Linda Nicholas couldn’t help worrying about her oldest granddaughter, Lisa Spinks, even though she was 20 now and a high school graduate. Spinks was borderline mentally retarded and had trouble counting money.
“She didn’t have the filters that most people have to tell a good person from a bad person,” Nicholas said.
And she trusted people. Too much as it would turn out.
Nicholas had raised her since birth, and Spinks often reminded her, “I can take care of myself. I’m an adult.”
Still, the 106-pound Spinks seemed like a teenager to Nicholas: “I wondered how she would survive in this world. I did worry about her, especially when she went out at night.”
Nicholas had taken to her bed with a cold the night of Sept. 24, but called out to Lisa in the hallway, who told her she was going out. She didn’t press her for details; she was, after all, a grown woman who could take care of herself.
“Except, of course, she couldn’t,” Nicholas said, breaking into tears as she recalled the night Miamisburg police officers arrived at her doorstep.
They said Lisa’s body had been found along the railroad tracks near Ohio 725 and Upper River Road across the Great Miami River near downtown Miamisburg. Police told Nicholas and her husband, Bill, they believed she had been killed before her body was run over by a CSX train. “They told us it was quick,” Nicholas said.
Her lower torso was found east of the railroad tracks; her upper torso was found to the west. “A gravel and dirt trail led to the banks of the creek from the railroad tracks and it was apparent the body had been dragged by someone due to the impressions in the ground,” investigators wrote in a search warrant.
Spinks was identified by the inscription on her Miamisburg High School Class of 2010 ring.
“She was such a sweet girl,” Nicholas said. “I can’t figure out any reason anyone would do that to someone so vulnerable.”
Tracking her alleged killers
Spinks’ brother David, 15, told police his sister been dating a man named Jamie. He said they had been arguing and had broken up two days earlier. Although he didn’t know the man’s last name, he was able to lead police to 107 S. Second St. and the apartment of Jamie Shaffer, 21.
Shaffer and his friend Joshua Sellers, 26, have been indicted on two counts of aggravated murder, two counts of tampering with physical evidence, one count each of kidnapping and gross abuse of a corpse. They are also accused of stealing Spinks cell phone before throwing it away along with a knife and latex gloves. Their bonds have been set at $1 million.
Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck Jr. said, “This is a heartbreaking and heart-wrenching case. A most malicious case... The victim trusted the defendants.”
Investigators and prosecutors have declined to speculate on a motive. According to the search warrant, Shaffer initially told police that Spinks jumped from the railroad trestle to the ground below.
“Jamie continued to revise his stories and ultimately stated he jokingly discussed this incident with Josh,” the warrant said. “Jamie stated he and Josh talked about taking Lisa down to the railroad tracks where they would kill her.”
It also stated Shaffer said Sellers killed Spinks by striking her in the head with a rock five or six times. Heck said the pair dragged Spinks’ body to the tracks, covering it with brush prior to the train running over the body.
The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office has listed the cause of death as multiple stab wounds.
Sellers’ attorneys, Jeremiah Denslow and his partner, Nick Gounaris, dispute Shaffer’s version of events. “Shaffer is the one that killed this girl. Josh was merely present,” Denslow said.
Spinks’ younger sister, Melissa, 13, said Lisa often confided in her. “She had never kept secrets from me, until lately,” Melissa said. “She came home really scared one day. She said Jamie had been calling her bad names and threatening to kill her. I was worried that something bad would happen, and something bad did happen.”
Nicholas said she’s not sure if that really happened or if the girl is reacting to her grief and frustration at not being able to protect her older sister. “I’m very worried that she’s taking too much responsibility for what happened,” she said.
Friends and family members say Shaffer and Spinks had broken up a few days earlier. According to the search warrant, Shaffer told investigators that his relationship with Spinks was “strictly sexual,” but that she wanted something more in the relationship.
How their paths crossed
Spinks’ longtime friend, Jacob Clawson, 19, worked with Sellers and Shaffer at a Taco Bell in Miamisburg. He said he introduced Spinks to the pair when he took her over to Sellers’ apartment about a month ago. Her relationship with Shaffer grew out of that meeting, Clawson said, but he declined to talk about the tragedy. “I just want to move on,” he said.
Michael Shumaker, Spinks’ close friend from her vocational class at Miamisburg High School, was there at that first meeting. Sellers seemed like an average guy, he said, “but I had a bad feeling about Jamie from the beginning. But I never thought they could do anything so sick.”
Sellers, who stands about 6 feet, 3 inches and weighs 215 pounds, has been booked into the Montgomery County jail six times from 2003 to 2007, on charges including obstructing official business, burglary, failure to appear, probation violation and traffic violations and domestic violence stemming from an assault on his father, Jimmie Sellers, in 2004. That charge was later amended to disorderly conduct.
On Nov. 6, 2010, police were called to a hospital where Sellers was undergoing treatment for a right arm wound he originally told officers he suffered in an attack. He eventually confessed that he stabbed himself while intoxicated, upset at the state of his life, including losing custody of his baby daughter. He was convicted of falsification in Miamisburg Municipal Court.
Denslow said his client’s troubles in life began early. After his parents separated, he said Sellers was raised by his mother, who he said was a drinker and drug user and who “moved around a lot.”
Seller attended school in the Dayton and Northridge districts before dropping out after completing the seventh grade. His mother died about 10 years ago.
“That did have quite an impact,” Denslow said.
Sellers then lived with his father in Dayton and Miamisburg before moving to an apartment at 1001 E. Pearl St. in Miamisburg, where Shaffer and Spinks are believed to have met.
Sellers has a 2-year-old daughter — whom he describes on his Facebook page as “my beautiful daughter Ariana” — who lives with her mother in Hillsboro. “She’s been reluctant to give him visitation or parenting time,” Denslow said.
Shaffer and Sellers met while working at Taco Bell over the summer. Most recently Sellers worked about a month for a general contractor, but was currently unemployed.
“Josh didn’t really know this decedent. He had seen her on a few occasions,” said Denslow, adding Sellers was unaware of any plan to kill Spinks.
“He didn’t know about it ahead of time,” Denslow said. “It seems it would be completely out of character for Josh.”
Regarding Sellers’ court record, Denslow emphasized the domestic violence allegation involving his father ended without a conviction. Despite the incidents, Denslow said his client and his father have a good relationship.
Neither Shaffer’s lawyer, Montgomery County public defender Victor Hodge, nor his family have responded to interview requests. Shaffer’s father, Gary, works as an analyst for the chemistry section of the Miami Valley Crime Lab.
Shaffer was convicted of attempted theft in November 2008 in Vandalia Municipal Court.
On March 29, he admitted stealing a bank check belonging to his mother, Vicky, and forging her signature at their home on Robinhood Drive in Miamisburg. She changed her mind and declined to press charges after Shaffer was taken into custody, according to police reports.
Prior to this, Shaffer’s only court charge in Miamisburg stemmed from a failure to control charge in 2008. He paid $106, according to records.
Shaffer graduated from Miamisburg High School in 2008, but attended Montgomery County Joint Vocational School his junior and senior years where he was part of a team recognized in 2008 for a green energy project at the 4th annual Miami Valley NARI Entryway Contest. He had no juvenile record, according to officials.
His Facebook page named Lady Gaga as his favorite entertainer and “Despicable Me” as one of his favorite movies.
Spinks is the oldest of the six grandchildren that Linda and Bill Nicholas are raising as their own. “Lisa was a big help to me with the younger kids,” Nicholas said. She loved to play with the younger kids and to help them with their homework.
Nicholas, 65, is a retired schoolteacher who taught in Xenia schools for 30 years. Her husband Bill, 69, is a security guard for the Talbott Tower in downtown Dayton.
Nicholas was a single mother when she adopted Spinks’ biological father, David Spinks, in 1978. When Lisa was born in 1991, her biological parents knew they couldn’t care for her and asked Linda and her new husband, Bill, to raise her.
“It took about two seconds to fall in love with Lisa,” recalled Bill, who carried the toddler with him everywhere.
He chuckled about an incident that foretold her lifelong passion for McDonald’s. Once, when he announced they were heading home, 2-year-old Lisa piped up from the back seat, “No, no, no! Donald’s fries!”
He fights back tears, adding, “We have to hang on to the happy memories.”
Lisa was an only child for eight years when her grandparents became legal guardians for her three younger siblings. Her two cousins, the children of Nicholas’ younger son, joined the family not long afterward.
“They’re ours,” Nicholas said of six grandchildren they have raised as their own. “We’re Mom and Dad. I wouldn’t know what to do without them any more. You just add another plate.”
With her big blue eyes and curly strawberry blonde hair, Lisa looked the picture of Little Bo Peep — a resemblance Nicholas couldn’t resist exploiting when she took the toddler to a photo studio where she was photographed complete with a shepherdess staff and little lost lamb. That look of wide-eyed innocence changed little in photos taken over the years, even her graduation portraits last year from Miamisburg. “She trusted everybody to be like her,” Nicholas lamented.
Reading and math had proved a struggle for Spinks since early grade school, and she took great pride in graduating from high school. “She was so excited that day,” Nicholas recalled. “She even had her nails done. She was such a hard worker. She had to work for everything she had.”
In the vocational program at Miamisburg, students were taught life skills, such as how to use a checkbook, get back proper change and shop at a grocery store. Their volunteer work provided grounding in basic job skills.
In spite of her learning disabilities, Nicholas said, “She didn’t seem to get discouraged. She was a happy girl.”
Since graduation, Spinks held a part-time job in the Miamisburg school district and worked several volunteer jobs, including at St. Vincent de Paul’s Good Neighbor House. She flunked her driver’s test and never tried again. Instead, she walked everywhere and rode her bike all over town. “She would embarrass me by shouting out the car window at people,” Nicholas said.
“Everybody liked her,” observed her friend, Michael Shumaker. “She was a likeable person. What I’ll miss most is her smile.”
Spinks had been trying to obtain job training through Montgomery County’s vocational rehabilitation program. Two weeks after her death, a letter came for Spinks saying that she had an appointment the following Wednesday. Nicholas sent the letter back, scribbling a note, “You’re a little late. She was murdered.”
The couple finds comfort in the support of their church, Miamisburg Christian, as well as the broader community — even strangers who are shocked that such a crime could occur here.
The couple also is preoccupied with the needs of a bustling household, and the five surviving grandchildren who are hurting so much with the loss of their big sister and helpmate. The younger children have been leaving love notes to Lisa scattered around the house.
Melissa, an eighth-grader, has taken over Lisa’s mother-hen role. As her brother David, left the house for school one morning, she called out, “Be safe! Don’t get hurt!” After he closed the door, she explained, “I just want to protect my family. I’ve already lost Lisa, I don’t want to lose anyone else.”
When the children are at school, Linda Nicholas sometimes gives way to her tears. She has been denied the most basic rituals of grief — even a proper burial since the body had been dismembered. “Who would do that?” she asks again and again.
Her days are punctuated by the steady rhythm of the nearby trains. “Trains used to be such a comforting presence,” she said. “I don’t hear trains the same any more.”
Staff writers Lou Grieco and Doug Page contributed to this report.
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