When police arrived Wednesday at Daniel French’s home just outside of Berea, Ky., to arrest him for the murder of 87-year-old Barbara Howe, detectives found him fast asleep in his bedroom with a gun and a suicide note close by, the suspect’s sister told this news outlet Monday in an exclusive interview.
French, 56, was indicted by a Butler County grand jury last week on charges of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications, aggravated burglary and robbery, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. Police accuse the former Middletown resident and Mount Pleasant Retirement Community employee of brutally killing Howe, of Monroe, and stuffing her body into the trunk of her Red Cadillac in 2012.
French was in court Monday morning in Rockcastle County, Ky., for an extradition hearing where he told the judge he would not fight going back to Ohio to face the charges against him. Butler County Sheriff’s deputies were picking French up late Monday afternoon to transport him to Butler County where he is expected to be arraigned at 1 p.m. Tuesday before Common Pleas Judge Jennifer McElfresh.
Wanda Allen, French’s sister, spoke exclusively with this news outlet Monday at her home on Flat Gap Road about her brother’s indictment and whether she believes he’s guilty of murder. Allen, 60, said her brother has been living with her for the past three years and she “will always believe they have the wrong man” when it comes to Howe’s death.
She was there when Middletown detectives and the Kentucky State Police came to arrest her brother. Allen said she fears what might have happened if French had been awake at the time.
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“He was a sleep when they came,” Allen said while sitting at a picnic table outside her home. “I am thankful for that. They found him with a gun and a suicide note.”
Allen described French as a “very loving and kind person” who loved to collect movies and books. She said they shared a love for flea market hopping, as they are plentiful in the Berea area.
“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 prosecutors and police view French much differently. Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser has used words such as “diabolical,” “horrific” and “brutality” in describing the alleged planning and execution of Howe’s death by French.
“The shear brutality and diabolical nature of this case really is unparalleled in the history of this county,” Gmoser 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 the diabolical nature. It really is an unusual case.”
If convicted, French could face the death penalty for the murder of Howe who was last seen on Oct. 27, 2012.
Allen, who lived in Middletown for several years, said she “just can’t see in my heart that he (French) had anything to do with it.”
In the past two years, Allen said police have visited her home questioning French and his family members numerous times. Last week, Allen said she as well as others were called to testify before a Butler County grand jury.
“They wanted to know about his demeanor when he came back from visiting there (Butler County),” Allen said, adding she never noticed any change in her younger brother.
But after two years of questioning and the grand jury subpoenas, the pressure became too much, which she said explains the gun and suicide note.
“There has just been a lot of stress … everybody is under stress about this,” Allen said. “He has three children, grandchildren … they are having to deal with this.”
Gmoser confirmed Monday with this newspaper that the grand jury heard evidence in the Howe case for about three months.
“There were many evidentiary issues that were developed like a Polaroid camera in that grand jury,” Gmoser said.
Howe, who lived alone in a cottage on Paxton Circle in Mount Pleasant, went missing after she had dinner with a friend and sent a funny political email. Her car was found by Middletown police at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 1, 2012, in the parking lot of Woodridge Park East Apartments on Woodridge Drive, near Roosevelt Avenue, just 5.2 miles from her home.
Monroe police peppered the media and community for days asking for help in finding the beloved and active senior citizen who was known to visit friends in Middletown.
Middletown Lt. Scott Reeve began looking for Howe’s car after the department’s Police Chaplin Lamar Ferrell came to the office expressing concern for the woman.
Reeve learned that Monroe police had checked Howe’s former Middletown residence and began driving in areas she might pass or frequent. He noticed the Cadillac parked at the apartment complex and made the horrific discovery of Howe dead in the vehicle’s trunk.
How long Howe had been dead, where she was killed, and even the exact cause of death has been closely guarded by the detectives, the county coroner’s office and Gmoser.
Howe, who was born in Hamilton, dedicated her life to her husband, Bill, and three daughters, and enjoyed cooking, sewing, traveling, playing tennis and reading. She was a lifelong member of First Presbyterian Church, Middletown Symphony Women’s Association, Cotillion Mixers, and a former member of Brown’s Run Country Club and Wildwood Golf Club.
She was on the scholarship committee at Miami University Middletown and helped raise funds to build the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.
Her husband of 51 years owned and operated Howe Motor Co. in Middletown.
As months without an arrest turned into years, Monroe Detective Gregg Myers continue to work the case. Posters offering a $10,000 reward for information about her killer remained in stores and police stations throughout Butler and Warren counties.
Monroe police Lt. Brian Curlis said last year that more the 100 DNA samples had been taken from people investigators have talked with. Investigators also processed evidence from at least three crime scenes — Howe’s home, her car and the parking lot of Woodridge Apartments in Middletown where she was found in the trunk of her car on Nov. 1.
Myers revealed in September 2013 that there was a person of interest in the case. A missing 3.31-carat, oval-cut, diamond wedding ring that Howe never removed could also be a key piece of evidence, the detective said.
Last week, before a press conference at the Monroe Police Department, Myers hugged Howe’s daughter, Donna Wesselman, as she wiped away tears.
“It is very rewarding,” Myers said, noting there is still a long road ahead during the trial process.
The detective did confirm that French was the person of interest he had referenced last year.
Wesselman said she never lost hope her mother’s killer would be found because Myers kept her and her family informed every step of the way.
“If it weren’t for Gregg Myers … he kept me sane through all of this,” Wesselman said.
The Blue Ash woman said Myers once described the case and investigation as “like working on an all-white puzzle, and you only have the corner pieces.”
French’s arrest was made public Wednesday afternoon when he was taken into custody about 1:55 p.m. Middletown police Detectives Rich Bush and Jon Hoover, along with Assistant Prosecutor Brad Burress traveled to Kentucky to make the arrest.
A background check of French indicates he has ties to Middletown, living at several addresses there as well as Franklin dating back to 1990. The most recent was on Bonita Drive in May 2012. He has no criminal background in Butler County, according to police and a public records search by this newspaper. The only court cases involving him are for civil matters and two divorces.
In a written statement, Stan Kappers, the executive director at Mount Pleasant, said French met employment requirements and passed a background check and screening that included finger printing and a felony and misdemeanor criminal convictions and driver’s licence record check though an independent third party provider.
“I am personally sickened by the thought that anyone previously associated with this community could have been involved in this tragic crime,” Kappers said in the statement.