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Triple-Murderer Eugene Blake Up for Parole Next Month

EUGENE BLAKE

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The family of Mark Withers — a Lansing native who at age 21 was murdered in cold blood in 1982 — are expressing disbelief at the fact that his murderer, Eugene Blake, is up for parole next month after spending only 12 years in an Ohio prison.

Blake, 77, was sentenced in 2010 to 20 years to life after pleading guilty to Withers’ murder. That case had remained unsolved for well over two decades until modern DNA technology helped lead to his conviction in what — at that time — had been a lingering cold case. When he was convicted in the Belmont County case, Blake was already behind bars for the brutal 1984 murder of a 13-year-old Wheeling girl.

He was also convicted of the 1967 murder of Donna Jean Ball in Wayne County, W.Va., and was sentenced in 1969 to life without mercy. However, then-W.Va. Gov. Arch Moore commuted Blake’s sentence from life without mercy to life with mercy because of good behavior, and he was paroled in 1979.

Despite the fact that his current sentence being served at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution for aggravated murder is a term of 20 years to life, Ohio sentencing law apparently contains a legal loophole which allows a defendant to serve only a portion of their sentence — even for the most heinous of crimes — if the court entry does not state “20 full years to life.”

Hence, Blake is expected to appear for his first hearing and case review before the Ohio Parole Board sometime in June, which could be as early as next week. His “expected release date/parole eligibility date,” according to the Ohio Department of Correction, is listed as Aug. 12 of this year.

“The fact that he is even being considered for parole is astonishing to me,” said Richard Withers, cousin of Mark Withers. “This guy does not need to be out on the streets. History has proven what he is capable of.”

Now a resident of Ravenswood, W.Va., Richard Withers is a native and longtime resident of the Ohio Valley. He said family members have actively been in contact with authorities in both Ohio and West Virginia since being informed of Blake’s upcoming parole hearing.

Richard Withers noted that he was with his cousin several hours before he was murdered, and the traumatic chapter in the local family’s lives is still distressing to look back on.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “It was devastating.”

Mark Withers was with a 17-year-old female companion on March 18, 1982 in Gould Park in Bridgeport when a man approached their vehicle, knocked on the window and demanded money. According to police reports, Withers rolled down the window and was shot to death.

The man then raped the female repeatedly before she was able to escape through the woods and seek help to call police. Officers were then able to find Withers’ body, and the female was taken to the hospital in Martins Ferry for treatment, where DNA samples were collected.

Nearly 26 years later, that evidence was resubmitted to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation’s lab and the DNA from the cold case was cross referenced with the forensic files on the national database. The DNA for the perpetrator in the Gould Park cold case “hit” on Blake, who at that time was incarcerated in West Virginia for the Oct. 17, 1984 rape and murder of 13-year-old Maryann Hope Helmbright of Wheeling, serving a sentence of 15 years to life.

“Blake is a monster,” said Belmont County Prosecutor Kevin Flanagan. “He is the epitome of evil. We really do not envision him getting out.”

Flanagan noted that the prosecutor’s office also questioned why Blake’s first parole hearing is scheduled to take place this year instead of in 2030 as expected by all parties close to the case. Flanagan was not working for the prosecutor’s office at the time of Blake’s conviction and sentencing in Belmont County back in 2010, when current Belmont County Northern Division Court Judge Chris Berhalter was prosecutor.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections explained the Ohio Law that makes convicted felons eligible for parole earlier than their stated sentences.

“Eugene Blake was admitted on April 1, 2010, serving a 20-life sentence for aggravated murder,” said JoEllen Smith, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. “His first statutory parole eligibility hearing is at 70% of the minimum sentence. Mr. Blake has 202 days of earned credit towards his first hearing date and 391 days of jail time credit. He will see the board in June, however, the date has not been finalized at this time.”

Smith said the Ohio Parole Board members are required to consider the factors outlined in the Ohio Administrative Code 5120:1-1-07 to determine if an offender is suitable for release.

The 70% rule was created as the result of House and Senate bills that address sentence reductions in Ohio and — depending on their sentencing date — would allow a defendant serving 20 years to life for a crime to become eligible for parole after just 14 years. However, with Blake’s earned credit and more than a year of jail time already served, his first parole hearing ends up landing this year — just 12 years into his sentence.

“Victim family members, prosecutors and judges are notified of the upcoming hearing in accordance with the Ohio Revised Code and are permitted and encouraged to give input to the board in writing or, for surviving family members a conference via virtual means with a parole board member,” Smith said. “The conference is scheduled through our Office of Victim Services.”

Flanagan said the Belmont County Prosecutor’s Office has been putting together its argument that will be submitted to the parole board urging officials to keep Blake behind bars.

“We’re providing as much information as we can get in there,” Flanagan said last week, noting that the Withers family is warranted in their frustration with Ohio law regarding this case and Blake’s eligibility for parole. “Still, I think his release is highly, highly unlikely.”

Richard Withers noted that the family has been informed by officials in the state of West Virginia that, in the event Blake would be paroled by Ohio authorities, there would be a detainer on him to serve out his sentence there in case he is released. However, at the time of Blake’s sentencing in Belmont County in 2010, his first parole hearing for the West Virginia case was scheduled to occur just one year later.

Family members fear that if Blake is bounced to West Virginia, he could be paroled from there in a matter of months.

“As long as he has a breath in his body, he’s a danger to society,” Richard Withers said, noting that the family is concerned that the parole board may consider Blake’s age as a factor in his potential release. “He doesn’t feel grief, but he is cunning, and he is very intelligent. He is probably smarter than anyone who is keeping him incarcerated or watching over him.

“I don’t think it matters what age a psychopathic murderer is. He enjoys killing people. No one would be surprised to hear that he killed again if he was released.”

According to Richard Withers, the family was assured by Belmont County authorities that Blake would never see the light of day again when he entered his plea and was sentenced in 2010. Under this belief, they agreed to support the plea and sentence at that time.

In the 1967 Ball murder case, Blake was convicted of stabbing the 18-year-old phone operator multiple times after he ran her car off of the road in a rural area of Wayne County, W.Va.

The 1984 rape and murder of 13-year-old Helmbright reportedly took place in Wheeling. Blake shot her in the head on Wheeling Island, then transported and dumped her body in a rural area outside of Morgantown.

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