Herstrum’s life casts echoes 15 years after brutal murderWritten by Justin R. Kalmes | | email@example.com
For Cindy Herstrum Clark, imagining the lifetime of memories ripped from her family is no more difficult on the anniversary of her sister’s murder than it is any other day.
“It’s not even this time of year, it’s Christmas, it’s any time that there’s an empty seat,” Clark said. “All these things that could never ever be because of him.
“Words seem too trivial to express what it’s like.”
Fifteen years have come and gone, but the emptiness remains with Clark, a Rocky River native who resides in Woodbury, Minn., every time she gathers with her parents, Alan and Diane Herstrum, to celebrate birthdays, holidays and any of life’s other joys.
Though time has helped her move on, it hasn’t healed the wounds forever inflicted by the Jan. 26, 1992, brutal slaying of Clark’s 19-year-old sister, Melissa Anne Herstrum, on the University of Toledo’s Scott Park Campus, by university police officer Jeffrey Hodge.
An endless list of “what-ifs” died with Melissa the morning Hodge kidnapped her, placed her in handcuffs face down in the snow and fired 14 bullets into her body.
Graduating from UT’s nursing school. Getting married. Having children.
It’s the “what-ifs” such as those that leave a hole in the hearts of the Herstrum family. As each year passes without Melissa, the simple characteristics that made her who she was slightly fade in the minds of those who loved her, said Clark, 38. Her beautiful smile, the way she smelled, the trademark pink lipstick she always wore.
Pictures of Melissa, who others described as someone who put everyone else’s needs before her own, remind Clark of those details. But what they can’t do, she said, is bring to life the way Melissa lit up a room or brought joy to others through her sense of humor.
“I just think about how much I miss her,” Clark said. “It seems so long, you almost forget what your sister looked like and smelled like.
“I’m constantly reminded, seeing friends with their siblings, of something I don’t have.”
What Clark will forever have is the image of her beautiful younger sister, a slender woman with curly long brown hair, big green eyes and a flawless smile her face seemed lost without.
A UT official who worked closely with the university’s Greek community remembered how striking Melissa, a high school cheerleader who had recently joined the Pi Beta Phi sorority, looked.
“I think about how beautiful she was, how much life she had in her,” the official said. “She caught your eye in a room. She was that beautiful.”
Her physical beauty was matched by her spirit and generous nature, friends said. The UT description on the scholarship that bears Melissa’s name reads, “Melissa was active in various community service projects including volunteer work as a candy-striper in her hometown. She was a one-year member of Pi Beta Phi sorority and was known to many as a ‘beautiful, sparkling angel.’
“Melissa was a strong-willed, compassionate woman who had a dream and pursued it. She cared deeply for others and was always willing to lend a hand. Her life was a dedication of love and happiness to her family and friends, and her story provides us an opportunity to consider the nature of strength and understanding that comes from such a tragedy.”
His law enforcement career has spanned nearly four decades, but few crimes stand out in the mind of Oregon Police Chief Tom Gulch the way the Herstrum case does. Gulch, who was a Toledo police captain at the time of Melissa’s murder and directed her homicide investigation, vividly remembers gruesome details of the crime and the horrific circumstances surrounding it.
“I’ll never forget that case,” Gulch said. “It was the most horrendous scene that I had seen in many years with the [Toledo] department. … She was shot for no apparent reason.”
Campus police received a phone call just after midnight Jan. 27 from a cab company reporting a woman had called to inform them one of their vehicles in a parking lot on the Scott Park Campus was being robbed and that she heard shots fired about 15 seconds later.
Hodge and fellow officer Jeffrey Gasiorowski arrived near the scene, but did not see anything suspicious. After deciding to conduct a foot search of a wooded area near the Engineering Technology Laboratory Center, Gasiorowski found Melissa’s body. Hodge wrote the initial report.
Gulch recalls the crime being reported that Super Bowl Sunday. Toledo police detectives were sent to the scene because university police did not investigate serious crimes on campus, he said.
What they found, Gulch said, was Melissa’s body face down in the snow, her pants pulled down, her shirt pulled up, cuts on her wrists and wounds from the 14 bullets fired into her back, legs and head.
After coming to the conclusion the peculiar wrist marks matched those made by handcuffs, Gulch said, investigators reviewed case details with renowned forensic scientist Henry Lee, who was in Toledo for a seminar. The group formed a hypothesis that a law enforcement official may have been involved in the crime.
That theory led detectives to inspect the two cars used in university police patrols that night. The first vehicle was clean, Gulch said. The other, Hodge’s car, revealed several hair fragments consistent with Melissa’s hair.
When looking at the handcuffs on Hodge’s police belt under a microscope, Gulch said, one could see traces of lead, copper and human tissue. Detectives then determined the gun used in the crime matched the one university police carried as a second weapon.
A warrant was issued for Hodge’s arrest. Gulch said he made the phone call to Hodge while other Toledo officers waited outside his home for his surrender.
“It was just horrific,” Gulch said of learning a fellow police officer committed such a heinous act. “It hits close to home when you consider the trust that society gives to police officers in times of danger and you hear that that trust was betrayed.
“I knew [Hodge]. To know that he could do such a thing was just shocking.”
To this day, Gulch said he believes there was no sexual connotation to the crime despite the vulnerable position Melissa’s body was in when police found it. The coroner’s report confirmed there were no signs of abuse or rape.
“I believe Jeff Hodge did it to watch the impact of the bullets,” Gulch said.
John Dauer, director of campus police, declined an interview request, offering only a brief statement.
“Back then it was very hard,” Dauer said. “I remember it, but it was a difficult time.”
Hodge said in court he did not remember why he killed Melissa. According to a May 7, 1993, article in The Plain Dealer, he said he followed her as she drove into a campus parking lot and stopped her to see if she was intoxicated.
When Melissa was unable to provide Hodge with identification, the article said, he said he drove her to her apartment to get it.
“She came back down and we proceeded back to the parking lot where we had left from,” Hodge was quoted as saying in the article. “I came to turn towards [her] car. I went blank and I turned the other way and we proceeded to the Scott Park Campus at which time I handcuffed the victim and I shot her.”
Hodge, according to the article, was at a loss when asked why he would do such a thing by Judge Judith Ann Lanzinger, now a member of the Ohio Supreme Court.
“I don’t know. There’s no reason,” he said.
Gulch takes solace in knowing Hodge’s victims stopped at one, but said he wishes the campus force’s hiring process could have weeded him out before he committed a crime.
“Jeff Hodge had the propensity to be a more serious offender,” Gulch said. “There could have been other crimes and other victims even more horrific than this one.”
Hodge’s life was spared when prosecutors agreed not to pursue the death penalty if he pleaded guilty to the killing. In May 1993, he was given a life sentence, which he is serving at the Warren Correctional Institution in Lebanon, for aggravated murder, kidnapping and using a handgun while committing a felony.
Hodge, 37, is up for parole in January 2022. He declined to comment for this article.
Alan Konop, Hodge’s then-attorney, said he still corresponds with Hodge and his family. He described Hodge as a “model prisoner” who “has accepted his responsibility.”
“He obviously is deeply remorseful,” Konop said. “It was so unlike his normal behavior.”
Konop said the case was one of his most difficult as a defense attorney. He said he never received any indication of what caused Hodge to kill, even after 15 years.
“This just wasn’t what he was all about,” Konop said.
If Hodge has any regret for what he did, Clark said, he has not expressed it to the Herstrum family. Hodge said he did not remember what had happened, she said, when the Herstrums made an impact statement in court before he was sent to prison.
“I’m a Christian, but I can’t possibly imagine that Jeffrey Hodge is,” Clark said. “I can’t imagine that what he did is a forgivable circumstance in this life or after.
“I don’t think he’s capable of feeling anything.”
Melissa’s murder was the end of a bizarre string of incidents that occurred on the UT campus that winter. The early morning of Jan. 20, 1992, one week before Melissa’s body was found, six shots from a 9mm semiautomatic — the same type of weapon used in the murder — were fired at the southeast end of MacKinnon Hall.
Two of the shots just missed a female student sleeping in her room. Like he was for Melissa’s murder, Hodge was working and was first on the scene following the shooting.
Terrance Teagarden, UT assistant director of residence life, remembers a campus on edge the week between the two events and the days following them.
“Everybody was pretty concerned,” said Teagarden, who worked as coordinator of student media at the time. “There was no indication that anything was connected.”
Ann Kozak, an employee at Centaur Associates, is from Herstrum’s hometown of Rocky River.
“I was a senior at UT when she was killed. I did not know Melissa, but knew lots of her friends at the time,” Kozak said. “My parents were really concerned when they heard the news that a UT student from Rocky River was murdered. For some time after Melissa was murdered, before we knew who did it, my roommates and I took extra precaution. We tried to be safer than normal. We were all pretty scared. We saw footprints in the snow around our house and called the police. It turned out it was someone checking our cable box.”
Amy Campbell, now a reporter for the Blissfield (Mich.) Advance, said she remembers how the murder shook her sense of security at UT.
“I was just barely a student then, taking one or two classes. I remember using every justification I could not to let it dissuade me from continuing with classes — I wasn’t in very far and could easily have chucked the whole idea,” Campbell said. “First it was, ‘Well, she’s a main campus student; I’m at SeaGate.’ But that didn’t address the fact that I only lived a mile from campus, alone, and that one day I did hope to be taking classes over there. So then it was, ‘I’ll never be there at night.’ Then once they figured out it was a campus security officer who did it; it was just over. I was terribly sorry for her family. … Once they had [Hodge] in custody, it was the ultimate relief knowing there wasn’t some mysterious killer still lurking on campus.”
Though he did not know her, Toledoan Jeff Stewart was a student at UT while Melissa attended school. He said Melissa and her friends would attend concerts of his rock band, The Flecks.
Stewart said he was devastated by news of her killing. He immediately penned a song, “Now You’re an Angel,” in her honor with his band mate. At her parents’ request, they performed the song at her memorial service at the university.
Alliance native Jennifer Anderson was a member of Melissa’s sorority at UT the time of her murder. Though she and Melissa weren’t close friends, Anderson remembers her sorority sister as a “smart, fun and gracious person.”
Members of the Pi Beta Phi house were “literally shook to the core” after learning what had happened to Melissa, Anderson said.
“We were absolutely scared,” said Anderson, who now lives in Toledo and works as an account executive for Toledo Free Press.
Up until Hodge was arrested for the crime, Anderson said, campus police escorted her and her sorority members to and from class, the house and their cars. Hodge served as one of those police escorts, she said.
“It was terrifying,” Anderson said of learning someone assigned to protect her and her friends was a “cold-blooded killer.”
Lori Zientara Edgeworth, director of student judicial affairs at UT, said it was unbelievably shocking to learn Hodge had been arrested for the murder.
At a memorial service conducted on campus the Wednesday after the killing, Edgeworth stood in an auditorium with several other administrators and students. Next to her was Hodge.
“When word came that they had made an arrest and then I was told who it was, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Edgeworth said. “We not only had to grapple with that, we had to try and make students grapple with that.
“It was sickening. It was emotional.”
Edgeworth, who grew up the daughter of a police officer, said it was hard to come to terms with the fact someone entrusted to protect others was capable of such an atrocious act.
“Growing up as a police officer’s daughter, you have this regard for what a police officer is,” she said. “It was a huge realization that there can be bad people in any profession.”
Teagarden and Edgeworth said they believe the university handled the situation the best it possibly could have.
“I honestly cannot go back to anything in my mind that I think the university did not do appropriately,” Edgeworth said.
Though Clark was satisfied with how the murder investigation was conducted and the university’s response, she said there was accountability to be held with the campus police force because it hired Hodge.
“It’s a horrible thing,” Clark said. “Nobody would have ever wanted it to come to that, but I’m sure there were concerns brought to light by this crime.”
The university agreed in December 1997 to pay $1 million to the Herstrum family to settle a $10 million negligence lawsuit they filed against UT. In October 1998, Alan and Diane Herstrum were awarded a $20 million judgment against Hodge to guarantee he would not make any money from her death.
A simple memorial to Melissa sits on the UT campus between Parks Tower and Greek Village. A scholarship in her name developed by two of her friends is given annually to a UT nursing student.
Though she understands Hodge’s acts were not reflective of the university’s demeanor, Clark struggles each time she drives through Toledo to visit her parents in Rocky River.
“I think [UT] would’ve been a fine place” for Melissa, she said. “It’s just a very sad thing that happened.”
Life goes on
Despite the tragedy, life went on for the Herstrum family with many other hardships to come the years following Melissa’s death.
Alan Herstrum suffered a heart attack in 1992, possibly caused by the stress and trauma brought on by Melissa’s murder. Clark suffered three miscarriages before she was able to give birth to her first child in 1996. She since has had two other children. Diane Herstrum works as a dietician.
In 2004, Diane Herstrum successfully lobbied for the passing of House Bill 375, which allows victims or their family to testify before a full board at the criminal’s parole hearing.
She offered a statement then to ensure her family would be present at Hodge’s first parole hearing in 2022.
“I do vividly remember that I cried every day on the way to work and on the way home from work for two years,” Diane Herstrum wrote. “I became an actress while I was at work and yet I did often tell people how I really felt when they asked me.
“I still cry when I think of how Melissa was murdered and I remember seeing her blood in the snow on TV news programs. The whole thing is a nightmare that should not have happened. It was not Melissa’s time to die — someone took her life away from her.
“I have a difficult time dealing with religion. Ministers do not understand death associated with murder and how it affects people.
“I cannot ever forgive Jeffrey Hodge for what he did to our daughter and my husband feels the same way.”
Clark, when asked if she shared her parents’ sentiment, said she has not forgiven Hodge and never will.
“I feel that God wouldn’t ask me to forgive someone that wasn’t a person of God himself,” Clark said. “I’m sorry if his parents are, but … it’s hard for me to imagine that he’s an individual capable of accepting his Lord God as savior.”
Clark tried memorializing her sister by naming her daughter Melissa, but was unable to look at her child without resurfacing the pain Melissa’s murder caused. She later changed her daughter’s legal name.
“It’s hard not to think about the 14 times that she was shot,” Clark said. “It’s hard even 15 years later to make room for the special happy memories.”
That her parents have stayed together has helped Clark go on without Melissa, she said. But the loss of a child, she said, has forever changed Alan and Diane Herstrum.
“My parents have led a happy life, but they walk around with a hole in their heart all the time,” Clark said. “They’ve never been quite the same.”For information on the Melissa Anne Herstrum scholarship, call (419) 530-4944.