Fronsman investigation unique
The Celeste Fronsman murder was the highest
profile case in Muskingum County in more than 15 years. Last week,
the investigation culminated with the sentencing of the three
Canton residents convicted of murdering the 29-year-old woman.
By Ed Balint - CantonRep.com
November 9, 2013
Hours after a Canton woman was found beaten and
burned in rural Muskingum County, investigators were in Stark
County looking for those responsible.
Celeste Fronsman, 29, was found Aug. 26, 2012,
on a remote road before rising from the pavement and crying out
for help from a passing motorist.
Fronsman provided critical evidence with her
will to live, said Brady Hittle, a detective with the Muskingum
County Sheriff's Department.
She had walked or crawled — maybe both — 1,487
feet out of brush and weeds to state Route 208. Despite burns on
70 percent of her body, she found enough strength to utter the
names of those who left her there before she died two days later.
A man who helped her scribbled down one of the names for law
"If Celeste had not made her way to the roadway
... there's a chance she wouldn't have been found unless a hunter
came by that remote of an area," Hittle said. "They would have
Last week, the criminal case culminated with
three Canton residents — LaFonse Dixon Jr., 34, Katrina Culberson,
22, and Monica Washington, 25 — being sentenced to life in prison
on charges of aggravated murder, aggravated arson and kidnapping.
Only Washington has a chance for parole after she serves at least
Washington and Culberson had reached plea
deals, testifying against Dixon at his trial late last month. A
jury spared him the death penalty. Dixon's attorney said he plans
With three convictions and the case now closed,
Muskingum County investigators shed light on how they traced the
mystery back to Canton and solved the crime.
The road to Canton
The Fronsman case connected inner-city Canton
to the Tri-Valley Wildlife Area — an old strip mining site now
state-owned and used for hunting.
Mark Bretz, of Newark, had dropped a cow off at
a meat locker. He was heading home, reveling in the sun-drenched
summer day. At about 8:30 a.m. he saw Fronsman on the remote
stretch of road. Moaning and wailing, Fronsman threw herself on
the hood of his vehicle.
Bretz called 911. Fronsman told him who left
her there to burn alive: Katrina Culberson. At Dixon's trial, he
testified that she also gave the names of Dixon and Washington.
"Detectives were in Canton that afternoon by 4," said Muskingum
County Prosecutor Michael Haddox.
Police didn't have much to go on. They were
unable to interview Fronsman, who was put in a medically-induced
coma due to her pain. She had given her own name. And the last
thing she said was her Social Security number.
They had enough to take to Canton and confirm
her identity — the burns made it difficult. But the record of a
tattoo helped. At that point Hittle was confident Stark County was
the place to be.
The detectives soon got well acquainted with
Canton streets — the Newton Zone, Shorb Avenue NW and other
neighborhoods sprinkled about Canton.
"People helped who you didn't think would
because it was that bad of a crime," Hittle said. "It was
unimaginable for everyone involved."
But he said the case could not have been solved
as quickly and as effectively without the help of the Canton
"The amount of help we got from them was
unprecedented," Hittle said.
Even the suspects were in disbelief that
Fronsman survived long enough to point the finger at them.
"I think they thought they had gotten away with
the perfect crime," Hittle said. "I don't think they really
believed what I told them — there was shock."
Why Muskingum County?
Why would two prostitutes and an alleged drug
dealer pick that remote spot?
That's what Zanesville area residents wondered.
"There's no easy way to get to that location,"
said Ron Welch, assistant Muskingum County prosecutor. It turned
out that Culberson had visited the area when she was younger.
There was also shock and disbelief in
Zanesville at the violent nature of the crime: "What type of
person does that to somebody?"
Welch recalled the late summer day he got the
news. "We have a lot of meth labs," he said of his initial
reaction. "You hear of meth labs exploding."
But there was no meth, no explosion. Fronsman
had been doused with gasoline — after being beaten and then choked
with a tow-strap on an early-morning ride from Canton to Muskingum
County — and set ablaze.
Fourteen months later, Welch still cringes over
the pain Fronsman endured. A doctor told him her lungs couldn't
expand fully to draw in air because her skin was so tight from the
"All that comes to mind is divine
intervention," said Haddox, Muskingum's prosecutor since 1999. "I
don't know how else someone wills themselves to live for that
period of time."
The case is memorable for its cruelty, Haddox
said. "I've been around a good while, and I've had some pretty
horrific cases, but this one has to rank in the top three."
The other two also were gruesome: A teenage boy
who murdered and dismembered a young girl in the early 1990s. In
the other, a 14-month-old girl was found dumped near Dillon Dam
after she had been raped.
"We see a lot of things come across our desk,"
Haddox said, referring to autopsy and crime-scene photos. "But
this one will be impossible to get out of my head — just the
horrific burns the victim suffered."
It was Muskingum County's highest profile case
since a sheriff's deputy was slain in the mid-90s, Welch said. For
about two months, Haddox and Welch worked on the Fronsman case —
from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. or 11 most days.
This wasn't the first time Muskingum County has
received statewide media attention for something unusual and
tragic. In October 2011, a man released dozens of exotic animals
from cages on his private reserve in the Zanesville area before
committing suicide. Authorities killed more than 40 animals,
including black bears, Bengal tigers and African lions, citing
That case garnered even more publicity than the
From Canton to Zanesville
The distance between Canton and Zanesville
posed a logistical challenge. But "you either do the work or you
don't get the conviction," Haddox said.
"Our sheriff's detectives did a phenomenal job
considering the logistics," he said. "They lived in Canton."
Hittle and Todd Mahle, another Muskingum
detective, spent a total of about four weeks in Canton, and
returned periodically to check on witnesses and continue the
A Canton officer — Bryan McWilliams — shadowed
the detectives, assisting them with finding witnesses and other
work. The Muskingum investigators worked out of the Canton Police
Police Chief Bruce Lawver said the department
was happy to assist. "I think it was a very appropriate outcome,"
he said. "It's about getting to the truth."
The crime was based on a false motive, Haddox
said. Dixon, who sold crack cocaine, suspected Fronsman of leaking
information to Canton police that led to a drug raid, he said.
Both Culberson and Washington testified to being crack cocaine
Fronsman never tipped off police, Lawver said.
She also was not a confidential informant, he said.
The distance — roughly a 90-minute trip — also
was an obstacle for some Canton witnesses.
In at least one case, a detective drove a
witness from Canton and back, he said. Hotel expenses were covered
for about six Canton witnesses. Law enforcement also was posted
outside some hotel rooms, Haddox said.
A few shouldn't have bothered to make the trip.
They showed up drunk, high or belligerent — in one case, maybe all
three, Welch said. They were not put on the witness stand.
"It's happened before," Haddox said of
witnesses showing up soused or high. "That wasn't the first time,
(but) that number in that case, that's unique."
But the prosecutor said he was not left with a
negative impression of Canton.
"I don't think anybody had the feeling this was
the run-of-the-mill Canton folk coming down to our county," he
said. "I think everyone realizes every community has its bad
apples, so to speak."
Woman sentenced to life
for Fronsman burning death
Culberson sentenced to life for Fronsman murder
November 7, 2013
ZANESVILLE — Marie Rickmann will never forget
the day Katrina Culberson walked down the street and into her
The then 7-year-old was outgoing, intelligent
and great with Rickmann’s children, she said.
Culberson would hang out at Rickmann’s house
all day, calling Rickmann “mom” and Robert Saloiye, Rickmann’s
Then drugs and prostitution became a factor.
Rickmann lost touch with Culberson, and Wednesday, Culberson was
sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 2012 murder of
Wednesday was the first time Rickmann had seen
Culberson in years, and Rickmann said it was heartbreaking and
nearly impossible for her to reconcile the 22-year-old convicted
killer with the 7-year-old girl she once knew.
“I think of Katrina as the child,” she said.
“If you would have known her as a little girl, every single one of
you would have fallen in love with this child.
“It’s very hard to believe. We loved this child
and tried to help her, but the people in Canton just relentlessly
pursued her into prostitution.”
A long process
Save any appeals, Monday marked the end of a
case that stretches back to Aug. 26, 2012, the day 29-year-old
Fronsman was found burned and beaten in the middle of Ohio 208.
There were three suspects in her death — Culberson, 34-year-old
LaFonse Dixon Jr. and 25-year-old Monica Washington.
Washington pleaded guilty to murder, kidnapping
and arson in March and was sentenced Monday to life in prison with
the possibility of parole after 25 years.
Dixon pleaded not guilty but was convicted of
the same charges in late October. He was sentenced Monday to life
in prison without parole.
Of the three, Culberson was the first to admit
her guilt, signing a plea agreement in September 2012 so
prosecutors would not seek the death penalty. Wednesday, she was
sobbing before the judge even entered the courtroom. Dressed in an
orange jumpsuit, hands and feet chained, she cried as she
apologized to Fronsman’s family and friends.
“What I did was really horrible, and there’s
nothing I can do to make it better,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Culberson’s attorney, Greg Meyers, of Columbus,
asked for leniency, a sentence of life in prison with the
possibility of parole after 41 years. Meyers said Culberson was
raised under terrible circumstances — surrounded by drugs,
prostitution and impregnated when she was 14 by a 22-year-old —
and he asked the judge to take that into consideration.
“Her life was one of misery, of fracture,”
Meyers said. “She’s now 22. We ask that you consider giving her
some hope” of one day being paroled.
Muskingum County Common Pleas Judge Kelly
Cottrill didn’t budge. Culberson’s plea agreement likely saved her
life, Cottrill said, but she will spend the rest of it in prison.
“Ms. Culberson, you know what you did,”
Cottrill said. “And you knew what you did the date you signed that
When Culberson was 13, Rickmann actually gained
custody of her for nine months. There was an incident with
Culberson’s mother, and Rickmann stepped in to help. She enrolled
Culberson in school, got her involved in cheerleading and swimming
and did the best she could to undo a neglectful childhood, she
Rickmann isn’t a foster parent by trade, and
Culberson is the only foster child she’s ever had, she said.
“It’s just, I loved Katrina. I wanted to help
Katrina,” she said.
Once Culberson moved in, though, the phone rang
constantly with adults from Canton calling for Culberson.
“We got Katrina out of that situation, and they
just called constantly trying to meet up with her,” Rickmann said.
“They relentlessly pursued her into prostitution.”
Eventually, Culberson’s mom regained custody,
and Rickmann lost touch with Culberson until Wednesday. She
thought of her often, but Rickmann knew the kind of life Culberson
had chosen, and she didn’t want to expose her own children to
those dangers, she said.
As Culberson was taken into custody Wednesday,
she turned and said, “I love you guys. I love you guys,” to the
group gathered on the benches behind her.
Then, she asked Rickmann to write her. Rickmann
thinks she will, but she’s not quite sure what that letter might
look like, she said.
“I don’t know what to say to her. It’s just a
shock,” she said. “I always thought she’d be on the other side. I
thought she’d end up a victim.”
Sitting in his office after the sentencing,
Muskingum County Prosecutor Michael Haddox said it’s a relief to
finally be done with the case. At the same time, he said it’s sad
to think about how many lives were ruined. There’s the obvious
sympathy for the victim, her friends and family, but there’s also
some for the perpetrators who will spend the rest of their lives
in jail, he said.
The bottom line, though, is they got what
justice demanded, Haddox said. Culberson had a tough childhood,
yes, but made her own choices, and she killed Fronsman.
“Even if you’re high, you make decisions”
Haddox said, “and you have to live with your decisions.
“At the end of the day, (Culberson) is the one
that poured the gasoline, and she’s the one that lit it. ... When
you look at the victim whose life was wiped away ... how can you
say that life without parole is a heavy sentence?”
Canton woman pleads guilty to
murder in Fronsman death
Friends remember 'misunderstood' victim for
strength, good heart
By Kathy Thompson - ZanesvilleTimesRecorder.com
September 27, 2012
ZANESVILLE -- In the end, Celeste Fronsman got
the last word.
Her friends, Frank Vaughns and Howard Cammon, said the Canton
woman may have been tortured and tormented in the last horrifying
moments of her life, but ultimately, she showed strength.
"She drug herself from the spot they thought
was going to be her grave, found the strength to make it to the
road and with God's grace told authorities who did this to her,"
Vaughns said. "Celeste got the last word."
Vaughns and Cammon, also of Canton, traveled to
Zanesville on Wednesday to sit in a courtroom and watch one of
Fronsman's accused killers -- Katrina Culberson -- admit to her
role in Fronsman's death.
Culberson, 21, pleaded guilty to one count of
aggravated murder, one count of aggravated arson and one count of
kidnapping in connection with Fronsman's death. She is facing the
possibility of life in prison, because her plea agreement ruled
out the death penalty.
Monica Washington, 24, and LaFonse Dixon, 33,
both from Canton, also are charged in the case and still could
face the death penalty if convicted as charged.
Vaughns and Cammon spoke of Fronsman's strength
in the final, tormenting days of her life as she suffered through
being beaten and burned. They also spoke of the nature of the
relationship between the two women.
They described Fronsman as being misunderstood,
and a victim of the more dominant Culberson.
When it comes to Culberson, Vaughns had two
words to sum her up -- "pure evil."
"Celeste had a heart of gold. Did she have
problems? Yes. But she wasn't a fighter," Vaughns said after
Wednesday's hearing. "She was a very misunderstood young woman who
seemed to take the wrong advice from the wrong people."
Cammon said Fronsman spent many days and nights
at his home, trying to stop using drugs or just needing a place to
"But K.C. (as Culberson likes to be called) was
always after her," Cammon said, "and we don't know why, but
Celeste would listen to K.C."
Cammon and Vaughns said Culberson abused
Fronsman, blackening her eyes, punching her and even threatening
to kill her.
"K.C. even came to my house looking for Celeste
the week they took Celeste," Cammon said. "She was running all
over my house, screaming for Celeste. The woman wanted to control
Celeste in every way, and Celeste thought they were friends."
Alternately crying, staring straight ahead or
shaking in court Wednesday, Culberson told Muskingum County Common
Pleas Judge Kelly Cottrill she is "scared" and a little "confused"
by the events since Aug. 26.
That's the day authorities say Fronsman was
beaten, choked and set on fire just off Ohio 208 in the Tri-Valley
Recreational Area in Muskingum County.
Law enforcement officials are not divulging
details into how Fronsman arrived in Muskingum County.
She was discovered by a passing motorist, badly
beaten and burned. She died two days later at the OSU Wexner
Medical Center in Columbus.
After what Muskingum County Prosecutor Michael
Haddox called "extensive plea negotiations," Culberson signed a
plea agreement just one month after Fronsman was discovered and
the death penalty specification was removed from her charges.
But the agreement stands only if Culberson
cooperates completely with law enforcement, Haddox said, including
testifying against Dixon and Washington, taking a polygraph test
and not having any further contact with Washington, Dixon or
anyone else who might be involved in the case.
"There remains the option that if this
agreement is void at any time, we're back to the original
indictment," Haddox said.
Haddox told Cottrill his office is recommending
for Culberson life in prison on the murder charge, 11 years --the
maximum sentence -- for the aggravated arson charge and 11 years
-- the maximum sentence -- for the kidnapping charge. All should
run consecutively, Haddox said.
Cottrill has other options in sentencing. He
could give Culberson a life sentence with parole possible in 20,
25 or 30 years.
Culberson told the Times Recorder in an
exclusive jailhouse interview this month she and Fronsman were
good friends -- to the point Culberson had tried to get Fronsman
off the streets where she was working as a prostitute and get a
"higher level of clientele."
But Cammon and Vaughns think differently.
"K.C. is an abuser," Vaughns said. "She and the
rest are devils."
Vaughns said he was surprised to hear Dixon is
a suspect in the murder.
"Fonse has always been a pretty decent guy,"
Vaughns said. "I've known his family and him forever. I just never
thought he'd have something like this in him. But if he's guilty,
Dixon, who also spoke with the Times Recorder
just after his transfer to Muskingum County, has denied being
involved or being in the county at the time of Fronsman's death.
Dixon has pleaded not guilty to aggravated
murder with two death penalty specifications, kidnapping and
aggravated arson, and conspiracy to kidnapping and aggravated
Washington has pleaded not guilty to aggravated
murder with two death penalty specifications, aggravated arson and
Dixon and Washington are being held in the
Muskingum County Jail on $5 million bonds.
Katrina Marie Culberson
arrested in Celeste Fronsman's death
August 31, 2012
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Authorities have made an
arrest in the gruesome death of a woman found covered in burns and
suffering on the side of a rural Ohio road.
The Muskingum County Sheriff's Office said
charges of aggravated murder, kidnapping and aggravated arson were
filed Friday against 20-year-old Katrina Marie Culberson of
Canton. It's unclear whether Culberson has an attorney.
A driver found 29-year-year-old Celeste
Fronsman early Sunday on a road northeast of Zanesville. She had
been raped and burned, and had a strap around her neck. She died
two days later at a Columbus hospital.
The Franklin County coroner ruled the death a
homicide but says it'll be four to six weeks before the exact
cause of death can be determined because of how badly she was