Sep. 14—BY SHELLY TERRY
Orwell resident Wesley Thomas was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet and under house arrest when he allegedly killed a woman and then himself Sunday at the New Lyme Wildlife Area, according to the Ashtabula County Coroner’s Office.
Thomas, 34, and the 31-year-old woman suffered gunshot wounds to the head, according to coroner’s investigator Keith Stewart. Police recovered a firearm at the scene and the coroner believes it to be a murder-suicide, according to police.
Three weeks ago, Thomas was released from jail while awaiting trial after being accused of raping a 7-year-old girl, court records show. The 31-year-old woman was a relative of the alleged victim, a court official said.
The woman’s name is being withheld to protect the identity of the alleged victim.
At his arraignment in June, Thomas pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree rape. A magistrate set bond at $75,000 cash, surety 10 percent, court records show.
Meanwhile, Ashtabula County Children Services removed the child from the home, a court official said.
Thomas remained in jail, awaiting an Aug. 18 bond hearing, where harm prosecutors and the defense attorney agreed Thomas posed a low risk of re-offending, as the child was out of’s way, County Prosecutor Colleen O’Toole has said.
The court then modified the terms of the bond, as Thomas qualified for pre-trial release and agreed to comply with the terms of a $75,000 personal recognizance bond, including 24/7 GPS monitoring, house arrest and to have no contact with the alleged victim or her immediate family, O’Toole said.
After the GPS was placed on his ankle, Thomas was released from jail on Aug. 19, records show.
O’Toole said she doesn’t know if the murder-suicide could have been prevented, but “we need to figure out if there was a failure somewhere, a system failure, or something else that caused this situation to occur, and that’s how we improve as a community.”
In the past few years, GPS tracking systems have become more affordable and easier to use, allowing authorities to keep tabs on clients while they’re out on bail, according to Ray Gandolf, director of operations at Ohio AMS in Independence, Ohio, a GPS provider.
In Ashtabula County, the Adult Probation Department oversees its own GPS tracking, Gandolf said.
The GPS system transmits information about where the device is located via cell phone towers or WiFi networks. A problem occurs when the defendant moves to a place where there is no service, he said.
If the defendant leaves the court-ordered location, the authorities will be alerted through email, text or a phone call, Gandolf said.
“The equipment is usually powered by batteries that the defendant is responsible for charging,” he said. “If the defendant lets the battery die, the GPS doesn’t work. Authorities are alerted when the battery is low, so they may remind the defendant to charge the battery.”
It is not known if Thomas’ GPS battery was charged, but it was not removed, according to the coroner’s investigator.
“My opinion, as a former police officer and probation officer, if it’s a high-risk offender, GPS is not the best option,” Gandolf said.
Tracking anklets are a fairly regular provision of release for criminal defendants who are out on bail in Ashtabula County, but Sheriff William Niemi believes GPS bracelets should be used only on minor offenses, such as thefts or OVIs.
“This is a prosecutor and court decision. We have nothing to do with GPS,” he said. “Violent criminals will always be housed in jail no matter what.”
The Star Beacon’s phone calls and emails to Adult Probation were not returned Tuesday.