Robert Domer

Stark County, Ohio
Date of Alleged Crime:  April 23, 1963

Robert K. Domer was sentenced to death for the murder of a corpse that he used to stage his own suicide. Domer owned a Canton, OH mortgage company which was going through hard times due to an economic downturn and because an employee had made loans that went bad because he did not follow proper procedures. This employee then ran off with some of the company's funds. Domer himself had illegally manipulated the company funds to keep the company afloat. After auditors came to look at his books, Domer faced disgrace and possible criminal charges.

Domer had a substantial life insurance policy, with his wife as beneficiary. The policy would pay double if he died in an accident. Domer decided to kill himself, but make his death look like an accident. The resulting insurance proceeds would provide for his wife and children and allow Domer's father to collect money that Domer had borrowed from him. Domer knew a road near Ravenna with a sharp curve that had caused dozens of accidents. He tried to kill himself by approaching the curve at high speed, but at the last moment he lacked the courage to drive off the road and instead steered away. For the next two weeks Domer remained away from his Canton home and drove around in a fog of uncertainty, looking for other places to stage his accident, but he never followed through with his plans.

He then met a drifter named Howard Riddle in an Akron bar. Domer gave Riddle a ride to Cleveland. That night at a Cleveland motel, Riddle was sick and spent the night coughing and vomiting, but appeared better the next day. Riddle said he no longer wanted to stay in Cleveland and the two began traveling around together. The pair ended up at a motel on the outskirts of Canton as Domer was thinking of returning home because he realized he was never going to commit suicide.

Domer used an assumed name to check into the motel and to get a cheaper rate he did not tell anyone that another person was with him. He left Riddle fast asleep in the motel room at 11 p.m., and drove around Canton, toying with the idea of returning home. However, he decided to spend one more night on the run. When he returned to the motel at 1 a.m., he found that Riddle was dead. Vomit mixed with blood was splattered all over the bedding, the table, and the walls. An empty wine bottle was on the floor.

Domer said his first thought was to dispose of Riddle's body. He backed up his car to his motel room and put Riddle in the back seat and covered up the body. He then cleaned up the motel room as best he could. In retrospect, since Domer used an assumed name to check into the motel, he could have left Riddle in the room with little chance of anyone ever knowing Domer had been there.

Domer then drove around looking for a place to dump Riddle's body. However, he was stymied in his attempts to find an adequate dumping location. Then the thought occurred to him to stage his own suicide using Riddle's body. He drove his car to a spot about 5 miles from Massillon where the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad that linked New York with Chicago crossed the road. He transferred Riddle's body to the front seat, and put his own driver's license in Riddle's back pocket. When a freight train came by, Domer intended to put the car into gear, give it a push, and let it crash into the train. He also doused the interior of the car with gasoline. Unfortunately, when a train did come by, Domer managed to burn himself after igniting the car with a cigarette. Also at the last minute, he noticed the train was a passenger train, not a freight train. Because Domer did not wish to injure anyone, he twisted the steering wheel, causing the burning car to come to rest a dozen yards from the tracks.

Domer spent more time hiding out, but eventually went home five days later. He was taken into custody by the police and charged with murder. The police had found his burned car and had determined beforehand the burned body inside was not his own. There was also a jurisdictional dispute as a county line ran down the middle of the road on which Domer pushed his car. He was tried in Stark County, from where he pushed the car, even though the car with Riddle's body ended up in Wayne County. The case received wide publicity, so much so that no jury could be impaneled as almost every prospective juror had heard of Domer.

At trial before a panel of judges, the evidence showed that Riddle could not have burned to death as no soot was found in his air passages or lungs, nor was there elevated level of carbon monoxide in his blood. The state's pathologists testified that they heard of one or two cases in which a person died in a fire without the soot or carbon monoxide evidence being present, but they were unable to give examples. While Domer was on the witness stand, his testimony was interrupted by news that U.S. President Kennedy had just been assassinated.

At retrial in 1965, again before a panel of judges, the defense called Milton Helpern, the chief medical examiner for New York City. Using the prosecution's autopsy report on Riddle, Helpern testified that the evidence unequivocally showed that Riddle could not have died in the fire and must have been dead before the fire started. After Helpern's testimony, the defense moved for an immediate judgment of acquittal, which was granted.  [2/09]


Reference:  In Spite of Innocence

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Eastern Ohio Cases, Failed to Report Body