ELYRIA — A phone call and a change of heart by a relative led to the arrest of Bobbie New last month on a murder charge in the 1976 slaying of Dorothy Spencer.
The investigation had been cold for decades when Lorain County sheriff’s deputies were contacted last August by a nephew of New, who had long been the chief suspect in the case, Assistant County Prosecutor Sherry Glass said during a hearing Thursday on whether New’s $1 million bond should be lowered.
The nephew, whom deputies have declined to identify, came forward after the death of his mother and New’s sister, Zula Strader, last year and agreed to contact New while deputies listened in on the phone call, Glass said. New, now 69, was 34 at the time Spencer died.
The nephew, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, told New during the recorded call that while he had been going through his mother’s papers he came across a letter to a lawyer and an affidavit that detailed their roles in Spencer’s death.
Spencer was 45 when she was beaten and shot once in the head on March 14, 1976, in her Camden Township trailer. She died three days later.
The letter, Glass said the nephew told New, was to be forwarded to prosecutors upon his mother’s death.
Glass said New’s reaction was to ask about who had seen the letter, which didn’t actually exist, as well as who the attorney was. He also told his nephew not to show it to anyone, she said.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Donald Barker said after the hearing that New also said during the conversation that he had feared Strader would eventually admit to her involvement in covering up Spencer’s killing.
“The normal response would be, ‘What are you talking about? I didn’t kill anybody,’ ” Glass said.
Strader had long harbored guilt over her role in Spencer’s death, Glass said, although she never did anything about it. After she died, her son did.
Glass said New went to see his sister at her home after Spencer was shot in her trailer during an argument over New’s fears she was cheating on him.
“He says, ‘I can’t believe I killed her. I shot her,’ ” Glass said. “I mean, he admits this in front of them.”
Strader anonymously called 911 and reported the shooting, Glass said, while New and the nephew went out to look for the gun — believed to a .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver that has never been found — that New had tossed somewhere on Quarry Road.
Barker and county Prosecutor Dennis Will said that although Strader and her also-deceased husband, Ezra Strader, could have faced perjury charges for their testimony to a county grand jury in the 1970s, it’s unlikely anyone still living would be charged in the case. The grand jury that heard the case more than three decades ago declined to indict New for the killing.
Andy Robinson, one of New’s lawyers, argued that his client, who pleaded not guilty to the murder charge at a separate hearing Thursday, should have his bond reduced. The case is 35 years old, he said, and New was aware the investigation had been reopened and hadn’t fled or taken action against anyone.
“If he was going to run, he had ample time to do so,” Robinson said.
County Common Pleas Judge James Burge, who was assigned to the case, rejected the request to lower the bond on New, who remains in the Lorain County Jail.
Barker and Glass both said that New hadn’t known about the taped phone call and his nephew’s role in the investigation until Thursday’s hearing and there were concerns he could take action against the nephew and his family.
“When a guy thinks he got away with something for 34 years, you don’t know what he’s going to do,” Barker said.
Lynette Burgess, one of Spencer’s three children, said she was relieved New’s bond wasn’t lowered. She also said she never doubted that New, who had a long on-again, off-again relationship with her mother, killed Spencer.
The relationship was always abusive, although Spencer would never press charges against New, Burgess said.
“I would stake my life that Bobbie did it because I saw some of the results of the beatings he gave her — the black eyes, the bruises on her body, the blood in her hair,” Burgess said Thursday.
With the case unsolved for so long, Burgess said her family suffered. She said her brother committed suicide in part because of the murder and she has long struggled to understand why New was never charged, particularly after she watched shows like the now-canceled “Cold Case.”
Burgess said she even would see New now and then.
“He came into a bar where I was working, and I served him,” she said. “I told him to drink his damn drink and get out.”
She said although she feels relief that New has been charged, she’s reliving the emotions and events of 35 years ago. She said she wants New to be convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Burgess also said she’s grateful that New’s nephew came forward, even if it was many years later.
“I hold his family no ill will because they’re not Bobbie,” she said. “They didn’t do this to my mother, Bobbie did.”
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.