MIDDLETOWN, Ohio - “That was the last place she was,” Karla Edwards says. “I go out there and talk to her and think about her.”
As Karla sits and stares out over the Great Miami River, the white caps kicked up by winds serve as a symbol of the rough journey these past 20 years.
“As the years go by, the more you realize she only existed for a little while … you're not going to see her again,” Karla said.
She was talking to WCPO about her sister, 33-year-old Cheryl Durkin, whose torso washed onto the riverbank in 1998. Cheryl was brutally killed by James Lawson in his house on Garfield Street in Middletown, prosecutors said. He hit her at least four times in the head with a hammer, then he dragged her downstairs and stuffed her through a hole into the basement.
Then he used a power saw to cut her apart.
WCPO reporter Lynn Giroud covered the murder and the trial. Giroud reported on the gruesome details in 1999.
“Police say it was here in the basement of the house where Lawson used a saw to cut up Cheryl Durkin's body," Giroud said then. "He then painted the floor and wall in an attempt to cover up the crime.”
WATCH Giroud's report:
Anthony Dwyer, now chief deputy of the Butler County Sheriff’s Office, was the lead detective on the case. Dwyer said he knew right away he was onto something when he searched Lawson’s basement.
“As soon as you’re doing the search warrants, you’re like, ‘None of this makes sense,’” Dwyer told WCPO last month. “There’s a hole in the wall that goes to the basement because you can’t get to the basement from inside the house. It's freshly painted. It's the best part of the house. It's clean and you're like, ‘Well, we know what happened here.’”
But Dwyer said it easily could have turned into a cold case.
“Yeah, we had some good breaks. We were very fortunate,” he said.
WATCH Dwyer talk about his investigation:
That’s because Lawson's sister, Melissa Botts, turned him in. Botts and Lawson’s mother, Ellen Peck, had helped dispose of Cheryl's body parts in separate graves near Rush Run Wildlife Area in Preble County and Brookville Lake, Indiana.
“Her head was in a cooler. The rest of her in trash bags,” Cheryl’s brother, Gary Caudill, said while trying to hold back tears. “And, um ... thanks to Melissa, she took officers to the location.
“She told them, ‘My brother James done this.’”
WATCH part of Gary's emotional interview with WCPO:
Lawson’s mother served five years in prison for hiding Cheryl’s body parts. Lawson’s sister got four years’ probation after helping authorities.
Cheryl’s family went through two burials. They buried her torso in June 1998 in a cemetery in Red Lick, Kentucky, south of Lexington. Then they had to wait for Lawson’s trial 18 months later while her other body parts were held as evidence.
When Lawson was convicted in late December 1999, the court released the body parts. Four of Cheryl’s brothers dug up her coffin and reburied it with the rest of her remains before mourners arrived.
Now Cheryl’s siblings – she had eight – are reliving their agonizing memories because Lawson has a parole hearing next month.
“Ever since I found out about it I can't get it out of my mind,” Gary said.
WCPO recently sent a letter to Lawson in prison asking if he had any regrets from his past and whether he was a changed person. Lawson is serving 20 years to life at the Allen Correctional Institution in Lima, Ohio.
Lawson responded with a two-page letter, first thanking WCPO (“Believe it or not, no one has ever contacted me or sought to ask me anything about this situation whatsoever!”) and apologizing to Cheryl’s family.
“I first and foremost with the utmost remorse apologize for the act which cost the life of Cheryl Durkin," Lawson wrote.
Lawson then claimed to be a “greatly changed man” and “committed to making a difference” if freed. He said he had earned a college degree in social work, “completed every offered recovery service program” and become a licensed minister with the internet-based Universal Life Church. He sent along dozens of certificates from training and self-help programs and community service awards as proof of his effort to become rehabilitated.
His hope, Lawson said, is to mentor and counsel at-risk youth to “stop the violence.”