Detectives covering the case had never realized the murderer had been a lot closer than they ever realized
It was February 7, 1981, in Marietta, Ohio, when Lieutenant Joe Clark was enjoying an evening in with his wife. The forty-nine-year-old police officer had served the Washington County Sheriff’s Office for fourteen years, and he was considered a passionate and dedicated officer.
He was in the middle of a big case. He had been tasked with tackling a growing drug dilemma in the area. An article had just been published that morning. He had given an interview to a reporter discussing his plans to begin disrupting drug operations in the region by making several arrests in the coming days.
He had anticipated it was going to be a busy week. He and his wife, Patricia, enjoyed the calm before the storm and watched a basketball game together. Joe gets up and heads to the kitchen for a top-up of snacks for the two of them. He had only been gone for a moment when Patricia heard, what she believed, was an explosion in the kitchen. There had been tinkering of broken glass, and she had thought a lightbulb had exploded. Following the sound of glass breaking, there was a loud crash in the kitchen.
She ran to the kitchen and found Joe collapsed on the floor. She didn’t understand what had happened but assumed that Joe had a heart attack initially. But noticed a small pool of blood begin to spread from her husband, and Paramedics arrived and confirmed that Joe had been fatally shot.
Officers quickly arrived on the scene. One of their own had been ambushed in their home, and it had seemed unbelievable.
The detective assigned to the case secured the crime scene and began a preliminary investigation. The Clark’s kitchen faced their backyard with a window directly in front of where Joe had collapsed. The window was missing nearly its entire glass pane, and on the ceiling, there were what appeared to be shotgun pellets. They checked the backyard, and near a tree, there had been several military boot-style shoe impressions facing the home. Also found was a number 4 buckshot shell. Someone had targetted Joe, and they lied in wait until he came into the kitchen and shot him.
Initially, it was believed to have been connected to Joe’s work uncovering the local drug operations. That same evening, another murder had taken place, and it was a small-time drug dealer. Officers thought the two murders must have been connected; maybe the murdered drug dealer was believed to be an informant for Joe. It seemed more than a coincidence.
Witnesses in Joe’s neighborhood also gave a substantial lead. A blue Ford Pinto parked near Joe’s home, and it had been idling for a long while. Nearly ten separate witnesses said they saw a man in the driver’s seat, but no one could get a good look at him.
Several known individuals involved with the drug trade were all brought in and interrogated. They had been able to determine what had happened to the drug dealer, but no one interviewed knew of Joe Clark or who would have wanted him murdered. Without finding any additional leads, the case went cold.
In November 2012, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office had extra time and resources in their budget and decided to establish a dedicated Cold Case Unit. The case that took the top of the list was Joe Clark’s murder, now over three decades cold. Detective Jeff Seevers took over the case and started from the beginning.
They went back to the home Joe Clark had been murdered in. Although the property had changed owners several times, the house had never undergone any major structural remodels and was very similar to how it had been in 1981. They brought in some high-tech lasers and were able to pinpoint where the shooter had stood, thirty-one feet from the kitchen window.
Knowing the exact distance had been necessary. From there, experts shot off a range of different types of shotguns to replicate the same damage that had killed Joe. They narrowed it to one specific weapon, a particular shotgun, one that was standard issue for law enforcement and military personnel. They felt that this evidence would be the pinnacle piece needed for a conviction.
Joe Clark had been well-liked at the Sheriff’s Office. He worked hard; he was a good cop who played by the rules and was well-liked by those who had worked with him. However, there had been an incident in 1981 that may have made him an enemy.
In 1981, a deputy arrested a burglary suspect. The suspect would not confess and continued to maintain his innocence. The deputy packed him into his squad car, drove him out to a secluded area, and beat him until he confessed. The deputy then packed him back up, brought him back to the county jail, and started the paperwork to process the confession. The suspect told other officers what had happened, and it launched an investigation into the deputy, who had not only gone against what was legally allowed as a police officer but was also so beyond the scope of excessive force. Joe Clark had been the lead on that investigation and had been directly responsible for that deputy being fired.
The deputy in question was Mitchell Ruble.
Ruble had come from a long line of decorated police officers and military men. He had served in the Vietnam war. He had felt it had been his destiny to follow in their footsteps, but he didn’t have the same dedication that other officers had. He was willing to color outside the lines of what was allowed as a member of law enforcement to “get results.” The worst kind of cop, one who didn’t feel that the rules applied to him.
He had not taken the firing well, and no one else was willing to hire an officer that had been fired for excessive force. He would later find work as a corrections officer at the Noble Correctional Institute, where he worked for twenty-five years. It was also discovered that in 1981, he also had a blue Ford Pinto, but it had been registered in his wife’s name, and he also had the same shotgun registered to him.
Ruble was brought in for questioning and had produced an alibi. He said that he had been with a man named Todd Smith all night. Officers then went to Todd Smith and brought him in for questioning. Smith confirmed the alibi but hadn’t been able to remember details exactly. Officers knew there was more to the story, but Smith wouldn’t talk. Eventually, Smith was offered immunity if he was honest about the events that had happened three decades prior.
With immunity paperwork signed, Smith started from the beginning. He said that evening he had been home when Ruble knocked on his door. Ruble wanted a gun that he had been storing at Smith’s house. He gave him the gun and said that Ruble had asked him to drive him somewhere. Smith did, while Ruble instructed him where to go. Then he parked the car, and Ruble got out with the shotgun. He had been the drive that witnesses had seen idling in the neighborhood that night, while Mitch Ruble had waited for Joe Clark to him into the kitchen.
Smith said he waited in the car for a long time, and he had lost track of time and had started freaking out. He heard the shotgun shot, and Ruble got back in the car, and they went back to Smith’s apartment. Ruble left the gun with him and threatened to kill him if he ever said anything to anyone.
Detectives, now confident that Ruble was the suspect who had murdered Joe Clark back in 1981, wanted the final nail in the coffin. They wanted the weapon. They tracked down Ruble’s airforce buddies and one by one interviewed each of them, asking each of them if they had ever bought a gun off of Mitch Ruble. The last man on the list said he had and could hand over the shotgun to law enforcement. They matched the gun to the shell and pellets recovered from the crime scene and positively identified the gun as the same weapon that had killed Joe Clark.
At sixty-four years old, Mitchell Ruble was arrested on September 9, 2014, for the murder of Joe Clark in 1981. He may have been anticipating the arrest because when officers were executing a search warrant for his home, they had found dozens of illegal, hand-made explosives, in addition to a modified AR-15 fully automatic rifle, several hand grenades. The explosives and prohibited weapons added seven more felony counts.
On March 11, 2016, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. He died in prison on March 18, 2017, apparently dying in his sleep of natural causes.