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3News Investigates: Exclusive audio reveals suspect admitting sexual encounter with Barbara Blatnik on night of her murder

James Zastawnik denied meeting until faced with DNA; told family he drove her to his home, but did not kill her.

CLEVELAND — When the detectives came a second time asking about Barbara Blatnik, he still seemed stumped by the name.

No memory of any encounter with the Garfield Heights teen murdered over 33 years ago.

“It doesn’t ring a bell at all,” James Zastawnik told the detectives last year.

While he boasted of having many sexual encounters in his younger days, he had no recall of ever meeting the 17-year-old whose 1987 death police were again investigating.

“Too damn many of them,” Zastawnik, then 67, said of his past flings. “I used to be a whore.”

But just two days later -- and after his arrest for Barbara’s murder and after learning for the first time that DNA connected him -- Zastawnik suddenly displayed a vivid recollection of meeting the teen.

The revelation came in a recording never aired publicly but obtained by 3News Investigates.

The audio marks the first time Zastawnik acknowledged meeting the teen, an admission that promised to be a key piece of evidence for prosecutors

It came in a phone call he made May 8, 2020 from inside the Summit County Jail in which Zastawnik told his sister: where he first saw Barbara, what they said to each other and where exactly he dropped her off after they had what he called a spontaneous and consensual sexual encounter.

That phone call not only placed him with Barbara but made him one of the last people to see her alive.

“I’ve been racking my mind over this crap, and I’m thinking maybe I hooked up with this girl way back when and we had sex from what I can remember. She was coming down Warner Road. I seen her walking and it was cold outside and I said, ‘Hey, you want a ride?” Zastawnik explained to his sister during a recorded phone call while being held in the Summit County Jail.

“She said, ‘Do you live by here?’ And I said, yeah. And she said, ‘Can I use your phone?’ So, I took her over to the house and…I put her on the phone and she got into a big argument with somebody and slammed the phone down and started crying.

“So, one thing led to another and we wound up in bed. But the last I saw her I dropped her at the corner of Grand Division and Warner Road. That’s the last time I saw her…So, that’s why my DNA got all over her.”

That was also the last night Barbara Blatnik was seen alive. You can hear a portion of the audio in the video player above.

In May 2020, Zastawnik was indicted for the 1987 slaying of the teen, closing a cold-case investigation that spanned decades. He pleaded not guilty.

But Zastawnik would never be convicted of the killing. He died of cancer in August while awaiting trial. To the family of the slain teen, his death robbed them of answers they had waited decades to learn.

“I don’t like the end of this story,” said Barbara’s sister, Donna. “Barbie didn’t get her day in court. Our father didn’t. I didn’t. I wanted to look him in the eye and ask him why he did it. I want to call him a liar and I wanted the whole world to know what a horrible man he is.

“He’s a maniacal murderer and rapist and he got away with it. He literally got away with it.”

In response to a public records request by 3News Investigates, Summit County prosecutors provided a copy of the evidence gathered by police in the past 33 years.

An attorney for Zastawnik did not immediately comment when reached by 3News Investigates.

The recorded phone call Zastawnik made to his sister was expected to be played to a jury, providing prosecutors with another link between the teen and their prime suspect.

All inmate phone calls are recorded and both the inmate and the caller are alerted to that fact.

Prosecutors released hundreds of pages of records, along with videos and recordings.

The same prosecution records, however, show the case may have never been built at all. Cuyahoga Falls Police for years had stopped looking for the teen’s killer while vital evidence was misplaced or lost for periods of time.

The prosecutor file shows that evidence, including the fingernail clippings, was missing when detectives tried to revive the case in 2004.

“Most of the evidence collected in the case could not be located,” a report showed. Efforts to find hair and fingernail clippings “were fruitless.”

Other items such as swabs collected from Barbara’s body were “packaged incorrectly and were useless” for testing.

It would be 10 years before Cuyahoga Falls Det. Randy Tlumac went on a search and located the evidence in storage, making it available for testing.

The fingernail clippings provided DNA of an unknown male. More testing eventually showed the DNA belonged to Zastawnik, court records show.

In all those years, Zastawnik was never mentioned as a suspect, despite a prior record of indecent exposure and living on Avondale Avenue, one block from Warner Road where Barbara was dropped off by friends early on Dec. 20, 1987.

An oil company driver happened to find her nude body was found the next morning, dumped 10 feet off O’Neil Road near Blossom Music Center. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

Barbara last spoke to her father the night of Dec. 19, telling him she was at a party and would be home soon. Friends say they dropped Barbara off near Warner Road and Grand Division, where she intended to meet with a boyfriend.

She never arrived and was never seen alive again.

For the next three decades, only a school photo of the blonde-haired teen appeared periodically as another Northeast Ohio unsolved murder.

It wasn’t The Porchlight Project, a non-profit conceived by true crime author James Renner, in 2019 offered to fund DNA genealogical testing that ultimately developed a match to Zastawnik.

Prosecutors say DNA found under Barbara’s fingernails came from the skin of Zastawnik.

Armed with that evidence, Cuyahoga Falls detectives visited Zastawnik’s home in Cleveland to question him for the first time on May 6, 2020.

They wanted to know why Zastawnik’s DNA was found under Barbara’s fingernails.

“I’m a lover, not a fighter,” Zastawnik told detectives. “If I was involved in her murder, I’d tell you.”

During the recorded encounter, Zastawnik never acknowledged the encounter with Barbara that he would relay in great detail to his sister just two days later.

After talking with the detectives and refusing a polygraph test because “they scare me,” Zastawnik was placed under arrest. During the ride from Cleveland to Cuyahoga Falls, he said little, despite the efforts of detectives.

“Want to drop by Blossom and show us where you dumped the body?” one detective asked Zastawnik.

“I have nothing to say until I talk to a lawyer,” he replied.

Zastawnik denied killing her.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, his $100,000 bond was eventually reduced to 10 percent of $350,000 and he was allowed in July 2020 to leave the jail and live with his brother while awaiting trial.

“I feel I’m being railroaded,” Zastawnik said in a jail phone call to his family. “It’s insane.”