Alva Campbell started young—armed robberies, the shooting of a state trooper, murder. Then, in the spring of 1997, he escaped from a deputy sheriff on a Downtown street and committed one of the city's most shocking killings.
Editor’s note: Our True Crime Classics series continues with Ray Paprocki’s 1997 story about how hardened criminal Alva Campbell escaped from a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy and killed 18-year-old Charles Dials.
The intense manhunt, now six hours old, narrows its target to a cluster of homes on the East Side, just north of Livingston Avenue. Scores of police officers desperately search the streets in the quiet neighborhood. Residents gather to watch. George Broadnax, meanwhile, is oblivious to the action outside his home. He's cooking dinner. Not until his wife arrives from work, asking about the roads jammed with cop cars, does Broadnax get an inkling something unusual is happening around him.
He steps onto their porch, taking in the cruisers' flashing lights. As Broadnax turns to go back inside, something catches his attention. He sees a man—specifically, a man's legs—hiding in an overgrown shrub. Broadnax runs into the house, out the back door and into an alley to flag down an officer. Within seconds, cops rush in from all directions, some barking orders at the man, who drops a gun.
Later, Broadnax learns that the man who'd lurked just steps away from his front door is a nightmare come to life: an escaped murderer. The man has eluded police as thousands followed radio and TV accounts. Alva Campbell's cruel path this spring day left behind violence and death. He was no stranger to either.
In January, Campbell will stand trial, with felonious assault, escape and aggravated murder among the charges. He is accused of escaping from a Franklin County sheriff's deputy by faking an illness and then beating her viciously, and carjacking a pickup and murdering its driver, 18-year-old Charles Dials. Those events started on a Downtown street at lunchtime, Wednesday, April 2, and ended in a K mart lot on South High Street. The incident cast a critical light on the Franklin County Sheriff's department: Campbell, when he escaped, was not handcuffed.
The verdict is all but certain. His court appointed attorney, George Luther, says, "There is no defense.” The only question, it seems, is whether Campbell will be sentenced to death. "It is probably the most difficult case ever indicted in Franklin County to try and save a person's life.” Luther says.
While Campbell's future is uncertain, his past is far from ambiguous. He is a small-time thief, who destroyed and damaged lives. Campbell beat and terrorized store clerks, shot a police officer, murdered a bartender. He's served two different prison terms, accounting for 23 of his 49 years, and earlier spent time in a juvenile institution. He was bad when he was young, bad in middle age. The only place he has been in harmony with the society around him is prison.
Brad Amori remembers Alva Campbell. On March 13, Campbell pressed a gun to Amori's chest and squeezed the trigger. Click. The gun was empty. “I was facing a crazy guy. That look. He told me, 'You going to die.' I felt it.” Minutes later, police arrested Campbell, ending his one-month assault on West-Side carryouts. He would remain in custody only until April 2.
Campbell's string of robberies had begun Feb. 11, at the Hilltop Food Mart on West Broad Street. He smashed a wine bottle over the head of a clerk and fled with $20. About a month later, after stealing a 9mm gun from a man's apartment, he entered Mary Jo's carryout on Sullivant Avenue and bought a pack of Marlboros and a 40-ounce bottle of Busch. Minutes later, after a gaggle of kids left the store, Campbell returned and thrust agun at the owner, Manar Kittaneh, and a customer. “You boys want to die tonight?" He took their wallets and the cash in the register. “I was scared to death," says Kittaneh.
On March 13, Campbell hit another Sullivant Avenue carryout, Sally's Market. Amori, the owner, was working in the back of the store when he saw a man stick a gun at his clerk's head. "Bitch, I killed once, I'll kill again." Amori recognized him as the man who only a week or so earlier had robbed his carryout. When Campbell left with $300, Amori grabbed his own gun and ran outside. He says Campbell was trying to steal his van in the parking lot. Campbell shot at him. Amori fired back, in the air, “To let him know I had a gun.” Another shot rang out, piercing the sign above Amori's head. Campbell ran. Amori gave chase. “I just reacted," Amori says. “I had to put a stop to this, he would come back again. I had to protect myself and my co-workers.”
In the rain and dark, through the streets lined tight with housing, Amori pursued Campbell, who continued to fire. Amori shot back, a bullet grazing Campbell's head. Campbell stumbled, but ran on. Amori found him moments later, sitting on a front porch stoop, bleeding badly. Campbell shot twice at Amori, whose gun had jammed, and then rushed him, pointing his weapon at Amori's chest. When the gun clicked empty, Campbell smashed it into Amori's head. "Oh, no, I'm not going to die,” Amori told himself. He gained control of Campbell and "kept hitting him."
By that time, other people in the neighborhood had gathered. “Everybody took a piece of him," Amori says, until the police arrived. "It was like a movie," he says, “except it was real."
Campbell was taken just blocks away to Mount Carmel Hospital, where he was first listed as critical, but then upgraded to fair condition. He was released from the hospital March 15 and taken to the Franklin County jail on Jackson Pike in a wheelchair. The jail's medical staff diagnosed Campbell's paralysis as psychosomatic.
Amori says he spent the next three weeks holed up in his home, the side of his face swollen and discolored, his head throbbing. He unplugged the phone, ignored knocks at the door. “I just sat there,” he says. “I didn't eat anything for two days except a bag of potato chips.” He became. depressed, he says, over a TV report that he felt cast him as a criminal. (Amori wasn't charged.) He thought about the look on Campbell's face, the gun at his chest. "If the bullet was there, I'd be dead."
On March 16 Charles Dials, 18, left his southeast-side home, where he lived with his mother and teen-age brother and sister. He was headed to see his grandfather, who would help him fix a wiring problem on his prized red Chevy S-10 long-bed. But before he could reach his destination, a police officer ticketed him for driving with an inoperative headlight. The fine, $80, was a big expense for Dials, who worked with his mother, Arlena Hughes, at Autovision, earning a wage by filling orders and packing trucks.
He waited until he received a check on April 2 to pay the ticket, plus the late fee: Dials planned to visit family in Portsmouth later that day; he was especially looking forward to his cousin's birthday party. Dials chose to pay the fine in person instead of by mail. His mom was going to take him—to circle the block to avoid the parking hassle—but he insisted on leaving before she was ready. So he headed Downtown, alone.
At 12:36 p.m., Dials paid his ticket at the Franklin County Municipal Court Clerk's office, which is part of the Franklin County courthouse complex on South High Street. At about the same time, Franklin County Sheriff's deputy Teresa Harrison was transporting Campbell in a paddy wagon to the courthouse for his arraignment on the West-Side armed robberies. Campbell was not shackled.
Sheriff's department policy calls for two deputies to escort prisoners in wheelchairs who are uncuffed. But the fact that Harrison was going solo wasn't unusual during that period; for several months, the sheriff's office had been dealing with difficult circumstances. It runs two jails, the Downtown jail, which is connected to the courthouse complex by a skywalk, and the Jackson Pike facility, in the South End. The Downtown jail, which was supposed to have reopened by February after extensive renovation, remained closed because of numerous delays. Sheriff Jim Karnes told reporters after the escape that sometimes there wasn't enough manpower to send two deputies to escort wheelchair bound prisoners. Such was the case on April 2.
Harrison, a 10-year veteran, had stopped at the loading dock on the Fulton Street side of the courthouse complex. At some point, Campbell got out of the wheelchair and attacked Harrison, overpowering her and grabbing her gun. “He was banging her face onto the pavement; he kicked and stomped her,” says Harrison's attorney, Robert Washburn. Courthouse surveillance cameras captured the escape.
Dials was just returning to his truck on Fulton Street, planning to head back to work, perhaps thinking about his trip.Then he came face-to-face with Campbell, who, police say, carjacked the pickup and kidnapped Dials. The Chevy headed out of Downtown.
The sheriff's department issued a statewide alert to all police agencies, says chief deputy Robert Taylor. Police in formed Amori and Kittaneh, the carryout owners. Media broadcasts soon began reporting the escape. Campbell, though, showed no signs of following a getaway route. “He didn't seem as if he had any plan," says Columbus police detective Ronald Jester, who interviewed Campbell after his recapture,
Dials and Campbell spent the next three hours together. Campbell told Jester that they talked about family, made general conversation. At one point, they went to a drive-through on the South Side for two 40-ounce bottles of beer. Two empty bottles were later found in the pickup. They listened to radio reports about the escape. Somewhere, Campbell and Dials switched clothes.
Close to 3:30 p.m., the red pickup pulled into the parking lot of K mart on South High Street, not that far from Dials's home. Witnesses later told police they saw Campbell leave the vehicle.
Inside was Dials, with two bullet holes in his head. He was wearing Campbell's jail uniform.
In the parking lot, Katie Workman was preparing to leave her car to return a defective carbon monoxide detector. When she turned to open the door, there stood Campbell, a gun pointed at her head. She heard: "Move over, bitch, I just killed a man.” Workman, a grandmother, ran. Her husband later told the media she would rather be shot in the back escaping than die in her car. Campbell drove away in Workman's car, stopping at a strip shopping center on High Street about a mile south of K mart. Police say he tried to steal another car in front of a fitness and tanning center. “A man was confronted,” says Jester, "but he ran off with the keys.” Campbell droveback into the city, heading east. Jester says Campbell bought more beer at a carryout on Alum Creek Drive, but the bottle later was found unopened.
By early evening, though, a Columbus police officer spotted Campbell in the stolen car. He ditched Workman's vehicle on Bide A Wee Park Avenue, a two-block enclave of homes tucked just north of Livingston Avenue and just west of Nelson Road. Cops swarmed the area. At 6:40 p.m., Campbell was captured, ending one of the most massive manhunts in recent Columbus history.
That night, Campbell told police he had killed Dials, according to Jester and court documents. He eventually was charged with 14 counts, including aggravated murder, kidnapping, aggravated robbery, felonious assault, escape and attempted kidnapping. In subsequent court appearances, he was shackled and flanked by deputies.
Born in 1948, Alva Campbell has been in trouble most of his life. He grew up in a poor Cleveland neighborhood and dropped out of school before high school. From a court record: “There were juvenile commitments to the [Boys Industrial School in Lancaster} for Auto Theft, Larceny and probation violation." After turning 18, he was arrested three times for robbery, larceny and assault with intent to rob; no convictions resulted.
Then, in the fall of 1967, Campbell hooked up with three other Clevelanders and planned a series of Holiday Inn robberies in Summit and Medina counties. After the second robbery, a state trooper gave chase, managing to stop their car. As the trooper approached the car, according to newspaper accounts at the time, Campbell shot him in the thigh.
A massive manhunt ensued. Campbell was caught with $500 about an hour after the four men ditched the car and ran. A police captain told the Plain Dealer: "He just stood there and waited for me. He was the most dejected person I ever saw when I got him." Campbell was found guilty of shooting with intent to kill and sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison.
He served three years and was paroled from the Ohio Pen in late 1971. Four months later, Campbell was in the Friendly Inn in Cleveland on a Friday night playing pool. At closing time, Campbell fatally shot the bartender, William Dovalosky, a 24-year-old Vietnam veteran, according to courtroom testimony by Dovalosky's father, who was outside looking through a front window.
A jury convicted Campbell of first-degree murder and first-degree murder in perpetration of a robbery; when the verdict was read, Campbell, who at age 24 was facing a lifetime imprisonment, "doubled over ... and scuffled with three deputies trying to handcuff him," the Plain Dealer said.
Campbell, though, seemed to excel in prison. He earned a GED and an associate degree, and he completed more than 70 programs, including one on anger management. After 20 years, he had just nine so-called “write-ups, mostly minor citations, and none since 1986, says Andrea Dean, spokesperson for the Ohio Rehabilitation and Correction Department. While at Orient Correctional Institution, he drove prisoners, escorted by guards, to hospitals. At times during those runs, he was authorized to drive alone.
Denied parole in 1987, he won over the board in 1992. Dean says several letters of recommendation came from Campbell's family members and potential employers. There were no letters of opposition. On June 2, 1992, he was back on the streets.
Leading the charge for Campbell's release was a Columbus nurse. She had befriended him in 1982 when they met while he was undergoing surgery in the hospital at which she works. Eight years later, while Campbell was in Orient, they married. She agreed to an interview if her name would be withheld. (Campbell declined a request.)
"When we met, I was working nights; I had some personal problems, very vulnerable,” she says. "He made you feel like he was the man of your dreams." They exchanged letters, she visited as often as possible. "He said he had killed a guy who was hurting a child. I believed him. But he was well-liked by the social workers and chaplains. They said they felt bad he was wasting his life in prison.” She adds, "I tried to find things, see if he was lying. I wasn't totally blind, but I guess I was."
She thought he would remain out of trouble once he was freed. "He told me, ‘Don't worry, I never want to go back to prison. Won't go back alive.' ” When Campbell was paroled, she thought it was "the new beginning of a wonderful life hopes you build up for 10 years, then it all falls apart in front of you."
She says he drank frequently, became distant emotionally. Campbell briefly held a few jobs. After he persuaded his wife's parents to lend him money for a car, he left her. And by April 1, 1993, they agreed to a dissolution; “Unfortunate circumstances," according to the court record. He occasionally stopped in at work to see her, once asked her to pay his girlfriend's utility bill. “Every time he came by he smelled like alcohol, dressed like a bum," his ex-wife says.
Campbell's sister reported that he had taken money from her in August, 1996, according to Correction records. He was sent to a halfway house in Mansfield, where he was caught drinking. He received counseling, then was shipped to a similar facility in Columbus. He skipped out early this year and became a "parole violator at large."
The last time his ex-wife saw him was in February, "He said, 'I need a favor, kind of homeless,' He had no place to go, lost his girlfriend." She turned him down. "I felt bad for him, but I had given up 10 years of life, totally faithful to him. My two youngest kids thought he would be their father."
Days later, Campbell robbed the first of the West-Side carryouts.
George Luther has handled more than 20 capital cases in his career, and only one is on Death Row—Jerry Hessler, convicted for a multi-city murder spree in 1996. Luther says Campbell is his toughest case.
"We know who did it," Luther says. "The question is what is the appropriate punishment." He has offered Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O'Brien a plea bargain: Avoid the time and expense of a trial by agreeing to lock Campbell away for life. O'Brien adamantly refuses. Campbell already is serving 88 years with no parole for 11 counts associated with the carryout robberies. (He pleaded guilty in August.) “He can enter a guilty plea and make his case" to save his life, says O'Brien.
Campbell's future depends on the mitigation phase of the murder trial, which is set for Jan. 29. Mitigation is when the defense pleads for the defendant's life by introducing evidence—such as upbringing, learning disabilities, etc.—to argue against a death sentence. Luther's mitigation team is busy researching Campbell's background, giving him a battery of psychological tests.
The key to Campbell's mitigation, though, could be letters Campbell wrote to a woman while in jail this spring. They describe “a method to escape from county jail,” according to a court document filed by O'Brien.
Campbell's ownership of the letters became an issue early in the case when he refused to submit a handwriting sample. O'Brien played hardball, knowing that Campbell feared retaliation from Franklin County deputies for having escaped. In May, Campbell complained in court that the Jackson Pike guards were harassing him: spitting in his food, urinating in his bed. (Chief deputy Steve Martin calls the claims "bogus.”) O'Brien told Campbell that until he submitted a handwriting sample, he'd stay in county jail.
Against Luther's recommendation, Campbell admitted he wrote the letters. “He could not stand the mental stress caused by Franklin County deputies. He was in solitary confinement," says Luther. "Whenever he moved, his hands were chained to his waist, his feet were chained. An animal's life," Campbell's now at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
However, Campbell's decision on the letters might put him on Death Row. O'Brien could persuade a jury to recommend death by showing Campbell is a threat to escape. Luther says the letters won't be heard in court unless he mistakenly “opens the door" for them to be introduced. "If I play my cards wrong," Luther says, “they can destroy the mitigation and my attempt to save his life.” He adds, "It makes my job difficult, like walking through a land mine. One misstep and it blows up in your face."
Campbell's escape sparked outrage and questions. Why was Campbell uncuffed? Was Harrison told that Campbell's injury was in his head? If so, did she ignore it? News reports at the time indicated that medical information about prisoners is confidential and could not be passed on to deputies. A copy of the sheriff's department policy, however, says that medical staff can communicate “...mental instabilities ... which may require special precautions to designated security staff."
Harrison, who has since been granted disability retirement from the Public Employees Retirement System of Ohio, has declined interviews. Karnes says he can't comment on the case until the trial. A sheriff's department investigation of the escape is under seal, as are other documents, by order of Franklin County Court Judge John Connor. He says he wants to try to limit pretrial publicity from possibly tainting a jury pool.
However, Karnes said in a brief interview that the policy regarding transporting prisoners has not changed because of the escape.“We can't write a policy for every issue," he said. “Some of this is up to the discretion of the officer. You hope to God they make the right decision."
It was after 6 p.m. when the police came to Arlena Hughes's home on April 2. She had begun to worry about Charles when he hadn't returned to work, which was unlike him. She was upstairs, packing a suitcase for her teen-age daughter, who was planning to join Charles on his Portsmouth trip. Her daughter came into the room. "Something really bad’s happened," the girl said. There were two police officers and a detective at the door. "We found a body," the detective told Hughes. “We're pretty sure it's your son."
It's not easy for Hughes to speak about April 2. "But I don't mind talking," she says. "He was a good kid." Charles attended Groveport High School, but then was home-schooled by a family friend in Johnstown. Good-natured, he took his family's teasing well: "We called him a redneck," Hughes says, “because he liked to hunt and fish. And he loved his truck. A Chevy man."
A single parent of three teen-agers, Hughes could count on Charles, the oldest, to help out at home. He spoiled his sister, Hughes says, and worried about his siblings' educations. In February, their house burned. "He helped out a lot, financially,” Hughes says, "because we had to start over."
Since his death, she's had to deal with her own grief, as well as try to comfort her children and other family members; she says her remaining son is "mad at the world," and her daughter has been frightened, afraid of Alva Campbell. "She was scared he might escape. I told her they would be extra careful. Then they had that other escape," Hughes says, referring to the juvenile charged with rape who eluded Franklin County deputies at the courthouse before being found three hours later. "She just stared at me. I had no defense."
And immediately after Charles' killing, Hughes was besieged with intrusions: reporters asking for interviews, attorneys encouraging lawsuits, TV cameras stationed in front of her home. “I wanted to scream, 'Just give us time.' ”
She's heard many stories, some contradictory, about the events of April 2, about who's to blame, why the police couldn't track down the truck before Charles was shot. Hughes tries to sort through the rumors. “A lot I don't want to know," she says. She sent the Dispatch a letter to the editor, questioning Harrison's judgment, her retirement disability. But, for Hughes, everything boils down to one question, which will never be adequately answered: “Why kill Charles?"
Her stand is firm about Campbell. "Alva Campbell has proven time and time again that he can't be rehabilitated. There is no punishment adequate for Alva Campbell, except the death penalty. What if he escapes again?"
Hughes has been overwhelmed with condolences. Thompson Monument Company donated a monument for her son's grave site. She received more than 400 sympathy notes. One letter came from a prisoner who cheered Campbell on while following his escape on television with other inmates, but turned angry after Charles's body was found.
And then at Charles's funeral, a strangerapproached her. The woman hugged Hughes, slipped her an envelope and told Hughes she had lost her 17-year-old daughter to violent crime. That night at home, Hughes remembered the envelope. Inside was money—for the other children—and a note. It was signed: "Another mother."
Gestures like that, she says, have helped her to begin to heal. “They have restored my faith in human nature," she says.
This story originally appeared in the December 1997 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.