Officials: Kirkersville killer should not have been released early from jail

Licking County Municipal Court Judge Michael Higgins said he will go to his grave regretting that he didn't know Thomas Hartless' name.

"I had no idea who it was, and I have to live with that," Higgins said.

Higgins granted the release for Hartless on April 11, about one month before Hartless killed Kirkersville Police Chief Steven DiSario, nurse aide Cindy Krantz and nurse Marlina Medrano at the Pine Kirk Care Center before taking his own life on May 12.

On Thursday, Higgins released a report detailing many mistakes made in the release of Hartless, as well as new procedures in place to prevent this type of tragedy in the future.

Hartless had served less than three weeks of a 90-day jail sentence for three domestic violence convictions that Higgins handed down on March 23.

On Friday, Higgins answered questions about the report.

More: Judge's review finds multiple errors in Hartless case

More: Kirkersville shooting: A timeline of tragedy

More: Full Kirkersville coverage

There will be disciplinary action for the probation officers involved in the Hartless case, Higgins said, but that discipline, or when it will take place, has not yet been determined.

Director of the Adult Probation Department Kevin Saad said the discipline could be as high as termination.

The probation officers involved in this case have not been suspended and are still working.

Saad could also face disciplinary action, but that is up to Licking County Municipal Court Judge David Stansbury, who is taking the lead on this investigation. Higgins said he does not plan to resign over this incident.

Although Higgins and Saad both agree there were lapses by the courts and probation officers, Higgins also said the only person to truly blame for this tragedy is Hartless.

At the time, Higgins said he felt he imposed an appropriate sentence. He said there were reluctant witnesses and contradictory statements.

Higgins said he relies exclusively on the information he is fed and his memory of the situation.

He said he takes domestic violence cases seriously, even if the public doesn't feel that way. He said these cases are one of the most difficult to prosecute because there are often reluctant witnesses.

"This job isn't easy, we deal with 20,000 cases a year," Higgins said.

Just Thursday and Friday, Higgins said he had seven domestic violence cases come before him. 

But, Saad did said if the county's process had been properly followed by the probation officer, Hartless would not have been released from jail.

Saad also said the Oakland Avenue address in Utica, where more than 60 guns were found, was the address on file for Hartless. Hartless was not supposed to be in possession of weapons, and Saad said it's appalling that all those guns were found there. 

Saad said they do plan to review other domestic violence and violation of protection order cases for any similar lapses.

Higgins said Stansbury hopes to have a domestic violence symposium, bringing together different players in the community, such as law enforcement and the Center for New Beginnings, to share resources and become familiar with each other.

Higgins said he has not yet spoken to the victims of the shootings, as he didn't think that would be appropriate at this time. He said he was physically sick when hearing of the shooting and said it is horrific to think about children growing up without parents as a result of the tragedy.

Higgins has been a municipal court judge in Licking County since 1991. Prior to his appointment as a judge, Higgins served as a municipal court prosecutor from 1978 to 1991.

The Newark Advocate


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