A Not-Quite Cold Case

For almost a decade it looked like justice would never come for Anthony Proviano, a 29-year-old University of Cincinnati medical student who was slain while traveling home to spend Christmas with his family.
 
Proviano’s body was found on a rural road in St. Clairsville, Ohio, behind the hotel where he had stopped en route to Baldwin, Pennsylvania, where he was planning to celebrate the holidays on December 28, 1997. His family had reported him missing Christmas Day after he failed to arrive for his family’s traditional Christmas Eve gathering.
 
Baldwin Police used a Pittsburgh radio station helicopter to backtrack the route Proviano had been expected to take on his trek home and found his red Camaro in the parking lot of a hotel about an hour west of Pittsburgh. They determined that he had checked into room 125 of that hotel and paid for a single night, but the housekeeping staff said it didn’t appear that he had slept in the bed. The Camaro was packed with Christmas gifts.
 
A few hours after they found the car, police found Proviano’s body lying in heavy brush about a quarter of a mile from the hotel down an abandoned township road. A single set of footprints led to the location. He died of a single gunshot wound to the chest. A .25-caliber pistol registered to Proviano loaded with two rounds found about 100 feet from his body. His hat, winter coat, right shoe and a pair of leather gloves, plus a spent bullet casing and one unfired round of ammunition, were found closer to his body. His wallet, containing money and credit cards, was still in his back pocket.
 
The Belmont County Coroner, Dr. Manuel Villaverde, was called to the scene and noted that the sweater Proviano was wearing did not have a bullet hole. The t-shirt beneath was powder-burned and bloodstained. Villaverde ruled Proviano’s death to be a suicide and refused to order that an autopsy be performed. His decision stunned police and Proviano’s family, and set the tone for how the case would progress.
 
Chief Deputy Olen F. Martin of the Belmont County sheriff’s office shared his disgust with the media following the strange case. He told said he asked the coroner four times to conduct an autopsy and was refused each time.
 
“‘I’m flabbergasted. In any case where death is involved and it’s questionable, and this is clearly questionable from a number of aspects, why wouldn’t an autopsy be done?” he said. “In 11 years as a police officer I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
 
The ruling of suicide as the manner of death and gunshot wound as the cause did not prevent authorities from continuing to investigate the circumstances of Proviano’s death, but it certainly made the work of police more difficult and cast the Belmont County authorities in an extremely negative — and unfair — light. Under Ohio law the coroner does not determine whether a crime has occurred as that authority rests with the prosecutor, but the coroner’s ruling would certainly make a defense attorney’s job easier should anyone ever be arrested.
 
In addition, Villaverde’s ruling meant that the first chore of investigators would be to prove him wrong and then begin building a case against any suspects. Finally, the police would also have justify the time and expense being put into an essentially closed case.
 
The Proviano family refused to accept Villaverde’s decision and hired a private pathologist to conduct the autopsy. Shortly after they did this, the Belmont County Commissioners contacted the family and told them that the county would pay all expenses for the autopsy.
 
Villaverde stuck by his decision.
 
“If an autopsy would have helped determine if it was a difference between a murder and suicide, I would have done it,” he said. “I don’t like telling a family that their relative committed suicide, but I didn’t have a choice in this particular case.”
 
The private autopsy revealed no traces of gun powder residue on Proviano’s hands, and did show that he had consumed about an ounce-and-a-half of alcohol. No determination was made about whether he died by his own hand or by that of another person.
 
In defense of Villaverde, the Franklin County, Ohio, Coroner explained to the media that autopsies do not always provide the necessary answers.
 
“Coroners in Ohio can select to do an autopsy or not, said Dr. William R. Adrion. “People treat an autopsy like it’s going to be a mystery-solving thing. It doesn’t always turn out that way.”
 
It would take a year of pressure from the Proviano family, police and politicians from two states to push Villaverde into changing his ruling from suicide to “undetermined.”
 
He didn’t do it willingly, however.
 
“I still think it’s suicide,” he told the Post-Gazette of Pittsburgh in November 1998, calling the pressure from two Congressmen and the local prosecutor “cockamamie.”
 
Meanwhile, investigators in Belmont County left the autopsy issue far behind and were pursuing the case as a murder investigation. They had already traveled to Germany and Mexico to track down leads and spent hundreds of hours investigating the case in other ways. The break that would eventually crack the case came in March 1999 when an inmate in a Pennsylvania jail contacted his local prosecutor with information.
 
That tip from Richard Marz, a heroin dealer serving a 1 to 3 year sentence, led investigators to Douglas Main and Marlene “Slim” Smith. Main and Smith were married at the time and had been part of the heroin ring with Marz and Charles Dailey Jr.
 
Marz, who ended up in jail because Main and Smith had agreed to cooperate with authorities as they cracked Dailey’s drug gang, said the couple had been “pulling this sex-robbery shit for years,” in his letter to the prosecutor.
 
He said Main told him that Smith met Proviano in a St. Clairsville restaurant, lured him back to the hotel with the promise of sex and had robbed and killed him.
 
“Main said he shot killed a guy in Belmont County, Ohio St. Clairsville area with the guy’s own gun. The guy had x-mas gifts in his car. Deserted area by a motel, and no money or gifts were taken,” Marz’s letter read.
 
Dailey – who was also taken down by Main and Smith’s cooperation – provided additional support for Marz’s allegations. He told investigators that he and Main were in St. Clairsville on a shoplifting trip and Main was concerned about getting arrested. Main told Dailey that he had tried to rob a man in St. Clairsville once and ended up shooting him with his own gun.
 
“Me and Slim was gonna rob this guy and I shot him with his own gun,” Dailey quoted Main as saying.
 
Dailey went on to say that Main told him that “he hit the guy so hard he knocked him out of his shoes.”
 
However, all of those details: that the gun used to kill Proviano was his own, that he was found without one shoe, and that his car filled with presents was untouched had all previously been made public through the media.
 
In August 2001, Belmont County Coroner Gene Kennedy, who ran against Villaverde based on his conduct in the Proviano case and who trounced the coroner in the November 2000 election by a 2-1 margin, again altered Proviano’s death certificate – this time ruling that the manner of death was homicide.
 
While that boosted the spirits of the Proviano family, merely changing the words on a certificate did not advance the case much. The fact remained that the only evidence in the case came from a pair of convicted drug dealers with grudges against the chief suspects.
 
In December 2002, a Belmont County grand jury heard two days of testimony and evidence in the case and declined to hand up indictments.
 
Frustration abounded and finger pointing began. In 2004, the police chief in Baldwin, Chris Kelly, told the Post-Gazette that prosecutors in Ohio were doing absolutely nothing to bring the matter to closure. He complained that the prosecutors were ignoring leads that he and a retired homicide investigator had presented. Kelly said he thought there was enough evidence to bring charges.
 
“With all due respect to Chief Kelly, he has not tried a case in a courtroom,” deputy prosecutor Dan Fry responded. “I have for 25 years.”
 
The Baldwin police uncovered a videotape of Slim Smith in a Washington, Pennsylvania pawn shop discussing Proviano’s murder. In the tape, she admits playing a role in the killing.
 
“Me and Doug robbed a guy,” she said. “Doug shot him and left him for dead. We were so scared we left all the Christmas presents in the car.”
 
Douglas Main, Slim Smith’s then-husband took a lie-detector test and failed it, Kelly told the media.
 
Fry responded that his office did take all of the evidence seriously, but said the case wasn’t as open-and-shut as Kelly liked to believe. The witnesses all had credibility problems, he said. Not to mention that there was absolutely no forensic evidence linking Main and Smith to Proviano’s killing.
 
Finally, in late 2004, Belmont County authorities took the case back to the grand jury. This time, they were more successful and received indictments against Main and Smith.
 
Several details helped bring the indictments. In August 2004, Baldwin police found earmuffs linked to Main and Smith in the woods near the murder scene. That, along with a key chain that included a key to the room Proviano had rented so many years ago in St. Clairsville, was turned over to authorities and linked to the couple.
 
Investigators also found the registration Proviano received from the hotel in a car once owned by Main and Smith.
 
But justice was still to be some time off for the Proviano family.
 
In May 2005, shortly before the trial was to begin, Douglas Main was ordered released on bond after a special prosecutor appointed in the case asked for additional time to investigate new developments. Six months later, the prosecutor, citing the state’s speedy trial requirements, dropped the charges against Main. They can be reinstated at a later date.
 
“Based in part upon things we have learned quite recently, it’s best for the state, it’s best for the interests of justice and best for the family of the victim that we try Marlene Smith first,” prosecutor Thomas Hampton said in November 2005.
 
Marlene “Slim” Smith went to trial in February 2006. During his opening statement, Hampton said Proviano and Smith had rented the hotel room for the purpose of taking drugs and having sex.
 
“The things that have slipped out over the years, these things indicate that Marlene Smith was responsible for the death of Anthony Proviano,” Hampton told jurors.
 
Charles Dailey Jr., the head of the heroin ring that Smith once worked for, testified that Smith took a gold bracelet from Proviano’s car and traded it to him for heroin. He also explained that the videotape of her confession came about after she came to his pawn shop and threatened one of his employees.
 
“You don’t want Doug and me to do what we did to Proviano,” he recalled that she said.
 
Richard Mraz, whose letter had helped unravel the case, also testified that Smith was worried about forensic evidence after the murder.
 
“What if they fingerprint that whisky bottle, Doug?” he said she asked over and over one day shortly after the killing.
 
The key witness against Smith, however, was Leslie Long. She was Smith’s cellmate in Belmont County, where she was awaiting trial on attempted murder charges. She took the stand against Smith and said her bunkie had referred to Proviano as “a trick that had gone bad.”
 
Long was the only witness who could provide any details about how Proviano had been killed.
 
According to Long, Smith told the unlikely story that she hooked up with Proviano and that they traveled from “somewhere in Pennsylvania” through Pittsburgh to St. Clairsville in search of drugs.
 
After Proviano failed to procure drugs for her and they began quibbling about the price of sex, Smith hit him three times with his own handgun and then shot him.
 
In the end, it was Smith’s own words that led the jury to convict her. She made a telephone call to a Baldwin County detective and during the course of that phone call began arguing with a heroin dealer she was living with at the time. Unbeknownst to her, the detective was not in and her voicemail had picked up.
 
“I’m a murderer,” Smith shouted at the heroin dealer. “You heard that? I’m a murderer.”
 
After a day and a half of deliberations, a Belmont County jury agreed with her and returned a guilty verdict.