Tyrone Noling is making a public push to escape death row after his latest appeals court ruling

In 1996, Tyrone Noling was sentenced to death for aggravated murder in the 1990 double homicide of Bearnhardt and Cora Hartig at their Moff Road home in Atwater. Fully 27 years later, a new development may — or may not — produce documents to support Noling’s request for a new trial.

Noling was 18 years old at the time of the home invasion and homicides. Now middle-aged, he has won a battle to have his legal team examine 16 boxes of documents stored at the Portage County Prosecutor’s Office.

The case wound its way to the state Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit federal court, which both affirmed the appellate and trial courts’ conviction and death sentence.

Noling’s defense team has been filing appeals ever since, a tactic which Portage County Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci understands.

“Delay, delay, delay,” he said. “Every day they delay is a day he’s not being executed.”

Tyrone Noling. Image via tyronenoling.com

According to the prosecutor, and judges in county, state and federal courts — all of whom upheld the convictions — Noling was part of a group of four men who “had an operation going where they would rob elderly people of their Social Security money at the beginning of the month. That was their M.O. They were known to do it. They were wanted for doing it, and they tried it on the Hartigs,” Vigluicci said.

The men’s confessions established that they entered the home, where Mr. Hartig resisted their efforts to steal jewelry and cash. Noling murdered him, and since Mrs. Hartig saw them do it and could identify both Noling and another man, Gary E. St. Clair, Noling executed her as well, Vigluicci said. The other men were in the car, he said.

Dismissing suggestions that no evidence placed the four men at the crime scene, Vigluicci said the men put themselves there.

“They told us they were there. What do you call that?” he said.

Access to files

Because Noling’s defense team has had access to the relevant legal documents all along, Vigluicci calls Noling’s request a “fishing expedition” to stave off the inevitable.

“We had nothing to hide. The wrinkle was that when it came time for them to review our files, they suddenly indicated they were going to bring with them an expert witness, a document examiner who had various pieces of equipment that they were going to bring into my office as part of their examination of my files,” he said.

Vigluicci objected, relying on Ohio law governing access to documentation.

“I had no idea what kind of equipment they were going to bring in, what they were going to do with my files, and I objected to that. Judge (Becky) Doherty agreed with me,” he said. “I wasn’t about to let an expert come in with equipment that I knew nothing about, look at the files in an important case until I knew what the equipment was and what it was going to do to my files, my papers.”

Noling’s request made its way to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which in June directed Portage County Common Pleas Court Judge Doherty to conduct a hearing to determine what type of equipment would be used and how it would affect the case files.

When that hearing took place, Doherty found Noling’s chosen forensic document examiner, Lisa Hanson, acceptable, and approved her to review the evidence. Vigluicci said he and Noling’s lawyers are working out a time when the document review may proceed.

The Ohio Innocence Project has taken up Noling’s case.

“We are firmly convinced that he is factually innocent of this crime,” said OIP attorney Brian Howe. “He did not commit these murders. He is an innocent man on death row.”

Though Howe accepts that the prosecutor’s office shared some material with the defense team, he alleges that there may be additional documents. As far back as 2011, Noling’s defense team pointed out that, “While the sheriff may have kept one file for all investigative material in the underlying murders, the prosecutor kept separate files for each co-defendant.”

Vigluicci wasn’t on board then, and he remains unimpressed.

“Our office policy had been an open file discovery in all criminal cases from the very beginning, which means they had access to our file and the sheriff’s file from day one,” he said.

Even so, the appellate court ultimately determined it was “reasonably possible” that evidence that could potentially clear Noling made it into the co-defendants’ files — files which Noling’s defense team never saw. And on March 14, 2022, the court directed Doherty to grant that access.

Ohio only started granting defendants who have already been convicted of capital crimes access full and complete access to all state files (excepting privileged materials) in 2017, long after Noling was convicted.

“There’s a question if these records were in their file to have been disclosed in the first place. These are records that were created by the county sheriff’s office as part of their investigation. It’s not something that we can assume ended up in the file that was turned over to the defense at the time of the trial,” Howe said.

Citing court-ordered sealed records, Howe declined to say why Noling’s chosen document expert needed to use equipment to examine the prosecutor’s files. Depending on what the examiner finds, though, he agreed that Noling may find himself back in court.

“We believe there was evidence that would have been important for a jury to hear that was not ever disclosed to the defense at the time of the trial. If that’s true, then he’s entitled to a new trial,” Howe said.

Examining 16 banker’s boxes full of documents will take some time, but Howe says it’s worth it.

“These cases are as serious as they come. There’s a man’s life on the line right now. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t have access at this point to the complete information that’s in the custody of the state,” he said.

Co-defendants recanted

While it is true that Noling’s three co-defendants — Butch Wolcott, then aged 14, Joey Dalesandro, then aged 18, and St. Clair, then aged 21 — all recanted their sworn testimony incriminating him, Vigluicci said that is “not unusual,” especially after defendants have served their time.

Regardless of recanting his testimony, Wolcott’s initial deal with the prosecutor’ office meant he served no time in prison. Dalesandro was convicted of conspiracy to aggravated robbery, and was sentenced to eight to 15 years in prison. St. Clair, who placed himself in the Hartig home with Noling, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. Recently denied parole, he remains in Belmont Correctional Institution.

Vigluicci called allegations that the Portage County Sheriff’s Office coerced the confessions “BS,” recalling that the stories were all consistent, and the crime scene was consistent with their confessions.

“I’ve always said that when the facts are against you and the law is against you, blame the police and blame the prosecutor,” Viguicci said.

As will happen in capital cases that span three decades, Noling has lodged numerous additional appeals. It took a full decade to conclusively determine that DNA on a cigarette butt found in the Hartigs’ driveway would yield no conclusive evidence: Examiners could not establish a match with Noling’s DNA or anyone else’s.

Requests to obtain the prosecution’s allegedly secret files and to more fully examine the shell cases and ring boxes found in the Hartig home also had to be dealt with and dismissed.

There was also an allegation that former sheriff P. Ken Howe rejected Noling and the other alleged accomplices as suspects, saying, “It just didn’t fit.” Vigluicci said the statement was untrue, and that it was Duane Kaley, Howe’s chief detective, who headed the investigation.

(Howe was sheriff from 1989-1993, when Kaley won that office; he served four consecutive terms until Jan. 6, 2009. Sheriff David Doak then served three four-year terms from 2009 until 2021, when the current sheriff, Bruce Zuchowski, took office.)

Public campaign

Vigluicci also dismissed regular columns published by retired Akron Beacon Journal editorial page editor Michael Douglas. His latest column was published Aug. 6.

In it, he castigated Doherty and Vigluicci for allegedly stonewalling Noling’s decade-long attempt to access the prosecution’s files, suggesting that they may include a statement from a man (Nathan Chesley) saying that his late foster brother (Dan Wilson) confessed to the murders.

“That’s crazy speculation,” Viguicci said.

Other media outlets, including the Plain Dealer, Cleveland Scene and The Atlantic have also published pieces in Noling’s favor. Each points to the allegedly coerced testimony, the lack of physical evidence and the co-defendants’ recantations. Even The Independent, a United Kingdom newspaper, profiled Noling in its article about how America sends “innocent people to death row at alarming rates.”

Wendy DiAlesandro/The Portager

A billboard recently appeared on state Route 261 in Kent, asking anyone with information about the Hartig murders to call 234-720-0590. The number rings to the “Tyrone Noling Tip Line,” answered by New York-based Weil, Gotshal, & Manges attorney Tyler Phelps.

Phelps, who practices in Washington, D.C., said the law firm has been working pro bono with the Ohio Innocence Project for over a decade. Citing attorney-client privilege, he declined to say how many responses, if any, the billboard has netted.

Again declining specifics, Phelps said the law firm is pursuing various legal remedies to achieve the ultimate goal of overturning Noling’s conviction. He said Noling and his supporters financed the billboard.

“We’re constantly looking for new leads in that case, and this is a new avenue Mr. Noling wanted to go about,” he said.

As academics say, more research is needed. It remains to be seen what, if anything, Noling’s chosen document expert will discover. Should Noling be granted a new trial, he may be cleared. Or, as Vigluicci said, he may be convicted again.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.

  1. Wendy’s news feature on Tyrone Noling was very informative and very timely. There are many portions of this case that warrant review by the Ohio Innocence Project. Thank you for your diligence and thorough research in reporting on this important case.

  2. What ever happened to reliable journalism? Half of this story is straight out lies. Want to know the actual truth? Look up it couldn’t happen here “Atwater Ohio” narrated by Hillary Burton Morgan, look up death row stories episode “the Lost boys” listen to the podcast from Jason flomm about the case.
    This paper failed to mention that Tyrone passed a lie detector test, this paper failed to mention that all of the witnesses recanted almost immediately, this paper failed to mention there was zero physical evidence against the boys. Gary st.clair actually recanted on the witness stand and in turn was given 25 to life for going against Victor viglucci, joey dalesandro actually recanted while in prison, butch Wolcott recanted to the Cleveland plain dealer “a real newspaper”.
    Speaking of Victor viglucci, he is the one who has been stalling for 27 years denying an innocent man on death row even the chance to clear his name. The prosecutor is corrupt to the core and has been called out on multiple occasions by the 11th district court for his stalling tactics. The portager has done zero investigation in this case and it shows. Do better and stop trying to poison the jury pool for when Tyrone Noling gets his new trial.

    1. The article says the witnesses recanted. The article says there was no physical evidence. There’s not much you’re telling us here that isn’t in the article. There’s also nothing The Portager, a small local newspaper, is going to uncover in a week or two that Noling’s defense team couldn’t uncover over nearly three decades working on this. The purpose of this article was to update residents on the status of the case. Pretty narrow scope. I had never even heard of the case before we reported on this. I have no stake in the outcome. Why would I try to poison the jury pool? The vindication you’re looking for can only come from the courts.

      1. Mr. Wolford I challenge your choice on defending a story that a man’s life is dependent on that was written in a week or two. Is a humans life not worth more? Where is the journalism if no investigation into the case was done on Mr. Vigluiccis comments? Just reading your papers article then going and reading about the case for 5 minutes I can see things are not right. How could your paper uncover anything if the majority of the article is quotes from one side? If the purpose of the article is to update the residents why so lopsided? If you have never heard of the case I would have expected more research. Funny Mr Noling was supported by The Record Courier and Mr DiPaolo and now this paper writes a seemingly negative article. Research is key to good journalism….

        1. Not much I can say here. The article seems fair to me, but I’m sure I won’t convince you. I hope Noling survives, but our article was never going to make a difference in the case. As I said before, there’s nothing we can uncover in a few weeks — or months or years if you’d like — that his defense team couldn’t come up with in multiple decades. The article brought attention to the case he wouldn’t have had otherwise. This seems like a good thing to me.

  3. After reading up on this case my question is why does the prosecutor now have sometning to say to such a small newspaper outlet? When he had no comment to the TV shows and newspapers that contacted him. It looks like to me he has used this platform to speak on things that could have easily been debunked by a simple records search. Records are easily obtained and even posted on the website of http://www.TyroneNoling.com or also on his facebook page.

    Not all of these boys recanted after serving time. One didn’t serve time. Mr St Clair recanted on the stand. Would they be allowed to question a child these days without a parent? Seems unethical in the least. Another question I pose is if Mr. Vigiluicci is so certain of Mr Noling’s guilt why is he so opposed to a new trial? With technology changes and advancements wouldn’t it be better to have proof and certainty before taking a life?

    I think to use the word escape in your opening is biased in itself. He is begging for a new trial to save his life he is not trying to escape. Poor choice of wording in my opinion.
    I think and feel like the people in Portage county should look in to this case to form their own opinions with the facts of the case. Things do not add up in the case as it stands and should be looked in to. At the very least Mr. Vigiluicci should be reminded he represents the county and its people.

  4. “Delay, delay, delay” This is indicative of Mr. Vigluicci’s attitude toward putting a man to death rather than to give him access to what he’s entitled to prove his innocence. Yet Mr. Vigluicci delayed for four years to determine if the instruments used by the document examiner would be non-destructive.

    The “fishing expedition” he speaks of has been hosted by none other than Victor Vigluicci himself. If you don’t believe it, just listen to the 11th district court’s admonishment of his office after they repeatedly denied access to the files to which Tyrone was entitled nearly thirty years ago and that could potentially set him free.

    Why no mention by Mr. Vigluicci regarding lead investigator Ron Craig? Could it be because of the similarities to the Resh/Gondor murder case of 1988? The one that cost tax payers millions of dollars due to their wrongful convictions? It was alleged that Mr. Craig engaged in the same coercive tactics in that case as he used in the Noling case. The jury agreed. Maybe in the next interview with Mr. Vigluicci, you could ask him if he found those missing interrogation tapes in Noling’s case yet.

    As a side note, why were none of the defendants ever charged or prosecuted for the alleged social security scheme on the elderly? My guess is due to a lack of evidence as that seems to be the theme in this case.

  5. I think it also needs to be said that in 1990, the defendants’ statements not only failed to align with each other but also directly contradicted the evidence. Remarkably, over the span of six years, through rehearsal and refinement, these statements evolved into a level of consistency that allowed for a trial.

    And while I understand new evidence may not be uncovered quickly, the expectation is that journalists responsibly use existing evidence to verify claims before publication. The primary concern isn’t just about the potential impact of this article; it’s focused on the fact that this publication provided Mr. Vigluicci a platform to disseminate his unverified claims to the people of Portage County. His narrative reached the 6,600+ subscribers, some of whom may serve on future juries, without undergoing thorough fact-checking.

    1. You’re all speaking as though Vic Vigluicci is some random guy calling in to WNIR. He has a platform because he’s the prosecuting attorney in the case. We also interviewed people on Noling’s side, and we published what they told us. Vigluicci’s claims are the opposite of unverified: They’ve been vetted in court and continue to be vetted through the appeals process. So far, no one has informed me of any inaccuracies in this story. I don’t claim the justice system is perfect, but an adversarial courtroom generally uncovers the best evidence from both sides and we’ve reported some of the high-level details. We simply can’t do a story about unverifiable hunches and pet theories.

  6. No one may have informed you of inaccuracies in this article, however there is a lot of partial information and missing context which is misleading at best and echoes Mr. Vigluicci’s actions in this case and in the courtroom.

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