John Spirko

Van Wert County, Ohio
Date of Crime:  August 9, 1982

In order to get his girlfriend out of jail for helping him plan a botched escape attempt, John Spirko claimed to know something about the robbery, abduction, and murder of Elgin, OH Postmaster Betty Jane Mottinger.  He heard about her on the TV news and read every newspaper article about her he could find.  Spirko told authorities a web of lies involving fictitious names.  When authorities suspected he was lying, he told them more lies.

In January 1983, a U.S. Postal investigator, Paul Hartman, showed him a mug shot of Delaney Gibson, a man Spirko once knew, and said a witness had positively identified Gibson as the man she saw in front of the Elgin Post Office on the morning Mottinger disappeared.  Hartman then accused Spirko of covering up for Gibson.  Spirko at first told the investigator that he was crazy because he had not seen Gibson in years.  However, the investigator pointed out that his girlfriend was due for sentencing in March and he would need something specific to keep her out of jail.  Spirko then told the investigator, “Yes, I saw Gibson and he told me about this crime.”  He also gave another false story about what he knew.

In March, after his girlfriend was sentenced to prison, Spirko was shocked and upset about her imprisonment.  He called postal investigators and they came to see him.  Spirko told them if they would let his girlfriend out of prison, he would tell them what they wanted.  The investigators said that they did not know if they could do that.  Spirko then told them that if they could not help his girlfriend, he could not help them.

In September, Spirko and Gibson were both charged with Mottinger's murder.  At trial in July 1984, Gibson was at large because he had escaped from a Kentucky jail, so Spirko was tried alone.  The prosecution used Hartman's statements to tie Spirko to the crime, along with testimony provided by two jailhouse informants.  Both informants later directly or indirectly recanted their testimony.  One eyewitness to the crime was 100% sure she saw Gibson.  She described Gibson as clean-shaven.  Another eyewitness was 70% sure he saw Spirko.  The prosecution also presented evidence that Gibson was in Elgin on the day of the murder.  Spirko had a good alibi that he was in Swanton 120 miles away on the day of the murder.  However, except for his sister's testimony, he conceivably could have driven to Swanton following the murder.  Spirko was convicted and sentenced to death.

Years later, exculpatory evidence emerged that showed prosecutors had knowingly presented a false case to Spirko's jury.  Gibson had a solid alibi, 500 miles away in North Carolina at the time of the murders.  There is also solid evidence that he was not clean-shaven, but had a full beard.  Although he was indicted for a capital crime, Gibson lived openly in neighboring Kentucky and had been in and out of jails there.  Prosecutors never placed a detainer on him.  They dropped all charges against him in May 2004.  In 2004, by a vote of two to one, the Federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Spirko relief, but the dissenting judge noted that his case rested on “a foundation of sand.”  In Jan. 2008, Ohio Governor Strickland commuted Spirko's death sentence to life without parole.  [9/07]

References:  Justice for John Spirko, Justice: Denied, Appeals

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Western Ohio Cases