Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dark Secrets of Christopher Below -- Part I

Akron Beacon Journal (OH)

Author: Craig Webb and Gina Mace , Beacon Journal writers

Dateline: MEDINA  Many of the women in his life remember him, first of all, as a Southern gentleman -- a tall, brown-haired Southern gentleman with piercing blue eyes who had an uncommon ability to charm his way into their hearts and homes.

There seemed to be no reason to suspect anything sinister lurked beneath that surface.

Thirteen years ago, when he was but 25, it was that charm that ensnared a married Medina woman of the same age into a summerlong affair, and it was his intriguing tales of adventure that kept her interested.

But when guilt got the better of Kathern Fetzer and she decided to bring the episode to an end, a strikingly different side of Christopher Below emerged.

The 1991 affair had been secretive -- the way Below liked things -- so secretive, in fact, that neither of their spouses suspected anything.

Below and Fetzer stole minutes together in the parking lot of PlastiKote, where they met while working as temporary employees. When Fetzer -- a petite woman with long, brown hair -- left for another assignment, Below would show up at her new workplace on his motorcycle to offer her a ride.

They even worked out a signal for after hours when he wanted her.

Below would drive by her Lafayette Road home in his old white postal jeep and its loud muffler would sound the alert.

Fetzer would make a quick excuse to her husband, then leave to rendezvous with Below in the parking lot of Medina's Super K store. It had gone on that way for months.

So when Fetzer left a note for her husband on that Tuesday before Thanksgiving, saying she was restless'' and going to the mall, Michael Fetzer had no way of knowing he would never see her again.

In fact, when Fetzer didn't come home, her husband didn't know where to look.

Deputies found her locked car a day later, 20 miles away, in a gravel truck turnaround on state Route 83 near the Wayne County line, but the car had no fingerprints, no bloodstains, no clues.

Kathern Fetzer had vanished.

In time, her husband would find a box she kept stashed away that revealed a registered letter Below had sent to her.

In it, he had written: I want you to know that I really do miss you and hoping to see you again real soon ...''

It was laced with misspellings and tales of heroism and adventure from a fake military career.

Well my mission has been accomplished,'' he wrote. I finally found my father and was on my way out when he threw himself on top of a gerenade that was meant to take me out.

He saved my life!''

The letter told of nonexistent battle wounds, yet another of Below's stories that drew Medina detectives -- hopelessly searching for traces of Kathern Fetzer -- into a 12-year odyssey, probing for shreds of truth in the strange, secret life of Christopher Below.

He was born in Lorain and raised in Kentucky, the product of an unhappy marriage that his father calls the biggest mistake of his life.

James Below was served divorce papers in boot camp while preparing to ship off to Vietnam. His son, Christopher, was about a year old then.

His ex-wife, Doris, told their son his father was dead -- until years later when he showed up on her doorstep, back from the war, wanting to visit the 5-year-old.

It was the last time that father and son would be together in a dozen years, but it was also a moment Christopher Below would later recall, in drunken ruminations, as an experience that scarred him.

His mother remarried -- to Thomas McDaniel, a man the youngster didn't get along with -- and as a teenager, Christopher Below was sent to live on a farm with her uncle, William Jellybean'' Oglesby.

Doris McDaniel later explained to detectives that her son had a hard time adjusting to the large high school in Henderson, Ky., and the farm in nearby Dawson Springs offered him an alternative.

But Below would tell the same detectives Jellybean'' was the only one who ever loved him.

The farm was situated in the western reaches of the state, not far from where the Ohio River separates Kentucky from Indiana. Family members said he loved to roam that rural countryside and it was there he came of age, smoking marijuana by the age of 12 -- a precursor to the drug and alcohol abuse that was to come.

In time, his boasts of military exploits became common ploys for picking up women, but the truth was far less enviable.

He joined the Army after graduating from Union County High School in 1985, but he stuck with it less than two months because, according to the investigative file, he developed an inflammation beneath the skin, an ailment called cellulitis.

Years later, Below's step-father would tell detectives his stepson called home often during his Army days to report a raft of injuries from basic training, yet when they visited him at the base, they found his only wound was a foot blister.

After the Army, Below drifted from job to job, working at factories, driving trucks. As late as 1991, he tried to rejoin the military -- this time the Marines -- but records show he failed again, never making it to boot camp.

In short order, Lt. David Shows, a Medina police detective, concluded that Kathern Fetzer was dead and that Christopher Below had killed her. He just couldn't prove it.

Nonetheless, Shows confronted Below with his theory three weeks after Fetzer's disappearance Nov. 26, 1991.

Within two weeks, Below was in a Barberton pawnshop selling a .380 semiautomatic pistol for $40 -- the same gun he had purchased at a Medina gun show 17 days before Fetzer vanished.

And there was more.

By April 1992, Below's third marriage was on the rocks and his ex-wife had something to tell the detective.

She said a friend of her ex-husband had been at the Belows' Lodi apartment on the day Fetzer disappeared. The friend was there, she said, to help Below move a car that looked like Fetzer's.

Shows met with the friend, Richard A. Lawrence, and the pieces began to snap into place.

According to Shows, Lawrence said:

+ Below showed up at his Lodi home Nov. 26 driving his mud-covered white postal jeep, and asked Lawrence if he would be around later in the day because he needed his help moving a car.

+ Later that day, he followed Below to a set of railroad tracks in southern Medina County near Burbank where he watched his friend park and leave a blue Ford Tempo -- the same make and color, Lawrence later learned, as the car Fetzer drove.

+ He knew Below was having an affair, but he didn't know with whom. And he didn't connect Fetzer to Below until Below's wife told him the car that belonged to the missing Medina woman was found in the same spot that Lawrence saw Below park the Tempo.

+ At the time, Below told Lawrence he was moving the car from his apartment so his wife would not get suspicious -- because he was repairing it to earn money to buy her a gift.

+ Even though Below explained that he had grease on his hands, it still seemed strange to Lawrence that Below sat alone in the car for some time and appeared to be wiping down the steering wheel and door before getting out.

It was odd, too, Lawrence told Shows, that the blue tarp Below used to cover his motorcycle was in the back of the jeep -- odd, Lawrence said, because Below never left his motorcycle uncovered.

But that spring, shortly after Lawrence came forward to tell Shows his story about the strange relocation of the blue Ford Tempo, Below drove the jeep back to his childhood home in Kentucky.

Neither the white jeep nor the blue tarp was ever seen again.

Sometime in the late 1990s, Christopher Below had a tattoo inked onto his chest depicting two women -- one pretty with long, dark hair and the other with horns.

During one of his many police interrogations, Below explained its significance this way:

``This is the way women are,'' the detective recalled him saying. When you meet her, she's all nice and sweet. Later she turns into a bloodsucking whore.''

Melinda Bass -- one of Below's half-sisters who offered him refuge, allowing him to stay at her home in Indiana -- said women's attraction to him was well established.

``He could sell a woman with white gloves a ketchup Popsicle on a hot summer day,'' she said.

Yet despite Below's apparent confidence, Bass said, her brother would rarely zero in on the best-looking woman in the bar.

He couldn't deal with rejection,'' she explained. He would say. 'I can't handle being turned away.'''

There were numerous girlfriends between and during Below's four brief marriages.

According to several of them, he would move in, promise to pay bills, buy cars and care for the women, but soon he would abandon them, leaving them emotionally and financially drained.

He had a habit, they said, of running up thousands of dollars in bills for calls to sex lines -- an item that seemed to go along with his peculiar and voracious sexual appetite that many claimed did not stop with women.

They said he had a penchant for threesomes -- a sexual encounter that would involve the two of them and another man.

Sally Bowman, now of Ashland, said Below charmed his way into her life after he split from his third wife, some five months after the disappearance of Kathern Fetzer.

At that time, she said, he was always very nicely dressed, always looked nice. Hair always combed, very clean. And he had a way about him, she insisted, that shouted Southern gentleman.''

Yet, Bowman said, in Below's more odious mode, he suggested she have sex with her then-17-year-old son -- an idea she rejected -- and at another point he brought a man home from a bar so the three of them could have sex.

Most of the women interviewed by police investigators recalled similar instances.

As the search for Fetzer continued and the pursuit of Below dragged on, however, his Southern gentleman pretense became more tenuous.

His drinking grew into a significant problem, according to one girlfriend, who said he lost two jobs because he didn't show up for work and was frequently drinking while driving.

Melinda Bass, his half-sister, also became aware of what she termed his Jekyll-and-Hyde personality.

``You had to walk on eggshells around him,'' she said. ``I considered him a ticking time bomb. It was like someone would flip a switch, and he would become a different person.''

Indeed, the pressure brought on by the investigation showed not only in Below's emotions, but in his appearance as well.

Outwardly he would alternate between an attractive, confident man -- sporting a cowboy hat for a photo he passed out to lure women -- to a strung-out-looking mountain man with unkempt hair and a scraggly beard.

There was one thing, though, that Below couldn't hide by altering his appearance -- a peculiar genetic quirk that gave him a distinctive look. When resting at his sides, his arms were bowed and his hands turned in awkwardly so his palms faced backward with his thumbs against his thighs.

Such a distinction had little relevance until 2003, when a Medina detective, desperate for a revealing glimpse of Below's history, began poking around the Kentucky countryside of his childhood, searching for the possibility of a similar unsolved crime.

It was a long shot, but then suddenly, in the file of an 8-year-old Kentucky case, came a hint of something familiar:

A young woman had vanished without a trace, dragged away by a bearded, long-haired man who had a noticeable physical quirk: the palms of his hands turned awkwardly inward.

Copyright (c) Feb. 2005 Akron Beacon Journal