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Laura Kessel is managing editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby. She writes a weekly column and shares her thoughts here.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Parole board should nix parole in Ormston murder case

Dear Ohio State Parole Board:

I’m writing to express my outrage that Mark J. Sotka is being considered for parole in the killing of Angel Ormston of Mentor-on-the-Lake. 

The outrage isn’t directed at you. It’s not your fault that he’s able to take advantage of a part of the law that allows this convicted killer to begin to pursue parole after service of two-thirds of his sentence. 

You’ve not been confronted with this case so far. So, please, allow me to help make you aware of the facts of this crime, from the perspective of an Ohioan who saw it unfold from another part of the state.

In August 1992, I was a young journalist working at The Morning Journal in Lorain, my first job out of college.

Cleveland media shared the shocking news about this beautiful young girl from Mentor High School a couple of days after she disappeared. Soon, I began seeing her face on “MISSING” posters as I entered and exited the Ohio Turnpike on shopping trips to Parmatown Mall.

Later, that smiling face beamed back from a milk carton, again with the word “MISSING.”

Four and a half months later, hunters found her decomposing body lying in a ditch in Perry Township. She was wrapped in a bed sheet when discovered, and it took investigators awhile to determine the cause of her death because of the advanced decomposition of the body.

Angel was 17 years old when she was killed by two stab wounds to the heart and one to her side. She was bound at the ankles and chest by duct tape and the sheet.

Her friends said she was carrying on an affair with Sotka, whom they say killed her when she disclosed that she was pregnant.

Sotka was caught and later confessed because of dogged police work the likes of which we see today on “CSI.” 

A roll of duct tape, a few carpet fibers and a little bit of blood on a baseboard in a home in which he no longer lived put him behind bars. Mentor Police, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI and the Lake County Prosecutor’s Office never gave up as Sotka sat at home or in his college dorm and lived it up while the residents of Mentor and Mentor-on-the-Lake cowered in fear as the hunt for one of their daughters dragged on endlessly.

He tossed her out like trash after he wooed her with empty promises of a future. 

Then, in a final cowardly act, he took a deal guaranteed to save him from sitting on Ohio’s Death Row and paying the ultimate price for his butchery.

At Sotka’s sentencing in February 1993, John Ormston laid bare his family’s pain and sorrow for the lost promise of his gorgeous daughter:

“Do you realize what you’ve done? Do you have any idea what you’ve done to us? She loved you. She talked about you all the time. That’s all she talked about was Mark, and you killed her. You had a chance to save her and you killed her instead. And now, while your parents can visit you in prison, you know what we get to do? 
Visit our daughter’s grave. Seventeen years old. So full of live. You stabbed her in the heart. She does anything for anybody, and you killed her for that.

“You have no remorse. Here you killed her and you left her to rot. I’d like to show you the pictures of her of how we found her. I can’t even bear to look at them.

“How dare you. Look at you. Twenty years old and you’ve already killed? You make me sick. That’s all I can say.”

And now, 20 years later, Sotka has asked to come before you to plead for his release from prison.

I ask you to send him back to his cell.

It’s too soon for Angel’s parents to know he’s walking freely among them. It’s too soon for her friends to be confronted by the fact that the one who stole their innocence is allowed back into a free society.

Then-Lake County Common Pleas Judge Paul Mitrovich sent Sotka away for 30 years to life.

I ask that you take into account the facts of Sotka’s crime and honor that sentence. He stole the promise of a beautiful young girl that day in Mentor. He shouldn’t now be awarded the freedom to pursue the dreams she never had the chance to attain.

Laura A. Kessel
Managing Editor
The News-Herald

Editor's note: Ormston's family is asking concerned citizens to sign their petition at or send a letter stating why Sotka should not be granted parole to by Saturday, June 1, 2013, so they can submit it with the petition to the parole board.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Getting a chance to meet some shining stars of the Class of 2013

By the time Charles Roman finished reading off Allee Vito’s accomplishments, the crowd on hand at Monday’s Willoughby Rotary Club meeting was bathed in the greatness of the Class of 2013.

They’d heard descriptions of the four finalists for the club’s Student of the Year award and been humbled by their many achievements.

Roman, head of school at Andrews Osborne Academy, began the program with a breakdown of those who’d applied for the scholarship awards: average grade-point average was 4.22; average applicant was involved in eight organizations or school activities, four community service activities and had received nine honors or awards. The average applicant also had held at least four jobs throughout their high school years.

In addition to the AOA senior, competing for the $750 first prize and runner-up $250 checks were Shanti Fencil of North High in Eastlake; Lin L. Maio of South High in Willoughby; and Alex Skiljan of Kirtland High.

It’s easy be impressed when you hear phrases like “Academic Decathlon” followed by “National Honor Society” and “National Merit Scholar.” Putting the letters A and P together during most of my year signals The Associated Press, but at luncheons with scholars, it denotes advanced work in courses such as physics and chemistry.

But these youngsters also are volunteers, taking part in camps, tutoring and levy campaigns. They’ve worked to battle bullying in their schools and used their language skills to assist both foreign exchange students and those abroad.

They’ve won state championships in football, Shakespeare speech awards and enough scholarships to fund a small Caribbean nation.

But they’re also your average teenager, reminded by Mom to sit up straight or by Dad to be careful not to get pasta sauce on their tie.

They’re also just like four other youngsters I discovered this week in Mentor.

These four gentlemen were taking part in the first Mentor High School Military Signing Day.

Bound for the armed forces, they were introduced and stood at parade rest as their accomplishments in school and dreams for the future were listed for an audience filled with city officials, family members and veterans of wartime service that included World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.

Ryan Hollis is headed July 24 to the U.S. Navy, where his plans are to become a Master at Arms, which is the Navy’s military police. He hopes to become a police officer when he leaves the service.

Hollis surprised his grandmother, Wallyne Wagner of Mentor, who was sitting next to me during the ceremony, when it was announced that he planned a career in the Navy, serving for 20 years.

“I didn’t know he was planning on making it a career,” she said. “But it’ll be good for him.”

She said Hollis’ father, John, served in the Army for four years after he graduated from high school.
“I think it’s good for them, it gives them structure, which they need,” she said.

Wagner’s daughter, Karin, is Hollis’ mother. Karin and John Hollis also were on hand for the ceremony honoring their son.

Also headed to the military from Mentor High are Jeremy Lutz and Martynas Sidlauskas, who will be joining the Army, and Rafiq Oglesby is headed to the National Guard.

Sidlauskas plans to become a firefighter in the Army, and Oglesby will be a human resources specialist before heading to medical school.

Lutz intends to become a cav scout, which means he’ll be the eyes and ears of the commander during battle.

Tenth-grade unit principal Adam Dudziak listed the accomplishments of each of these young men and read some words from teachers about their work in the classroom and as leaders among their peers.

High praise goes to Mentor High for taking time to honor them.

Far too often it’s only the athletes who earn the accolades. These young men deserve our thanks and high praise for volunteering to do the jobs necessary to keep our country safe.

The cheers at the ceremony were touching and well deserved.

And, as I look back on a week with the Class of 2013, it’s good to know that they’re ready to work hard and take on some big responsibility.

Good luck to you all.
Twitter: @Lauranh

Friday, May 17, 2013

A little too off the cuff during talk to Kirtland Kiwanis

In the 1970s, the advice to Woodward and Bernstein was very simple.

Three little words.

“Follow the money.”

Washington Post writer Bob Woodward’s secret source, known as “Deep Throat,” and later confirmed to be former high-ranking G-man Mark Felt, consistently advised the young reporter to keep his eyes focused on campaign donations to President Richard Nixon during the investigation into the Watergate Hotel break-in.

The words were prophetic then and remain so today. In most cases, following “the money” will get you where you need to be to find out the details of what you’re looking for.

The “money” isn’t always cash. Sometimes it’s information.

When it comes to ideas for this column, I often follow the invitations.

In other words, if you invite me somewhere, you should expect me to write about it.

In most cases, I’ll let you know about it before it appears in the paper. Sometimes I forget, though.


Thursday night, the Kirtland Kiwanis Club learned that the hard way.

I let it slip during my speech to the group at its weekly meeting. It went something like this:

“Pretty much every time I get invited anywhere, I’ll write about it. So, you should expect to see something about this meeting in Saturday’s edition of The News-Herald. I usually don’t know what I’m going to write until afterward, but right now, it’ll probably have something to do with the fact that I just cussed.”

Yes, I slipped up and let a bad word fly. It wasn’t one of George Carlin’s seven magical words, the ones you can’t say on television.

It was one of the smaller ones — not the one that’s slang for a body part, or the one that describes the place you don’t want to go when you die.

To be honest, I don’t remember why I even said it. It was a modifier for something.

If you haven’t figured out which word it was yet, I’ll try to help you by discussing my preparation for this appearance:

When I learned they intended for me to speak for 10 to 15 minutes, I posted a paragraph about my concern on Facebook. It went something like this: “I am giving a speech next week, and the video I was counting on to coast me through at least half of the allotted time is only four minutes. Poor Kirtland Kiwanis. Their decision looks worse every day.”

I got lots of advice, including a suggestion to run the video twice. (I actually considered that one.)
When I said I would be spending my recent drive to Washington writing my speech, someone who shall remain nameless told me to go in noteless — “just riff dude!!”

I thought about it for a while and decided he might be right. Why come across as that speaker we’ve all been forced to listen to, who keeps their head down the entire time while reading from a prepared speech.

No, sir. Not me.

When it came time to start with a joke, as you’re always told to do, it went like this:

“One of my Facebook friends told me not to use notes tonight. If this goes well, I’m taking all the credit. If it goes poorly, I’m giving you all his name and phone number so you can call him and let him know what a big mistake he made.”

Lots of laughter. I relaxed.

But, then came the D-bomb.

As soon as I said it, I realized Mr. No-Notes was wrong. Or I was, for thinking I could go off the cuff in front of a crowd.

In hindsight, though, it helped me relax. Turns out, a little profanity was good for the heart rate.

Kirtland Kiwanis must not have been too upset about it, either, because they asked me to help judge the Miss Kirtland contest during next month’s Strawberry Festival.

Of course I said yes.

The Kirtland Kiwanis Club puts on quite an event with its all-volunteer staff. During Thursday’s meeting, I got a peek at how it all comes together, and was impressed by the teamwork the ladies and gentlemen have forged over the years.

Club members of this service organization that benefits Kirtland School District are constantly on the move working to improve the grounds at the district’s school complex. Plans this summer call for building dugouts for the softball team’s field using volunteer labor from the club’s ranks.

Previously, they worked to replace the visitors’ stands at Kirtland High’s Rogers Field, where the football team plays its home games.

Steps away from that field is where the Strawberry Festival kicks off on June 13 with its amazingly colorful, yet gluttonous Strawberry Shortcake Eating Contest. It’s a mess to watch, but pure entertainment for those who enjoy competitive eating.

There’s plenty of entertainment all weekend (information is available at, and proceeds go to support the school district.

It’s good to see such support during a time when many districts are struggling for funds to maintain their grounds and educate their children.

It’s (expletive) good to see.

Oops, I did it again.
Twitter: @Lauranh

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Nowacki's family, friends prove the dream: Dude, he is always here

Sometimes, it doesn’t take long to realize what you’re going to write.

For me, it took four words.

When Steve Wagner walked up to the microphone and started speaking at the Heroes for Andy event on Saturday in Mentor, he said a few things you’d expect to hear from a friend who misses his good buddy.

The Erie, Pa., resident praised his hosts, as a good speaker does. He cracked a few jokes to soften the crowd.

But then he got serious as he laid out his call to action.

“This event is really our yearly reminder of what a big deal Andy was, and what he continues to be,” Wagner said as he looked to the parents of Lance Cpl. Andrew “Ace” Nowacki.

The U.S. Marine, who also served as a Grand River policeman, was killed Feb. 26, 2005, when a roadside bomb exploded in Babil Province, Iraq. Nowacki was in the lead vehicle escorting a convoy.

Denis and Sheila Nowacki were seated a few feet away, preparing to honor area residents for their heroism and award scholarships to young adults who plan careers in public services.

Then Wagner, who served in Iraq with Nowacki, began to discuss a dream he’d recently had.

“It was one of those dreams that just start in the middle,” he said. “You don’t know why or where you are, you just know you’re supposed to be there. The next thing I knew, Andy was standing next to me. And he looked at me just like he always did, looking only like he can. In that moment, I couldn’t comprehend it all. I struggled with the reality of knowing that he had died with the truth of the dream that he was right there. I remember it, and to this day I can see him.

“And, of course, being the smooth guy that I am, I started babbling like an idiot. How is it possible? I don’t understand. Where have you been? They told me that you died and that you’re gone. And I went on and on.

“Then after I was done, there was that moment of silence that happens in dreams. And then he looked at me, with his Andy smile, and he said, ‘Dude, I’m always here.’ ”

Oh, how true.

Nowacki lives on in the lives of the 20 young men and women who’ve received scholarships to attend a police academy or fire training and who’ve gone on to work in communities around us.

One of the newest members of that group is John Sweigert of Wickliffe.

A 2012 graduate of Wickliffe High School, Sweigert is in the criminal justice program at Lakeland Community College.

And Sweigert is hoping to jump start his professional law enforcement career. He’s begun speaking with military recruiters in hopes of becoming a military police officer.

“I’m not 100 percent sure on which branch yet,” Sweigert said at the May 4 dinner. “I want to be in the military because, I figure, if I can police in the military, I can police anywhere. It’s great for experience, and experience is the best thing you can come by these days. It’s not how much you know, it’s how much you can do.”

He said he probably will finish his degree at Lakeland first, which will put him at 20 years old. You must be 21 to serve as a police officer in Ohio.

“School is the traditional way,” Sweigert said. “The military is different, you get training and I can start right now, at age 19, or 20. I have to wait until I’m 21 to be a police officer.”

What does his mom, Jeanie, think of his military plans?

“Mom is proud that he even wants to do it, but Mom is like, you don’t want your baby to go in harm’s way,” she said. “And that’s selfish, but I want him home for holidays.”

John Sweigert spent a bit of time with a Marine recruiter from the Mentor office and made an appointment for a visit. It seems only fitting, considering Sweigert recieved a scholarship named after a United States Marine.

Sweigert is much like many of the scholarship winners, who get to know Nowacki’s story after they’re selected for the scholarship.

“It’s a very inspirational story for everyone. Everything I’ve seen about him, he seems like he was such a great person to be around. He was awesome.”

When you think about it, I shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of familiarity. Sweigert was 11 when Nowacki died.

That’s why Denis and Sheila Nowacki picked this route to ensure their son’s legacy was one of giving.

By rewarding those who choose to follow in Nowacki’s steps, they ensure his vision of safety and security is met.

“It’s amazing what the power of one has accomplished,” Sheila Nowacki told the crowd on hand Saturday. “Of course that one is our beloved Andy “Ace” Nowacki. He’s the common thread that keeps us all connected, keeps us coming back to support his scholarship year after year. Eight years ago, I said we were twice blessed by Andy. And little did I know just how blessed we are.”

The Nowackis will tell anyone that those who have won the scholarships are part of them now.

“I think that every one of the recipients of the Andy Nowacki Scholarship would be friends with Andy, hanging out with him and sharing good times, if that were possible,” She continued. “They are truly a part of the Nowacki family and they are all brothers and sisters to Andy. What a grand legacy.”

Steve Wagner was right when he pointed out how huge an impact Andy Nowacki has had on Northeast Ohio, even after his death.

A perfect example is Macedonia Patrolman Nick Szaibel, who received the scholarship in 2010.

Szaibel and a pair of his fellow Macedonia police officers responded to a house fire and combined to enter a home that was fully engulfed in flames and pulled out a resident who required a walker.
The heroism continues to march forward.

Three others received 2013 Andy Nowacki Scholarships this year: Erica Howell, Daniel Smith and Denayne Dixon.
Twitter: @Lauranh

Friday, May 3, 2013

United in grief as nation set for tribute to fallen Willoughby officer

It started out as a joke.

“Any excuse I get to go to Washington, D.C., I’m there.”

I’d laugh, the other person would laugh, and we’d continue on our discussion about something related to our nation’s capital.

Turns out, as the saying goes, “there’s a grain of truth behind every joke.”

With me, there’s little doubt that my joke really is true.

You see, in four of the past five years, I’ve spent a week there while on vacation.

Because I tossed a little work in the middle of each one, it would be more accurate to say I bookended vacations there four of the past five years.

Last year’s excursion involved a charity bike ride into Judiciary Square in memory of fallen police officers.

The Police Unity Tour began in 1997 as a ride from New Jersey to Washington, as an effort to honor the sacrifices of those who died in the line of duty.

Since then, it’s grown from just a few riders to more than 1,500 taking part each year. The ride that raised $18,000 in the first year to fund a permanent museum in honor of fallen officers, raised $1.6 million in 2012.

Last year, I followed a Mentor rider, Michael T. Rae, who is an attorney for the United States Postal Service Inspection Service. He and his passionate group of fellow riders from the United States, Canada and Great Britain have been taking part for a few years now. (For my story from last year’s ride, go to:

While I’d describe the culmination of the ride as breathtaking, with an endless stream of two-wheelers heading up E Street toward the memorial as the riders wave to cheers from thousands gathered along the roadway, nothing can prepare you for a vigil that takes place at the same spot the following night.

Loved ones of those lost in the line of duty are escorted to their seats by off-duty police officers who volunteer for the solemn duty. They take the arms of the widows, mothers, daughters and sisters, and shake the hands of husbands, fathers, sons and brothers of those who’ve died the previous year while serving as a law enforcement officer.

At the culmination of an event that last year featured addresses from FBI Director Eric Holder and Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano, the families listen as their loved one’s name is read to the crowd, along with their “end of watch” date.

Those who know me well can tell you I’m a crier. And they’ll say that it often happens without warning.

I was no match for this event, which began with a haunting rendition of the National Anthem and included a stunning display overhead of the “thin blue line” often used to describe police work.

It’ll be even more difficult this year, as some of our neighbors are remembered at this year’s race.

Just a few months after last year’s race ended, I was thrilled to find out Barb Apanites, a Cleveland Heights resident who is the daughter of a fallen police officer from Wickliffe, would be taking part in this year’s ride.

Last year, Apanites and her mom, Jackie Hlivak of Willowick, were on hand when Rae finished his ride and handed over bracelets he wore bearing the names of Apanites’ father, John, and Hlivak’s late second husband, Richard, who had served on the Cleveland Police force with John Apanites.

Barb will be riding in memory of fallen Bedford Heights Police officer William Prochazka, who was the father of Willowick Sgt. Robert Prochazka.

Prochazka said he was shocked by Apanites’ gesture.

“It’s a wonderful gesture on her part,” said Prochazka, who is about to begin his 20th year on the Willowick force. “I was overwhelmed.”

The pair have yet to meet, but he’ll be on hand when she crosses the finish line for the handing over of the bracelets.

He’d heard of the ride before this year, but has never been to Washington, and is looking forward to seeing his father’s name on the monument for the first time.

“Barb and I talked over the phone, and we have a lot in common,” he said. “Because of the parole hearings for her father, and my father, we had a lot to talk about.”

Prochazka’s dad died Nov. 10, 1975, when he and his partner interrupted a robbery in progress at Blonder’s Paint Store at Southgate Shopping Center. Robert Prochazka was 9 years old when his father was killed.

Not long after Apanites announced she was planning to ride — on Sept. 21, 2012 — the Police Unity Tour became even more relevant. That’s the day Willoughby Police Officer Jason Gresko died while responding to a call.

Gresko also served as a Cleveland Clinic Police officer, and will have one of his fellow officers, Ryan Myers, riding in his memory next week.

Gresko’s name will be heard among the 321 names added to National Fallen Police Officers Memorial for 2012. The list includes 120 officers who died last year and 201 who died in prior years.

Four Ohioans were added for 2012. In addition to Gresko are two Bluffton officers who died in the 1920s and an Akron officer who died in January of 2012.

In case you’re headed to Washington and want to pay your respects to Gresko at the monument, his name can be found on Panel 15 East, Line 18. Prochazka’s name is on Panel 15 West, Line 1.

Police Unity Tour is a test of endurance for the men and women who take part. The 300 miles they ride, two by two, mirroring that same “thin blue line” I mentioned above, is a labor of love, raising money for a museum dedicated to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the protection of the towns they serve.

As they pedal off to honor those lost in 2012, it’s important to remember our Northeast Ohio sons who will forever be heroes for the work they did and the protection they gave.
Twitter: @Lauranh