Between April 1989 and April 1992, Ohio authorities were baffled as a serial sniper killed campers, outdoorsmen, and joggers with impunity. A joint local-state-federal task force was established to take charge in the investigation of the murders of five men shot with a high-power rifle.
The first killing occurred near New Philadelphia, a quiet community about 100 miles south of Cleveland, on April 1, 1989, when Donald Welling, 35, was shot while jogging. Dillon claimed it was simply an urge, prompted by a voice in his head, that prompted the shooting.
“He said, ‘What’s up?’ just before I shot him. Just from me to you, just five feet away. This guy was just trying to be friendly and he blew, you know, I killed him. It wasn’t premeditated, I told you guys that,” he confessed later. “Just, I was just driving along and came up on him and that’s it, Welling…And just, I heard, a voice in my head said, ‘Open fire on him.’ And I did. And in 10 seconds, from the, the time I heard that voice ’til I shot him and killed him.”
The next two murders occurred in relatively rapid succession. Twenty-one-year-old Jamie Paxton was shot to death while he was hunting outside St. Clairsville, an Ohio community near the state border with West Virginia. The next killing occured in Muskingum County on November 28, 1990 when 30-year-old Kevin Loring of Massachusetts was slain also while he was hunting.
On March 14, 1992, 49-year-old Claude Hawkins, a blue-collar father of four children was murdered as he fished in Coshocton County.
“(I) drove by and he waved at me. I heard a voice that day that said, “Go back and get him,” Dillon said about Hawkins’s shooting. “I saw him fishing down there, I heard a voice in my head say, ‘Go back and get him.’ Went down there and killed him. Shot him right in the back.”
In April 1992, West Virginia resident and father of three children Gary Bradley, 44, was struck down fishing near the county seat of Noble County.
All except Loring were shot on a weekend — two each on Saturday and Sunday — with a high-powered rifle, most likely from a nearby road, investigators said. Loring, who had three children, the oldest of whom was eight, was killed on a Wednesday (at a time Dillon was on vacation), and the bullet that shattered his skull was never found.
“His hat blew straight up about 20 feet,” a remorseless Dillon confessed later to police. “I knew I had to blow his whole head off.”
At each of the murder scenes there was little to go on. The killer left virtually nothing like spent casings or other forensic evidence, and no witnesses ever saw any cars.
It would take a letter to a local newspaper written by the killer a year after he shot Paxton that gave authorities sufficient reason to believe they were seeking a serial killer.
I am the murderer of Jamie Paxton, he announced in an anonymous two-page photocopied typescript addressed to the Times Leader, as well as to Sheriff McCort and to the Paxtons. The letter had been mailed from outside the Martins Ferry post office.
Jamie Paxton was a complete stranger to me. I never saw him before in my life and he never said a word to me that Saturday. The motive for the murder was this - the murder itself. …
Paxton was killed because of an irresistable (sic) compulsion that has taken over my life. I knew when I left my house that day that someone would die by my hand. I just didn’t know who or where. … Technically, I meet the defintion (sic) of a serial killer (three or more victims with a cooling off period in between) but I’m an average looking person with a family, job, and home just like yourself. Something in my head causes me to turn into a merciless killer with no conscience. Five minutes after I shot Paxton I was drinking a beer and had blacked out all thoughts of what I had just done out of my mind. I thought no more of shooting Paxton than shooting a bottle at the dump.
Even the interest prompted by the letter didn’t provide any breaks in the probe. The FBI’s Behaviorial Sciences Unit was asked to prepare a profile, with the hope that it would stimulate the moribund investigation.
The two-dozen points in the profile described the killer not only as an educated white male (Dillon had a college degree), but as someone with a predilection for crimes, such as arson and killing pets and farm animals. The profile, however, was not perfect. It predicted that the killer lived within a short distance of all of the crimes (Dillon lived as far away as 150 miles), and that the murderer would be in his 20s. Dillon was 42 when he was arrested. He might be a nominal family man, but was likely a loner, the report continued. He had a drinking problem and a history of compulsive vandalism and arson. Stress would trigger the shootings, which usually would be committed while he was drunk.
Like many serial killers, Dillon began acting out against animals and started setting fires to appease his demons. He would later admit setting more than 100 fires and killing more than 1,000 pets and farm animals. His trips through the backwoods of Ohio were always taken alone and he would stop on his way to buy beer.
It was a an August 1992 tip from a high school friend who became disturbed about Dillon’s animal slaughters and preoccupation with serial killers that finally broke the case.
“He asked me if I thought he could, or had, killed somebody,” the late Richard Fry told the Akron Beacon Journal in 1993. “The way he looked at me chilled my blood. I thought he had a secret to tell. It was the look on his face and in his eyes.”
As teens, the two men would drive through the countryside taking shots at road signs and critters and lighting small fires, but Fry recalled that Dillon began getting more violent and cruel by shooting family pets they happened across.
Dillon was not only cruel to animals, Fry recalled. Once, Dillon shot a chipmunk in his back yard, grabbed the dead animal and chased his son around the yard. When the little boy tripped and fell, Dillon rubbed his face with the bloody rodent.
Fry called a Tuscarawas County detective and finally after 39 months, the task force had a solid lead. The first clue linking him to the crime was that his off-duty and vacation time matched the dates of the killings. The FBI followed Dillon for about a month and watched him buy guns, drive around aimlessly and shoot at stop signs, animals, electric meters and even take pot-shots at populated areas. Most telling, Dillon visited Loring’s grave in Massachusetts.
“When I went to New England last year with my wife … I looked up on microfilm in the Plymouth Library where the guy lived and everything,” Dillon told police after his arrest. “He was from the Duxbury area. I just read, you know, to see what–who the hell he was. I didn’t know who he was.”
Throughout the summer and early fall, Dillon was shadowed by authorities who were only able to pin a cattle-shooting on him. As hunting season approached, they decided they had to move in to stop any further killings.
Authorities arrested Dillon on a federal weapons charge — he was awaiting sentencing for possessing a silencer — and announced that he was their suspect in the serial shootings. At a press conference they asked anyone with firearms transactions with Dillon to come forward.
On December 4 a gun dealer brought in a Swedish Mauser rifle he said that Dillon had sold him on April 6, the day after Bradley was murdered. Ballistics tests indicated that it was the rifle used to kill Bradley and Hawkins. On Jan. 27, Dillon was indicted on capital charges in both cases.
In return for the state dropping the death penalty specifications, Dillon pleaded guilty to five counts of murder and was sentenced to five consecutive life terms.
“I have major problems,” he said at the time. “I’m crazy. I want to kill. I want to kill.”
He blamed a turbulent childhood for his problems.
Dillon also publicly said he was afraid to be sent to the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, site of a murderous riot just a few years before he was caught. In response to his concerns, family members of his victims began a petition drive to have him sent there. More than 8,000 Ohioans signed the petitions, which the State of Ohio honored.
The psychologist who examined Dillon at the request of his defense attorneys summarized why Dillon’s story is so frightening.
“What you see … is someone who looks and presents in a way that seems frighteningly normal,” Dr. Jeffrey Smalldon told CBS News. “And the reality is that most of the people who commit crimes like those that Dillon committed come across just that way.”