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Police and fire

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Help from citizen led to arrest in cold case

13-year-old slaying gets closer to being solved

Whoever killed 70-year-old Samuel Hunter sneaked up behind him in his own home.

It was between June 21 and June 24, 2001. And the person who did him in did it with a knife the old man had made himself. Police found the weapon near Hunter’s body, made from a metal file and caked with his blood.

That was nearly 13 years ago. In the years after Hunter was discovered in his rural Metz home with his throat sliced and head battered, no one had been arrested or asked to answer for the killing.

That is, until now.

Nearly a week ago, Steuben County prosecutors charged 49-year-old Mark Matthew Fritz with murder in Hunter’s killing.

And they did so after an investigation conducted by two detectives – one well-versed in cold cases, the other working his first one.

This is an anatomy of that case, in which the police detectives helped flip Fritz’s former sister-in-law into helping them and even enlisted the aid of her teenage daughter as an informant, a girl who slowly got Fritz to confess things to her while he was being secretly recorded.

All that is according to Steuben Superior Court documents released last week. These documents also provided a motive for the killing.

“He’s got coins and guns,” Fritz reportedly said when asked why he killed Hunter.

Drag marks

It’s June 24, 2001, and Deborah Priest is calling 911 from her father’s rural home at 8045 E. 207 S., Angola.

She has just found Samuel Hunter lying near some stairs. There’s blood on the floor.

Later, an autopsy would show that Hunter suffered a gaping wound to the left side of his neck. He also had an injury to the back of his skull about 2 inches wide.

The weapon used to kill Hunter – the homemade knife made from a file – was found on the floor nearby and identified as belonging to him by his daughter, according to court documents.

That night, Deputy Chris Emerick of the Steuben County Sheriff’s Office was on patrol.

Upstairs, Hunter’s guns were missing. So was a safe he had stashed in a closet. Drag marks on the floor showed where the safe had been.

In the immediate aftermath, police interviewed neighbors who lived around and within sight of Hunter’s home.

Several last saw him June 21. Another said she saw him driving his pickup the day before his body was found.

At least one spoke about his guns and how he always kept money in the home.

Another who spoke to detectives pointed out a yellow house next door to Hunter’s that seemed to go suspiciously empty in the days after the man’s disappearance.

Or, if not empty, it became quiet.

The neighbors called it the “Wemus residence” in court documents, since it was at one time the home of a woman named Alicia Wemus.

It was also the home of Mark Fritz, who one neighbor said was seen drinking beer with Hunter but vanished after the killing.

He had killed before

When Deborah Priest called emergency dispatch, Emerick was the nearest officer in the area.

It was his squad car that first pulled up to Hunter’s house, and he was the first person besides Priest to go inside.

Flash forward more than a decade.

Emerick, now a detective, is looking over the case with Detective Kevin Smith of the Indiana State Police.

Detectives in every police department typically have large workloads.

There’s always a new crime, a new case to be tackled, and sometimes those take precedence over cold cases.

Many detectives work cold cases when they can, looking over facts or old reports.

Sometimes they do this when they’re home; sometimes when they can clear away some time here or there.

“The general rule you have to begin with, as daunting as it is, is you can’t solve them if you don’t work on them,” said Smith.

Smith would not talk specifically about the Hunter case, but he’s seen these types of cases before.

In fact, he specializes in them, working from his office in Fort Wayne and going over cold cases throughout northern Indiana while working new cases, as well.

In what might be his most high-profile case, he spent years tracking down the killer of 19-year-old Todd Kelley, whom someone stabbed in a rural Hamilton home in 1989.

Smith’s efforts ultimately led police to a suspect named Mahfuz Huq. Law enforcement tracked him to Bangladesh and then to New Delhi.

Thanks to the work of Smith and others, Huq is serving a 40-year sentence for killing Kelley.

Detectives who work cold cases face many challenges. Evidence gets lost. Witnesses become hard to locate. Witnesses die. Witnesses misremember events or what they saw.

One thing that sometimes turns into a detective’s advantage, Smith said, is that relationships change.

Marriages sour. So do friendships.

“Sometimes, people may be willing to talk who weren’t willing to talk years ago,” Smith said.

Flash forward to December 2013.

Alicia Wemus, the ex-wife of Mark Fritz’s brother, is picked up in Williams County, Ohio, on four felony counts relating to the possession of methamphetamine.

Knowing her connection to Fritz and to the yellow house near Hunter’s, Smith and Emerick – whom Smith described as a young, bright, energetic and straightforward detective – zero in on her.

They pay Wemus a visit at the Bryan Police Department, according to court documents.

They tell her, the documents say, that they will be willing to have her meet with Williams County and Steuben County prosecutors on her current case.

They also want to talk to her about “any other issues relating to the Hunter murder case.”

The next month, Wemus talks to Smith and Emerick while she serves time in a prison in Stryker, Ohio, court documents said.

She tells them she owned the yellow house next door to Hunter but that she quit living there with her husband, Kevin Fritz, before the killing.

After she moved out, Mark Fritz and several others moved in, she told the detectives.

Wemus also says she does not know who committed the killing, but if she “had information to solve the case she would absolutely provide it, to help her out of her current criminal charges in Ohio,” court documents said.

She suspected Mark Fritz because he was “an alcoholic who got violent when drunk.”

Then on April 1, Wemus made a call to one of those same detectives. Her teenage daughter had been contacted by Mark Fritz, she said. He had gotten upset on the phone with the girl’s boyfriend, Wemus told the detectives.

Fritz threatened the girl’s boyfriend, she said. Later, police would learn he said he was going to kill the boy.

Then Fritz added something chilling: He had killed a man before.

‘It’s easy, trust me’

When working a cold case, sometimes a detective needs to just catch a break.

He or she finds the right clue that was overlooked, or there’s a tip that comes in from an anonymous source that pans out and breaks a case open.

Sometimes, though, a detective needs to take matters into his or her own hands.

Detective Jeff Boyd of the Indiana State Police knows Smith and Emerich, and he’s worked his own share of cold cases.

“You need to let those breaks happen,” he said. “Like those guys (Smith and Emerick), sometimes you have to make your own breaks.”

Smith and Emerick travel to a house in Columbia, Ohio, days after hearing from Wemus, who is apparently no longer incarcerated, though court documents don’t make it clear when she got out.

The detectives sit down with Wemus and her daughter.

They have a proposition. Would the teenager be willing to call her uncle again and try to get him to talk about the man he claimed he had killed before?

A day later, the teen is on the phone again with Fritz.

From this conversation, the detectives are able to determine that Fritz is living in Butler with his wife.

They are also able to get a glimpse of Fritz’s dark personality, especially when the teen pushes him and says her boyfriend was scared of him.

“You don’t know me very well,” he tells the teen.

“No, you don’t know me real well, baby, I could kill a person and it doesn’t bother me a bit,” he said.

“It’s easy,” he told the teen. “It’s easy, trust me, it’s easy.”

According to court documents, Fritz identifies the victim only as “the old man,” but he says he killed him by cutting his throat.

Weeks later, the detectives again listen in as the teen calls Fritz.

They listen to him prattle on about what he did the previous day, what he watched on television, and then they hear what they were waiting to hear.

He says the old man he killed was the man who lived next door.

‘Old man in Metz’

It’s Saturday, April 26, 2014, and Mark Fritz is “drinking like hell.” That’s what he says to Wemus as the two speak over the phone.

Wemus is pushing him, telling Fritz that her daughter is scared about something he told her, that she’s frightened. Little does Fritz know that the two Indiana detectives are recording the phone call.

Fritz tells Wemus he did something he shouldn’t have, according to court documents. He says he doesn’t want her to think he’s a bad man.

Then he tells her what police have suspected.

“I killed a man,” he says.

He acknowledges it was the “old man in Metz,” according to court documents.

He “says he likes to knife somebody,” according to court documents.

Fritz agrees to meet Wemus in person, at her house, but only if she can find someone to come pick him up and take him there.

Smith and Emerick recruit an undercover officer with the Steuben County Sheriff’s Office, who in turn contacts a deputy from the Noble County Sheriff’s Office, for help.

The undercover officer acts as Wemus’ friend, and the Noble County deputy goes with him.

When the officers arrive at Fritz’s home in Butler, Fritz immediately tells them that he had killed the old man in Metz, according to court documents.

Still, the officers bring Fritz to Wemus’ home.

With two digital recorders placed in the kitchen and Smith and Emerick upstairs, Fritz and Wemus speak for more than an hour.

Wemus questions Fritz on the details surrounding Hunter’s death, and Fritz at times becomes agitated.

Fritz says “he did something he shouldn’t have done but it’s all good,” the detectives wrote in court documents.

At one point, Wemus says she thought Fritz and Hunter were friends, to which Fritz responds: “Hell no, he’s got coins and guns.”

Fritz then admits, according to court documents, that he went up behind Hunter and slit his throat.

“It should be noted that Mark Fritz is left handed and Samuel Hunter had his throat cut on the left side,” detectives wrote later in court documents.

After the conversation, officers drive Fritz back to his home while detectives and prosecutors piece together the evidence.

‘Families deserve it’

Smith got interested in cold cases several years ago, he says.

And that interest stems from giving families of old homicide victims some closure as well as some justice.

“The families deserve it,” he says.

He’ll go over mountains of case files five, six or even more times just to get started.

These cases are hard, he says, which is why detectives 10, 15, 20 years ago who spent great time with them didn’t get an arrest.

Sometimes, though, all that work looking over old files, old photos, old videos, all that time, it pans out.

Prosecutors formally charged Fritz on May 14 with a felony count of murder, and he was arrested that day. He’s being held in the Steuben County Jail without bail.

When Hunter’s home was examined, there were some long guns missing from a downstairs closet, a handgun from the headboard of an upstairs bedroom, some coins and whatever he’d kept in the safe that he’d stored in a bathroom closet.

What Fritz did with those things is also not disclosed in the court documents.

But during some of his conversations with Wemus and her daughter, he did talk a little bit with how he dealt with the killing.

Despite his bravado at times – he said “he was in a pissed-off mood” as one reason he cut Hunter’s throat – there were possible cracks in his armor, especially when speaking to Wemus’ teenage daughter.

He tells her during one call in April that he shouldn’t have done it, according to court documents. He tells her he doesn’t need to talk about it.

And then he tells her he tries not to think about it.

That, though, may be impossible now.

jeffwiehe@jg.net

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