With a population of 35,313 people, Lancaster, Ohio, the proud birthplace of many notable actors, authors, sports stars, and cartoonist was founded in 1800, and the famous merchant, trailblazer, pioneer and soldier, Ebenezer Zane incorporated it as a town in 1831. Like all cities, however, it was not immune to murder. In fact, Lancaster was the location of the worst murder of a child in the county’s history.
According to twenty-eight-year-old Christina Sims, she hesitated many times before turning in her older brother John Engle for the murder of his four-year-old son Christopher. Torn between her love for John, and Christopher, and doing what was right, the soft-spoken, slender blonde with dark-eyes, said she looked to Christ for guidance. After speaking with her minister, she made the devastating choice of walking into the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Department on July 9, 1991.
Christina recalled that while trailing the short, young dispatcher down the dark hall, she recalled her first meeting with one-year-old Christopher, who was not yet able to stand on his own. It did not take the stay-at-home mom long to realize why the love-starved toddler was behind in his learning.
She described Christopher as her favorite nephew, and said, “All Christopher wanted was to be held and loved.” Christina explained that she occasionally visited her brother and sister-in- law, Edna Mae, and their growing brood. She described Christopher as “pitiful” and told how his siblings were mean to him, and hit him regularly. “All he wanted was to be loved and cuddled,” she said. When she visited the family in the summer of 1989, she asked where Christopher was. Christina claimed, her brother said the child had gone to live with his maternal grandmother in Columbus, but then he started to cry. He said Christopher was in a better place.
She recalled how mean the other children had been to Christopher. She explained that when the child tried pulling himself upright to walk, the other children would not allow him to stand. They jerked his arms and legs out from under him, making him fall. She said Edna Mae, ignored her pleas for the fragile, light-haired child, and her heart went out to him. She told the sheriff she wanted to love and cuddle the little boy forever. She wished she could have taken Christopher from that filthy, crowded trailer and never look back.
She described the portly sheriff sitting in his sweat-stained uniform talking on the telephone. His office was not much bigger then an average sized home bathroom, she recalled. It contained a large wooden desk, two hard-backed wooden chairs, one telephone, and an overhead ceiling light. The prison-like chamber had one small window, minus air. She watched the sheriff light a cigarette. After wiping sweat from his double chin, he asked her to explain the circumstances.
Fearing her brother’s reaction to her betrayal, Christina chose her words cautiously. She calmly told the lawman that her brother John Engle, who resided in Rushville, had confessed to killing his son, Christopher, and burning his remains in the back yard. She later recalled how light she felt once she had released her heinous secret.
The sheriff then asked Christina where and when the murder had taken place. She explained that the child was killed inside her brother’s trailer in Rushville, nearly two years earlier. She had recently learned of the crime from her now-fourteen-year-old niece Rebecca, a tall redhead with green eyes and freckles.
She admitted she and her brother were not exceptionally close, mostly because John moved his family often. She remembered the sheriff removing a tape recorder from his antique oak desk, and clicking it on, and how his large fingers left fingerprints on the dusty device. Once he recorded the time, date and location, and she recorded her name and address, she retold her entire story from the beginning.
She explained that her brother and his wife, moved often and did not have a telephone. Some two years ago, she had moved to Lancaster from Columbus, and had gone straight to John’s trailer to see Christopher and his siblings. When she arrived, all the children were there but Christopher. When she asked about him, John claimed Christopher was living in Columbus, with Edna’s mother. When she asked for the phone number and address, she said John grew angry then walked away.
She said John’s explanation quenched her wondering for a while. However, each time she visited, he and Ethel refused to talk about Christopher. “None of the family mentioned his name,” she said. When she suggested they visit Christopher, John refused . . . as if the child had never existed. This made her suspicious, she said, but she never believed Christopher was dead.
She told the sheriff that she believed families should be safe havens where parents lovingly raise their children to be productive members of society. But this was not true for her brother, John Engle, and his forty-four-year-old wife.
She explained John and Edna Mae’s, brief courtship and life. John had returned from Vietnam, eager to marry and start a family. What he saw in skinny, homely, twenty-three year-old Edna Mae Wilcox, Christina said she never understood. Virtually illiterate, Edna Mae came from a household of twelve children. Perhaps that was the reason she wanted so many children herself. Every two years, Edna Mae popped out another child, while showing no maternal instincts for those she already had. John, on the other hand, revealed an unusual possessiveness.
Christina claimed John forbade Edna Mae to wear makeup or drive a car. John frequently moved his family before returning to Ohio. In an attempt to terminate Edna Mae’s contact with her family, John refused to install a telephone. By the time of Christopher’s murder, Edna Mae had enjoyed no contact with her family for several years. During Christina ‘s last visit, she was horrified to see the conditions in which the family was living. The rented trailer on Market Street was dilapidated, unfit for habitation. It had no working sewer system. The toilet was broken. The floorboards were crumbling. Electric sockets had been pulled from the walls. The entire structure, infested with cockroaches, leaning to one side, and with broken windows, attested to John and Edna Mae’s drunken brawls.
Christina and John’s home life had been the total opposite. Raised by loving, religiously strict parents, she and her five siblings looked forward to graduating and becoming adults. She married and had one young daughter. John, her brother–the eldest child and only son–resented any authority. Yet Christina remembered John as humorous and idealistic, before Vietnam.
Enlisting at eighteen, against his father’s wishes, John yearned to experience battle and defend his country. ” ‘The battlefield was no place for decent folk. Get married and raise a family. That’ll get the military off your back,’ ” Christina claimed their father said.
But John ignored his father’s recommendation, though he wept as his family hugged and kissed his smooth young cheek “good bye.” His hair styled into a flat top for the military, John shook hands with the man who called him son and told John he loved him. That was the last time John saw his father. A few months later, at forty-two, their father died from pancreatic cancer.
Christina recalled notifying John of their father’s demise, and she welcomed his homecoming, which came sooner then expected. Seven months after his father’s death, the military discharged John due to “battle fatigue,” saying he suffered irreversible psychological trauma. Christina said she worried over his medical evaluation, as did his military physician. The doctor notified the family by mail, and requested that John receive psychological counseling upon returning to the States. To Christina’s dismay, John refused. He became a time-bomb, making Edna Mae and his children, the unfortunate recipients of his rage. The last statement she made before leaving, was, “I can’t help Christopher, but I can help the other children,” she said.
Christina recalled the sheriff assuring her he would check out her allegations and report to her. She knew she must now distance herself from John, believing if he discovered she had reported the murder, she might, very well, be the next one dead.
According to Christina, four days after her initial statement to Sheriff Norris, she received word that John and Edna Mae were brought to the Fairfield County courthouse for questioning.
Delivered in separate cruisers, Edna Mae and the children were placed in separate waiting rooms. With police officers posted in the hall, social workers interviewed the children. The prosecutor questioned John, first. A sworn deposition was taken. The prosecutor felt he could get a conviction in this case, as Edna Mae, who sat in another room just down the hall, had admitted minutes earlier that John scalded Christopher to death.
Unshaven and dressed in a dingy white T-shirt, and torn jeans, John was reportedly the prime suspect. He was read his Miranda Rights and instructed to sit in the chair provided.
Prosecutor Lang informed John Engle that it had come to his attention that certain facts did not add up concerning the government assistance the family had received throughout their marriage. Therefore, he and Edna Mae were brought in for questioning. The prosecutor then reminded the scrawny unshaven man that he was under oath. John stated he had nothing to hide.
When asked how many children he and Edna Mae bore during their relationship, John admitted there had been ten children born during his and Edna Mae’s twenty-year marriage. When asked to name his children, the uneducated man used all his fingers to recall his brood. When John spoke the name Robin, the prosecutor stopped him and asked about her death at the age of three months.
John proceeded to insist that while the child slept, their oldest John Junior, accidently poured a jar of black pepper onto her face and she suffocated to death. According to Michigan court reports, that incident was written off as an unfortunate accidental death. Afterward, John moved the family to Kentucky.
While asked about his third child Ronny, also born in Kentucky, John admitted Ronny was removed from the home due to neglect and abuse. Reportedly, a relative of Edna Mae’s noticed the child was drastically underweight, and had what appeared to be cigarette burns on his arms and legs. John received probation for the incident; however, Edna Mae was never charged. John insisted that although he was a strict disciplinarian, he did not abuse his children. Prosecutor Lang thought otherwise.
John insisted he and Edna Mae raised their children as best they could, acknowledging that children fall down and develop bumps and bruises, saying, “All kids have it hard growin’ up. Some just have it harder.“