Justice slow in Chester murder

CHESTER – The distinctive smell of natural gas coming from a rental home on Phaeton Avenue in Chester was one of the first things that alerted Sara Jean Williams’ colleague that something was wrong on a cold day in January two years ago.

The worried co-worker from Allison Elementary School flagged down Chester Police Lt. James Bryan and told him that Williams, a special education aide at the school, had failed to show up for work that Thursday morning – Jan. 26, 2012.

Williams’ absence was immediately felt because she normally parked her car in New Manchester and accompanied a special-needs child to Allison on a school bus, family members said. When Williams didn’t arrive, then-Allison Principal Linda Robinson asked a school employee to check on her welfare.

Bryan also smelled gas, whereupon he alerted the Chester Volunteer Fire Department. Firefighters found all four stove burners on but not lit, according to a Chester police investigative report filed in Hancock County Circuit Court.

In the basement, they found Williams’ lifeless body, already in a state of rigor mortis. She had a pillow under her head, blankets over her body and black cotton gloves on her hands, which also were tied to a support post, police reports said.

Next to her was the semiconscious body of her boyfriend, Adam McCloud, lying in a fetal position. First-responders were able to revive him and took him to East Liverpool City Hospital, where he spent the next month.

Upon McCloud’s release from the hospital, he was charged with murder and attempted arson for the death of Williams, a 37-year-old mother of two. A Hancock County grand jury indicted him on those charges in April 2012, but since then, the 35-year-old man has been sitting in the Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville awaiting trial.

McCloud’s case has languished in the courts for two years – partly because of defense motions – and Williams’ family is growing frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be any resolution in sight.

“I’ve been to the (Hancock County) courthouse 11 times,” said Craig Williams, 39, of Wellsville, Sara’s ex-husband. “It’s to the point that I get sick to my stomach every time I go there.”

Every time a new hearing is scheduled, even as recently as Thursday, Craig Williams and his parents, Bill and Karen Williams, make the trip from Wellsville to New Cumberland to hear some news. Invariably, they’re disappointed – at least two trial dates have been postponed. They said the pain of losing Sara has only been compounded by the slow pace of justice in the McCloud case.

“Sara was our daughter-in-law for 16 years. We treated her like a daughter,” Karen Williams said. “I just feel somebody needs to be there at the court for her.”

At a hearing in March 2013, visiting Judge Larry Starcher, then sitting in for Judge Martin J. Gaughan, listened to the Williamses’ complaint in open court and said, “We’re sensitive to your concerns.”

Hancock County Prosecutor Jim Davis said it’s not unusual for a murder case to drag on as the McCloud case has, partly because of a defense motion to test McCloud’s mental competency and a motion to suppress evidence.

“I’ve had cases go this long before. Any time (defense lawyers) raise an issue, it’s going to delay things,” he said.

Davis said he, too, is sensitive to family members’ concerns.

“You always want to get a case taken care of as quickly as possible, but we have to do it properly,” he said.

Prosecutors currently are awaiting a new hearing date on the motion to suppress evidence. A motion to test McCloud’s mental competency resulted in a finding that he is competent to stand trial. McCloud was examined by a psychiatrist and psychologist at West Virginia University’s Chestnut Ridge Center in Morgantown in January 2013.

Craig Williams said he would like to see the case resolved so that the family, especially the two children he had with Sara, can move on.

Williams met the former Sara Jean Powell in Fort Collins, Colo., while he was stationed with the Air Force in Wyoming. Sara had graduated from Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins in 1992 and Horward School of Nursing in 1994, according to her obituary.

Her parents, who divide their time between Colorado and China, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Craig and Sara were married for 16 years, moving from place to place – Wyoming, Texas, Washington state and England – as he pursued a career in the Air Force. He did two tours of duty in Iraq.

The couple moved back to Craig’s hometown of Wellsville in 2009 so that he could work as an Air Force recruiter in Steubenville, he said. But years of marital difficulties led to the couple’s separation in 2010, and Craig filed for divorce.

Sara met McCloud, formerly of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, in late 2010 or early 2011 at an in-patient treatment center in Cleveland, Williams said. By July 2011, the two were living together on Phaeton Avenue, he said.

Chester police reports filed in Circuit Court said Sara and McCloud attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings together and that McCloud also was a member of Narcotics Anonymous. McCloud reportedly told several people, including his NA sponsor, that the two were engaged, but Sara was less enthusiastic when talking with friends, the reports said.

Sara’s AA sponsor told police that she had discouraged the relationship because such romantic entanglements, especially between two addicts, can be a threat to sobriety, police reports said. The sponsor also told police that McCloud had said in meetings that he was “cross-addicted,” an apparent reference to drugs and alcohol.

Sara’s co-workers at Allison Elementary also were not impressed with McCloud, police investigative reports said. Sara worked for Hancock County Schools for three school years, including a two-year stint at Allison as a licensed practical nurse/aide, court records said.

Colleagues were aware of Sara’s troubled relationship with McCloud and started noticing a change in her demeanor around November 2011, police reports said. It was also around that time that Sara confessed to her AA sponsor that she had relapsed and started drinking again, police reports said.

However, she continued going to meetings despite struggling with sobriety, her sponsor told police. Things took a turn for the worse in January, police reports said.

Sara had spent three days in detox at Trinity Health System in Steubenville and returned home on Jan. 14 to find McCloud suffering from a drug overdose, police reports said. Police treated the overdose as a suicide attempt, and McCloud was taken to East Liverpool City Hospital.

Sara found a suicide note from McCloud under her pillow, in which McCloud stated in part, “I had to go like this before I hurt you or someone else I love been getting real crazy thoughts these past couple of week,” according to Chester police.

McCloud returned to the Phaeton Avenue home on Jan. 16, and the two started talking about separating, police reports said. A neighbor who was suspicious of McCloud and kept notes of his comings and goings, told police that he was gone between Jan. 18 and Jan. 20.

Upon his return, McCloud started moving things out of the house. Then, on the evening of Jan. 25, the neighbor noticed that McCloud arrived shortly after Sara got home from work. Soon thereafter, she noticed Sara’s 2002 Ford Taurus leaving the residence but being driven in an erratic fashion, police reports said.

Sara and her sponsor had plans to go to an AA meeting that night, with the sponsor planning to pick Sara up at 6 p.m., according to reports. At 5:03 p.m., the sponsor got a text from Sara’s phone saying, “Im not going to make it toni adam fell getting his stuff were heading over to ELH sorry,” according to Chester police.

The sponsor replied, “Ok. Call text if you need any help. Be careful I don’t like it, I’m sure you don’t either,” according to police.

Police now believe that the last two texts from Sara’s phone were sent by McCloud because of the unusual abbreviation of “tonight” as “toni” – something Sara never did – and the texting tendencies observed in both phones, a police report said.

In a hospital bed interview with police shortly after Sara’s death, McCloud said he got home shortly after Sara arrived from work. He was there to get more of his things, but they ended up talking about the relationship, police reports said. He was sitting in the living room and petting the dog, but told police he remembered nothing after that.

An autopsy determined that Sara Williams died as a result of strangulation and blunt force injuries to the head. Despite the presence of natural gas in the house, no carbon monoxide or methane were detected in her blood.

In the days after Sara’s death, after police executed several search warrants, it fell to the Williams family to clean the Phaeton Avenue home of Sara and McCloud’s belongings. Sara was buried in Yellow Creek Cemetery after a funeral service on Feb. 4, 2012.

“It was like a nightmare, what we went through,” Karen Williams said. “It’s amazing how one night of rage can change so many lives – and it has.”