By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY AREA —
Judith A. Delgros and Donald D. Morris Sr. has not known each other for very long before they got married.
He was recently divorced from his first wife after a long marriage when he met Delgros, who was wedded twice before.
“He went down to Florida to see his parents and came back with a wife,” said Morris’ daughter, Angela Taylor, of Sharon.
Taylor chalked up the marriage to her father being “starved for companionship.”
“It was just a bad move,” she said.
Morris, 41, and Delgros’ son, Christopher Styles, 5, died in 1978, and Delgros was convicted 15 years later of aggravated murder for stabbing Morris to death and starting a fire that claimed Styles.
Because the Ohio death penalty law in place at the time of the deaths was later ruled unconstitutional, Delgros could not be sentenced to capital punishment. She was sentenced to two life terms.
However, the terms were not imposed without the possibility of parole.
Thursday, Delgros, who has served not quite 20 years, will have her first parole hearing.
Taylor has written a letter to the Ohio Parole Board asking that Delgros, 62, stay in prison, fearing that she remains a danger to society, particularly to children.
“I know that she is an undue risk,” Taylor said.
Trumbull County Prosecuting Attorney Dennis Watkins, who was prosecutor at the time of Delgros’ trial, also is asking that she not be paroled, arguing that, short of hell, prison is the appropriate place for her.
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Delgros’ trial judge called the 1993 trial “one of the most interesting cases this (Trumbull) county has ever had.”
Prior to convicting Delgros, formerly of Hempfield Township, of two counts of aggravated murder, jurors heard conflicting testimony by brothers, saw the bones of one of the victims as an anthropologist used them to show why he reached his conclusions, and considered witchcraft as a possible motive.
An interesting case, a bizarre case, an unforgettable case.
It started when Burghill-Vernon firefighters were called at 12:35 a.m. Jan. 3, 1978, to a mobile home on Orangeville-Kinsman Road in Vernon Township. It took firefighters from four departments nearly five hours to get the blaze under control.
Firefighters found Morris and Christopher Styles dead in separate rooms.
Delgros testified she awoke to a burning smell and saw smoke coming through the bedroom door. She said she woke her husband and they left the room and found a wall of flame in the living room.
Morris kicked open the back door and threw her outside, she said. As she got up, her son John Styles, 6, came flying into her arms, she said.
She went next door and summoned Morris’ nephew, Gary. He entered the burning mobile home and ended up on his knees because of the smoke and flames. He found Delgros’ son, Edward Bridge, then 9, and got him outside. He tried to open his uncle’s bedroom door, but it was jammed, and Gary Morris fled the smoke.
The bodies of Donald Morris and Christopher Styles were badly burned and the coroner ruled their deaths accidental due to burns. The fire chief also ruled the blaze an accident, based on Delgros’ story that the furnace had exploded.
Watkins has not publicly second-guessed the conclusions officials made at the time, and noted the fact that autopsies were not ordered was not unusual in 1978.
“In 1978 few would believe a mother would murder her own children,” Watkins said in a letter to the parole board. “Today, sadly, we know better. Evil seems almost commonplace now.”
However, there were parts of the story that didn’t add up, and other officials noticed them almost immediately.
Some fire officials concluded the furnace did not explode and there was more than one point of origin of the fire, indicating the fire was set. Sheriff’s deputies said they believed Morris had non-fire-related injuries on his body and one of his ears was missing.
Other suspicious factors were that Delgros was fully dressed when she claimed she had been sleeping, she made no effort to save her children and she laughed on the way to the hospital.
Also, officials said, blood was found on the steps outside the mobile home and a severed ear was found on the ground.
“Lingering doubts about the case smoldered over the years,” Watkins said.
Those doubts were strong with deputy Dan D’Annunzio. He was an investigator of the blaze, but was later reassigned to traffic duty.
“(The) terrible fire deaths ... never left (my) mind,” D’Annunzio said in 1993.
He was reassigned to the investigation unit and reopened the case, with Watkins’ blessing.
Because it had been some years since the blaze, and Delgros’ children were older, D’Annunzio sought out Bridge, whose troubled childhood became a troubled adulthood. Bridge was in a Pennsylvania state prison serving time for rape.
Bridge was not initially receptive to D’Annunzio’s overtures to talk.
“I got real belligerent,” Bridge testified at his mother’s trial.
He said he wanted to know why police would bring up the fire after all the time that had passed.
“It just seemed like Mr. D’Annunzio cared because he’s been working on it so long,” Bridge testified. “I trusted him.”
Bridge told D’Annunzio that Delgros and Morris had argued the day of the fire, with Morris accusing her of seeing another man.
That night, Bridge said, Delgros gave him and his brothers about four or five teaspoons of cough syrup - enough to induce sleep in youngsters, a medical expert said - before bed. He woke up to go to the bathroom and saw Delgros and Morris arguing and Morris slapping her.
Delgros responded by hitting Morris in the back of the head with something, Bridge said. Morris fell and Delgros ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife; she went back to where Morris was and stabbed him four or five times while standing over him, Bridge said.
Bridge also said he saw Delgros pouring something into the furnace.
With Bridge’s new information, officials had the bodies of Morris and Christopher Styles exhumed. Summit County Coroner Dr. William A. Cox performed an autopsy, and enlisted a forensic anthropologist, Douglas W. Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution, to assist him due to the time the bodies had been buried.
Although the unembalmed bodies were badly decomposed, the experts found that four ribs on each side of Morris’ body and a small piece of vertebra had been cut off, and evidence that indicated Morris had bled profusely before he died.
“We clearly have an individual who was stabbed in the back multiple times, possibly seven times,” Owsley testified.
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With the forensic evidence, Bridge’s story and arson evidence, prosecutors sought and obtained a grand jury indictment against Delgros. She was arrested March 22, 1993 in Sharon, where she worked.
In his opening arguments at Delgros’ trial, Watkins sent the trial into another realm when he hinted witchcraft could have been a motive for the killings.
“She told many people she was a witch and practiced witchcraft,” he said.
Although prosecutors later asked the jury to forget the witchcraft testimony, the black cat was out of the bag. Witnesses testified that Delgros claimed to practice witchcraft, firefighters told of finding books on witchcraft and the occult in the mobile home, and one book had a section on how to cut off an ear as a sacrifice.
Bridge testified his mother had a satanic symbol tattooed on her arm, showed him what witchcraft symbols meant and had Tarot cards and books on spells.
In her testimony denying that she is a witch, Delgros said she espoused orthodox Christian views and believed the Bible “verbatim.” Using witchcraft is “wrong” she said, and claimed to teach the Bible to her children.
Her story was backed by John Styles, who said she never talked about witchcraft or the occult, believed in God and raised her sons to believe in God.
Styles said the tattoo was a constellation of the zodiac, while Delgros testified it was supposed to show three crosses, signifying the crucifixion, but the actual drawing was “open to interpretation.”
She called the tattoo an embarrassment because of the passage in Leviticus that says a person is not supposed to put a mark on his or her body.
“This was a period of time when I was trying to reconcile my faith,” she said, referring to the three years following the fire. “I made some mistakes and this (tattoo) was one of them.”
John Styles criticized officials for “ignoring” his story in favor of Bridge’s.
“My story and my mom’s seem to corroborate,” he told The Herald at the time.
Styles, who was living in Greenville, said his mom was incapable of committing the crimes. He recalled Morris saving him from the fire, and couldn’t understand why Bridge would change his story about what happened the night of the fire.
He explained his mother’s supposed laughing on the way to the hospital as a natural reaction to sadness.
“My mom laughs before she cries,” he said.
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Delgros’ children had been taken away from her when she lived in Florida - she was able to get them back after the marriage to Morris - a fact that Taylor said is a sign of Delgros’ character, and a reason why she should remain behind bars.
“I fear what she could do,” Taylor said. “Not so much to me but someone else. I’m afraid of what she could do to someone else, especially children. If she can do this to her own children, she doesn’t have any motherly instinct.”
Taylor added that Delgros has shown no remorse for Christopher Styles’ death. In her letter to the parole board, Taylor “demands” that Delgros serve her full sentence.
Watkins said someone convicted of Delgros’ crimes today would be sentenced to death, consecutive 30-year terms or life with no eligibility for parole.
Such crimes “demand a severe penalty if punishment is to have a reasonable societal meaning,” Watkins said.
Having served less than 20 years, Delgros has not served a “meaningful” sentence, he said.
“(T)here is a special place for persons who murder their own children and it is not in Ohio, the United States, or any other land on earth, and, afterwards, it is not heaven,” Watkins said. “It is prison, then that other place.”