Neither the killer nor his victim is from Marion – the former is originally from Columbus while the latter is from Dayton. He’s heading north out of Columbus (where he committed the crime earlier in the day) and eventually enters Marion County. On the floor of the killer’s van lies the lifeless body of the girl. At some point the killer leaves the highway and begins cruising the deserted county roads east of Waldo. He’s looking for a place to leave his victim’s body, and at the intersection of Gearhiser and Prospect-Mt. Vernon Roads, he spots the small creek running parallel to Prospect-Mt. Vernon Road. And so it is there on the creek bed that he dumps his victim, 9-year-old Nydra Ross.
She’s not the first child he’s killed.
Satisfied that his victim is well-hidden among the spring foliage, the killer gets back in his van and heads back to Columbus. The fate of Nydra Ross will remain unknown until the following fall. It will be an even longer wait until the killer is once again in Marion, and this time it will be to stand trial with nothing less than his own life at stake.
On September 27th, 1988, a hunter making his way through the brush found what appeared to be human bones and called the Marion County Sheriff’s Department. Marion County Coroner Robert Gray initially speculated that the bones had been lying in the elements for at least a month and possibly even six. He also determined that the bones belonged to a black girl, possibly ten or eleven years old, 4-foot 6-inches. These details led local law enforcement to speculate that the bones were those of Nydra Ross, a Dayton girl who disappeared from her aunt and uncle’s Columbus home on March 31st, 1988, while on a visit there.
To determine if the bones really belonged to Ross, investigators took bone marrow from the bones and blood from Ross’ mother, Wonder Ross.2 They sent the samples off to a lab in New York, and by January of 1989, investigators had their answer: the girl was Nydra Ross. However, the exact cause of death was unclear due to the length of time the body had been outside. The coroner could find no evidence that the girl had been stabbed or shot and concluded that she was most likely strangled to death.3
Throughout the Nydra Ross investigation, law enforcement focused almost exclusively on one man, Columbus resident David Penton. The evidence linking Penton to Nydra Ross was circumstantial but compelling. Penton worked with Nydra’s uncle and had, in fact, spent the night at Nydra’s aunt and uncle’s house the night before the girl went missing. Most damning was a large blood stain found in the carpeting under one of the seats of Penton’s van. Although police couldn’t conclusively prove that the blood was Nydra’s (in the late 80s DNA was just beginning to appear as a tool in criminal investigations), it was another fact Penton couldn’t easily explain.4 On May 11th, 1990, a Marion County grand jury indicted Penton for aggravated murder and kidnapping. He faced a possible death sentence.5
The trial of David Penton got under way in Marion on April 4th, 1991, over three and a half years after Nydra’s body was discovered.6 By this time, Marion County Prosecutor Jim Slagle was ready to present his case: Penton was a pedophile who had somehow lured Nydra into his van where he sexually assaulted and then murdered her.
In addition to the physical evidence, Jim Slagle also called to the stand several men who had been incarcerated with Penton right after he was arrested in Columbus . All of their stories were remarkably similar. One ex-con testified that Penton admitted he had talked Nydra into getting into his van where he then raped and strangled her.8 Another former inmate testified that Penton had attempted to have sex with Nydra, but when she resisted he “smacked her and [realized] he couldn’t take her home. And that’s when he strangled her to death.”9 Whether Penton murdered her during the course of the assault because she resisted or because he became afraid that she would later tell someone about what he had done to her remains unclear to this day.
On April 20th, 1991, the jury found Penton guilty of aggravated murder and kidnapping, and on April 24th they recommended a sentence of 30-years-to-life. For her part, Nydra’s mother reacted to the verdict by saying, “I’m very happy about it. Now he won’t be able to hurt anybody else’s child.”10
Although the jury could have sent Penton to the electric chair, they ultimately decided that “the state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances of the crime outweighed the mitigating circumstances.”11 Shortly thereafter, Penton began serving his sentence in Marion at MCI.
Not the End of the Story
Throughout the trial other disturbing information about Penton began to emerge. Two of Penton’s ex-wives reported that he had sexually abused their children. Penton was also convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Texas in 1985 after he shook his infant son to death. He appealed the conviction and, after posting bond, fled Texas (presumably going back to Ohio).12 What’s more, in late April of 1991, authorities in Texas announced that they were “investigating…Penton in connection with the deaths of three Texas girls.” Penton had lived in Fort Hood, Texas during the 80s while serving in the military.13
Finally, in May of 2003, Texas authorities charged Penton with the murders of three Dallas-area girls, Christi Meeks, 5, Christie Proctor, 9, and Roxann Reyes, 4. Once again, David Penton was facing the death penalty.14
In the summer of 2003, Penton was extradited back to Texas to face the three murder charges.15 On January 6th , 2005, David Penton, in order to avoid facing execution, pled guilty to murdering the three Texas girls. He returned to Ohio to continue serving his life sentence for the Ross murder but with the addition of three life sentences for the Texas murders. At the time, Marion County Prosecutor Jim Slagle told the Marion Star, “The bottom line is that he is going to be in prison for the rest of his life.”16
In the wake of Penton’s Texas convictions, evidence has surfaced that Penton may have murdered even more children. In an article appearing in the Tyler Morning Telegraph in Tyler, Texas, detective Gary Sweet of the Garland, Texas police said that Penton was suspected in the disappearance of at least three other Texas girls. Sweet went on to say that, “Penton has made claims to killing more than 50 children across the states. I personally believe the actual number is between 25 and 30.”17
Penton is currently incarcerated in the Toledo Correctional Institution. The actual number of his victims remains unknown to all but, presumably, Penton.
1. The Marion Star, September 27th, 1988
2. The Marion Star, November 28th, 1988
3. The Marion Star, January 31st, 1988
5. The Marion Star, May 11th, 1990
6. The Marion Star, April 4th, 1991
7. The Marion Star, April 13th, 1991
8. The Marion Star, April 12th, 1991
9. The Marion Star, April 13th, 1991
10. The Marion Star, April 20th, 1991
11. The Marion Star, April 24th, 1991
12. The Marion Star, April 24th, 1991
13. The Marion Star, April 28th, 1991
14. The Marion Star, May 23rd, 2003
15. The Marion Star, August 8th, 2003
16. The Marion Star, January 8th, 2005
17. Tyler Morning Telegraph, March 4th, 2007