By Michael Sangiacomo and Mark A. Puente
The Plain Dealer – July 2, 2006
On a summer night in 1991, someone stabbed Marsha Blakely 25 times, slit her throat and ran over her body twice with a car.
Alfred Cleveland, 36, and three other men have spent more than a decade in prison for the heinous murder of Blakely, a 22-year-old Lorain woman who sold her body to anyone with enough money for a hit of crack cocaine.
Cleveland and the other three men were convicted on the testimony of a junkie named William Avery Jr.
He told police he witnessed the murder.
Now, 15 years later, Avery says he lied.
Avery said he’s ready to do whatever it takes to see the four men go free, even if it means going to prison himself. Based on his statement, Columbus attorneys Max Kravitz and Jacob Cairns plan to file a motion this week for a new trial for Cleveland in Lorain County Common Pleas Court.
It’s expected that lawyers for the other three convicted men –John “Shakim” Edwards, 35; Lenworth Edwards, 33; and Ian “Benson” Davis, 40 — will file similar motions. They were convicted in separate trials and sentenced to 20 years to life for the murder.
John Edwards was also sentenced to 40 years in federal prison for drug dealing.
“Nobody could believe Avery’s story; it don’t make sense,” Cleveland said in an interview at Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield.
“I kept praying that he would come forward. I was afraid he had disappeared.”
Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will said his office will review the appeal when it is filed. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who prosecuted the cases, declined to comment. He has since left the prosecutor’s office and is now in private law practice.
Detectives said the appeals process would prove they arrested the right man.
One summer night, two malicious murders
Blakely’s body was found around 9 a.m., Aug. 8, 1991, on an access road behind the Westgate Shopping Center on 21st Street in Lorain. The coroner believed she was killed sometime after 3 a.m.
She was stabbed more than 25 times in the neck in what police called superficial “torture wounds” before her neck was cut. Then someone ran her over with a car.
The body of Floyd Epps, a 47-year-old man described by Lorain police as a “likeable town drunk” and a friend of Blakely, was found nearby about 2 a.m. that same day. He had also been run over by a car.
No arrest was ever made in the Epps case, though police suspected the cases were connected.
Lorain police were stymied for weeks until Avery, the son of a police informant, told police he witnessed the murder.
It was largely Avery’s eyewitness testimony that convicted Cleveland and the others. His account was crucial because no blood or hair fibers were found in the cars, clothing or homes of the four men to link them to the murder.
There was some evidence that supported Avery’s account. Avery said one of the suspects was hit during the struggle with the victim and blood dripped onto his jacket. Police found a jacket belonging to John Edwards with drops of his own dried blood.
Avery said that last year he found God, kicked the crack cocaine habit he’d had since he was 14 and decided telling the truth about the case would cure his clinical depression.
He said he lied to the police in 1991 because he owed Cleveland $5,000 and figured if the men were jailed, he would not have to repay it.
He was also paid about $5,000 in reward money from Crimestoppers Inc., and given money to move to Detroit to start a new life. Police and court records show that Avery and his father, William Avery Sr., initially demanded $10,000 for the testimony, which was refused.
During one of the trials, Avery Jr. testified that he was lying about witnessing the murder. The court was recessed. When it resumed, Avery continued his testimony and recanted his denial.
Avery moved to Detroit in the early 1990s but was haunted by memories.
“I was overcome with the guilt over what I did, how I sent four men to prison for something they did not do. It’s been tearing me up,” he said during an interview last month in Detroit.
“My depression over what I had done put me in mental institutions several times,” he said. “I knew what I had to do. I went to the FBI [in Detroit last year] and told them the whole story about how I lied. I’ve been waiting for something to happen since then.”
An FBI spokesman declined to comment for this story.
Alibi could strengthen Cleveland’s case
Former Lorain police detectives Richard Resendez and Geno Taliano said the FBI contacted them last year. Both said they filed reports with the FBI but have since heard nothing.
After talking to the FBI, Avery said he waited for the police to come, but nothing happened. He did not get a call from the FBI or Lorain County officials.
Instead he got a call from Cleveland’s father, Leon, a 76-year-old church deacon living in Florida. Avery said he figured talking to Cleveland’s father was the way he was meant to come clean.
Leon Cleveland spent weeks in Detroit trying to find Avery. He called every Avery in the city and its suburbs. When he reached Avery’s mother and identified himself, the woman said, “We’ve been waiting for this call.”
Paul Ciolino, a Chicago private detective whose work has freed five men on death row and three others wrongly convicted of murders, took Cleveland’s case free of charge. He met with Avery and took a formal statement about his claim that he had lied in the original trials.
Avery’s statement will be a crucial part of the request for a new trial, though Cleveland’s attorney would not confirm that the appeal would contain statements from an alibi witness.
Cleveland’s friend, David Donaphin, said that Cleveland was with him in the St. Alban’s section of New York around the time of the murder.
“My birthday is Aug. 7. That’s why I remember the date,” said Donaphin of Long Island, N.Y. “Alfred was with me from about 11 p.m. for a couple hours. I never made the connection because I did not hear the date.”
On the morning of Aug. 7, Cleveland reported to his probation officer in New York for a prior conviction for attempted auto theft. Kravitz said that testimony is uncontested. Prosecutors noted that it is possible to fly from New York to Cleveland in several hours, though they did not produce any evidence such as airline tickets or reservations.
In a recent interview, former Lorain detectives Taliano and Resendez said they believe Avery told the truth in the trials and is lying now.
“I can’t crawl into his head and determine why he’s doing this,” said Resendez, now a Lorain County Sheriff’s Office captain.
Despite cops’ doubts, Avery stands by story
Avery said fooling police was easy.
“I knew what they wanted to hear,” Avery said. “They had been after Alfred and the other New York guys for selling drugs, and I knew they wanted them gone. Police showed me pictures of the crime scene, and I made up a story that fit the pictures.”
“He knew about the crime scene, about the knocked-over table with a broken leg, and other things. We never showed him pictures,” he said.
Taliano, a Lorain County Drug Task Force agent, had his own theory about why Avery was reversing his testimony.
“He’s been through tough times, and now he’s looking for a payday,” he said. “I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but Avery would do anything for money.”
Avery denied that anyone has offered him anything for his testimony. Ciolino said Cleveland’s family has nothing to offer.
“Alfred’s father, Leon, is retired from a business of cleaning offices, and he has no money. There’s nothing going on here but a man now willing to tell the truth,” said Ciolino. “It would be really stupid to pay Avery to recant. There is absolutely nothing like that going on.”
Avery has other motives.
“I hope these men can forgive me for what I did,” he said. “I expect to be sent to prison for perjury, but I don’t care. Cleveland and the others did all that time in jail for what I said. I deserve to do time for putting them there.”
Lenworth Edwards began serving his sentence following his conviction in 1992; Davis was convicted in 1994. Cleveland was convicted in 1996, and John Edwards was convicted in 1997.
Avery said he hoped that once freed, Cleveland and the others would forgive him.
“I know that’s asking a lot,” he said. “But I hope they see that I came forward now so they didn’t have to spend another 10 years in jail.”
Cleveland said all he wants to do is return to New York and work on his art and music career. Childhood friend Daymond John, founder of the clothing manufacturer FUBU, said Cleveland has a job waiting for him.
“Al is a very talented artist and musician, a very smart man,” he said. “He has a job here.”