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Serial in Cleveland: Here are some details of the case featured in the trailer for season 3 of the popular podcast

September 6, 2018

Serial in Cleveland: Here are some details of the case featured in the trailer for season 3 of the popular podcast

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The wildly popular podcast Serial is about to bring the eyes and ears of the country into Cuyahoga County’s courtrooms.

Producer Sarah Koenig in Wednesday’s release of the trailer for the third season of the most downloaded podcast ever used a single case to illustrate how complex everyday cases in a court system that handles tens of thousands of cases every year can be. 

Each week, cleveland.com will seek to provide expanded details about the cases chronicled by Koenig and her co-producer, Emmanuel Dzotsi.

Here is some background on the case mentioned in the trailer.

The crimes

Gregory Rucker, 22, and Nicholas Kraft, 38, were dating sisters in the summer of 2015. One of the sisters was addicted to heroin and fell dope sick when she ran out of money. The men decided to pull some robberies to get some cash, Kraft would later tell police.

Kraft, who is white, and Rucker, who is black, came upon a couple delivering The Plain Dealer newspaper in their 2012 Dodge Avenger at Almira and West Boulevard on the city’s West Side.

The couple, Jack and Victoria Maynard, said that the white man pulled out a silver pistol and appeared to be in control. The black man had no weapon, they said. Both attackers demanded the couple hand over their money. They said they had no money, so the men made them turn out their pockets and lie on the ground. The attackers then started to leave, but returned and stole the couple’s car.

Bruce Page, co-owner of the Honey Hut Ice Cream chain, was riding his bike about 6:30 a.m. near West 11th Street and Spring Avenue when a white man and a black man stopped him. The white guy pointed a silver pistol at him and ordered him to empty his pockets. Page handed over his wallet and cellphone, and the white guy ordered him to lie on the ground. He instead threw down his bike and ran away and called 911. 

Cleveland police officer Trevor Majid responded to Page’s 911 call and spotted two men who matched the descriptions of the robbers walking along Spring Road. Majid got out of his car and the black man ran. Majid chased the man but lost him in Collette McSheffrey’s back yard on South Hills Drive. 

The commotion roused McSheffrey from her sleep. She went outside and found a cellphone in front of her garage. Police determined that phone was taken in a robbery a man in between the newspaper deliverers and the bicyclist. 

McSheffrey heard someone walking in her front yard a few hours later, she would later testify. She watched as a man she described as either being either light-skinned black or Hispanic searched her backyard, and then got into a cab with two women. She took down cab’s license plate number and gave it to police.

Police used the license plate number to identify the taxi company it belonged to, then found that cab was called to a Maple Heights address connected to both Rucker and Kraft. Police also obtained the phone number that was used to order the cab, and found that Kraft called the same number while he was in jail and the man on the other end of the phone was Rucker.

Both Rucker and Kraft were charged with three counts each of aggravated robbery and kidnapping, one for each of the Maynards and Page. Rucker was also charged with having weapons under disability because he pleaded guilty in 2013 to a burglary charge.

Kraft struck a deal with prosecutors in March 2016 and pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated robbery. Prosecutors dropped the kidnapping charges and agreed to recommend that Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel Gaul impose the minimum sentence of four years in prison.

The deal required Kraft to testify against Rucker if he took his case to trial.

Prosecutors offered Rucker the same plea deal. He could plead guilty to two counts of aggravated robbery and prosecutors would drop the charges. Rucker rejected the offer, and his case went to trial in January 2017.

No witness IDs, then a bombshell

None of the victims could identify Rucker as the second attacker.

The Maynards said they didn’t get a good look at the black man’s face, and Page said he couldn’t say for certain that Rucker was the other guy who robbed him.

Majid took the stand and surprised the lawyers in the courtroom when he said that, as he chased the suspect around the neighborhood, he twice saw his face and was able to identify Rucker as the robber. He did not include this revelation in his police report, and prosecutors did not disclose prior to trial that Majid would testify that he could identify Rucker. 

Rucker’s lawyer asked for a mistrial based on that fact, but prosecutors on the case – Kelly Mason and Jillian Eckart – said they also had no idea Majid would identify Rucker.

Majid testified that he didn’t say he could identify Rucker because no one ever asked him to. He wasn’t asked to identify Rucker in a photo array prior to trial, or asked to confirm after Rucker’s arrest that Rucker was the same guy Majid chased on the morning of the robbery. Gaul denied the mistrial motion but did give a curative instruction to the jury about to Majid’stestimony.

McSheffrey testified that Rucker was the man she saw searching her backyard.

Kraft also took the stand and said that Rucker was his accomplice, and his girlfriend, who was supposed to be Rucker’s alibi witness, admitted on cross-examination that they took a cab to the intersection near McSheffrey’s house when she said she saw him outside her house.

Prosecutors then played a recording of a jailhouse phone call between Kraft and Rucker.

The jail call

Kraft told Rucker in the jail call that the detective investigating the case found out that he and his accomplice went to his grandfather’s house after the robberies, and that the grandfather talked to the detective. 

“Don’t worry, I’m not....I don’t know who you are, you know what I’m saying,” Kraft told Rucker. 

Kraft then told Rucker that the detective came to him with a photo lineup and asked him to point out the guy he was with the night of the robbery. Kraft said he told the cop the guy wasn’t on the page. Rucker was shaken to learn of the lineup, which he called a “face sheet.”

“Your grandfather said I was Puerto Rican though,” Rucker said.

He then asked Kraft if his grandfather was shown the photo lineup. Kraft said he didn’t know.

“Well you better get on that,” Rucker said. “I’m going to ask Jaime about that.”

Jurors came back with guilty verdicts on all counts.

Rucker faced a maximum of 32 years in prison. Gaul sentenced him to 13 years – seven years for the robberies that he was to serve before he served an additional six years on mandatory gun charges. 

Rucker appealed his conviction and sentence. The Eighth Ohio District Court of Appeals upheld both in an opinion released this May. 

Judge’s warning

No one at trial accused Rucker of wielding the gun but he was still charged with – and convicted of – gun specifications that carried a mandatory prison time. Under Ohio law, anyone deemed complicit to a crime are considered just as responsible as the person who carried out the crime. 

Still, Rucker’s sentence is three times longer than Kraft’s, who took a deal. 

Kraft had a single drug possession conviction in 2001, while Rucker had multiple prior convictions, including one in 2013 for felony burglary. 

Gaul, who is known not to mince words and make controversial statements in the courtroom,  warned Rucker before the trial began that his criminal history would likely land him a longer sentence if he was convicted. 

“You do have a criminal record and you’ve been to the institution, so you probably do not qualify for minimum time,” Gaul said. “If you take it to trial and are convicted, you’re probably looking at somewhere in the order of 10 if convicted, possibly more, depending on how the verdict comes down.”

Gaul repeatedly told Rucker that he was presumed innocent and told him that he has a right to a trial.

“But if you’re convicted, don’t come to me and say ‘well, judge, you got to hear me. You have to give me a break. Please don’t sentence me to consecutive time. Please don’t give the max.’ All right,” Gaul said.

To comment on this story, please visit Thursday’s crime and courts comments page.

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