A survivor’s story: Death of West Park rapist fails to bring closure for victim

September 28, 2018

A survivor’s story: Death of West Park rapist fails to bring closure for victim

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The phone call from the prison official stunned Nita Ketner, sending her back 30 years to the darkest time in her life: when Ronnie Shelton broke into her Lake Avenue apartment and sexually attacked her.

The official told Ketner that Shelton, 56, died of an apparent suicide at the Grafton Correctional Institution. He was serving one of the longest prison sentences in Ohio, 3,195 years.

Ketner was one of the scores of victims Shelton terrorized. She testified against him at his trial in 1989, when a jury convicted him of 220 sex-related charges. Authorities called him the West Park rapist, but they believed he assaulted women throughout the region.

“I had no idea that it would affect me this badly,″ Ketner said, crying. “I have a lot of emotions. I thought it was all behind me, but it’s not.

“I don’t want to say that I was elated when I heard this because that’s not the Christian thing to do, but I felt a sense of relief, almost a sense of release.

“But did I feel closure? No.″

In nearly all cases, The Plain Dealer does not identify victims of sexual assault. Ketner, however, said she was prepared to be identified. She called it important, especially when so many other women who also suffered from Shelton have been identified.

Ketner’s emotions underscore the trauma survivors feel, even decades later. Sondra Miller, the president and chief executive officer of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, said events can often trigger powerful feelings for victims.

“It’s common for survivors to report to us that they feel like they are experiencing the rape all over again,″ she said.

Timothy McGinty, the former Common Pleas judge and prosecutor, was the state’s attorney who brought Shelton’s case to Judge Richard McMonagle and a jury.

″[Shelton] was evil incarnate,″ McGinty said. “He was the devil’s disciple. I’ve never met a person that evil.″

He praised Ketner and the other victims for testifying against a man who methodically stalked them.

“The victims’ inner strength and courage set an example for the whole nation,″ McGinty said. “Never before had a group of rape victims used their names openly, despite a very different set of norms in operation 30 years ago.″

James Neff, a former Plain Dealer investigative reporter and columnist, wrote the definitive book on Shelton, “Unfinished Murder: The Pursuit of a Serial Rapist.″ It described how the victims rose up, how the system failed to notice early warning signs in Shelton and how a task force of police and FBI agents tracked him down.

“Even though they knew he was in prison, I think the dozens of survivors of his crimes may feel relief or closure in learning that he is gone,″ said Neff, now the deputy managing editor for investigations for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“These women showed incredible courage in coming together to put him in prison, testifying publicly, talking to me for the book. They were inspiring.″

Shelton’s family declined to comment Thursday.

Ketner, in a phone interview, said Shelton broke into her apartment March 18, 1988. He flashed a knife and attacked her, just as he had done to so many other victims. Before he left, he threw a quilt over her head and told her to face the wall.

She feared she was going to die. He then ran.

“I’ve never been the same since,″ she said. “I was 23. I had a great life. I had a great family. I had a great boyfriend. And then, it all changed.″

She struggled for years and sought strength from the other victims. She has since moved from Cleveland.

“I have so many memories, so many emotions,″ Ketner said. “I know that he spent 29 years in prison. That couldn’t have been easy. But when I got that call, I felt like I’m the one who left prison.″

A spokeswoman for the prison system said Shelton died at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Grafton prison. He had spent time in prisons in Warren and Trumbull counties before being shipped to Grafton in 2013.

The prison system’s website says Shelton’s first parole hearing was scheduled for 2094.

“The Shelton case showed how a glib criminal can get away with stranger rape,″ Neff said. “It is better understood now, I think. Back then, he was repeatedly picked up for voyeurism, which was how he selected his victims. But he was let go or not connected to the rapes. I hope that wouldn’t happen today.″

Ketner has struggled to concentrate in the hours since she received the phone call.

″[The attack] was a long time ago, and you think that, with time, you would let it go,″ she said. “But you don’t. I don’t think you ever let it go. You always are on guard. You can never open up to people. I’ve changed.″

Cleveland Rape Crisis can be reached at 216-619-6192.

Plain Dealer reporter John Petkovic contributed to this story.

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