Thomas Lee DILLON
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Sniper - Shot outdoorsmen in random, motiveless attacks
Number of victims: 5- 11
Date of murders: 1989 - 1992
Date of arrest: November 27, 1992
Date of birth: July 9, 1950
Victims profile: Donald Welling, 35 / Jamie Paxton, 21 / Kevin Loring, 30 / Claude Hawkins, 49 / Gary Bradley, 44
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Ohio/Indiana/Michigan, USA
Status: Pleaded guilty to five counts of murder in Ohio and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 165 years on July 12, 1993
Thomas Lee Dillon, was born 9 July 1950, in Canton, Ohio. Dillon is a serial sniper who shot and killed five people in southeastern Ohio, beginning on 1 April 1989 and continuing until April 1992
Dillon was captured in 1992 when a friend recognized a behavioral profile compiled by the FBI. Dillon is incarcerated at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, for five consecutive sentences of 30 years to life for aggravated murder.
The Malefactor's Register
A mild-mannered draftsman for a municipal water department, Thomas Dillon liked to cruise the back roads of southeastern Ohio pretending he was something he was not. In his fantasy life, Dillon pretended he was a multi-millionaire, a life-saving scientist who cured AIDS, or a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
Frequently driving hundreds of miles immersed in his own thoughts, Dillon also liked to envision himself as a special forces soldier, out hunting for enemy combatants. What no one knew for three years during the late 1980s and early 1990s, was that as far as his soldier/hunter fantasy was concerned, Dillon had crossed over into reality.
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 taskforce 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.”
A Sniper's Mind
60 Minutes II Visits Another Serial Sniper
By David Kohn - CBSNews.com
Oct. 23, 2002
This week we’ve all heard a great deal from cops and psychologists trying to analyze the mind of the Washington-area sniper. But rarely in these cases do you ever hear from a sniper himself.
Thomas Dillon was a serial sniper who terrorized Ohio in the 1990s. He used a high-powered rifle to randomly murder five people. When he was caught, Dillon confessed, and his thoughts on serial murder were recorded.
What is a serial sniper really like? If you're prepared to hear from a raving madman, maybe you're not prepared for Thomas Dillon. Scott Pelley reports.
Dillon confessed his crimes to the task force of FBI agents and sheriffs that finally caught him.
Dillon described one of his sniper murders: the shooting of a man he’d never met before.
“How far away was he from you when you shot him?” an investigator asked him.
“Seventy-five feet, maybe,” Dillon answered.
Investigator: Where did you shoot him at?
Dillon: right between the eyes.
Investigator: Is that where you aimed for?
Investigator: Did you walk up to him and look at him?
Dillon: No. Didn't come close.
Investigator: But you're sure he was dead?
Dillon: Yeah, yeah. His hat blew straight up about 20 feet. I knew I - I had to blow his whole head off.
“What you see on the videotape is someone who looks and presents in a way that seems frighteningly normal, and the reality is that most of the people who commit crimes like those that Dillon committed come across just that way,” says Jeffrey Smalldon, who may know the mind of sniper Thomas Dillon better than anyone. He’s the psychologist the defense hired to figure out whether Dillon was insane.
Smalldon says that Dillon was “very smart, an IQ of around 135, in the superior range of intelligence.”
But, Smalldon says, Dillon was not insane, because he knew what he was doing was wrong. What Dillon did: murder at least five strangers from 1989 to 1992.
You never would have picked him out of a crowd. He was married with a son, a college education, and worked 22 years as a draftsman. Everyone knew that Dillon liked to hunt; they just didn’t know what he was hunting.
Dillon would find his victims along the byways of rural Ohio. There was no rhyme or reason to how he selected his targets, he just climbed in his pickup truck on weekends and would drive a 100 miles or more until he found someone utterly alone, a hunter, fisherman, a jogger. When he came upon them he would turn his truck around, pull out his rifle, take aim and, as he later told the police, he would never miss.
Investigator: “You only shot the two times? There were no misses in that particular shooting?
Dillon: Never miss.
Investigator: Never miss?
Dillon: Never miss.
Investigator: Basically you’re a pretty good shot?
Dillon: That's why we're here, isn't it?
“Everybody was fearful,” says Michael Miller, the prosecutor in the case, says the fear and frustration in Ohio was not unlike Washington today. “I mean, it isn’t that you can stay away from these things because they were indiscriminate. You never knew when they were going to happen.”
Dillon left little evidence, Miller says: “Some of the people who were killed obviously had the projectiles in them. Some didn't. Some were badly damaged. But he left virtually nothing so far as spent casings or anything of that nature. It was just not there nobody ever saw anything. Nobody saw automobiles, there was very little to go on.”
In his confession he said that he shot his first victim 13 years earlier, a man sitting at home watching TV.
“So this guy with his back to the picture window of his house. He was sitting on the sofa. So, this thought came to me, he said, ‘Stop back up, and said shoot this guy.’ So, I shot at him through the picture window,” Dillon said.
Why open fire? Dillon told the officers that in some shootings a voice in his head told him to take aim:
“This sort of voice in my head said, "go back and get him, go back and get him. I took my rifle, went down there, jumped the guard rail, went down through the pine trees, shot him in the back.”
But this voice was Dillon’s own, Smalldon says: “When I asked him about that, he finally admitted, well, like ‘It wasn’t another voice, I know it was me. It was my own voice. It was a voice in my head.’”
Dillon set more than 100 fires and killed more than a thousand pets and farm animals. Smalldon says he was living in a fantasy world of his own creation: “He talked on and on about the various fantasy roles that he had envisioned himself in over the years. They ran the gamut from being president of the United States to being lead singer for the Doors, or the Beatles, to being brought out of retirement by the Cleveland Browns to lead his team to the Super Bowl. But they were all linked together by the theme of power, prestige, influence and grandiosity.
"Now, I also found that his fantasy life has a much darker component than the examples that I’ve cited. Certain of his fantasies involved himself as a combatant in a war situation.”
Kevin Loring had the extreme misfortune of intruding on Dillon’s delusions. He took his family on vacation from Massachusetts to visit relatives and to hunt in Ohio. He’s the one Dillon bragged about shooting right between the eyes.
Why did Dillon shoot Loring? “I don’t know, just something came to me, you know, I just, spur of the moment thing,” he told police.
If Dillon didn’t care about his victims when they were alive, he became fascinated with them after they were dead. He went to Loring’s hometown in Massachusetts to learn about the man he murdered.
“I went to New England last year with my wife and I looked up the microfilm on the Plymouth Library where that guy lived and everything, he was from Duxbury area, I just read you know, see what, who the hell he was, I didn’t know who he was,” he said to police.
Dillon visited the graves of those he killed. He even wrote this anonymous letter to a newspaper describing his murder of Jamie Paxton. He writes, “I am the murderer of Jamie Paxton…I felt the Paxton family should know the details of what happened. I thought no more of shooting Paxton than shooting a bottle at the dump.”
“I heard a voice that just said, ‘Do it,’ you know. I just, I got out. I had a rifle with me. It was a 308. I got out. He came off the hill for me. I just, I opened fire on him,” Dillon said.
What compelled him to write to the newspaper? He told the officers he felt bad that Paxton was only 21.
Dillon said to investigators: “I felt bad about the kid, you know, I didn't know he was that young. I couldn't see how old he was from a distance. I thought he was 30, 35. I didn't know he was that young…. blew that kid away you know, he had his whole life ahead of him and I blew him away, you know, I felt sorry for him.”
Smalldon thinks there was another reason that Dillon wrote: “He was drawn by the urge to inset himself into the investigation. To, in effect, say ‘Here I am’ and he brags in that letter, not just ‘Here I am but here I am, catch me if you can.’”
They might not have caught him, if it hadn’t not been for two strokes of luck. A friend of Dillon’s ultimately became suspicious of him.
“He had read about the killings. He knew that Dillon liked to drive around those areas and weekends and so forth in his car. He knew Dillon had weapons. He knew Dillon had shot and killed animals. He felt that Dillon was the type of person who could do something like this,” says Miller.
A sniper task force followed Dillon for months. Eventually they arrested him on a weapons charge. That put his picture in the paper. And a gun dealer remembered he once bought from Dillon, a gun called a Mauser.
“When he saw his picture he remembered the individual. He still had the Mauser and he called the task force. That Mauser was ultimately taken to the FBI lab and it was confirmed that it was used in one of the homicides,” says Miller.
Miller offered a deal. Plead guilty and confess and the state wouldn’t seek the death penalty. The videotaped confession goes on for nearly four hours. At one point, a sheriff offers some photographs. Dillon is eager to see.
Investigator: You want to see the autopsy pictures?
Dillon: “Just - I want to see 'em all. Show 'em all to me.”
Dillon: I never saw 'em in color. What the hell.
Investigator: Okay, we'll show you some pictures.
Dillon: Not the neatest job in the world, was it? Hmm.
Investigator: The shooting? And-- yeah, it's not--
Dillon: No, this autopsy. Geez. Dirty job, i'll tell 'ya.
Still, when they ask why he killed, Dillon never seemed to have an answer. Asked if he had any feelings toward his victims, Dillon answered: “No feelings whatsoever. They were just there. The wrong place at the wrong time.”
“I think he’s holding back because he wants to remain a puzzle,” Smalldon says. “He would ask me ‘Have you ever met anyone as complicated as me? Can you understand this? Am I, is this behavior as perplexing to you as it is to me? There’s never been a crime like this in Ohio has there? No motive. No contact with the victims. How could you figure that out?’ And then he would shrug and say ‘I don’t know.’”
“I really think that he felt he was something special,” says Miller. “And when he was arrested and the plea and so forth, he’s not a guy that used a jacket to cover his head, you know, he looked into the camera almost with a smirk on it. I mean he was proud of himself and proud of his period of fame. And I think he would have done it again.”
That’s what Dillon told the task force.
Investigator: If you had not been caught, more than likely there'd be more victims.
From prison, Dillon has continued to write Smalldon. He now says he wishes he’d gotten help when he needed it, and he’s sorry for how the murders ruined his own family, at least.
Still Smalldon says many mysteries remain: he thinks there is “a good chance that he may have” committed other murders.
Man who'd aim at anything is finally the law's target
By David Knox, Jolene Limbacher and Kim McMahan
January 24, 1993
On a cloudless Saturday in November, a detective aboard an FBI surveillance plane got a sick feeling as he watched what was unfolding on a remote Harrison County road.
From high above, Detective Sgt. Walter Wilson could easily monitor the red Toyota pickup truck and its driver, Thomas Lee Dillon, the man suspected of being the sniper killer of as many as five men as they jogged, hunted or fished in rural Ohio.
Ahead was a T-intersection. To the right, a jogger.
Though it was barely past 9 a.m., Wilson knew Dillon was already loaded with beer. What he didn't know was whether Dillon was packing any weapons.
Wilson watched nervously as the pickup reached the intersection.
Dillon turned left.
The knot in Wilson's stomach relaxed.
The surveillance continued for several uneventful hours. So ended another frustrating day for the Tuscarawas County sheriff's detective.
The case has been a murder investigator's nightmare: All of the victims were alone, chosen at random and killed with high-powered weapons - each in a different county in east-central Ohio.
Worse yet, the killer seemed to know exactly what authorities were up against.
"Don't feel bad about not solving this case," taunted a letter to a Belmont County newspaper just before the first anniversary of the slaying of Jamie Paxton, a 21-year-old deer hunter killed on Nov. 10, 1990. Authorities are certain the letter was written by the killer. "You could interview till doomsday everyone that Jamie Paxton ever met in his life and you wouldn't have a clue to my identity....With no motive, no weapon, and no witnesses you could not possibly solve this crime."
Authorities said Friday they have taken a step toward that: Dillon, 42, was indicted on two counts of aggravated murder in the 1992 deaths of fishermen Claude Hawkins and Gary Bradley. If convicted, Dillon could be sentenced to death. Investigators said he remains the prime suspect in the other three deaths.
Dillon's attorney, Roger M. Synenberg of Cleveland, said Friday he hadn't seen the indictment and couldn't comment about the charges.
How investigators built their case is a study in dogged persistence, tips and luck - and a question Dillon asked of a friend: "Do you think I've ever killed somebody?"
He has a big fan in his mother-in-law
On the surface, Dillon appeared to be an unlikely suspect. A husband and father, he had worked 22 years for the city of Canton, living a quiet life in a middle-class ranch house in southern Stark County's Pike Township.
His mother-in-law, Anne Elsass, speaks lovingly of him. "We're a very close-knit family," she said.
But authorities and some people who know him give a startlingly different picture: He was a gun fanatic who had fired so many times he had lost some of his hearing. His bullets found their mark not just in paper targets and tin cans, but also in windows, street lamps and more than 1,000 dogs, cats and other animals he boasted of killing over the last 20 years.
Authorities also believe he could be responsible for many of the reported 108 arsons of barns and abandoned houses since 1988 in Tuscarawas, Harrison, Carroll and Coshocton counties.
"I'm a confirmed pyromaniac," Dillon bragged to a fellow hunter in the early 1980s.
But investigators didn't even know Dillon's name until they received a phone call Aug. 26.
"I'd like to meet with you," the informant remembers telling Detective Wilson. He said he had seen reports about the task force that had been formed to solve the killings "and I just think I got a guy" who should be investigated as a possible suspect.
The informant, who agreed to be interviewed on condition his name not be used, said he has known Dillon since their junior year at the former Glenwood High School in Plain Township.
Several other classmates remembered Dillon as extremely intelligent but a loner with few friends. His 1968 senior yearbook lists no extracurricular activities.
"Tom was removed from the group," said classmate Ronald Skelton. "He was a person who marched to the beat of a different drummer - separated from the mainstream."
Thomas Breit said that Dillon was quiet - especially in a group. "I always liked him," Breit said. "I got a kick out of him - he made me laugh."
Informant gave detective glimpse at the hidden side
But the informant gave Wilson a glimpse of Dillon others hadn't seen.
"I used to go out hunting with him because we were gun enthusiasts," the informant said. "In the beginning, it was all pretty legitimate....But then we started hitting these dumps in southern Stark County. We'd go down there hunting rats and things.
"I remember we ran into a couple of scraggly dogs one time. They were all diseased - they were sick. I remember they had open sores. Tom said, 'Do you think I ought to kill them?' And I said, 'Well, you'd probably be doing them a favor.' I remember him shooting them. I didn't think too much about it - wild dogs can be vicious.
"Then he started shooting dogs - just dogs along the road. I said, 'Tom, shooting a wild dog is one thing, but that dog doesn't look very wild to me.' He said, 'You can't let them damn things be running around.' I let it go by once or twice, but then I said, 'Tom, you got to quit it. Or I won't go out with you. Those are somebody's pets. Somebody loves them. It's just not right to do that.' "
Dillon began keeping count of the animals he killed on a calendar in his bedroom of his family's home on 37th Street Northwest in Canton. And what did he think of people? The informant said Dillon also kept a calendar for all the girls he'd had sex with in his teen-age years.
Everything a target: street lights also shot
Animals weren't Dillon's only targets.
"I saw him shoot out a street light one night with a shotgun," the informant said. Another time, Dillon told him he'd cut off the speakers at a drive-in theater and thrown them through the windows of another high school.
Another incident Dillon related to the informant was more serious.
"Back in the year we graduated, we were having a problem with some other high school. One of these standoffs - you throw something at my car, I throw something at your car. But nobody ever throws a punch."
One night, one of the other guys kicked his car. Tom "pulled out this gun and took a shot at this guy," the informant said. "I asked him this: 'Did you really mean to hit him?' And he said, 'Yes, I meant to hit him.' "
The vandalism continued after Dillon graduated from high school, first while taking classes at Kent State University's Stark campus and later while home on vacation from Ohio State University.
The informant wasn't the only one aware of Dillon's shooting sprees.
"In the summer months, we would all hang out at Willow Springs swimming pool on 55th Street," said a man who remembers Dillon. "I just ran around with him a couple years. We all drank together.
"I never saw him shoot a gun. But I heard other people talking about him - 'Ah, crazy Dillon went out drinking and he was shooting a pistol out the window or he shot the windows out of a school.' I heard things like that a couple times."
Just "plinking" at faraway farmer
The informant and two others remember a much scarier story going around the swimming pool and told over beers.
Once, while driving back from Atwood Lake in Carroll County, "Tom pulled off the side of the road and pulled out this gun and started shooting at this farmer," the informant said. "Apparently the farmer was a good way off - two, three hundred yards."
One of the others in the car protested, "What the hell are you doing?"
Dillon explained that he couldn't hit a target at that distance with a pistol.
"So I'm just plinking at him," he said.
The animal killings continued after Dillon graduated from Ohio State in 1972, went to work as a draftsman for the Canton Water Department and married Catherine Elsass, a nurse from Alliance, in 1978.
By the early 1980s, Dillon was boasting that the count on the death calendar had reached 500. The confidential informant said he had had enough.
"I just didn't have anything more to do with him," he said. "In fact, if I'd see him someplace, I didn't even wave to him or talk with him."
Called a bad hunter, he shot at host's cats
The informant wasn't the only person to break off relations with Dillon.
"Dillon was a bad hunter," said a man who hunted with him for several years but became increasingly disturbed by Dillon's behavior. "He would shoot at farmer's cats after getting permission to hunt on their land. He just didn't care."
Dillon once boasted of killing a deer caught in high water while crossing a river. He brought the deer home without field dressing it.
"He gutted the carcass in his yard and made a mess of it," the hunter said. The hunter said he helped out by hosing the carcass down.
But Dillon didn't seem to understand the concept of friendship: He never offered to do a favor or asked for one.
"It was always a trade," he said. "I'll do this, if you do that."
The hunter also thought it unusual that Dillon "never talked about women' - either in a locker-room way or any other manner.
"He never mentioned his wife and love in the same sentence," he said.
Even carried weapons while riding a bike
Dillon did display passion for weapons, the hunter said, and "was always changing guns." While Dillon occasionally bought weapons at gun shows, most came from private sales, through classified ads and mail order from gun dealers.
The hunter said Dillon almost always carried weapons - "even when he rode a bike."
Dillon didn't just collect guns. The hunter estimated Dillon fired about 1,000 rounds a year in target practice - so much that he damaged his hearing. He also used a crossbow.
Despite all the practice, the hunter said, Dillon was only a mediocre marksman - especially when the target was a living thing.
Dillon seemed to get a physical thrill out of killing, the hunter said. He recalled Dillon once used a knife to finish off a wounded groundhog.
"He was shaking. He was in a frenzy - wild-eyed."
Dillon didn't have any qualms about talking about killing animals - "He'd just blurt it out."
In the late '70s and early '80s, Dillon would sometimes take dead animals home. "I can remember one pretty good-looking German shepherd," the hunter said. "It still had arrows stuck in him."
The hunter said Dillon would talk about "grossing people out at work" with his tales of killing, but said he didn't seem to understand why people would find the stories disturbing.
Nor did Dillon understand why anyone would object to the way he teased his son, the hunter said.
Once in the mid-1980s, when the boy was 5 or 6, Dillon shot a chipmunk under their backyard grill.
The boy was nearby. "He was curious," the hunter recalled.
Dillon grabbed the dead animal and began chasing his son around the yard until he tripped and fell, the hunter said. "He ground that chipmunk in his face."
Neighborhood Problems: Police told dog was killed
By the mid-1980s, Dillon's activities had attracted attention near home, several residents said. One man said he complained to police because Dillon had killed his dog.
There were indications Dillon was taking his gun farther afield.
The informant ran into Dillon in Newcomerstown in southern Tuscarawas County in about 1986.
"This was the first I'd spoken to him in a long time," the informant said. "I said, 'What in the world are you doing clear down here?' He said, 'Oh, just driving around - this and that.' "
The informant didn't believe him.
"When I saw him in Newcomerstown, I thought, 'He's moving farther south because he's still up to his old ways.' "
Despite his suspicions, the informant renewed his friendship with Dillon in 1989. Again, their common bond was an interest in firearms.
"They moved the Ohio Gun Collectors Association gun show up to Cleveland, and I wasn't a member," the informant said. Dillon invited him to be his guest.
"He said he had stopped killing animals, so I said, 'I guess we can be friends again.' "
The gun shows were held five or six times a year and on the long drives together, Dillon and the informant would discuss guns, hunting - and sometimes, serial murders.
Dillon talked about how easy murder could be
Both Dillon and the informant had read many books about serial killers.
"I remember one time...he and I were driving and he said, "Do you realize you can go out into the country and find somebody and there are no witnesses? You can shoot them. There is no motive. Do you realize how easy murder would be to get away with?"
"I said, 'Yeah, but why would you do it?' "
On a trip to a gun show last summer, Dillon asked a more disturbing question.
"We were talking about (Florida serial killer) Ted Bundy and how can a guy get away with all that. Tom said, 'Do you think I've ever killed somebody?' "
"The question really caught me off guard. I said, 'No, I don't think so.' " Dillon repeated the question.
"The way he said that to me was really scary," the informant remembered. "I'd never seen him like that before. I thought to myself, 'Has anybody been shot?' "
After seeing reports, informant called FBI
In August, the informant read in a newspaper that authorities had linked the slayings of five outdoorsmen in Ohio to a lone killer and that a federal, state and local task force had been established. A few days later, the informant saw an account on a television crime news program.
Several days later - after wrestling with the decision - the informant called the FBI number listed in the newspaper story. He left a message on an answering machine. When the FBI didn't return his call, he tried one of the other numbers in the newspaper - the Tuscarawas County Sheriff's Department. He reached Detective Wilson on Aug. 26.
By that time, the Southeastern Ohio Homicide Task Force had received dozens of tips. None had panned out.
On the surface, the informant's tip about Dillon looked like another dead end.
Called a dedicated and intelligent employee
With the exception of minor disciplinary action for tardiness and absenteeism in the '70s, Dillon's 22-year work record was good.
"Tom is a dedicated and highly intelligent employee, and these qualities are reflected in his work," wrote his supervisor, J.D. Williams, in a Dec. 2 letter to Dillon's attorney after his arrest. "He gets along well with the other employees and his attitude is always positive."
Dillon had only two known brushes with the law.
In 1969, while he was a student at Ohio State, Dillon was investigated for possessing a military weapon - an antique Russian mortar. Authorities decided not to press charges after determining that the mortar was more of a collector's item than a weapon. The second incident was more recent.
In August 1991, Dillon was cited by a game warden for illegal target practicing near a state hunting area in southern Stark County. While target shooting is a misdemeanor - Dillon was fined $200 in Canton Municipal Court - the incident led to more serious charges. In a search of his pickup truck, the warden seized a .22-caliber pistol with a silencer.
In March, Dillon was indicted on federal charges of possessing an illegal silencer. Four months later, Dillon pleaded guilty.
Dillon's attorney, Synenberg, said he was optimistic that his client wouldn't serve any jail time because he had promised in the plea bargain to get rid of his weapons and not buy any more.
"Mr. Dillon has lived a law-abiding life," Synenberg wrote in a motion requesting leniency that portrayed Dillon as "an avid and lifelong gun enthusiast" who made a mistake but presented no threat to society.
But when Detective Wilson began to dig, he found ample evidence to support the confidential informant's claims of alarming numbers of animal killings and vandalism.
Dillon's co-workers and neighbors were interviewed by members of the task force. One co-worker, who said he had known Dillon for 20 years, said Dillon's nickname was "Killer" because he often "bragged about shooting dogs and cats," according to court records.
The co-worker and a second city employee described Dillon as a loner. He did not have a good relationship with his wife, they told investigators. Court documents did not elaborate.
The co-workers also provided a possible link between Dillon and the murders of the outdoorsmen: Dillon kept maps on his table and filing cabinet of many of the east-central Ohio counties where the killings occurred.
Bought 18 weapons from licensed co-worker
A second enticing link was established when Dillon's history of firearms purchases showed he had bought numerous weapons from a co-worker who had a federal firearms dealer's license. The dealer's records showed Dillon had bought 18 weapons in the last several years, including four .30-caliber-type rifles and two Mausers of the kind used to kill four of the five outdoorsmen.
Dillon also was knowledgeable about police procedures. In 1980, he had attended Ohio Peace Officers Training in Lawrence Township in Stark County, doing well in the course and graduating with an expert rating in marksmanship.
The portrait of Dillon drawn from the interviews closely matched a psychological profile of the serial killer produced by the FBI.
The profile said the serial killer was a white man at least 30 years old who was an avid hunter and owned at least several weapons. The killer, the profile said, lived within easy driving distance of the slayings.
The killer had above-average intelligence but was introverted and without many friends, and would "resolve personal problems in a cowardly fashion." He might have a drinking problem and "engage in obscene telephone calls, arson fire, vandalism by shooting out windows or tires of vehicles."
"What you have is a hunter of humans," said a noted forensic psychiatrist who has been involved in such celebrated cases as Ted Bundy and Jack Ruby.
Whoever killed the outdoorsmen "did it for his own satisfaction and pleasure," said Dr. Emanuel Tanay, a professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University in Detroit.
"If it's pleasurable to kill dogs and cats at random, the much better prey is humans. They're a bigger trophy. People enjoy killing. Let's face it. That's why they do it."
Killing of a dog provided first link
While the profile pointed to Dillon, it wasn't evidence. Authorities had nothing to connect Dillon to any crime - much less murder.
A dog killing provided the first link. On Sept. 20, someone saw a red Toyota pickup truck near the spot where a dog was killed in Tuscarawas County. A .25-caliber slug was removed from the animal's body. The informant had told Detective Wilson that Dillon owned a similar gun. Wilson asked the informant whether he could buy it. He did, and a ballistic match was made.
Now Wilson, who had been trailing Dillon alone for several weeks, had enough to get the go-ahead for expensive surveillance.
Tuscarawas County Sheriff Harold McKimmie said Wilson's preliminary work convinced the "other task force members that Dillon was a viable suspect." Wilson's biggest job was getting the task force interested in Dillon, McKimmie said.
"From early on, I felt strongly about him," Wilson said.
"He appeared to be your everyday guy. But underneath the surface, he wasn't. Not even close."
Task force tailed him in air and on ground
Beginning in mid-October, the task force tailed Dillon from the air and on the ground about a dozen times - to gun shows and on weekend jaunts of 75 to 125 miles over country roads in Belmont, Harrison, Tuscarawas, Holmes, Coshocton and Carroll counties. Officials said Dillon often bought beer, sometimes as early as 7:15 a.m.
Once, task force members witnessed an example of Dillon's vandalism.
On Nov. 8, investigators in the air saw Dillon stop several times and point what appeared to be a gun. The tailing cars later examined Dillon's apparent targets: four shattered electric meters on oil well pumps, and a stop sign. Dillon also stopped next to a car with a for-sale sign on it, picked up a large rock and threw it through the windshield.
On Nov. 11, task force members lost sight of Dillon on his way home from Belmont County. Later that day, they learned that two cows had been killed with a crossbow in Tuscarawas County. Authorities knew Dillon sometimes used a crossbow. The informant helped obtain several of Dillon's arrows. They matched those recovered from the dead cows.
Officials believe Dillon killed numerous cattle in east-central Ohio.
Plea bargain violated, so arrest decision made
On Nov. 21, authorities followed Dillon to a gun show in New Philadelphia, where he bought a .22-caliber rifle.
The task force faced a tough decision: The purchase of that gun and a .25- caliber handgun at a gun show in Cleveland on Nov. 7 was enough to arrest Dillon for violating his plea bargain on the silencer charge.
But there still was nothing to link him to the killings of the outdoorsmen.
They could wait - but what if authorities lost Dillon again on the winding roads? Ohio's gun deer season would open Nov. 30, drawing some 300,000 hunters into the woods.
Authorities decided not to take the chance. Dillon was arrested Nov. 27 as he emerged from a convenience store in Tuscarawas County.
At first, the gamble looked like a bad one: searches of Dillon's home, vehicles, camper, office and safe deposit box failed to turn up either firearms or other evidence linking him to the slayings.
But at his arraignment in federal court in Akron, where prosecutors argued to keep him in custody, Dillon was named the prime suspect in the serial killings. The storm of publicity that followed brought the task force the break it needed. On Dec. 4, a Stark County man told authorities he had bought a Swedish Mauser from Dillon at a Massillon gun show - on the same day Gary Bradley was killed in Noble County.
Ballistic tests matched the bullets recovered from Bradley and Claude Hawkins, authorities say.
The arrest shocked family members. Dillon's mother-in-law, who lives in Washington Township near Alliance, speaks lovingly of him and refuses to believe that he is a murderer.
Anne Elsass, a retired teacher and guidance counselor at Alliance High School, said Dillon is a witty, kind man who has always had a yen for guns.
Elsass denied that Dillon and her daughter have a shaky marriage and that he has mistreated his son. She said she was unaware that he spent evenings and weekends driving country roads looking for something to shoot.
Elsass said her family stands behind Dillon 100 percent and that she wants to be a character witness when he goes to trial.
She said her daughter, Catherine, who has worked for 20 years as a nurse at Timken Mercy Medical Center in Canton, has turned to her work and faith in God to deal with the revelation that her husband might be a serial killer.
Though Elsass has refused to believe allegations against him, she concluded in an interview in her home: "If they're true, they're true.
"My stomach is churning," she confided. "I have to keep my spirits up for Cathy. Maybe part of me wants to deny this. Tom was always pleasant. He was always joking. He seemed like a son to me."
Authorities said Friday they are still gathering evidence to seek indictments against Dillon in the other three cases.
"The indictment that is being announced today is a very small part of the investigation," Dave Hanna of the FBI's Columbus office said at a news conference.
Sheriff McKimmie says Dillon is "a cold, calculating man. Only Tom Dillon knows everything that he has done."
Hunter of Humans: The True Story of Thomas Lee Dillon
by David Lohr
The Hunt Begins
Southern Ohio’s rural counties, with their rocky and wide-open spaces, are perfect for outdoor recreation. Coal miners, factory workers and farmers make up most of the population, and many take advantage of the streams and forests during hunting and fishing seasons. These counties were at one time a place where residents would leave their doors unlocked at night and violent crime was considered a problem of big cities. But all that began to change in the spring of 1989.
On November 10, 1990, 21-year-old Jamie Paxton, a steelworker, awoke just before dawn. It was a frosty Saturday morning, but Jamie had plans outdoors. Ohio’s annual bow hunting season was in full swing, and he was not going to miss the opportunity to bag a deer. Jamie lived with his parents in a cozy white frame house in Bannock County, Ohio. Following breakfast, just before seven o’clock, the handsome young man, nearly six feet tall with blue-green eyes and dark brown hair, headed out the door with his crossbow.
Jamie’s mother, 49-year-old Jean Paxton, had expected her son home by mid-afternoon. When he failed to show, she assumed he had a successful hunt and would pull up the drive any minute with a buck in his trunk.
At 2:40 p.m., as Jean went about her household chores, she looked out the window and saw a sheriff’s car pull up. She dashed onto the porch where her husband Mickey was clutching a post for support.
“Don’t tell me!” she screamed. “Don’t even tell me. Jamie’s dead!”
Her son had been found by friends on a brushy hillside along Route 9, dead from apparent rifle-bullet wounds to his chest, right knee and buttocks.
The killing of Jamie Paxton horrified the quiet community. Hunting accidents were not uncommon to southern Ohio, but Sheriff Tom McCort knew that this was no accident. “When we saw more than one wound, we knew it could not be a accident … plus it was a bullet wound rather than an arrow, and gun season was not in yet,” Sheriff McCort explained.
The killer had left no clues behind. Investigators checked the area for spent cartridge cases, tire tracks, footprints, anything that might shed some light on the killer identity. Sheriff McCort said that his deputies also “checked the area around the body looking for the spent projectiles that had passed through the body.”
Investigators were bewildered by the senseless killing and after interviewing and polygraphing friends, family members and acquaintances, they were even more baffled. “Everyone in the area knew Jamie Paxton. No one that we knew of, or even to this day, had ever disliked the young man,” said McCort.
A Mother's Determination
Jean Paxton decided that mourning Jamie was not enough. She wanted to know who had killed him and why. Jean Paxton used the only method at her disposal to try and get the answers she and her husband so desperately sought.
A short time after Jamie’s murder, Jean began a letter-writing campaign, sending letters to the killer via the Martin’s Ferry Times Leader newspaper:
"To the murderer(s) of my son, Jamie, Would it be easier for you if I wrote words of hate? I can't because I don't feel hate. I feel deep sorrow at losing my son. You took a light from my life November 10 and left me with many days of darkness. Have you thought of your own death? Unless you confess your sin and ask for God's forgiveness, you will face the fire and fury of hell. When you are caught, I will be sorry for your family. They will have to carry the burden of your guilt all their lives.”
Investigators had told Jean that the killer was probably ruthless and would not be moved by her pleas. But she persisted.
"It's been nearly a year since you killed my son," she wrote in October 1991. "Has your life changed in the past 11 months? Our family hasn't lived since last November 10. We are surviving one day at a time. There is one question on our minds all day long and every time we wake up at night: we want to know why Jamie was killed."
Jean’s work finally paid off. The killer sent an anonymous, typed letter addressed to the Times Leader, Sheriff McCort and the Paxtons. After providing previously undisclosed details of the murder scene, he explained himself:
"I am the murderer of Jamie Paxton. 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.
“Paxton was killed because of an irresistible 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 definition of a serial killer, 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. To the Paxtons, you deserve to know the details.
“I was very drunk and a voice inside my head said, ‘do it.’ I stopped my car behind Jamie's and got out. Jamie started walking very slowly down the hill toward the road. He appeared to be looking past me at something in the distance.
“I raised my rifle to my shoulder and lined him up in the sights. It took at least five seconds to take careful aim. My first shot was off a little bit and hit him in the right chest. He groaned and went down. I wanted to make sure he was finished so I fired a second shot aimed half way between his hip and shoulder. He was crawling around on the ground. I jerked the shot, and hit him in the knee. He raised his head and groaned again. My third shot also missed and hit him in the butt. He never moved again.
“Five minutes after I shot Paxton, I was drinking a beer and had blocked 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.
“I know you hate my guts, and rightfully so. I think about Jamie every hour of the day, as I am sure you do.
“Don't feel bad about not solving this case. You could interview till doomsday everyone that Jamie Paxton ever met in his life and you wouldn't have a clue to my identity. With no motive, no weapon, and no witnesses you could not possibly solve this crime.”
The letter was signed, “The murderer of Jamie Paxton.”
The Belmont County Sheriff's Office now had its first lead. Jean Paxton’s love for her son, and her antipathy for his killer, had exposed a serial killer the authorities had no idea even existed, and when he struck again the pieces began to fall into place.
A Hunter Hunted
On Saturday, March 14, 1992, 49-year-old Claude Hawkins decided to do some early morning fishing after finishing up his midnight shift at Pittsburgh Plate and Glass Company. Married and the father of four, Hawkins loved fishing and had a favorite spot just below Will’s Creek Dam northwest of Belmont, Ohio, in Coshocton County. He was found dead a short while later, shot in the back at close range.
Since the Hawkins murder occurred on federal land, the FBI was called in. Special Agent Harry Trumbitis, from the Columbus field office was one of the officers assigned to the case. “Usually you would find some type of shell casing in the area. I remember looking very hard, metal detectors, hands and knees, for any shell casings and that. None were ever found, and so that was something that you know if, in fact, we had somebody who was evidence conscience enough to pick up the shell casing after they shot and killed somebody, we were dealing with a different brand of person here.”
The FBI was convinced that Hawkins’ murder was not a solitary event. On March 26, 1992, in New Philadelphia, just south of Canton, officers from four counties, the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and the FBI gathered to compare notes. As the meeting progressed, the assembled officers discovered that the earliest of possibly related homicides occurred on April 1, 1989.
At about 9:30 a.m., on a back road in Tuscarawas County, about 100 miles north of Belmont County, 35-year-old truck driver Donald Welling had been out jogging near his home when someone put a .30-caliber rifle bullet through his heart from approximately 10 feet away. At the time, local authorities could not find a motive or any evidence to help them solve the murder.
Jamie Paxton’s murder was also brought up, and a link seemed apparent. Investigators concluded that the killer had been inactive for 19 months before Paxton’s murder in Belmont. They also discovered that 18 days after Jamie’s murder, on November 28, 1990, there had been another murder in Duxbury, Massachusetts.
Resident Kevin Loring, a 30-year-old refrigerator technician who was married and the father of three children, had been murdered by a single gunshot wound to the face. He had been hunting deer in a strip mine area in Muskingun County, west of Belmont County and south of Coshocton County.
The murder of Loring had been deemed a hunting accident, but there was little question now as to what had actually happened. It did not take long for investigators to realize that a serial killer was roaming the back roads of southern Ohio.
Hannibal Lector Squad
On the morning of April 5, 1992, 10 days after the New Philadelphia meeting, another outdoorsman was found dead. Gary Bradley, a 44-year-old steelworker with a wife and three children from Williamstown, West Virginia, had been shot in the back while fishing in Noble County, adjacent to Belmont County. The serial killer had apparently struck again.
In early May, a secret five-county federal and local investigative task force was established. The group met at the FBI field office in Columbus, where officers from each of the five counties presented details of their cases.
The so-called “Hannibal Lector Squad,” a group of three personality profilers from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, formed a profile of the killer, concluding that he was “a white male over 30, a gun enthusiast, avid hunter and owned at least several weapons.
The killer would have above-average intelligence but was introverted and without many friends, and would resolve personal problems in a cowardly fashion. He might have a drinking problem and engage in obscene telephone calls, arson fire and vandalism by shooting out windows or tires of vehicles. He likely would take sadistic delight in mutilating and killing animals of all sorts. Stressful events would trigger his criminal episodes, which usually would be committed while he is drunk.” The killer, the profile said, “lived within easy driving distance of the slayings.”
Whoever killed the outdoorsmen "did it for his own satisfaction and pleasure," said Dr. Emanuel Tanay, a professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University in Detroit. "If it's pleasurable to kill dogs and cats at random, the much better prey is humans. They’re a bigger trophy. People enjoy killing. Let's face it. That's why they do it."
By mid-summer, the task force had investigated and ruled out at least 100 possible suspects, but they were not much closer to finding the killer.
On July 30, 1992, which would have been Jamie’s 23rd birthday, Jean Paxton sent another letter to the paper. She described how she had baked her son’s favorite cake that day, “but Jamie wasn’t there to enjoy it. There’s a small child in our family whose biggest worry was ‘who’s going to blow out the candles on Jamie’s cake?’…The next time there’s a birthday party in your family I hope you think of the cake on our table and know you are the reason Jamie wasn’t there to blow out the candles.”
In August, investigators concluded that the killer was not going to risk sending in another letter himself and decided to go public. In a press release to the media, they explained that they suspected a serial killer was hunting outdoorsman in a loose cluster of eastern Ohio counties.
The headline of the Saturday, August 22, edition of The Plain Dealer read, “Slayings linked in rural Ohio.” The article stated that five sportsmen had been murdered, and investigators suspected a single serial sniper in their deaths. The paper also included a copy of the FBI’s suspect profile.
On August 26, 1992, Tuscarawas County Sheriff's Detective Sgt. Walter Wilson got a call from 43-year-old Richard Fry. Apparently Fry had read the August 11, 1992, report in the newspaper.
"I'd like to meet with you," Fry told Detective Wilson. “I saw the reports about the task force that had been formed to solve the killings and I just think I got a guy who should be investigated as a possible suspect.” The man was nervous about coming in to the station, so Detective Wilson agreed to meet with him at a private location outside of town later that day.
During their meeting, Fry explained to Wilson that the profile sounded a lot like an old high school buddy of his, Tom Dillon, an employee of the Canton Water Department. In the 1970s, Fry said, he and Dillon often drove around eastern Ohio together, drinking beer, shooting road signs and committing minor acts of arson. Fry recounted his conversation to David Knox and two other Akron Beacon Journal reporters.
"Back in the year we graduated, we were having a problem with some other kids at high school. One of these standoffs ─ you throw something at my car, I throw something at your car. But nobody ever throws a punch. One night, one of the other guys kicked his car. Tom pulled out this gun and took a shot at this guy. I asked him this: 'Did you really mean to hit him?' And he said, 'Yes, I meant to hit him.'
"I used to go out hunting with him because we were gun enthusiasts. In the beginning, it was all pretty legitimate ... But then we started hitting these dumps in southern Stark County. We'd go down there hunting rats and things.”
"I remember we ran into a couple of scraggly dogs one time. They were all diseased. They were sick. I remember they had open sores. Tom said, 'Do you think I ought to kill them?' And I said, 'Well, you'd probably be doing them a favor.' I remember him shooting them. I didn't think too much about it, wild dogs can be vicious.
"Then he started shooting dogs, just dogs along the road. I said, 'Tom, shooting a wild dog is one thing, but that dog doesn't look very wild to me.' He said, 'You can't let them damn things be running around.' I let it go by once or twice, but then I said, 'Tom, you got to quit it. Or I won't go out with you. Those are somebody's pets. Somebody loves them. It's just not right to do that.'
"We used to discuss serial killers too," Fry added. "Especially Ted Bundy. Tom was fascinated by Bundy.” In time, Fry said, Dillon became more sadistic.
“Once, while driving back from Atwood Lake in Carroll County, Tom pulled off the side of the road and pulled out this gun and started shooting at this farmer. Apparently the farmer was a good way off ─ two, three hundred yards. One of the others in the car protested, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ Dillon explained that he couldn't hit a target at that distance with a pistol, so I'm just plinking at him," Fry said.
"I just didn't have anything more to do with him, in fact, if I'd see him someplace, I didn't even wave to him or talk with him.
“I ran into Dillon again in Newcomerstown in southern Tuscarawas County in about 1986. This was the first I'd spoken to him in a long time. I said, 'What in the world are you doing clear down here?' He said, 'Oh, just driving around, this and that.'
"When I saw him in Newcomerstown, I thought, 'He's moving farther south because he's still up to his old ways.'
"They moved the Ohio Gun Collectors Association gun show up to Cleveland, and I wasn't a member, so Dillon invited me to be his guest. He said he had stopped killing animals, so I said, 'I guess we can be friends again.'
"I remember one time … he and I were driving and he said, ‘Do you realize you can go out into the country and find somebody and there are no witnesses? You can shoot them. There is no motive. Do you realize how easy murder would be to get away with?’ I said, 'Yeah, but why would you do it?'
"On a trip to a gun show last summer we were talking about Ted Bundy and how can a guy get away with all that. Tom said, 'Do you think I've ever killed somebody?' The question really caught me off guard. I said, 'No, I don't think so.' And he said ‘that just proves you don't know me very well.’ The way he said that to me was really scary. I'd never seen him like that before. I thought to myself, 'Has anybody been shot?'"
Fry went on to say that Dillon lived with his family in Magnolia, about 75 miles from where Jamie Paxton was murdered.
It did not take long for them to find ample evidence to support Fry's claims about Thomas Dillon’s penchant for animal killings and vandalism.
On September 20, 1992, a witness saw a red Toyota pickup truck, similar to Dillon’s, near the spot where a dog had been killed in Tuscarawas County. A .25-caliber slug was removed from the animal's body. Fry confirmed that Dillon owned a .25-caliber rifle and, at Detective Wilson’s request, bought it from Dillon. Days later, a ballistic match was made.
When Wilson ran a check on Dillon's history of firearms purchases, he learned that Dillon had bought numerous weapons from a licensed federal firearms dealer. The dealer's records showed that Dillon had bought 18 weapons in the last few years, including two Mausers of the kind used to kill four of the five outdoorsmen.
Detective Wilson dug deeper into Dillon’s past, beginning with his employment records. With the exception of a trivial disciplinary action for absenteeism in the 1970s, Dillon's 22-year work record was good. But his criminal record was more interesting.
In 1969, while a student at Ohio State University, Dillon had been investigated for possessing a Russian mortar military weapon. Authorities did not press charges, citing that the mortar was more of a collector's item than a weapon. A second, more recent and illuminating incident had occurred in August 1991. Dillon had been cited by a game warden for illegal target practice near a state hunting area in southern Stark County.
In a search of his pickup truck, the warden seized a .22-caliber pistol with a silencer. Dillon later pleaded guilty to possessing an illegal silencer and was released on bond on condition that he not possess any firearms. He was awaiting final sentencing. The more the task force dug into Dillon’s past, the more likely a suspect he became.
Catching a Killer
The task force began tailing Dillon from the air and on the ground in mid-October 1992. During their surveillance, officers followed Dillon on weekend jaunts of 75 to 125 miles over country roads in Belmont, Harrison, Tuscarawas, Holmes, Coshocton and Carroll counties. Dillon often stopped for beer and would sometimes begin drinking as early as 7:15 a.m.
On November 8, 1992, investigators got to witness an example of Dillon’s vandalism firsthand. He went on a shooting spree, targeting electric meters, oil well pumps and stop signs. Dillon also stopped next to a car with a for-sale sign on it, picked up a large rock and threw it through the windshield.
Task force members lost Dillon on his way home from Belmont County on November 11, 1992, but later that day, investigators discovered that numerous cows had been killed with a crossbow in Tuscarawas County. Authorities had been informed that Dillon sometimes used a crossbow. Richard Fry helped obtain several of Dillon's arrows, and they were the same model and style as those recovered from the dead cows.
Authorities followed Dillon to a gun show in New Philadelphia on Nov. 21, 1992, where he bought a .22-caliber rifle. The purchase of the gun was enough to arrest Dillon for violating his bond on the silencer charge, but there was still nothing to link him to the killings of the outdoorsmen. Investigators faced a tough decision. By waiting to arrest him, they risked losing him and giving him the chance to kill again.
Ohio's deer season would open November 30, 1992, drawing more than 300,000 hunters into the woods. Authorities decided not to take the gamble. They arrested Dillon outside a Tuscarawas County convenient store on November 27, 1992, hoping that a search of his home would reveal other damning evidence.
Unfortunately, searches of Dillon's house, Toyota pickup truck, camper, office and safe deposit box turned up nothing. Five days later, at his bond hearing, prosecutors revealed that Dillon was the prime suspect in five killings.
The barrage of publicity that followed Dillon’s arrest finally gave the task force the break they needed. On December 4, 1992, a Stark County man came forward and told investigators that he had bought a 6.5x55mm Swedish Mauser rifle from Dillon at a Massillon gun show on April 6. The man turned the rifle and a receipt over to investigators. Ballistic tests matched the bullets recovered from Gary Bradley and Claude Hawkins with the rifle.
On January 22, 1993, a Noble County grand jury indicted Dillon on two counts of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications, and his bond was set at $1 million. Noble County Prosecutor Lucian Young wanted to seek indictments in all five slayings, but because of publicity about Dillon, he went ahead with two, planning to file other charges at a later date.
Officials at the Stark County jail placed Dillon on “homicide watch” after two strips of blanket were found in his cell. One of the strips had reportedly been fashioned into a noose. Dillon claimed the strips were used to cover his eyes while he slept. Shortly after that incident, Dillon told a mental health counselor that “he would strangle inmates if he had the chance, and he wouldn’t shed a tear.”
A Sadistic Life
Thomas Lee Dillon was born in Canton, Ohio, on July 9, 1950. His father succumbed to Hodgkin’s disease and died when Dillon was just 15 months old. Psychologist Jeffrey Smalldon said that Dillon viewed his mother as a cold woman who never praised or punished him. "Dillon … has no memories of his mother ever hugging him, kissing him or telling him she loved him," he said.
Classmates from Glenwood High School in Plain Township remembered Dillon as extremely intelligent but a loner. His 1968 senior yearbook lists no extracurricular activities.
"Tom was removed from the group," said classmate Ronald Skelton. "He was a person who marched to the beat of a different drummer, separated from the mainstream."
Another classmate, Thomas Breit, said that Dillon was quiet, especially in a group. "I always liked him," Breit said. "I got a kick out of him. He made me laugh."
Dillon loved to hunt. He simply liked to kill and enjoyed watching animals suffer. As a teenager, Dillon began keeping count of the animals he killed on a calendar in the bedroom of his home on 37th Street Northwest in Canton. He also kept a separate calendar listing all of the girls he'd had sex with.
Following high school, Dillon attended Kent State University's Stark campus and later Ohio State University.
"In the summer months, we would all hang out at Willow Springs swimming pool on 55th Street," said a man who remembers Dillon. "I just ran around with him a couple years. We all drank together. I never saw him shoot a gun. But I heard other people talking about him ─ 'Ah, crazy Dillon went out drinking and he was shooting a pistol out the window or he shot the windows out of a school.' I heard things like that a couple times."
Dillon graduated from Ohio State in 1972 and went to work as a draftsman for the Canton Water Department. In 1978, he married Catherine Elsass, a nurse from Alliance, Ohio.
By the early 1980s, Dillon began boasting to friends that the count on his death calendar had reached 500. He had also attended Ohio Peace Officers Training in Lawrence Township in Stark County, where he graduated with expert marksmanship.
In the mid-1980s, several of Dillon’s neighbors complained to police because Dillon was killing their dogs.
"Dillon was a bad hunter," said a man who hunted with Dillon for several years. "He would shoot at farmers’ cats after getting permission to hunt on their land. He just didn't care. He once boasted of killing a deer caught in high water while crossing a river. He brought the deer home without field dressing it. He gutted the carcass in his yard and made a mess of it," the hunter said. “Dillon didn't seem to understand the concept of friendship. He never offered to do a favor or asked for one. It was always a trade," he said. "I'll do this, if you do that … he never talked about women, he never mentioned his wife and love in the same sentence," he said. “He was always changing guns and carried weapons even when he rode a bike."
The hunter estimated that Dillon fired approximately 1,000 rounds a year in target practice. Dillon shot so often that he had permanently damaged his hearing. “He seemed to get a physical thrill out of killing,” the hunter said. “He once used a knife to finish off a wounded groundhog. He was shaking. He was in a frenzy, wild-eyed."
Confusion and Chaos
Dillon’s family members were shocked by his arrest. His mother-in-law, Anne Elsass, a retired high schoolteacher and guidance counselor, refused to believe that her son-in-law was capable of murder. Dillon “is a witty, kind man who has always had a yen for guns,” she said. Even though she refused to believe initial allegations against him, she told the Akron Beacon Journal, "If they're true, they're true.”
Elsass said her daughter Catherine worked as a nurse at Timken Mercy Medical Center in Canton and would rely on her faith in God to get her through the ordeal. "My stomach is churning," she confided. "I have to keep my spirits up for Cathy. Maybe part of me wants to deny this. Tom was always pleasant. He was always joking. He seemed like a son to me. We're a very close-knit family," she said.
On February 9, 1993, 100 spectators gathered outside the Noble County Courthouse as Dillon, handcuffed and in shackles, was escorted inside. The proceeding was short, and Dillon pleaded not guilty to murder charges in the deaths of Gary Bradley and Claude Hawkins.
A third murder charge was filed against Dillon on May 22, 1993. He was charged with aggravated murder in the death of Jamie Paxton. “This is what we’ve been waiting for the last two and a half years,” said Jean Paxton, “It looks like the end’s in sight.”
Just four days after having been charged with Paxton’s murder, Dillon was sentenced to three years and ten months in prison, the maximum, on the unrelated federal firearm charges.
Before he could be tried for the three capital murders, Dillon placed a call from jail to a WTOV television reporter on July 3, 1993, and confessed to the murders. A similar call had also been placed to an Akron Beacon Journal reporter. “I have major problems. I’m crazy. I want to kill. I want to kill,” he said.
The following day, Dillon’s attorneys put together a plea bargain, in which Dillon would confess to all three murders on the guarantee that he would not receive the death penalty, and that no further charges would be brought against him.
On July 12, 1993, Thomas Dillon entered his pleas before Judge John Nau in Noble County Common Pleas Court. He showed no emotion as he answered, “Guilty,” to each charge. Under the plea agreement, Nau sentenced Dillon to life in prison with no chance of parole for 165 years, the maximum sentence.
Paxton’s mother, Jean, said she was relieved the case was over. “Today is the beginning of the end for Thomas Dillon,” she said. Nonetheless, she was upset that Dillon showed no remorse. “We were given a life sentence the day he decided to kill our son,” she said. “I think he’s a pathetic coward. He’s taken the coward’s way out of everything.”
Noble County Prosecutor Lucien Young III said the plea agreement was the “most practical solution,” even though he preferred a sentence of death. “I kind of felt like he ought to die,” he said. Dillon’s lawyer, Roger Synenberg, countered claims that Dillon felt no remorse. “He has some regrets about this, but he’s also got to put it all behind him,” he said.
At seven o'clock the next night after the sentencing, the Paxtons' telephone rang. It was Thomas Dillon. He told Jean Paxton that her "pathetic coward" comment had hurt him. "That's what you are, Thomas," she replied. "And if you start with your cocky attitude, I will hang up. I've heard enough of that for the past several months. I'm not interested in what you have to say. But there are things I want you to know. Thomas, have you ever heard the expression 'Tears are the safety valve of the heart'?" He had not, so she talked about repentance and prayer. "Quit your profanity, stop the loopy simpering in front of the cameras and pick up the Bible before it's too late,” she said Paxton continued speaking to him for an hour, finally concluding, "We have spoken long enough. I can't hate you, but I can never forgive you for what you've done to our lives."
In July 1993, Dillon admitted to setting 160 fires and committing other acts of vandalism in Eastern Ohio during the preceding five years. Noble County Sheriff Landon Smith estimated that Dillon’s fires caused more than $2 million in damages. The fires were set in Coshocton, Belmont, Guernsey, Carroll, Columbiana and Tuscarawas counties.
Dillon pleaded with authorities not to be sent to Ohio's toughest facility, the maximum-security prison in Lucasville in November 1993. “If I go to Lucasville, I’m a dead man,” Dillon said. When news of this comment reached Jean Paxton, she collected 8,000 names on a petition. Dillon was sent to Lucasville.