almost a decade earlier.

He knew of Grate, who had more than his share of run-ins with the law in both Ashland and Marion counties.

Bailey sent an investigator up to Ashland to interview Grate.

“He was very polite,” Bailey said at the news conference. And he knew all about the body found along Victory Road.

He told the investigator that the woman, about 26, had sold subscriptions to his mother. When she didn’t deliver them, his mother got upset and so did he.

About a year after that, in 2005, Grate told the investigator he spotted her again.

“He got her into his car by telling her he wanted to buy some magazines,” Bailey said Grate admitted. But then he took her to his home, stabbed her to death and hid the body in his basement for two days before taking the body out to Victory Road, where he dumped it.

As the months went by, the sheriff said Grate told the investigator, Grate got concerned that maybe someone would find the body and use DNA to identify her.

So he went back to Victory Road “and set the body on fire.”

Thus, said Bailey, the burned leaves.

Grate told the investigator he did not know the woman’s name, although he had taken her driver’s license. It began with a “D” he told the officer, maybe Dana or Diana.

Bailey said the woman still has not been identified, and he pleaded with the public for information.

As for Grate, Bailey says he has no doubt that he’s a serial killer.

“I’m surmising,” he said. “When you start in 2003 or 2004 and you’re still doing it in 2016, there’s got to be something in between. It’s hard to believe that others aren’t out there,” Bailey said.

“He’s obviously a serial killer,” Bailey said.

Grate has a lengthy arrest record, mostly for domestic abuse. One of the women, Christina Hildreth, an ex-girlfriend who brought some of those charges against him, spoke to Cleveland 19 News.

“At first I thought he was just different,” she said of the first of their six years together.

“He had such a way of rattling off weird things, odd comments,” she said. “Little weird things,” like telling people, ” ‘I’m gonna come back and get you.’ ”

It began to seem “more like evil,” especially the “things he told me that he had done with previous girlfriends. … It did put a red flag up, but I had nowhere to go.”

But “the more it progressed, the more I needed to get away.” But she said there was nowhere to go.

In 2010, she said, he beat her badly, breaking her hand, trying to strangle her, holding her down in the bathtub before she managed to get away from him, permanently, Hildreth told Cleveland 19.

Grate, 40, pleaded not guilty Monday morning to two murder charges and a charge of kidnapping in Ashland County Common Pleas Court, according to the News Journal. The other cases are still being probed, and he has not been charged in connection with them.

“I think he would have eventually killed me,” Hildreth told Cleveland 19. “If I hadn’t got out, I’d be one of the victims.” It “makes your skin crawl,” she said, “your gut turn.”