Ryan Brookman had just returned home from his morning classes at the University of Akron when his cell phone rang.
"Hey, I'm on your porch," said the caller. "It's cold. Let me in."
It wasn't unusual for Steven Spade to drop by Brookman's unannounced. Since Spade had moved out of his parents' house, he'd leaned on Brookman for a place to crash and rides to school.
The two had been best friends since second grade. They grew up together in Mogadore, a blue-collar village of modest ranch-style houses, no crime, and even less to do. It sits just east of Akron's smokestacks and industrial parks, where the hum of the city is replaced by the buzz of circular saws and the sounds of fathers tinkering with cars. It's where Spade and Brookman became Eagle Scouts and fixtures in their church's youth group.
Their paths diverged after high school, but they remained close. Brookman, 20 years old, with an earnest demeanor and Ben Affleck looks, studied civil engineering and spent summer vacations interning for a Florida firm.
Spade was a year younger, though his puffy cheeks, shaggy brown hair, and wire-rimmed glasses made him look 16. He was working two jobs while studying to be a diesel mechanic at TDDS Technical Institute, hoping to eventually find work aboard a cruise ship.
He wanted something more than the quiet, vinyl-sided life of Mogadore. Since moving out of his parents' home, he'd been drifting from the TDDS dorms to friends' couches. Like scores of rural Ohio kids, he found his escape in doing and dealing meth -- a fact that made Brookman uncomfortable.
The two friends had talked about Spade's drug habit. "He said he wanted to quit it," Brookman says. But he never did.
On this afternoon, Brookman let his friend in from the cold. Three inches of muddy snow covered the ground as the two hung out in Brookman's East Akron home, making plans for the evening.
They were watching a movie and scarfing down takeout from Taco Bell when Spade's cell phone rang. Some friends were getting a limo and heading to Cleveland for a hotel party. "You wanna come?" Spade asked Brookman.
"I was gonna go, but something didn't seem right," Brookman would later testify in court. "He told me there would be some drugs. I decided I didn't need to be a part of that."
As February 4, 2005, turned to dusk, Spade's ride finally arrived.
The next time Brookman saw his friend was in grisly autopsy photos. Spade's head had been severed, his body burned to a blackened crisp.
Without a car, Spade often called on school buddy William Kramer for rides.
They'd met at TDDS a year earlier. The 23-year-old Kramer looked like the ultimate Pantera fan. He kept his head shaven, accentuating the depth of his brow. His red moustache and goatee framed thin lips, from which he mumbled in grave tones. Despite his badass appearance, however, his hunched shoulders hinted at insecurity.
Though several years older, Kramer relied on Spade for access to drugs and girls. "We'd go party, hang out, do kid stuff," Kramer says. "We'd do meth, smoke weed, drink, stuff like that."
On that day, Spade invited Kramer to the party in Cleveland. The two grabbed a 12-pack from a BP station and headed to 447 East Voris Street, where they were to meet the rest of their crew.
The stately brick structure had seen better days. Gutters now swayed like streamers from the edge of the roof. Steep concrete steps crumbled up to a rickety porch. Three people, just as dilapidated, lived inside.
Derek Shutt, the main tenant, was watching TV in the living room. A 43-year-old trucker, he suffered from terrible arthritis that made his pear-shaped 450 pounds rock from side to side when he walked. His smile revealed rows of rotting teeth, and his body was covered with tattoos. Friends called him "Little Man."
There weren't many thrills left in life for Shutt. He had a criminal record for theft and receiving stolen property. He'd quit drinking. Strip clubs now meant work rather than pleasure, thanks to his doorman job at Flashdance, an East Akron strip joint. The only thing he really loved was giving his younger friends tattoos.
While Spade and Kramer settled in, Shutt's roommate, Shane Rafferty, cracked open a Bud Light. He was already on his way to getting wasted.
A 26-year-old divorced father of three, Rafferty was slender, pale, and the spitting image of Pee Wee Herman. Though born in Ohio, he had grown up with his mom in Baton Rouge. He despised school and had dropped out in the ninth grade, before returning to Ohio to live with his dad.
Times had been hard on Rafferty. He was a house framer by trade, and the winter months offered little work. He'd recently moved to Voris Street on the promise of cheap rent. Most nights, he drank from dusk till dawn.
Relatives say that he was a doting father of three young kids. But friends knew him as a jealous power-tripper who dealt meth.
Rafferty preferred the company of strippers, who were seldom faithful. Their infidelity only fueled his bitterness. He dismissed friends who crushed on his women and fretted over ladies who worked under pseudonyms like "Paris." At the moment, he was nursing a silent beef with Spade, who had expressed an interest in Rafferty's most recent love interest, Laurie Zielinski, a stripper at Flashdance.
Spade didn't know this. When he arrived that night, Rafferty acted as if nothing were wrong. The four men were lounging around when Lisa Penix emerged from her upstairs bedroom, a beer already in hand.
Penix was Spade's cousin and his main connection to the Voris Street house. She'd invited him over with the promise of meth and a trip to Cleveland.
The cousins had grown up together in Mogadore. Like Spade's, Penix's innocent appearance belied her love of meth. The 19-year-old often curled her chestnut hair, and her pointed chin, porcelain complexion, and black-framed glasses made her look like a kindergarten teacher. Yet friends described her as a drama queen who spun tall tales in search of sympathy. "The way she told it, someone was always dying in her family," Rafferty says.
After high school, Penix found her escape from Mogadore in stripping and its easy cash. She got a job tending bar and dancing at Flashdance, where she met Shutt and Rafferty.
Penix dated Rafferty, but they quickly became nothing more than "friends with benefits," Rafferty says. When he moved into Voris Street, he brought Penix with him.
The group chugged beers and chatted in the living room. There was no talk of going to Cleveland. By 10 p.m., they'd almost polished off three 12-packs when another guest arrived.
Thirty-year-old Jason Keenan was dropping off some ink for Shutt, who planned to give his friends tattoos. Penix wanted a black widow. Rafferty asked for a few crosses. Kramer thought some chicken feet on both arms would look cool.
They told Keenan to grab a beer and chill. As he and Shutt talked tattoos, Rafferty suggested moving the party to the basement, so they could do some meth.
All five got up and followed Rafferty downstairs to a small office, where Rafferty pulled out a chair and told Spade to sit down. Rafferty retrieved some duct tape and asked Spade if he could tape him to the chair.
"It's all about trust, right?" he said to Spade.
Rafferty taped Spade's hands and feet together. Then he punched Spade in the face.
"What the fuck was that for?" Spade asked.
"You know what the fuck that was for," Rafferty replied.
He continued to beat Spade, hammering his face and stomach. No one interfered.
Finally, Spade fell from the chair. Rafferty dragged him down the hallway toward the bathroom.
Rafferty pulled Spade's cell phone from his pocket. He scrolled through the list of dialed numbers. He stopped when the screen read "Laurie."
"See! See!" Rafferty shouted to the other four, waving the phone in each of their faces. "He's fucking with my girl! He's fucking with my girl!"
Then he resumed kicking and punching Spade.
"Get your blows in, Kramer," he said.
Though Kramer and Spade were close -- and Kramer barely knew Rafferty -- he nonetheless began beating his friend.
The two men then dragged Spade into the bathroom, where Rafferty dunked his head in the toilet, strangling him by his braided-rope necklace. Spade struggled and kicked in the bathroom door before losing consciousness.
The group paused for a cigarette break, while Keenan consoled Penix, who was crying in the office.
After they put their cigarettes out, Rafferty asked Shutt for his gun. Without a word, Shutt pulled a handgun from his pocket.
Rafferty pointed the gun at the back of Spade's head and fired.
He handed the gun back to Shutt, who wiped it off.
"Give me your pocket knife," he told Shutt.
Shutt handed him the knife, which Rafferty used to slit Spade's throat.
He dropped Spade's head in the toilet, allowing his blood to drain into the bowl.
"It smells like a dead deer," he said.
As Spade's body lay limp, everyone went back upstairs for another Bud Light.
No one panicked. No one fled or called the cops.
Only Keenan asked to leave. He had to pick up his girlfriend from work, he said. It'd look suspicious if he didn't show up.
Shutt vouched for him, telling Rafferty that Keenan would keep his mouth shut. They allowed him to go.
The remaining four -- Kramer, Shutt, Rafferty, and Penix -- sat around and drank a few more beers while they decided what to do with the body. Someone suggested that they sever Spade's head.
They grabbed a hacksaw from the trunk of Rafferty's red Chevy Lumina and returned to the basement.
The three men took turns sawing off Spade's head while Penix watched. When they finished, they placed it in a plastic bag.
Rafferty grabbed the head and, using his hands to make the mouth move, shoved it in Penix's face.
"Your cousin has something to say to you," he said.
They wrapped Spade's body -- along with his cell phone, the hacksaw, the pocketknife, and the head -- in black garbage bags, then pulled Rafferty's car to the side of the house and loaded the body into the trunk before changing clothes and leaving.
Using the money they found on Spade, they bought gas and made a quick run to McDonald's. Kramer drove down 77 South, until just past Canton.
"Shutt, you have to drive," he said. "I'm seeing double everything."
With Shutt at the wheel, they continued their journey until they hit Mineral Wells, West Virginia.
Around 6 a.m., they pulled off the highway at a BP, used the restroom, and filled up the gas can.
The sun was beginning to rise as they began scouting the frosted farmland. When they reached Butcher's Bend Road, they pulled off into an isolated field and parked near a line of dormant trees.
They pulled Spade's body from the trunk. As the men doused it with gasoline, Penix ripped off a corner of the McDonald's bag and lit it. The four stood there as Penix threw the paper on her cousin's corpse. The flames engulfed the body.
When they got back to Voris Street, it was a sunny Sunday morning. They turned on cartoons.
A farmer glanced out his window and noticed a fire in a nearby field. When Wood County Deputy Robert Sims arrived, the two drove out to the field, where they discovered the smoldering body.
Though it was badly charred, they could make out the flesh-colored soles of tennis shoes. The head had been placed near the feet. A hacksaw had melted into one of the elbows. They also made out a melted cell phone and glasses.
The body was transported to the office of the medical examiner in Charleston, West Virginia. The extensive burns made identification impossible. All that was certain was that someone had been shot in the head and decapitated.
The situation would stay that way for another seven months.
It had been a week since Brookman last saw Spade. He found it weird that his friend hadn't stopped by or asked for a ride.
He tried calling Spade's cell phone, but there was no answer. He tried text-messaging Spade, but there was no reply.
That Sunday at church, Brookman ran into Spade's father, Gene.
"Have you seen Steve yet?" Brookman asked.
Gene told him that the last time he had seen Spade was Thursday, February 3. He had gone to TDDS to pay Spade's tuition bill and talk with his teachers, who expressed concern because Spade had missed several days of school.
Gene had gone to find his son on his lunch break. He wanted to make it clear that if he was going to pay for school, Spade would have to keep up his end of the bargain and study.
Spade wasn't pleased by his father's lecture. Gene told him he'd be back the following Tuesday to see how Spade did on an upcoming exam.
When he returned to TDDS, Spade's teachers reported that they hadn't seen him. Gene figured that his son was angry. He even thought that Steve might have left for Florida -- something he always talked about doing. "He was sick of Mom and Dad butting in," his father would say in court.
But by the end of the week, Gene had grown concerned. He called Brookman, who said he had last heard that Spade was going to a party in Cleveland with his cousin, Penix. Brookman promised to call around.
A few days later, Gene spotted his nephew, Mogadore police officer Eric Berkheimer, and asked him to file a missing person's report. But there was little information to give. He knew that his son had gone to a party with Penix, but Gene hadn't seen her since a funeral the year before.
Then, out of the blue, Penix left a message on Spade's parents' answering machine. "I haven't seen Steve since the party that Friday," she said.
She didn't leave a number, but called back a month later and left another message.
"Just calling to see if you'd heard from Steve yet," she said.
When the four got home from West Virginia, Shutt called Keenan and told him to come to the house on Voris Street.
Rafferty, Kramer, and Penix were busy cleaning up the basement -- wiping blood off walls, disposing of beer bottles, tearing up the carpet, emptying ashtrays.
When Keenan finally showed up, Shutt handed him a plastic bag with the gun. "Get rid of it," he told Keenan.
Keenan threw the gun into the backseat of his car. It sat there for two weeks, until he disposed of it in a carwash dumpster. After that, he rarely saw anyone from Voris Street, and when he did, they never spoke of what happened.
Over the next few weeks, Rafferty, Shutt, Kramer, and Penix kept busy cleaning up the basement, maintaining their energy with meth. They tore down ceiling tiles spotted with Spade's blood. Penix wiped down the steps. Rafferty broke up the concrete around the toilet.
At one point, Penix pulled Kramer aside and gave him a big hug. "Welcome to the family," she said.
Until the night of Spade's murder, Kramer hadn't known any of the residents on Voris very well. Now, he was spending every waking hour with them. He dropped out of school and moved in with his new friends.
One night, Shutt finally gave them the tattoos they'd asked for. Rafferty got a few crosses and the address of a New Orleans landmark: "739 Bourbon Street" -- Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo.
Kramer got his chicken feet, but when Penix asked for her black widow, Rafferty told her she hadn't earned it. "You didn't kill Steve," he said.
Penix received a vine instead.
Kramer quickly slipped into heavy drug use. Overwhelmed by Spade's murder, he eventually moved back in with his mother and stopped talking to his friends at Voris Street.
Penix, Rafferty, and Shutt continued to clean up the crime scene. About a month after the murder, Rafferty removed the toilet and threw it in a creek in downtown Akron. The three even attempted to go back to West Virginia to find Spade's remains.
Then, on March 1, Rafferty called his cousin, Bob Rafferty, to ask where he could get a new toilet. "I'm remodeling my basement and I need a toilet," he said. "Do you know where I can get one?"
Bob was puzzled by his cousin's call. They hadn't talked in over a decade, and suddenly Rafferty was calling at 10:30 p.m. about a toilet. Still, Bob wanted to see his cousin and agreed to stop by.
When he got to the house on Voris Street, the cousins sat around, catching up and talking about old times. "Let me show you the project I have going on," Rafferty said.
He took Bob to the basement, which was in a state of disrepair.
A carpenter by trade, Bob was dumbfounded by the renovations. Random parts of the walls had been sanded down. The concrete in the bathroom had been broken up with a sledgehammer. Ceiling tiles had been removed. "It looked like someone didn't know how to remodel a house," he would later testify in court.
Then Rafferty confessed, telling Bob that a kid had come over and that Rafferty had beaten him to death because he was a narc. Bob didn't believe him -- until Rafferty gave him a play-by-play of the murder, from the beating to the shooting.
As Rafferty talked, he grabbed a razor blade and started chipping at the wall. He said he was removing bits of brain.
Finally, Penix came downstairs. "Little Man wants to know what Bob thinks about all this," she said.
Bob told her it was none of his business and he didn't care.
"It's like a movie," he'd later say. "This stuff doesn't happen in Akron; it happens in the movies. It's just too weird."
As soon as he left, Bob called his father and told him everything. Bob's dad didn't believe it either and suggested that, if it were true, Bob shouldn't go to the cops with three killers at large. "I was worried for the safety of my family," Bob's father would later say.
Bob followed his dad's advice until May 25, 2005, when he pulled up to his carpentry shop with a friend he had told about the murder.
"Does your cousin still need a toilet?" his friend joked, pointing to a pile of junk sitting next to Bob's shop.
In the pile was a broken toilet, torn-up carpet, a shower curtain, car keys, and clothes. Bob was convinced that Rafferty had left parts of the crime scene at his work in an attempt to pin it on him.
Bob freaked and called his father. "Call the cops," his dad said.
When police arrived, they discovered that the debris actually belonged to someone else who worked at Bob's carpentry space.
Still, Bob told them everything Rafferty had said three months earlier. The only problem was that he didn't know the victim's name, and he referred to Penix as "Cindy Lou." But he still remembered the address on Voris Street.
A detective drove out to the house, but it was already abandoned.
Four months after the murder, what remained of the close-knit circle of killers had fallen apart.
In May, Penix and Rafferty skipped out on Shutt without paying the rent.
The two lived together briefly, doing odd jobs for the owner of Flashdance. A month later, Rafferty left for Louisiana.
Then, on August 7, Officer Berkheimer, who had filed the missing-person report on Spade, was at a Mogadore gas station getting coffee. He turned around to see his hysterical cousin, Penix, behind him. She told him everything.
Berkheimer called Akron Detective Frank Harrah, who'd been handling the case since Bob gave his statement in May. Penix accompanied Harrah to the house on Voris Street, where she showed him exactly how her cousin was murdered and how they had cleaned up the basement.
After Penix gave her statement, Harrah let her go. He needed to corroborate her story and identify Spade's body before pressing charges.
She soon disappeared.
Authorities in West Virginia confirmed that they had found a "John Doe" body fitting Spade's description. Harrah went to the home of Spade's parents to notify them.
It was a busy day in the household. Gene had been in charge of a Boy Scout swim party. He was at home unwinding when Berkheimer came to the door with Harrah. "I thought he was a minister from a local church," Gene says. "I was thinking, 'Why are they here?'"
Harrah sat down with Gene and his wife, Cheryl, and gave them the news that a body had been found in West Virginia fitting Spade's description. The only problem was that they couldn't be sure until they compared it with dental records.
Ten days later, Harrah called again. "As soon as he called, I knew what it was about," Gene later testified in court, choking back tears.
Harrah soon found Jason Keenan, who corroborated Penix's story. By September 1, Keenan, Shutt, and Kramer were all in jail. Penix was arrested in Montana, where she had hitched a ride from her trucker lover -- Rafferty's father.
They were all charged with aggravated murder, kidnapping, tampering with evidence, and abuse of a corpse.
But Rafferty had moved to Baton Rouge. It wasn't until he heard that his name was in the newspaper that he called Harrah himself.
"We need to talk," Harrah said over the phone.
"Yes, we do," Rafferty replied.
He denied murdering Spade, but agreed to come to Akron. When he didn't show, he blamed it on Hurricane Katrina. He was arrested in Louisiana and brought back to Akron.
Except for Shutt, it was the first time any of them had been charged with a crime.
As the news of the murder hit Akron, the natural question was "Why?" Why would five people kill their friend and dispose of his body in such a callous manner?
Most attributed it to hillbillies on meth. They referred to the house on Voris Street as a "meth house." Rafferty was painted as a meth dealer. Even Bob Rafferty said that his cousin confessed that the murder was over drugs.
But if it was in the defendants' interest to blame the slaying on drug-induced psychosis, they did the exact opposite, downplaying their meth use. Penix avoided mentioning the drug altogether. Shutt said he never touched the stuff. Rafferty said he wasn't a meth user, either -- just a lowly alcoholic.
While all except Penix admitted that they were lured downstairs with the promise of meth (she claimed it was for "chitchat"), no one said that he actually used any that night. And there were no traces of meth found in Spade's blood.
Instead, they say that the motive was jealousy, pointing to the moment when Rafferty paused from his beating to scroll through Spade's cell phone. When he found Laurie's phone number, he became even more enraged.
Laurie Zielinski, the stripper at Flashdance, had been seeing Rafferty off and on for some time. Spade supposedly had expressed an interest in her. He'd asked Penix for her number, but when he called, Zielinski didn't answer. They'd only met twice, very briefly.
Penix was the most adamant about the Laurie motive. She said that the day before the murder, Rafferty had said he was upset that Spade was going after his girl. "I'm gonna kill him," she quoted Rafferty as saying.
The others also said that Rafferty had mentioned his intention to kill Spade. Some even said that Penix had been in on the plan from the beginning.
"Someone's gonna die tonight," Rafferty told Keenan.
"We're gonna kill him," Shutt remembers Penix saying.
"Shane said he was gonna kill Steve," Kramer also remembers. "He said we'd die too if we didn't help."
They all claimed that they cooperated because they were terrified of Rafferty. They insisted that the obese Shutt sat on the steps of the basement, forcing everyone to stay and watch. However, when Shutt told his version of the story, he was nowhere near the steps -- he was in the bathroom as Spade was being shot.
The defendants also took turns painting themselves as victims. Penix claims that she was not only forced to participate, but that Rafferty kept her close, so that she couldn't go to police.
Kramer, meanwhile, said that Rafferty and Penix threatened to kill him if he didn't help murder Spade. He also says that Rafferty forced him to "check in" frequently after the murder, just to make sure he'd kept his mouth shut.
But considering how easy it would have been to go to police in the weeks after the slaying -- especially when Rafferty left for Louisiana -- the collective motive of fear didn't stick any better than the meth theory. Before the murder, the five were loosely tied together by little more than drugs and strippers. Most had no reason to kill Spade in the first place -- and even less reason to protect their accomplices.
But the defendants couldn't seem to get beyond prison-issue explanations for their crime. It was as if none of them really knew why they had helped kill, decapitate, and burn their friend.
Kramer and Shutt didn't even bother denying their involvement. They both pleaded guilty and got 25-to-life.
"Why did you plead guilty?" the prosecutor asked Kramer in court.
"That's a hard question," he said. "I felt guilty about what happened."
Keenan's charges were reduced to tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice. He pleaded guilty and faces up to 10 years.
Penix pleaded innocent, but the jury didn't buy her tales of victimization and found her guilty of aggravated murder. She faces a minimum of 20 years.
Rafferty denied it all.
At his trial, he calmly testified that he'd had so much to drink that he passed out by the time of the murder. He claimed that the other four were pinning it on him, though he couldn't say why.
"They knew they did something wrong, but they don't want to take responsibility for it," Rafferty said. "Maybe [Kramer] wanted to make it lighter on him. No one wants to face [Spade's] family and friends. It's a terrible thing. He was a good guy."
The jury wasn't buying Rafferty's story. On March 10, he was found guilty of aggravated murder, kidnapping, tampering with evidence, and abuse of a corpse.
As the verdict was read, Rafferty slouched with his chin in his hand, his blue eyes wide beneath his glasses. His mother, who had come from Louisiana for the trial, sobbed in disbelief.
"He was a good boy, and he's a wonderful father," she said during an earlier court recess. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
At his sentencing hearing, nine sobbing relatives all testified on his behalf. They reminded the jury that he'd been a volunteer soccer coach, a skilled worker, a good father. Every time Rafferty's children were mentioned, he would cry. Some jurors sobbed as well.
When he took the stand, Rafferty apologized to the Spade family, but took no responsibility for his participation. He again reminded the jurors of his three lovely children, who loved him as much as he claimed to love them.
In fact, they would save his life.
The jury, obviously moved by his family's pain, recommended that he receive life in prison rather than death.
On April 4, Judge Elinore Marsh Stormer sentenced Rafferty to life without parole. "Your family spoke of your love for your children," she told him. "You took that away from the Spade family. You will talk to your children . . . They will give you grandchildren. You have taken that away from [the Spades]."
But even as she sentenced him, Stormer still couldn't fathom the motive for the killing. "From the beginning, it was everyone's hope to understand what happened," she said. "I still don't understand what happened that night. It is beyond our understanding."
But Gene Spade believes he understands the future. When it was his turn to speak, he stared at Rafferty, his voice quivering with rage and grief.
"I think it's fitting that you'd use the term 'It's all about trust,'" Gene said. "And it is. But it's who you trust and what you trust . . . In February '05, you sold your soul . . . You took Steve's life and body down to West Virginia, doused it in gas, and set him on fire. When your day comes for Satan to come and collect you, you're gonna feel every second of those flames -- your flesh burning off your skin for all of eternity. It is all about trust. I trust in God."
Rafferty stared back, rolling his eyes.