Friends and family of a University of Toledo nursing student brutally slain nearly 30 years ago are campaigning to keep the former UT police officer who murdered her behind bars.
Melissa Anne Herstrum, 19, was a sophomore at UT in January, 1992 when the then-22-year-old officer drove her in his cruiser to UT’s Scott Park campus, handcuffed her, forced her to lie face down, and shot her 14 times in the head, back, and legs. Jeffrey Hodge pleaded guilty in 1993 in Lucas County Common Pleas Court to aggravated murder with a firearm and kidnapping.
The plea deal, decried by many in the community, resulted in Judge Judith Lanzinger issuing a maximum sentence — life in prison with the possibility of parole. He was sentenced before life without parole was possible in Ohio.
Hodge, now 52, is up for his first parole hearing Sept. 21 or 22, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Hodge is incarcerated at the Marion Correctional Institution.
“Back then, 30-plus years seemed like a long time,” said TJ McManamon, a close friend who grew up with Ms. Herstrum in Rocky River west of Cleveland. “Another 30 years sounds too short to me.”
Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates was an assistant prosecutor at the time and had no involvement in the case. But she remembers the toll it took on the office and the community very clearly. She will vehemently oppose parole for Hodge.
“What he did was absolutely wicked,” she said. “He was someone we looked up to. We gave him a badge and a gun to take care of us. He took that badge and that gun and killed a girl.”
Mr. McManamon and several other of Ms. Herstrum’s high school friends are leading a letter-writing campaign to the Ohio Parole Board seeking to keep Hodge behind bars. Since the Saturday launch of melissaforever.com, Mr. McManamon said Monday he had already received about 100 contacts.
“It still affects me today,” he said. “This is something that has shaped my life and shapes the way I’ve acted, treated people. It’s impacted every facet of my life.”
After his friend was murdered, Mr. McManamon left UT where he had been studying business. He transferred to Ohio University to study aviation and is now a pilot. He said that for a time afterward, he feared police.
“The memories are all still very vivid of when we found out and that whole week,” he said. “We were robbed of our youth. I was afraid of my own shadow when I got back to University of Toledo. I was afraid of everything.”
In 1992, Hodge stopped Ms. Herstrum in the early morning hours for an alleged traffic violation. When she realized she didn’t have her driver’s license, he drove her to her apartment to get it. But instead of taking her back to her car, he took her instead to the former Engineering and Technology Laboratory Center and killed her.
The next day, Hodge placed a false call to a cab company about seeing a driver being robbed in a parking lot near the site, authorities said. That was forwarded to UT police, and Hodge was one of two officers who responded and checked the area. The second officer discovered Ms. Herstrum’s body frozen to the ground.
It took investigators several days to zero in on Hodge. In the meantime, the man was still on duty and even attended a memorial service for Ms. Herstrum at UT.
“Once she was killed, he hadn’t been arrested yet and they had officers coming and stopping at the sorority house to check on us,” said Molly Horman Davis, a Pi Beta Phi sorority sister and close friend of Ms. Herstrum’s. “He was one of those officers.”
The upcoming parole hearing is “surreal,” Ms. Davis said. She has written letters to the parole board every year on Ms. Herstrum’s birthday and on the anniversary of her death.
“We want to do whatever we can to keep him there,” she said. “He took a young, innocent life for absolutely no reason, and he destroyed countless others. The fact that he did this, and did this as an officer of the law, makes it 1,000 times worse.”
Investigators at the time said the 9mm casings collected in Ms. Herstrum’s murder matched several casings from an incident a week prior in which several shots were fired into a UT dorm, narrowly missing a student and to which Hodge responded. They were also investigating the possibility Hodge had set several fires on campus.
A theory circulated at the time was that Hodge could have been committing crimes he would then respond to, possibly to bolster his reputation or standing as an officer. Hodge was never charged with any of those crimes.
In 1994, UT unveiled a memorial to Ms. Herstrum near McComas Village, the Glass Bowl, and Parks Tower.
Contact Alexandra Mester at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AlexMesterBlade.