Thomas Hartless had multiple run-ins with law enforcement, prosecutors and judges before his homicidal rampage at the Pine Kirk Care Center in Kirkersville last Friday.
Time after time, he evaded incarceration and additional penalties. Despite his threats, suicidal statements and prior convictions, he was not stopped. The elements of the criminal justice system intended to prevent his kind of crime, for one reason or another, failed.
Hartless was a dangerous, convicted criminal who was legally barred from having a gun and prohibited from contacting his ex-girlfriend. But on May 13, Hartless killed that ex-girlfriend, Marlina Medrano, her colleague Cindy Krantz and Kirkersville Police Chief Steven Eric DiSario before ultimately committing suicide at the Pine Kirk Care Center in Kirkersville.
“I truly think this is one of those cases that was preventable if somehow his violence was taken more seriously,” said Nancy Neylon, executive director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network.
An investigation by The Advocate uncovered multiple instances where the law enforcement community might have taken steps that may have helped prevent the deaths in Kirkersville.
Dismissal of 2010 domestic violence charge
The first step to prevent Friday's tragedy could have been taken as early as seven years ago.
In 2009, Hartless was charged with kidnapping and domestic violence for abducting an ex-girlfriend from a Newark business, beating her, duct taping her hands and feet and holding her for hours before releasing her.
When Hartless was to be sentenced in Knox County in 2010, the domestic violence charge was dismissed and he pleaded guilty to charges of abduction and aggravated menacing.
Hartless was sentenced to two years in prison but served eight months before being granted early release and completed three years of probation successfully.
Prosecutors often dismiss lesser charges once they believe they’ve ensured the case will result in prison time.
Had the domestic violence charge not been dismissed, any other domestic violence charges against him would have been capable of being filed as felonies.
Living at home with firearms
As a result of his prior felony conviction, Hartless was not permitted to be around firearms.
So anytime Hartless was around a gun – court records indicate he had one when he beat Medrano in December 2016, and he used two guns to kill Medrano and two others last week – he was violating state law.
Police from multiple agencies responded to the home of Hartless and his parents in the last six months and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation removed multiple firearms from the Oakland Avenue residence during the execution of a search warrant Friday afternoon.
Ohio law allows for some discretion if the convicted felon lives in a home without direct access to firearms. It is not clear if Hartless would have had access to firearms inside the Oakland Avenue home.
Court records show no instance of charges being filed or any probation violations being filed for Hartless being around firearms.
No felony weapons charges filed
In December, Newark Police responded to Medrano's Newark home for a reported domestic dispute. When police arrived, Medrano told them Hartless had left after grabbing "his handgun" and a tool he used for work, according to the police report.
As a convicted felon, Hartless would not have been legally able to possess or own a firearm, despite having his other civil rights restored.
Court records indicate no charges for weapons under disability, a third-degree felony, were ever filed or reviewed for consideration by the Licking County Prosecutor's Office. It is unclear if Hartless possessed a weapon at the time he was placed under arrest for domestic violence in that incident.
Hartless released from jail early
After being found guilty of three misdemeanor charges of domestic violence in March, Licking County Municipal Court Judge Michael Higgins sentenced Hartless to 90 days in jail. Less than three weeks later, Higgins signed an order suspending the remainder of Hartless' sentence and releasing him from police custody on April 11.
No explanation is provided in court records as to why Hartless had his sentence suspended. Medrano did plead for leniency, according to a March letter.
Higgins said Monday he and the entire Municipal Court staff were "shocked and saddened" by Friday's events and are grieving with the families of those killed.
He said an internal investigation is underway to determine how the early release was requested and why.
Protection order not served
Hours after filing the final domestic violence report on May 5, Medrano filed a petition for a protection order against Hartless. She said she was scared to be alone with him and he had physically assaulted her multiple times.
It was the third protection order she had requested in recent months. She had asked that the other two be dismissed.
In granting that order, the judge demanded that Hartless’ firearms be confiscated. But that never happened.
A Domestics Relation Court Magistrate granted a temporary order with a full hearing scheduled for Tuesday.
Records from the Licking County Sheriff's Office indicate a deputy went to Hartless' home to attempt to serve him with a copy of the protection order.
Sheriff Randy Thorp said Monday he did not believe the deputy was successful in serving Hartless with a copy of the restraining order. The deputy was reportedly told Hartless no longer lived at the residence.
Domestic violence report filed, but no charges filed
Almost exactly seven days before she was gunned down by Hartless, Medrano went to the Newark Police station to file a report alleging domestic violence.
In the report, filed at 8:04 a.m. May 5, Medrano said Hartless had choked her on two occasions between May 1 and May 4, the latter occurring about 10 hours before she went to police.
Court records available to The Advocate indicate no charges were ever filed and Hartless was not arrested.
The domestic violence charge, had it been filed, would have been a felony.
Licking County Prosecutor Bill Hayes said Monday morning he did not want to comment on any potential pending investigations into Hartless until the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which is leading the investigation into Friday's shooting, had authorized the release.
Thorp said Monday without reviewing the entirety of circumstances surrounding Hartless' criminal cases, early release and possession of the firearm, it is hard to assign blame for what happened on any specific person or entity. However, he said blame being directed at the jail is misguided.
"We don't decide when someone gets out of jail," he said. "They say when to release someone and we do."
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