LISBON - Amid allegations of witness intimidation, an East Palestine man with several past felony convictions was found not guilty by a jury in Columbiana County Municipal Court Wednesday of an assault charge.
James V. Rhodes, was found not guilty of assaulting Melinda Schroeder, who in February told police Rhodes put his hands around her neck and threatened to kill her.
This week, Schroeder and her boyfriend ,Wayne Gorby, gave a different story.
Assistant County Prosecutor Virginia Barborak said Schroeder and Gorby approached her on Tuesday asking for her to drop the charges against Rhodes. When asked why, both testified they were afraid after learning of third-party threats about what Rhodes may do to them.
"I'm afraid of what could happen," Schroeder said Wednesday afternoon when asked why initially she did not come to court. "Stuff and threats he has said to other people. I'm just concerned for me and my family."
Neither Schroeder nor Gorby showed up for the jury trial Wednesday morning, prompting Barborak to send Deputy Steve Boyd to the house to check on them.
Boyd testified that when he arrived at the house he identified himself as a police officer three times and entered the house. He found Schroeder hiding behind a door and Gorby still in bed. He said he had initially served the couple with the subpoena regarding the case and was told at that point they were afraid and did not want to testify. Boyd said his dispatchers told him Barborak had requested he bring them to court. He said they both reiterated that to him on the way to court on Wednesday.
When she testified Wednesday, Schroeder stated she now did not believe Rhodes was trying to hurt her in February when he put his hands around her neck. Instead, she said, she thinks he was trying to scare her.
East Palestine patrolman Matthew Elser testified that when Schroeder approached his cruiser in the early morning hours in February she was scared, upset and had a noticeable red mark on her cheek. He photographed marks on both her cheek and her neck.
Testimony also covered an argument Schroeder and Gorby had at the home of Rhodes' girlfriend, Shawna Lewis, earlier that night. Schroeder testified she had tried to call 911 during the argument and Gorby had taken the phone from her. Schroeder testified she was shoved and fell down a couple steps, but also claimed Gorby did not push her.
Gorby concurred, stating he was backing Schroeder up and she was backing up.
"I don't want people to think I shoved her down the steps," Gorby said.
The 911 call prompted a call to police and Elser testified when no one would come to the door or answer the phone, he began kicking the door in order to get inside. At that point, he said, Rhodes and Lewis answered the door and claimed Schroeder was not there. Elser said he got permission, checked the house and confirmed she was not there. That was at about 3:15 a.m. Feb. 23.
Schroeder had also been stopped by police earlier in the evening when she was driving Lewis' vehicle. Elser testified he stopped her because of a crack in the windshield, cited her with driving under suspension and towed the vehicle. Lewis had arrived and offered to drive her vehicle a short distance home to avoid the impound fees, but Elser said he would not let her drive it because she was intoxicated.
Everyone involved seemed to agree Rhodes and Schroeder argued about the money for the impounded vehicle later after Schroeder returned following the initial 911 call. Schroeder reportedly agreed she would get money from her mother in the morning to pay the bill, but Lewis testified Schroeder had money on her and they wanted to get it from her then. Sometime during that argument was when Schroeder testified the assault had occurred.
However, her boyfriend, Gorby, testified he was behind Rhodes and only saw his hands up near the top of her shirt. Lewis denied Rhodes ever threatened to kill Schroeder and did not touch her.
Defense attorney Coleen Dailey painted a different picture for the jury during closing arguments stating Gorby and Schroeder were afraid to testify because they were lying, not because of any perceived threats.
Barborak quoted Ben Franklin in her closing statement, "You sleep with dogs, you get fleas," she said. "None of these people are pillars of society, but that doesn't mean a crime has not been committed."
According to his criminal record Rhodes has nine past felony convictions both here and in Pennsylvania, including charges of battery, domestic violence and aggravated assault with a weapon.