French was 57 and living with his sister outside of Berea, Ky., when he confessed to killing Howe. His confession came months after her death and after a grand jury had returned an indictment for aggravated murder and robbery.
French’s defense attorneys maintained Howe’s death was an accident, as French told police in his confession. But prosecutors said he hatched a plan to rob Howe and others at the retirement community and never intended to leave a witness alive.
French scammed his way into Howe cottage, telling her he needed to repair his medical alarm system, which he also tried on another residence before he was rebuffed. Then he hit Howe with a stun gun, but it didn’t knock her out. The woman was dragged to a crawl space and stuffed inside. When French went back to the crawl space, Howe, who was still alive, had crawled back further in the hole. Then French slit her throat, according to investigators.
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Howe’s body was found days later at a Middletown apartment complex. She was stuffed in the trunk of her 2005 Cadillac. Chunks of her hair had been cut, she was wearing only underclothes and her body had been bathed in bleach.
Howe’s diamond ring was missing, but many valuables were left behind. French said he threw the ring out the window while driving down the street.
For months, tipped by a call from French’s brother, law enforcement built a case. With an indictment in hand, officials travelled to Flat Gap Road outside Berea, Ky. in December 2014 and arrested French. He was sleeping with a loaded gun and a suicide note. That is when he confessed to the slaying.
Wesselman said she continues to appear on shows about the mother’s case because she does not believe robbery was French’s motive.
“It was sexual, and I am not going to let him (French) get away with it,” she said.
Wesselman said a few facts make her believe sex was the reason French committed the crime. She noted if robbery was the reason, “why make sure she was home? … here he is calling around making sure that the woman’s home.
“He wasn’t just targeting Barbara Howe, he was targeting whatever female opened the door to him. So the robbery about the ring, that was just a side thing, maybe a trophy for him. If he was going to truly rob her, he left all kinds of valuables.
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“They believe he was on the verge of being a serial killer. If he had not been stopped, they said he would have killed again,” she said. “At least my mother stopped him, she fought him off by God. I could have been a younger woman next time.”
Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser said there was a theory among law enforcement that French’s motive was sexual, but there was just no evidence to support it. But there was evidence of a robbery motive, he said.
However, Gmoser agrees with Wesselman that French was a “serial killer in training.”
Gmoser said he believes French used a stun gun on the elderly woman hoping she would go down and die. Likely no 0ne would question the death of an 87-year-old in a locked apartment, he said.
“He’s narcissistic and showed a total lack of remorse,” Gmoser said. “I am confident he was a journeyman serial killer in training.”
Gmoser said he was so concerned that he asked the retirement community to look into past deaths of women that appeared to be natural causes, where they were found behind a locked door with items missing.
“They found none,” Gmoser said.
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