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Middletown double homicide haunts family, police 33 years later

Nancy Abrams was working on March 10, 1985, at one of the few businesses open overnight in Middletown.

A newspaper delivery woman saw the 33-year-old mother at the King Kwick gas station on Breiel Boulevard as she made her early morning drop-off. But a short time later, the Madison Twp. native who enjoyed bowling and bicycling was found dead in a pool of blood near a storage room behind the convenience store counter. A man, John Francis, was also found dead at the back of the store. Both had been shot in the back of the head.

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In the following months and years, police chased numerous leads and exhausted several theories, including exhuming Abrams’ body to gather further evidence, hypnotizing people who were in the area outside the store at the time of the double murder, and developing a composite sketch of a man the newspaper delivery woman said she saw at the gas station.

A Middletown police detective is now taking a fresh look at the unsolved double murder, and a local victims advocate is helping to solicit any information about the possible killer.

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‘We need closure’

“She was a good person and a good mother. She had no enemies,” Kathy Powell told the Journal-News last week about her oldest sister. “She liked to bowl, bike and workout.”

The violent death of Abrams, one of six siblings who grew up in Madison Twp., continues to weigh on her family, especially her parents who are now 87.

“I was talking to Mom and she said, ‘I don’t think we will ever know’ (who killed Abrams) and I said, ‘No I don’t,” Powell said.

But she hasn’t stopped trying.

When Powell learned of Cincinnati crime victims advocate Hope Dudley’s most recent poster featuring Hamilton and Butler County unsolved homicides with female victims, she jumped at the opportunity to have her sister included.

“I don’t want it to be forgotten, or John’s murder,” Powell said. “If somebody knows something, I wish they would come forward. Whoever did it, we need closure. It has been so many years.”

Abrams, of Trenton-Franklin Road, was on her side dressed in blue corduroy pants and a white shirt. She had been shot twice in the back of the head, police said.

Francis, 31, a Fernwood Street resident, had been shot once in the back of the head. He lay on his back, dressed in brown pants and a plaid shirt in a back room near the convenience store’s freezer. His brown AMC Concord was parked near the front of the store.

Francis was a frequent customer at the King Kwick and was a press operator for Champion Paper Co., according to police. He also owned a second-hand jewelry store, John’s Gems, in the 1500 block of Central Avenue.

Attorney maintains innocence of Abrams’ husband

As in many homicides, the investigation turned to the people closest to the victims, and that included Abrams’ husband, Greg. He was at home when Middletown police woke him about 7:30 a.m. to tell him his wife and mother of their 2-year-old daughter was dead, according to retired Middletown Police Lt. Donnie Owens, who was one of several that investigated the case.

Powell said the couple’s relationship was in trouble in 1985 and moving toward divorce.

Local attorney Paris Ellis, who began representing Greg Abrams in 1985 and in the years that followed, said last week, “I was then and I am now convinced that he had nothing to do with that murder.”

A man who answered the phone at a number listed for Greg Abrams said, “he doesn’t want to talk to you.”

‘Everybody is a suspect’

The case has not been forgotten, according to Middletown police. Extensive investigation notes, including those from Owens and Detective Jerry Chapman, remain in the evidence room.

The case file is filled with copious notes, photos, reports and suspect interviews.

Also included is a composite sketch of a motorcycle rider the newspaper delivery person said she saw outside the store when she dropped off papers at about 4:30 a.m. Most of those questioned looked like the composite, but David Swartzel, a retired detective now in charge of the evidence room, said, “all the guys looked like that in the ’80s.”

In 2004, a third detective pulled out the evidence and took a dive into the case. A suspect was developed and the case was presented to a grand jury under then-Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper.

There was no indictment returned. Former Butler County Assistant Prosecutor David Kash, now retired, presented that case to the grand jury. He declined to comment, but said the evidence was very circumstantial.

Owens said prints recovered from glass soda bottles on the counter was sent for testing in 2004, but resulted in nothing. He said seven money orders were taken from the store, but “never turned up anywhere.”

“I think everybody is a suspect,” Owens said, noting a robbery theory, a more personal motive targeting Abrams and Francis, and even a serial killer angle — “based on things happening then across the country” — were investigated.

Owens said there was no surveillance video in 1985, no cell phones and no social media.

“All of that would have been a game changer if we had it back in 1985,” he said.

Both Swartzel and Owens said it may take a confession after all these years to solve the case.

“I don’t think there is any physical evidence that is going to do it,” Swartzel said. “We have exhausted that”

“Somebody probably still knows something,” he said.

Current detectives do revisit cold cases when time allows, and a detective is now taking a fresh look at the investigative files, Swartzel said.

“These cases are so hard for everyone. The family never feels closure, the case investigators feel that they didn’t meet the needs of the families and someone committed a horrible crime and hasn’t suffered the legal consequences,” said Middletown Police Chief Rodney Muterspaw

“To this day, when you talk to them, detectives who worked those cases struggle with those cases. You can never really let it go and move on and every day you hope something happens or something is said to give you new evidence to proceed,” he said.

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