Victim: Raymond Fife, 12
Age at time of murder: 17
Crime date: September 10, 1985
Crime location: Warren
Partner in crime: Danny Lee Hill, 18
Crimes: Kidnapping, rape, sexual torture, arson, and aggravated murder
Murder method: Beating, burning, and strangling
Sentence: Life in prison–would have been eligible for parole in 2049
Incarceration status: Deceased
Summary of the crime
In what sounds like the plot of a horror movie, Raymond, 12, was attacked as he rode his bike to a friend’s house before a Boy Scout meeting. The attackers, Danny Lee Hill, 18, and Timothy Combs, 17, proceeded to beat, rape, and sexually torture the boy. They also strangled him with his underwear, set him on fire, and left him for dead. Amazingly, young Raymond survived. He was found naked and barely alive by his father and brother-in-law. The boy died two days later in the hospital.
WARREN — Timothy Combs, a man serving multiple life sentences for his role in the 1985 murder of 12-year-old Raymond Fife, died while incarcerated, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Combs, 50, died Friday. He was serving his sentence at Grafton Correctional Institution in Lorain County, according to department records.
The department of rehabilitation and correction was not able to identify Combs’ cause of death Wednesday.
Combs was 17 when he and Danny Lee Hill, who was 18 at the time, stopped Fife on Sept. 10, 1985, in a wooded area near Palmyra Road SW, as the boy rode his bike to a Boy Scout meeting. Fife died two days later after he was beaten, sexually tortured, strangled with his underwear, set afire and left for dead. He was barely alive when he was found several hours later by his father and brother-in-law.
In a rare decision, the case was moved from Trumbull County to Portage County because of the outrage and wide media coverage surrounding the case, said Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins. Combs was convicted in 1987 of numerous charges, including aggravated arson, rape, kidnapping and aggravated murder.
Because he was a few months shy of his 18th birthday, Combs was not eligible for the death penalty, as Hill was. Hill’s sentence is in dispute and has not been carried out. Combs was sentenced to multiple, consecutive life sentences.
Miriam Fife, Raymond’s mother, became the first victims’ rights advocate for the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office after her son’s death. She retired in 2015, after 25 years. Her husband, Isaac Fife, was 89 when he died Sept. 11, 2006.
She said Combs’ death does not give her cause to rejoice.
“This is not something that I celebrate. I will be able to rest in peace that he will not be able to get out and do what was done to Raymond to anyone else,” Miriam Fife said.
The Portage County jury was quick to convict Combs, said W. Wyatt McKay, who, with Trumbull County Assistant Prosecutor Stanley Elkins, prosecuted Combs in Portage County Common Pleas Court. McKay is now a judge in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court.
“It took a month to try the case in Ravenna because of the change of venue. There were 100 exhibits, 22 verdict forms. It took most of the day after we argued the case to read the jury instructions, they were quite lengthy,” McKay said. “The jury went out at 4 p.m. and at 4:15 p.m. they rang the buzzer. They had a verdict in 15 minutes.”
McKay said he later spoke to the jury foreman. It took the jury five minutes to elect the foreman. And when the foreman said to the group, “If anyone thinks this S.O.B. is not guilty for any reason, speak,” and no one spoke, McKay said.
And when the foreman asked the other members of the jury the same question again, to be fair to the process, he waited a minute and offered to open the deliberations up for discussion, McKay said.
No one thought Combs was innocent. It took about five more minutes to sign the verdict forms, McKay said.
Hill’s case has been through multiple appeals and requests for new trials and now the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to hear the case at Ohio’s request.
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office took hold of the case at Watkins’ request following a ruling earlier this year by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that overturned Hill’s death sentence and ordered him to be resentenced.
A three-judge panel of the circuit court ruled in February state court judges and mental health experts who declared Hill is not intellectually disabled were wrong, and there is clear evidence he is mentally disabled.
An appeal for the full circuit court to reconsider the panel’s decision was rejected in April, though in 2002, the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office, after 15 days of trial, won a ruling rejecting the claim Hill was mentally disabled. In various tests conducted before and after Hill was convicted, his IQ has fluctuated below and above the determining threshold of 70, according to court records. He has been accused of trying to fool the test, but also has defended himself pro se, or without the help of an attorney.
The nation’s highest court has held weekly conferences on the case but has not decided whether to take it, according to court records.
“The victims’ family has waited a long time to see the law put into effect for Danny Lee Hill. Combs died in prison with a life sentence. They put themselves in prison. They received the sentences they received because of what they did,” Watkins said.
WARREN — The morning after Raymond Fife’s nearly lifeless body was found off of Palmyra Road SW in September 1985, investigators escorted a small group of journalists to the scene.
“You could just sense something horrific had happened there, behind the grocery store in the wooded area. It was just in the air,” said Mike Semple, Tribune Chronicle photographer.
As sickening details about the last hours of the 12-year-old Boy Scout’s life emerged, police officers and prosecutors built cases against 17-year-old Timothy Combs and 18-year-old Danny Lee Hill, and local journalists shared the information with the public.
Andy Gray, the Tribune Chronicle’s entertainment writer, was 23 and had just been assigned the court beat at the newspaper when Fife was murdered.
Burton Cole, the Tribune Chronicle’s features editor, was 26 and covering the court beat for the Record-Courier in Ravenna.
Semple, Gray and Cole each covered Combs’ case in Portage County Common Pleas Court, where the trial had been moved because of the media attention the Hill trial had garnered when it was heard in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court months before.
Both Combs and Hill were eventually convicted. Combs was sentenced to consecutive life sentences behind bars because he was three months shy of 18 when Fife was killed and not eligible for the death penalty.
But he died Nov. 9 at Select Specialty Hospital in Franklin County, even before the death sentence meted out to Hill could be carried out.
A cause of death for Combs is still pending, according to the Franklin County Department of Health.
“In some ways, there is an ironic, poetic justice to Combs dying before Hill,” Gray said. “I always felt like if it had just been Tim Combs in the woods that day, that what happened may have still happened. He seemed to be the main leader. A lot of people, though some may feel differently, think that Combs was the aggressor. Combs had a juvenile history of homosexual rape, and though Hill had a juvenile record for rape too, his crimes were man against woman.”
Gray had returned from vacation ready to start the court beat, and found the Fife case was his first assignment, after covering the cleanup in Lordstown and Newton Falls from the 1985 tornado. He made the 45-minute drive every day court was in session, and covered it before modern conveniences like a cell phone or computer.
It was the only trial Cole covered that brought him to tears, he said.
“I broke down. I don’t know if I cried that much since,” Cole said.
Cole said he has purposely forgotten many of the details brought out in the trial. Fife was beaten, sexually tortured, strangled with his underwear and set afire.
“I heard things and saw exhibits that I never want to hear or see again,” Cole said. “There were medical experts and investigators that had to detail what they saw, and how the injuries and wounds would have occurred — all of these gory, step-by-step, sickening details.
“We covered all murder trials gavel-to-gavel. Some of them were pretty bad, but nothing affected me like this. The other trials, I could kind of get lost in the games prosecutors and defense attorneys play, especially after covering multiple trials with the same attorneys. I could detach myself from some of the bad stuff I covered.
“This was just a whole different thing. I could not believe human beings would be capable of doing this type of stuff to each other.”
One thing that sticks in the photographer’s mind, besides the dark court room, which made taking photos difficult in the time before digital cameras were used in the newsroom, was angering Combs with his camera on the first day of the trial.
“I was taking his photo, and apparently I had irritated Combs because from across the room, he appeared to try to lunge over the banister at me. It was over before I knew it, the sheriff’s deputies were on either side of him and pulled him back. But I’ll never forget it,” said Semple, who was 30 at the time.
There was less tension for the Combs trial, not that the courtroom wasn’t crowded, after Hill’s conviction, Gray and Semple both said.
“It seemed like it was a foregone conclusion. It was a quick trial, over and done rather quickly. But still, 32 years later, it hasn’t ended, really. We are still talking about it,” Semple said.
Hill’s status on death row is in question after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals found he is mentally disabled, and therefore ineligible for the death sentence, though other judges have rejected claims Hill is disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court may intervene.
A panel of federal judges is deciding whether or not the death sentence should be thrown out for the man convicted of torturing, raping, and murdering a 12-year-old Warren Boy Scout.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Thursday heard Danny Lee Hill’s attorney argue that his client’s sentence should be vacated.
Hill was sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of Raymond Fife in a field in Warren. However, the sixth circuit court found earlier that Hill shows signs of being mentally deficient, including an IQ ranging from 48 to 71 and childlike, confused, and irrational behavior.
Because a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declared that executing people with intellectual disabilities is unconstitutional, the death penalty for Hill was taken off the table.
The Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office took the appellate court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case but found several “deficits” in the Sixth District Court of Appeals ruling and sent the case back to the appellate judges for reconsideration.
At the center of the debate is how the appeals court came to their decision. The Supreme Court argues that the Sixth District “relied repeatedly and extensively” on a capital murder case dealing with intellectually deficient individuals.
However, the Supreme Court justices ruled that that specific case Moore v. Texas wasn’t decided until well after Hill’s case.
Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins argues that all nine U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the Sixth District Court of Appeals “did not appropriately apply the law.”
The question now, according to Watkins, is whether the “correct law” would bring about the death penalty when applied to the Hill case.
Watkins says the state courts which ruled on the case under the current laws found that Danny Lee Hill should be executed for the crime.
Hill, who was 18 years old at the time of the crime, went to prison when he was 19 and is now 52 years old.
According to court records, on September 10, 1985, at approximately 5:15 p.m., Raymond Fife left home on his bicycle to visit a friend, Billy Simmons.
After learning that the 12-year-old had not arrived at his friend’s home by 5:50 pm, Fife’s family began searching for him.
Raymond Fife’s father found his son more than four hours later in a wooded field behind the Valu-King supermarket on Palmyra road.
The child was naked and appeared to have been severely beaten, and his face was burned. Raymond’s underwear was found tied around his neck and appeared to have been lit on fire.
Raymond Fife died in the hospital two days later.
The coroner, who ruled Raymond’s death a homicide, testified during the trial that the victim had been choked and had a hemorrhage in his brain. The coroner also said that Fife sustained several burns, damage to his rectal-bladder area, and bite marks on his penis.
Through testimony from three Warren Western Reserve High School Students, the jury learned that Danny Lee Hill and Timothy Combs were in the area of the Valu-King and the bike trails on the evening Raymond Fife was assaulted. One of the students had also seen Fife riding his bike in the store parking lot.
A student who said he saw Combs on the trail also said he heard a child’s scream. Another student says he saw Combs pulling up the zipper of his blue jeans.
Two days after Fife was found, Danny Lee Hill, who was 18-years-old at the time, went to the Warren Police Station to inquire about a $5,000 reward that was being offered for information concerning the murder.
According to Police Sergeant Thomas Stewart, Hill told him that he had just seen some he knew riding Fife’s bike. When Stewart asked Hill how he knew the bike belonged to Fife, Hill replied, “I know it is.”
Sergeant Stewart testified that during their conversation, it became apparent that Hill knew a lot about the bike and the underwear that was found around Fife’s neck.
On the following Monday, September 16, Hill went to the police station accompanied by his uncle, Warren Police Detective Morris Hill.
Police say after waiving his Miranda rights, Danny Lee Hill admitted on audio and videotape that he was present during the beating and sexual assault of Raymond Fife, but that Timothy Combs did everything to the victim.
Combs was eventually convicted of felonious sexual penetration, arson, rape, kidnapping, and aggravated murder.
Since Combs was 17-years-old at the time of the crime, he was not eligible for the death penalty and was serving a life sentence until his death in prison last year.
Hill was convicted on the same charges, but since he was 18-years-old at the time Fife was assaulted, he was sentenced to death.
It is not known when the court will render a decision on Hill’s appeal.
On September 10, 1985, at approximately 5:15 p.m., twelve-year-old Raymond Fife left home on his bicycle to visit a friend, Billy Simmons. According to Billy, Raymond would usually get to Billy’s residence by cutting through the wooded field with bicycle paths located behind the Valu-King store on Palmyra Road in Warren.
Matthew Hunter, a Warren Western Reserve High School student, testified that he went to the Valu-King on the date in question with his brother and sister shortly after 5:00 p.m. Upon reaching the front of the Valu-King, Hunter saw Tim Combs and defendant-appellant, Danny Lee Hill, walking in the parking lot towards the store. After purchasing some items in the Valu-King, Hunter observed defendant and Combs standing in front of a nearby laundromat. Combs greeted Hunter as he walked by. Hunter also saw Raymond Fife at that time riding his bike into the Valu-King parking lot.
Darren Ball, another student at the high school, testified that he and Troy Cree left football practice at approximately 5:15 p.m. on September 10, and walked down Willow Street to a trail in the field located behind the Valu-King. Ball testified that he and Cree saw Combs on the trial walking in the opposite direction from the Valu-King. Upon reaching the edge of the trail close to the Valu-King, Ball heard a child’s scream, “like somebody needed help or something.”
Yet another student from the high school, Donald E. Allgood, testified that he and a friend were walking in the vicinity of the wooded field behind the Valu-King between 5:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. on the date in question. Allgood noticed defendant, Combs and two other persons “walking out of the field coming from Valu-King,” and saw defendant throw a stick back into the woods. Allgood also observed Combs pull up the zipper of his blue jeans. Combs “put his head down” when he saw Allgood.
At approximately 5:50 p.m. on the date in question, Simmons called the Fife residence to find out where Raymond was. Simmons then rode his bicycle to the Fifes’ house around 6:10 p.m. When it was apparent that Raymond Fife’s whereabouts were unknown, Simmons continued on to a Boy Scouts meeting, while members of the Fife family began searching for Raymond.
At approximately 9:30 p.m., Mr. Fife found his son in the wooded field behind the Valu-King. Raymond was naked and appeared to have been severely beaten and burnt in the face. One of the medics on the scene testified that Raymond’s groin was swollen and bruised, and that it appeared that his rectum had been torn. Raymond’s underwear was found tied around his neck and appeared to have been lit on fire.
Raymond died in the hospital two days later. The coroner ruled Raymond’s death a homicide. The cause of death was found to be cardiorespiratory arrest secondary to asphyxiation, subdural hematoma and multiple trauma. The coroner testified that the victim had been choked and had a hemorrhage in his brain, which normally occurs after trauma or injury to the brain. The coroner also testified that the victim sustained multiple burns, damage to his rectal-bladder area and bite marks on his penis. The doctor who performed the autopsy testified that the victim sustained numerous external injuries and abrasions, and had a ligature mark around his neck. The doctor also noticed profuse bleeding from the victim’s rectal area, and testified that the victim had been impaled with an object that had been inserted through the anus, and penetrated through the rectum into the urinary bladder.
On September 12, 1985, defendant went downtown to the Warren Police Station to inquire about a $5,000 reward that was being offered for information concerning the murder of Raymond Fife. Defendant met with Sergeant Thomas W. Stewart of the Warren Police Department and told him that he had “just seen Reecie Lowery riding the boy’s bike who was beat up.” When Stewart asked defendant how he knew the bike he saw was the victim’s bike, defendant replied, “I know it is.” Defendant then told Stewart, “If you don’t go out and get the bike now, maybe [Lowery will] put it back in the field.” According to Stewart, the defendant then stated that he had seen Lowery and Andre McCain coming through the field at around 1:00 that morning. In the summary of his interview with defendant, Stewart noted that defendant “knew a lot about the bike and about the underwear around the [victim’s] neck.” Also, when Stewart asked defendant if he knew Tim Combs, defendant replied, “Yeah, I know Tim Combs. * * * I ain’t seen him since he’s been out of the joint. He like boys. He could have done it too.”
On September 13, 1985, the day after Stewart’s interview with defendant, Sergeant Dennis Steinbeck of the Warren Police Department read Stewart’s summary of the interview, and then went to defendant’s home and asked him to come to the police station to make a statement. Defendant voluntarily went to the police station with Steinbeck, whereupon defendant was advised of his Miranda rights and signed a waiver-of-rights form. Defendant made a statement that was transcribed by Steinbeck, but the sergeant forgot to have defendant sign the statement. Subsequently, Steinbeck discovered that some eyewitnesses had seen defendant at the Valu-King on the day of the murder.
On the following Monday, September 16, Steinbeck went to defendant’s house accompanied by defendant’s uncle, Detective Morris Hill of the Warren Police Department. Defendant again went voluntarily to the police station, as did his mother. Defendant was given his Miranda rights, which he waived at that time as well. After further questioning by Sergeants Stewart and Steinbeck and Detective Hill, defendant indicated that he wanted to be alone with his uncle, Detective Hill. Several minutes later, defendant stated to Hill that he was “in the field behind Valu-King when the young Fife boy got murdered.”
Defendant was given and waived his Miranda rights again, and then made two more voluntary statements, one on audiotape and the other on videotape. In both statements, defendant admitted that he was present during the beating and sexual assault of Raymond Fife, but that Combs did everything to the victim. Defendant stated that he saw Combs knock the victim off his bike, hold the victim in some sort of headlock, and throw him onto the bike several times. Defendant further stated that he saw Combs rape the victim anally and kick him in the head. Defendant stated that Combs pulled on the victim’s penis to the point where defendant assumed Combs had pulled it off. Defendant related that Combs then took something like a broken broomstick and jammed it into the victim’s rectum. Defendant also stated that Combs choked the victim and burnt him with lighter fluid. While defendant never admitted any direct involvement in the murder, he did admit that he stayed with the victim while Combs left the area of the attack to get the broomstick and the lighter fluid used to burn the victim.
Upon further investigation by authorities, defendant was indicted on counts of kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson, felonious sexual penetration, aggravated robbery and aggravated murder with specifications.
On December 16, 1985, a pretrial hearing was held on defendant’s motion to suppress statements made to police officers both orally and on tape. On January 17, 1986, the court of common pleas concluded as follows:
“It is the opinion of this Court that no Fourth Amendment violation was shown because [defendant] was at no time `seized’ by the police department, but rather came in either voluntarily, or as in the case of September 16th because of his mother’s demands.
“* * *
“Defendant’s Fifth Amendment Rights were clearly protected by the numerous Miranda Warnings and waivers. Though this Court believes that the defendant could not have effectively read the rights or waiver forms, the Court relies on the fact that at any time he was given a piece of paper to sign acknowledging receipt of the Miranda Warnings and waiving his rights, the paper was always read to him before he affixed any of his signatures.
“Though defendant is retarded, he is not so seriously impaired as to have been incapable of voluntarily and knowingly given the statements which the defendant now seeks to suppress. The Court reaches this conclusion after seeing and listening to the defendant at the Suppression Hearing and listening to and watching the tape recording and videotaped statements of the defendant. The Court concludes that the statements were made voluntarily, willingly, and knowingly.”
Meanwhile, on January 7, 1986, defendant appeared before the trial court and executed a waiver of his right to a jury trial.
On January 21, 1986, defendant’s trial began in front of a three-judge panel. Among the voluminous testimony from witnesses and the numerous exhibits, the following evidence was adduced:
Defendant’s brother, Raymond L. Vaughn, testified that he saw defendant wash his gray pants on the night of the murder as well as on the following two days. Vaughn identified the pants in court, and testified that it looked like defendant was washing out “something red. * * * It looked like blood to me * * *.”
Detective Sergeant William Carnahan of the Warren Police Department testified that on September 15, 1985 he went with eyewitness Donald Allgood to the place where Allgood stated he had seen defendant and Combs coming out of the wooded field, and where he had seen defendant toss “something” into the woods. Carnahan testified that he returned to the area with workers from the Warren Parks Department, and that he and Detective James Teeple found a stick about six feet from the path where Allgood saw defendant and Combs walking.
Dr. Curtis Mertz, a forensic odontologist, stated that: “It’s my professional opinion, with reasonable degree of medical certainty, that Hill’s teeth, as depicted by the models and the photographs that I had, made the bite on Fife’s penis.”
The defense called its own forensic odontologist, Dr. Lowell Levine, who stated that he could not conclude with a reasonable degree of certainty as to who made the bite marks on the victim’s penis. However, Levine concluded: “What I’m saying is either Hill or Combs, or both, could have left some of the marks but the one mark that’s consistent with the particular area most likely was left by Hill.”
Doctor Howard Adelman, the pathologist who performed the autopsy of the victim’s body, testified that the size and shape of the point of the stick found by Detective Carnahan was “very compatible” with the size and shape of the opening through the victim’s rectum. Adelman described the fit of the stick in the victim’s rectum as “very similar to a key in a lock.”
At the close of trial, the trial panel deliberated for five hours and unanimously found defendant guilty on all counts, except the aggravated robbery count and the specification of aggravated robbery to the aggravated murder count.
Pursuant to R.C. 2929.04(B), a mitigation hearing was held by the three-judge panel beginning on February 26, 1986. The panel received testimony, and thereafter weighed the aggravating circumstances against the mitigating factors. The panel then sentenced defendant to ten to twenty-five years’ imprisonment for both aggravated arson and kidnapping, life imprisonment for rape and felonious sexual penetration, and the death penalty for aggravated murder with specifications.
Timothy Combs was also charged and convicted as a principal offender in the murder of Raymond Fife. See State v. Combs (Dec. 2, 1988), Portage App. No. 1725, unreported, 1988 WL 129449.
Upon appeal, the court of appeals affirmed the panel’s judgment of conviction and sentence.