In court proceedings, Prosecutor Michael Gmoser has portrayed French as a diabolical and brutal killer who executed one of the most heinous and horrific crimes seen in his 40 years as an attorney in Butler County.
Middletown roots with no criminal past
But Cook, who has years of experience dealing with death penalty cases, describes her client as more of an “anomaly.”
“First, he is older, and he has no criminal background and was a productive member of society,” she said. “That is unusual, especially in a death penalty case.”
Prior to the aggravated murder, aggravated burglary and robbery, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence charges filed against him after his arrest, French’s only known run in with the law was a traffic ticket he received as a 20-something-year-old, according to French and Cook.
It is unclear if French — one of five children — was born in Middletown, but he did grow up there and attended Middletown City Schools from 1973-76, according the school district. In fact, he may have attended high school around the same time as Howe’s youngest daughter, Donna Wesselman, who was a student from 1971-73.
Wesselman, of Cincinnati, is older than French and would have been a junior when he was a freshman. She said she pulled out her yearbook to see if she could find French, but found no trace of him inside. The Journal-News also searched through archived yearbooks from that time and could find no mention or photos of French.
“I was glad to know I never walked pasted him (in the halls),” Wesselman said, noting at that time freshmen attended classes in a separate building.
French did not graduate from high school, according to Middletown schools, but he would tell police during tape recorded interrogation sessions that he later received his GED.
Butler County Common Pleas Court records show that French was married and divorced twice.
His first divorce came in 1982 from his then-wife Deanna. The couple had two daughters, ages 1 and 3, at the time of the divorce, according to records. French was living on Hughes Street in Middletown and was employed at Smurfit-Stone on South Verity Parkway in 1987 when he was ordered to pay $61.20 a week in child support, court records show.
He married his second wife, Deborah, in 1982, and they had a son, Jeremiah. They lived on Franklin-Madison Road in Middletown when their divorce was granted in December 2006, according to court records. French had a retirement fund from Graphic Communications International Union and was working at Mount Pleasant Retirement Community in Monroe — where French told police in interviews his son also worked — at the time of his second divorce.
Attorney: ‘He was a blue-collar worker’
French was employed as a maintenance man at the retirement community from 2003 to 2011.
Cook believes that it was during French’s time at Mount Pleasant that he injured his back and began to develop health issues that sent him spiralling into depression. During his taped interviews with police, French made references to surgeries and pain in his neck and back.
“I am tired. Tired of hurting and the pain,” French told Monroe police Detective Gregg Myers during one of three 2013 interviews with authorities.
Cook said French’s back injury took away his ability to work.
“He was a blue-collar worker,” she said. “He could no longer use his body to work. I think that would affect your mental state.”
Cook said French’s injury and subsequent mental state could be part of their defense because “it is what made Mr. French what he is.”
What he was after leaving Mount Pleasant’s employ was destitute. According to French, he was living with siblings off and on, and even camping in the woods outside of Berea, Ky., for a couple of months “just waiting to die.”
When police finally came to arrest French for Howe’s murder, they found him sleeping at his sister Wanda Allen’s home in Berea with a loaded gun and a suicide note.
Allen, 60, told the Journal-News during an exclusive interview at her home in December, that French had been living with her for the past three years. She described her brother then as a “very loving and kind person” who collected movies and books and enjoyed flea market hopping.
“He was the one who took care of me when I broke my leg and even took care of my animals for me,” Allen said, wiping away tears. “I will forever know him as the person who was so gentle and covered me with a blanket when I fell asleep.”
But if convicted, French may forever be remembered as the man who broke into an 87-year-old woman’s home, choked and cut her throat, stuffed the body into the trunk of her Cadillac and dumped the vehicle at a Middletown apartment complex.
Prosecutors say French was visiting his sister in Monroe, less that two miles from Mount Pleasant, when he committed the murder.
“The sheer brutality and diabolical nature of this case really is unparalleled in the history of this county,” Gmoser, the county’s prosecutor, has said. “In my 40-some years of being an attorney here, I’ve never seen anything as horrific as this in the planning and diabolical nature.”
Monster or remorseful?
French’s own chilling account of what happened that October day when Howe was killed sums up the case best. He confessed to killing Howe during a Dec. 10 interrogation with Middletown police Detective Rich Bush at the Rockcastle County Kentucky Jail after his arrest.
The tapes of the confession were released publicly for the first time last month. Cook attempted to keep the evidence from being presented at trial, but Judge Charles Pater ruled it would be allowed in.
Bush seemed to coax the confession out of French by appealing to the side of him that his sister spoke of and his attorneys hope to make a jury see.
“I expected a monster, but after talking with you, I see remorse,” Bush told French in the interrogation tape. “This is a chance to kick that monster to the side.”
That’s when French told Bush: “I seen Ms. Howe’s ghost, and I apologized.”
He then told the detective he only intended to rob the elderly woman, but she didn’t go down when he shocked her in the neck with a stun gun. According to prosecutors, French pretended to be a maintenance man there to fix Howe’s broken medical alert system.
“I just wanted to see if she had money. I was going to take it,” French said in the recording. “Basically I took a stun gun. This is all I was going to do. It didn’t work.”
French then told Bush that he grabbed Howe in the bedroom and began choking her.
“Grabbed her and put her down,” French said. “It wasn’t my intention to choke her to death, I was just trying to get her to black out and she wouldn’t … I choked her to death.”
French said in the recording that he didn’t know what to do with Howe after he’d killed her, so he dragged her from the bedroom and put her in a crawl space inside her home.
“I tried to remove the evidence. I stripped her,” French said.
He told the detective that he wadded up Howe’s clothes, burned them in a bucket and cleaned up the blood caused by the elderly woman’s thin skin tearing.
Bush asked French if Howe was dead when he put her into the crawl space. He said yes.
“I felt my soul leave,” French told Bush in the tape.
French said he left Howe’s house at the retirement village but returned later to make “it look worse” and to cover up the evidence, referring to the crime scene.
He detailed on the tape how he put Howe in the trunk of her red Cadillac and slit her throat. Because he had drooled on her, French said he cut off Howe’s hair, then went to a dollar store in Monroe to purchase peroxide, which he poured over her body. He said he also doused her body with drain cleaner and vacuum remains from her house.
Afterward, he drove Howe’s car to Middletown where he parked it at Woodridge Park East Apartments, French said in the tape. He then walked to Walmart and called a taxi to take him to his sister’s house in the Monroe area.
When Bush asked him how much money he took from Howe, French replied: “Eighteen dollars.”
French said he also took Howe’s diamond ring, a 3.31 carat oval cut, but pitched it out the window while driving somewhere on Ohio 63.
“I didn’t want nothing to do with it,” French said.
When Bush told him it would be very important for Howe’s family to get the ring back, French said simply, “It is lost.”
“It looks terrible, it is terrible and maybe I am a monster,” French said in the tape. “But I didn’t mean it to be that way.”
Trial will tell final story
Prosecutors say the confession is only part of the story and the entire crime will play out in court.
Wesselman, Howe’s daughter, is also confident that will happen.
“There is a whole lot more to the story,” she said. “It will all make sense.”