"This is your friendly neighborhood killer," announces the voice on the phone.
When facing the death penalty, gallows humor comes naturally. Or at least it does for Mark Ducic, a man who seems to have accepted himself, without guilt or apology, as a murderer. His conscience free, Ducic whiles his days away in a Cuyahoga County Jail cell, pondering the irony of his position.
His first kill was in Vietnam. Ducic says he made "eighty-some" combat jumps with the 82nd Airborne. For mowing down Viet Cong, he got a chestful of medals. So it seemed unfair, upon his return home, that he should be punished for killing a single smart-ass American in a bar fight. But Ducic went from war hero to inmate.
When he got out, he needed work, and the Hell's Angels were hiring. "Contract killer" was his job title. Employer rules preclude Ducic from discussing his work.
Mobsters also appreciated Ducic's facility for mayhem. While the Irish and Italian gangs battled for turf in the late '70s, Ducic says, he did freelance work for both. A baseball bat was his weapon of choice. Chords of nostalgia ring in his voice as he describes kidnapping a rival of Irish kingpin Danny Green, tying the man to a tree in the country, and leaving him overnight before calling the man's friends to report his location. These are happy memories.
He treats his current predicament as something of a bummer. "The state of Ohio," he says glumly, "is trying to kill me." Speaking from jail, he doesn't act like a man afraid of death; he is simply a martyr, one who must die for what he believes in, which is killing.
But reality says Ducic can still be saved. Because reality says he's a liar.
In truth, Ducic has never set foot in Vietnam. He went through basic training in 1975, after the war was over. There's no record of him murdering a man in a bar fight or serving time for it. The drawing of a winged skull he carries around as supposed proof of his Hell's Angels credentials is a crude forgery, according to his lawyer, a former cop who has seen the real thing. And those who know the old Cleveland Mafia have never heard of him.
In fact, no one who actually knows Ducic believes his tall tales. Except police and prosecutors. When Ducic told an informant that he murdered his ex-girlfriend and a male witness to the slaying, they took it as truth. Now, Ducic may die for his lies.
Among certain crowds, survival means either being tough or talking as if you are. Ducic has been among these crowds nearly all his life.
He took his first trip behind bars in 1977, sentenced to a combined 6 to 10 years on unrelated convictions, including one for beating up a girlfriend -- after she confessed, post-coitus, to having a venereal disease -- and another for posing as a Cleveland cop to shake down bar owners.
To convince fellow inmates of his time in Vietnam, Ducic advertised with a tattoo of the 82nd Airborne crest on his chest. He also learned to mimic Aryan rhetoric well enough to earn their protection. During one prison stint, he says, he was part of a council that enforced racial segregation in the cell block.
"When you're in jail, if you're quiet, you're a punk," says Chris Pennza, who knows Ducic from their days at Euclid High. "He'll say he's anything to keep from getting killed."
Once released, Ducic was a parole officer's nightmare. He couldn't stay away from drugs -- and couldn't stop doing the stupid things necessary to get them. He was sent back to prison in 1987 for writing bad checks. Then, in 1992, he was busted for forging prescriptions.
In 1996, he fled from a Brooklyn police officer trying to pull him over for reckless driving. After he was caught, he tussled with the cop, leading to a one-year prison sentence. He was back in jail in 1999 for ducking his parole officer and again in 2002 for threatening and stalking an old girlfriend.
By the time he met Brad Weiss in the late '90s, he was a low-rent career criminal.
While Ducic had grown up a rough, ragged kid in Euclid, Weiss was born to a millionaire father, Gene Weiss, who owned a chain of fitness centers and is now chairman of the Ohio Athletic Commission. Ducic's version of meeting Brad Weiss in jail is typically boastful and probably fabricated.
"He was a young kid, and they knew his last name," he says of Weiss. "I told the black guys, 'If you touch him, I'll kill you.' They saw I was speaking up for him." He claims he saved Weiss from rape -- and probably murder.
In truth, it's likely that the friendship had more to do with their mutual obsession for a score. During their time at Marion Correctional, they thought up ways to make money and get drugs, hatching the sorts of schemes plausible only to junkies. Weiss was a heroin addict. Ducic was hooked on crack. And both were drugstore cowboys with growing appetites for Oxycontin, Percocet, and anything else that packed a chemical punch.
Ducic's idea for making legitimate money was manufacturing envelopes decorated with elaborate designs from tattoo artists -- maybe a throbbing heart wrapped in barbed wire. Inmates who wanted to impress a girlfriend on the outside would pay handsomely for the envelopes, he believed.
Another plan involved Weiss opening up a gym, just as his father had. He promised to make Ducic the manager; together they would build the franchise.
But once they got out, the pair watched their ambitions melt against the burn to get high. Lost in a miasma of drugs, they led lives steered by happenstance. The only difference: Weiss was blessed with good luck. Ducic most definitely was not.
As a criminal, Weiss was a late bloomer. In 1996, at the age of 36, he was arrested twice within a month -- first in Euclid for theft and misuse of credit cards, then in Cleveland for drug possession. He got probation.
But a year later, when he and a woman were caught robbing a Geauga County home of more than $100,000 in jewelry and other valuables, the court lost its patience. Weiss got a three-year prison sentence.
After he had served one year, his father and a group of prominent East Siders -- lawyers, businessmen, even a former mayor of Euclid -- wrote letters to the judge, pleading for Weiss's release. David Roth, then a civic leader with a gift for turning ex-cons into good citizens, was Weiss's lawyer and most eloquent booster. It worked. Weiss walked out of prison in June 1999.
A condition of parole dictated that he enroll at Cleveland Works, a nonprofit program with a national reputation for helping the down-and-out land jobs, kick old habits, and become self-sufficient. Roth was its founder and executive director. Weiss was also required to stay off drugs and not break the law. But Roth himself was a heavy user. He and Weiss would shoot heroin and snort coke and Oxycontin.
Weiss continued to attract police attention. He was stopped twice in 2000 for driving with a suspended license. In 2001, he was charged with not filing municipal income tax in nine years and was again arrested for driving with a suspended license. Any one of these offenses could have caused a judge to revoke his probation. Yet each time, he walked back into the free world. (Weiss is under police protection and could not be reached for comment.)
Leniency only seemed to make him more brazen. In 2002, he was working as a middleman in a drug ring that supplied wealthy East Siders with pharmaceuticals. Dr. Henry Yarboro, a friend of the Weiss family, sold him prescriptions in exchange for kickbacks.
Then the doctor demanded a bigger cut. When Weiss refused, he threatened to tell police about Weiss's role as a narco-broker.
In what was surely the wisest decision of Weiss's life, he went to law enforcement first. That's how he met Agent Lynn Mudra of the Ohio Pharmacy Board and Detective Greg Whitney of the Cleveland Police. They wired Weiss for a meeting with the doctor at the Yours Truly diner in Shaker Square, where they met for a payment exchange. The resulting tape led to a five-year prison sentence for the doctor, as well as an investigation of the East Side pharmacists who filled his prescriptions.
The case made Weiss a star informant. From that point on, it seems, he was granted a get-out-of-jail-free card. For someone of Weiss's criminal proclivities, it was paradise.
The only drawback to his new career was that, in order to keep himself out of jail, Weiss had to send his friends there.
Two days before Christmas in 2002, a Chardon cop pulled Weiss over for speeding. Weiss was driving under the influence, and drugs were found in his SUV. He fought with police when they tried to arrest him.
Agent Mudra drove Weiss to court, then spoke on his behalf. The Geauga County judge agreed to a reduced charge of reckless driving. Weiss was spared from prison again, but he also had a new case to work: that of his friend and former attorney, David Roth. The investigation against Cleveland Works' executive director was launched in January 2003, with Weiss again cast in the role of informant.
It gave Weiss a fresh sense of invincibility. Two months later, he was caught speeding through Bedford. When he didn't bother to show up for court, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Then Rocky River police stopped a drug dealer who was driving Weiss's SUV. Since the dealer didn't have a license, Weiss was charged with wrongful entrustment. But a Westlake judge dismissed the case and forgave Weiss's warrant in Bedford.
Around the same time, a Geauga County woman filed charges against Weiss for pawning a $5,000 necklace that was stolen from her. His police friends told him that unless he could resolve the case, they had to cut ties with him, leaving him at the mercy of the court. Instead, Weiss promised to pay restitution, the case was dropped, and he was again spared a return trip to prison.
On June 3, 2003, Weiss was caught speeding once more, this time down Highland Road in Richmond Heights. When police tried to pull him over, he sped up and then fought with the cops when he was finally caught.
To earn another get-out-of-jail-free card, Weiss would have to build a case against another friend. A Lyndhurst judge let him off with only a $145 fine. Nine days after his arrest in Richmond Heights, Weiss began work on the Ducic investigation.
Since he'd been paroled in 2000, Ducic had reunited with his drug-addled buddies, seemingly bingeing on freedom before his inevitable return to the joint.
It's hard to tell when his old friend Weiss resurfaced. But when he did, there was no hint of an ulterior motive. Ducic's mother, Bernice, remembers a man who was grateful for Mark's friendship and a place to stay.
"He slept over here a number of times," says Bernice, who at 84 years of age is still an accommodating hostess. "I said, 'If you want a beer, go in the fridge and help yourself.'"
She remembers Weiss wallowing in self-pity. "When Brad came here he would say, 'You and Mark are the only people who seem to care about me.' I thought, 'Poor guy.'"
Weiss first wore a wire to the Ducic home in Euclid on June 12, 2003. According to the search warrant signed by Detective Whitney, Ducic sold Weiss -- known generically in police reports as "CRI" -- four rocks of crack. He promised Oxycontin and Valium later, which he would allegedly get from a dealer named Ken Frost, also on parole at the time.
About two weeks later, Weiss recorded his purchase of Percocet and Xanax from Frost in a deal arranged by Ducic. On July 7, Weiss recorded the purchase of crack from Jeff Koren, a service-department worker for the city of Euclid. A police warrant indicates that Koren left his 11-year-old son with Weiss as "collateral" to guarantee that he would return with the crack.
Tapes made on July 18 and again on August 1 show Ducic selling Weiss Oxycontin. The latter tape would prove most damaging.
John Luskin, Ducic's attorney, says that it perfectly captures the pair's penchant for absurd boasts. Weiss brags about a stint with Israeli army intelligence as a professional assassin of Palestinian radicals. Then Ducic offers his own tale of murder. An old girlfriend named Barb Davis died in August 2001, apparently of a drug overdose. But Ducic tells Weiss that in fact he gave Davis a "hot shot," a drug mixture he knew would kill her. He suspected her of going to police to report his drug dealing.
Then Ducic brags of killing another friend, Donald Ehrke, the lone witness to Davis's murder. He used the same "hot shot" to keep Ehrke silent about Davis's death.
With that, a small-time drug dealer became a murderer.
Ducic's courtship of Barb Davis was not romantic -- not in the classic sense. "I met her at a crack house on St. Clair," he says. From there, Davis would move into Ducic's mother's home. The couple would fight, smoke crack, and pop pills together.
Don Ehrke was an eccentric, a paranoid man known to his friends simply as "Ehrk." He had been a maintenance man at an apartment building and had also run a drive-through beverage shop. Friends say that Ehrke lived a stingy, monastic existence, obsessed with World War II and government conspiracies. Every door in his home was equipped with deadbolts. "It seemed like he had a black cloud hanging over him," said one friend in court.
Ducic and Davis met frequently at Ehrke's house to quaff beers, hit the crack pipe, and snort Oxycontin.
"In her final days, everything was going good," says Ducic of Davis. "We were going to give it up, all the drugs. I got her a job at a restaurant on Babbitt Road. We were straightening out."
The claim rings a bit hollow, since on the night of August 4, 2001, the couple glutted themselves on crack and booze with their friend Ehrke. The next morning, Ducic awoke to find Davis unconscious, according to his statement to Euclid police.
Marie DeLeon, Ducic's ex-wife, called at 11:04 that day. Ducic told her that Davis wouldn't wake up, DeLeon would later testify. DeLeon told Ducic to call the hospital. She called back at 11:11 and after hearing that Davis hadn't improved, she again told Ducic to call 911.
Phone records shows that Ducic called immediately after hanging up the second time. When paramedics arrived, Davis's face was blue, she had no pulse and was not breathing. Less than half an hour after arriving at the hospital, she was pronounced dead.
Davis's death was ruled an accidental drug overdose. She had been a chronic addict for many of her 41 years. Tests showed that she had consumed about twice the legal limit of alcohol, and that she had also ingested codeine, Valium, and cocaine. A Euclid Police detective testified to finding no evidence suggesting homicide.
Ehrke once told a friend about the morning of Davis's death. "He says she was unconscious and they [Ehrke and Ducic] didn't know what to do," says the friend, who doesn't want his name used. So, like true addicts, "They snorted up some of these Oxycontin things. I said, 'Ehrk, you should have called the police and saved that lady's life.'" He says Ehrke fell quiet and dropped the subject.
Stoners aren't known for being quick on their feet, and while Ehrke and Ducic may have been particularly slow, their neglect wasn't criminal, says attorney Luskin. "If I want you dead and I make up a super cocktail to kill you, I wouldn't call 911 to get you revived," he says. "So the theory that [Ducic] tried to kill Davis doesn't really fly."
The far more likely scenario, says Luskin, is that Ducic changed the story afterward to make himself look less like a bumbling junkie and more like a diabolical genius.
Ehrke spent the last night of his life, December 16, 2002, sitting in his recliner in his trademark hunting jacket, watching television. A friend who asked not to be identified visited him late that night. Ducic was not there. The two chatted and watched the tube. There was no sign that Ehrke's life was in danger.
"He was just dozing off, you know?" says the friend, who left a little after midnight. "He had the remote control in his hand, and he had the same remote in his hand when they found him the next day."
Tests showed Ehrke had traces of Flexeril, a prescription drug used to relax muscles, and mirtazapine, an antidepressant. There was also marijuana, cocaine, codeine, and Oxycontin in his system. Like Davis's, Ehrke's death was ruled an accidental overdose.
Nearly a year later, in August 2003, after being told by police of Ducic's boasts of murder, Cuyahoga County Coroner Elizabeth Balraj reclassified both deaths as homicides.
In the same conversation in which Ducic bragged of killing Davis and Ehrke, Weiss asked Ducic to kill again. He explained that a woman from whom he had stolen jewelry was going to turn him in. Weiss wanted her dead. Ducic said he would do it -- for a price.
Weiss never offered the woman's name, and police arrested Ducic on August 26, before he could fulfill his promise. But those who know Ducic say he's a poseur -- the type who talks about killing people, not the kind who could actually do it.
"As far as the murder for hire, Ducic was just trying to get drug money," says one former friend. "'Give me money up front.' I know his game."
"He wouldn't kill nobody," says Chris Pennza.
Other friends believe he would. The difference between the two camps, it seems, is that those who believe Ducic is a murderer have been offered breaks on their prison sentences in exchange for testifying against him. It isn't a criminal all-star team.
Scott Leavitt bribed a county worker into accepting phony urine so that he could pass his probation drug test. He tried to sneak the clean urine into the county building in a tin cup. His plot was foiled by the metal detector. Leavitt's sentence was reduced from a year to 30 days in exchange for testifying.
Wesley Flynn's criminal brainstorm was attempting to shoplift a sizable portion of the electronics department out of the Target on Center Ridge Road. Into his cart he loaded a stereo, a FoodSaver vacuum-pack storage appliance, a TV, an electric shaver, and two DVD players. He then tried to simply wheel it out the door. Target security busted him. Flynn was sprung from prison two months early in return for his testimony.
Jeff Koren, the drug dealer who used his own child as collateral, would be allowed to leave jail on bond if he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Despite drug-dealing and child-endangerment charges, Koren only received probation.
Another dealer, Ken Frost, was granted bond on drug charges in exchange for testifying against Ducic. In a statement to prosecutors, Frost alleges that Ducic wanted to steal Ehrke's guns. On the day Ehrke turned up dead, he claims, Ducic called him and confessed to drugging Ehrke, then asked for help in raiding Ehrke's house. Frost says he refused.
Ducic now stands accused of drug dealing, double homicide, and attempted murder -- the latter for his promise to rub out Weiss's fictional girlfriend.
His first trial began in January, but was interrupted when one of Ducic's attorneys, Ralph DeFranco, experienced health problems. The case will be retried May 24.
Weiss's informing on Roth eventually bore fruit. Last month, Roth pleaded guilty to drug charges, racketeering, and obstruction of justice. But the case against Ducic will be much more difficult.
Luskin will challenge the credibility of the government's witnesses. "How reliable can they be?" he asks. "If you're holding a 10-year prison sentence over my head, I'd say anything, too."
But the more compelling evidence may be Ducic's history of spinning lies, as well as the manner in which Weiss got him to confess to the alleged murders. "Ducic is bullshitting Weiss, while Weiss is bullshitting Ducic," says Luskin, referring to the tape. "It's a bullshit case."
Finally, one of the defense's most powerful pieces of evidence is in the coroner's examinations. Davis and Ehrke had different combinations of drugs in their systems, so Ducic's claim to have concocted a special "hot shot" looks dubious.
Prior to his arrest on murder charges, Ducic's most recent stay in jail had been for stalking an ex-wife, Marie DeLeon, the same woman who called him on the day of Davis's death. It is not the sort of crime that permits bragging rights. So Ducic told fellow prisoners that he was being held on suspicion of murdering Davis.
"Stalking? That almost makes you sound like a baby rapist," says Ducic. "It's a bad charge to be in jail on."
After DeLeon failed to show up for court and the stalking charges were dismissed, Ducic told the boys in the cell block that he had just beaten a murder rap.
So when he was again sent to jail, this time for real murder charges, Ducic seemed to enjoy his sudden celebrity. His tall tales rang with a new authority.
He certainly was a big talker over the phone. Besides his occasional greeting as "your friendly neighborhood killer," he cheerfully remarked that Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason was taking the rare step of trying Ducic's case personally, "because it's going to be on Court TV." It wasn't true.
The experience has allowed Ducic to tell soul-stirring tales of his imminent demise. "He doesn't want to die by lethal injection," says Pennza. "He wants to die by firing squad. He told me he's had a needle in his arm his whole life. What's one more time?"
He has also cooked up conspiracies. "An officer approached me yesterday with a note," he whispered one day. "It said, 'Keep your mouth shut, and $1,000 will be placed in your canteen.'"
Another time, Ducic phoned in a highly agitated state. "I almost stabbed a guy," he said. "I caught him jacking off, and I almost stabbed him."
Ducic "almost" does a lot of things. On another occasion, he begins the conversation with, "I almost jumped a guard, one of the few people who is still behind me."
After he allegedly phoned in a death threat to a witness, Ducic's phone privileges were terminated in January, but he demonstrated a deft dramatic touch via jailhouse stationery.
In a letter to Scene dated February 19, Ducic writes: "As of yesterday I began what is known as a Death Hunger Strike. To put it simply, I refuse to eat, until I die!" In the letter, he claims to be an innocent man, framed by prosecutors and police. "May God take me to Rest in Peace," it concludes.
A few days later, a fellow inmate calls to report that Ducic is lethargic and moaning with hunger. But the man also reports that Ducic has declared fruit a nonfood and thus eligible for consumption.
Even with the fruit exclusion, however, his willpower quickly exhausts itself. On the sixth day, Ducic announces the end of his Death Hunger Strike.
Still, he's better at pretending to be a martyr than Weiss is at pretending to be a reformed drug addict and credible witness. In late February, Weiss was caught trying to steal a hat from a gas station in the early morning hours. It's the kind of crime that suggests his drug use has continued unabated. In keeping with routine, Weiss brawled with police before he was arrested. Luskin is nearly drooling at the prospect of impugning Weiss's testimony before a jury.
"This guy is a one-man fucking crime wave, and he's doing it with the help of the State of Ohio, a county prosecutor, and the Cleveland Police," the lawyer says.
Even so, there's no trace of optimism in Ducic himself. By early April, his cobalt eyes have gone black and retreated into a cadaverous face. His old zeal for storytelling is no more. "I'm starting to feel like a monster," he says, but he no longer seems proud of it.
Ducic claims to have given up on justice. He expects to be convicted. "I really think they just want me so bad," he says. "They have this image, this myth of a mass murderer, and if they want it bad enough they can get anyone."
Even if Ducic's acquitted, there will be no happy ending, no party to welcome him home. "He should have never been let out of jail in the first place," says one old friend. "He's a lifetime criminal."
"If they were to kill Mark," says Pennza, "I'd say, 'They killed the biggest BS-er I ever met, and he brought it on himself.'"
Even Ducic's attorney offers little charity. "If Ducic is guilty of anything," says Luskin, "it's stupidity."
Thus it is his strange task to prove that his client is not a murderer. He's merely a moron.