Ohio gunman was in property dispute, neighbors say

AP News
Posted: Aug 08, 2011 10:00 PM
Ohio gunman was in property dispute, neighbors say

A gunman who killed seven people during a weekend rampage in his Ohio neighborhood cornered one of his victims, his girlfriend's 11-year-old nephew, in the basement of a house, ordered out the family sheltering the boy and then shot him, police said Monday.

Michael Hance's cold-blooded killing of such a young victim after stalking seven other people on a tidy suburban Akron street named Goodenough Avenue was, neighbors said, the culmination of a dispute over a home that once belonged to his girlfriend's parents.

Hance, 51, had no previous criminal record before the outburst late Sunday morning and his death in a shootout with police in Copley, where a flag flew at half-staff Monday outside the home where the carnage began.

Hance had recently grown angry over residents' comments about the property where he lived with his girlfriend, Becky Dieter, neighbor Carol Eshleman said. About a month ago, Hance's next-door neighbor Gudrun "Gerdie" Johnson had asked Hance to clean up the property, which included a broken-down car on blocks.

Johnson related the encounter to Eshleman, explaining that she'd never seen Hance so upset. "He said, `Get off my property and don't come back,'" Eshleman said.

Gilbert Elie, who lives across from the Johnsons' home, said one of them had complained about the property to a councilwoman in the neighborhood. Messages seeking comment from Copley Township Trustee Helen Humphrys, who lives nearby, were not returned Monday, and it was not clear if there was ever a formal complaint made.

Johnson, 64, was killed in the attack, along with her husband, 67-year-old Russell Johnson; their 44-year-old son Bryan Johnson and his daughter Autumn, 16; Becky Dieter's brother, Craig Dieter, and his 11-year-old son, Scott; and an unidentified girl who was slain while in a parked car with Autumn outside the Johnsons' home.

Becky Dieter, the gunman's longtime girlfriend and a Veterans Administration clerk, was also shot but survived and remains hospitalized.

Authorities on Monday were still trying to work out details of the shootings and a motive for Hance's actions. But comments from police and neighbors help stitch together a picture of a man prone to conflict and under increasing pressure from neighbors to take his life elsewhere.

Hance had worked at a printer's shop in Akron but quit after a dispute and didn't work again, Eshleman said, although Becky Dieter urged him to find a job.

He was a little slow but often read textbooks on diseases and medical procedures and tried to get others interested, she said. He also made and drank odd health concoctions and claimed he didn't have to work because he was an inventor, Eshleman said.

He also seemed constantly under stress, trying to deal with possessions of relatives who had recently died, said Eshleman, a 64-year-old driver for public school special education students.

"Mike was strange," she said, but "I wouldn't think he'd go to this extreme."

The suburban block features generally well-kept yards with small houses, some better maintained than others.

On Monday, the two-story brick-and-siding house where Dieter lived stood out little except for a blue tarp held down by two-by-fours across one section of the roof. There were cars in the backyard but none visibly on blocks, and a flower bed bloomed in the front yard.

The dispute apparently dated to the deaths of Becky and Craig Dieters' parents a couple of years ago, said Eshleman, who was a caregiver for Dieters' parents and also knew Hance. Becky Dieter's brother, Craig, wanted the house sold, but instead Hance and Becky Dieter moved in, Eshleman said.

Robin Hancock, a former caregiver for the Dieters' late parents, called Hance an unpleasant, disliked person whose confrontational style led her to stop working for the couple.

"He was quiet and strange," said Hancock, 53, of Akron, who concurred that there was tension over the ownership of the property in Copley, a township of 11,000 just west of Akron.

Gerdie Johnson spoke frequently of how odd she found Hance, said Sherri Moore, a lifelong friend who now lives in nearby Wadsworth.

The carnage on Goodenough Avenue began just before 11 a.m. Sunday.

Craig and Beth Dieter had driven to Copley from their home in Walton, Ky., to work on the property dispute and were visiting the Johnsons when the shooting occurred, Eshleman said. In a parked car outside were 16-year-old Autumn and the unidentified girl.

All were fatally shot except for Beth Dieter; it was unclear how she escaped harm or where she was Monday. Becky Dieter, the gunman's girlfriend, was shot around the same time as she came out of their house next door, police said.

Elie, 76, said he heard gunshots and cries for help as he got ready for church. In an account that differed slightly from the police version, Elie said he went to the house and found victims in the driveway, near the garage and in a vehicle whose windows appeared to have been blown out by gunfire.

A third woman _ apparently Becky Dieter _ came out of the house next door and tried to talk to Elie, but their brief exchange ended abruptly when a man followed her out of the house and shot her. Elie ran for cover behind a truck.

"She was talking to me, and he come up behind her and shot her, so I figured, maybe I'm next," he told The Associated Press.

He hid until he could see the gunman was gone and returned home. Police arrived, and Elie said he heard a second round of shots coming from behind the houses.

That, if police reports correspond, would have been Hance shooting Bryan Johnson at a different house after chasing him down a grassy alley guarded by a "Caution: Watch for Children" sign.

Police say 11-year-old Scott Dieter was shot at a third house where he had apparently sought refuge; the family that sheltered him was let go, but Scott Dieter was fatally shot in the basement, police said.

Hance died in a gunfight with police outside that home, authorities said, taking specifics of his motive with him.

"That's one of the puzzles here, why was he going after the child," Copley police Detective Joe Krunich said at a news conference Monday.

The nature of the Johnsons' involvement in the property dispute, other than their dismay at the upkeep of their neighbors' property, was unclear.

Gerdie Johnson was originally from Germany and met her husband when he was in the military, Moore said.

Russ Johnson was a devoted father who helped coach their children in sports, took them camping and rode motorbikes with them. He had undergone heart surgeries in recent years and was careful about his health.

"He was eating healthy and exercising, and a tragedy like this happens," Moore said.

Gerdie Johnson was a receptionist at a furniture store for two decades, and Russ Johnson ran an upholstery business behind his house.


Andrew Welsh-Huggins, who reported from Columbus, can be reached at http://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. Associated Press writer Kantele Franko also contributed to this report.