Four murders, two false confessions, one meddling cop. And some Shaker Heights kids in the middle of it all.
By James Renner
JAMES ARNOS WAS ONLY NINETEEN when he found his grandfather’s dead body. It was Sunday, May 19, 1985 and James’s mother, Joly, had become concerned that she had not heard from her mother in several days. So she sent her son, James, to check in. Her mother was Dorothy Porter, a renowned artist, who lived with her husband Philip Porter in a large house in Shaker Heights, on Lee Road near Shaker Boulevard. Philip was executive editor of the Plain Dealer in the 60s. The couple were practically Cleveland royalty.
When James arrived, the day’s paper — a Sunday Plain Dealer — was still sitting in the driveway — a bad omen to discover at the home of a career journalist. All the doors were locked but the lights were on inside. When he knocked, nobody came to the door. So James went home and told his mother. Then the two of them returned to the house and Joly used a spare key to open the kitchen door.
“Mother?” she called. But nobody answered. Joly could sense something was very wrong. She told James to go next door and get help. James returned quickly with the neighbor and the two of them went upstairs while Joly remained by the door. James found Philip in bed. He’d been stabbed twice in the back. His body lay face-down, dressed in pajamas, his fingers still grasping a pair of eyeglasses. A thermos of milk and a plate of crackers rested on the nightstand. They found Dorothy in the basement. She’d been stabbed, once, and strangled to death with the cord from her iron.
Peter Gray was chief of police in Shaker Heights back then. Chief Gray told the media that the Porters’ murders appeared to be a burglary gone wrong but they had no leads. Philip and Dorothy were last seen alive on May 17, a Friday night, when they’d hosted a cocktail party at their house. Their guests left around seven o’clock. It appeared the break-in had happened between 7 and 9 p.m., an odd time for such a brazen home invasion — it would have still been light outside. The point of entry was a kitchen window. Someone had cut through the screen and climbed inside.
“Nothing appeared to be disturbed,” Chief Gray told the Plain Dealer. “It doesn’t appear to be a regular burglary, with things shuffled around. There was none of that. There wasn’t even a real sign of a struggle. If it weren’t for the two dead bodies, you wouldn’t know something had happened.”
Dorothy’s purse and wallet were out in the open when police arrived. The working theory was that the burglar had come in as the Porters were preparing for bed and Dorothy had come down and interrupted the crime.
This was in the days before police really used DNA. Long before the magic of genetic genealogy. Their only suspect was an unidentifiable black man that a fifteen-year-old neighborhood kid named David Branagan had seen running away from the house that night. The case went cold for several years.
Then, in 1990, Shaker Heights detectives caught a break. A young con named Donny Soke (pronounced Soh-key), confessed to the crime. He said he and his father broke into the house that night, looking to rob the Porters. But then things got out of hand and his old man had to kill them. Donny was convicted and remains in prison to this day. His father, Ted, died in prison in 2008.
So what’s the mystery? It’s a closed case. Off the books. The murderer is dead, his accomplice is in prison. Justice was done.
Except, Donny Soke recanted his confession during his trial and again this year. He says a rogue Eastlake cop helped him invent the story with the promise of favors in prison. All we know for sure is that there is no physical evidence linking Donny or his father to the scene of the crime. And a new review of the murders suggests a much better suspect — the teen who claimed to see a black man running from the Porters’ house that night — David Branagan, who would later become a suspect in that other Shaker Heights tragedy — the unsolved murder of Lisa Pruett.
And if Soke is telling the truth, the Shaker Heights police may have let a killer slip through their fingers twice.
WHAT WOULD CAUSE DONNY SOKE to confess to murders he never committed? To understand how that happened, it’s important to first understand where Donny Soke came from.
Debbie Holley is Donny’s older sister. Today, she works as a hairstylist and is a single mother to three grown children on the west side. Fifty years ago, she was Donny’s protector, holding his hand on the long walks to school in the country. Their father, Ted, was in prison for burglary and she and Donny and their younger brother, Dean, were living with their grandparents. Their mother had abandoned them.
It was better for her and Donny when their father was in prison. Ted ran with the Hells Angels and had a violent temper. “I remember Ted beating Donny as a kid,” says Holley. “I remember hearing Donny scream bloody murder one day and I ran outside to see my dad had pushed Donny’s face into the gravel driveway and was pounding on him. I told him, ‘Stop, you’re going to kill him!’”
Violence in the Soke family had been passed down like a bad gene. When her father was a child, says Holley, her grandparents would tie him up in the basement and make him lean his knees into corn kernels until he behaved.
When she turned thirteen, Holley was invited back to live with their mother and her brothers ended up as wards of the state. That’s when Donny, who she remembers as a sweet boy, started getting into serious trouble.
“Looking back, I think Donny had undiagnosed ADD,” says Holley. “I think he was just a kid who couldn’t settle his mind and his environment was chaos. How are you supposed to act when your parents give you up? He went into a boy’s home and found more abuse there.”
Then, their mother got cancer. Donny was eighteen and serving a three-to-fifteen stretch at Pickaway on a burglary charge. Even though his mother had abandoned him, Donny desperately wanted to see her before she died. And that’s when he came up with a really stupid plan — to make up information about a crime to exchange for early release.
IT TAKES ABOUT AN HOUR to gain entry into the visitor’s room at the Toledo Correctional Institution, today. It’s a maximum-security prison operating during a pandemic and security is paramount. Visitation only occurs on certain days and a visitor must schedule in advance. Once there, you must submit to a rapid COVID test and then return to your car for twenty minutes until someone calls with the results. If it comes back negative, you can then proceed to check-in. There’s paperwork to fill out and you’re given a visitor’s badge which you then must carry to the next building, where they scan your drivers’ license. After that, you are let through a man trap and a set of double-doors and into the prison, itself. You’re taken to Visitation, then, a room the size of an elementary school gym, where you take a seat at a long table with a plexiglass partition that keeps any germs to one side. Then the prisoner is paged and led from their cell to the room. As a prize for making it all this way, chips and water are provided.
I chose Doritos when I met with Donny Soke. The first thing I noticed, other than the spiderweb tattoo that covers his entire face, was that Soke was missing a finger. A pinky. “I’m in Toledo for my protection,” he explains. “The Aryan brotherhood nearly killed me. Took my finger. So they brought me here.”
This was the first time I’d met Donny Soke in person but we had spoken on the phone at least once a week for six months. I knew his story, already, but we went over it all again.
The first link in the chain of terrible circumstances that leads to Donny being in Toledo Correctional, minus a finger, is a deep-for-trouble man named Daniel Ott. Ask any law enforcement official who’s served in Cleveland in the last fifty years and they’re likely to have a story or two about Dan Ott. His rap sheet goes back to 1960 and includes at least fourteen counts of auto theft. He was just sent back to prison in 2019, at the age of seventy-eight, for stealing a trailer owned by a drug task force. In 2006, an unfortunate man who shared his name was murdered by hitmen who were too stupid to verify their target. In 1989, Ott was a police informant, feeding detectives information he picked up from the rumor mill in prison, rolling on badder guys to reduce his own sentence.
Ott told police that he knew of a guy in prison named Soke who had something to do with the murder of a schoolteacher’s wife. An Eastlake detective named Tom Doyle heard about this and figured he meant Karen LaSpina, the wife a popular high school teacher out that way.
Karen LaSpina’s bloodied body had been found inside her Eastlake home, on October 10 1985, just five months after the Porters murders. She’d been stabbed fifty-five times and bled out on her kitchen floor.
Soon, Doyle was visiting Donny in prison. At first, Donny told him that he and his buddy “Kirby” had gone out drinking and to hustle pool the day of the murder. But they weren’t as good at pool as they thought and they decided it would be easier to just rob someone. They drove around, looking for empty houses to ransack, and ended up at the LaSpina home. Soke and his cohort broke in, thinking the place was empty, and Karen surprised him, so Kirby killed her. That was his initial story.
But police were able to confirm that Kirby was elsewhere at the time of the murder. Detective Doyle had a hunch that the murder had actually been committed by Soke’s father, Ted, who had a history of violent behavior. He thought it likely that Donny was trying to cover for his old man by implicating someone else. Eventually, Donny gave him the story he was looking for. Yes, he said, it was his father who’d really done the killing.
Donny, then just twenty-years-old, told Doyle that he would testify against his father on two conditions: one, that he’d get a reduced prison sentence for the burglary; and two, that Doyle would take him to see his mother, who was dying of cancer and was not expected to live long enough to see his release.
So for weeks, Doyle would pick Soke up from prison, take him to see his mom, maybe get him a pizza or a burger, and then drive him back. Each time, Soke divulged a little more information about his father’s role in the LaSpina homicide, like some hillbilly Scheherazade. There is no honor among thieves, even in the best of circumstances, and Donny’s father was a violent prick. Why not give the Ted some of that trouble? Looking back on it, Doyle’s sister believes he did it simply to get attention from their father.
After Donny agreed to testify. Ted was indicted on the LaSpina murder. But charges were dropped after Donny had a change of heart and admitted he’d made the whole thing up. None of it was true. But it was too late to unring the bell. Because of his confession, Donny was convicted of the LaSpina murder. And now he was in the slammer for life.
What did Donny do, then? Like any gambling addict, he went double-or-nothing on another deal. He told Doyle that he had information on a murder involving a newspaperman. Doyle figured that Donny meant Philip Porter and his wife, Dorothy, who were murdered a day before Donny’s eighteenth birthday. Donny said that he, his father, and another man named Danny Crawford, broke into the Porter house and killed them.
According to later statements by an appeals panel, Detective Doyle gave Donny confidential police reports from the Porter homicides with all the information he needed to concoct his new story.
“The fact that Donald Soke had in his possession an initial crime scene investigation is nothing short of astounding,” the judges wrote in their decision. “Not one member of this distinguished panel can ever recall a report of this nature being produced at trial, let alone given into the possession of a witness. The reason is obvious, and it is to prevent a situation just as the one we have here now. One of the few credible things about the testimony of Donald Soke was his knowledge of information that, quote, only the murderer could know. And that is now given a new dimension.”
Donny and Crawford were given special deals to roll on Ted Soke — Crawford would only be charged with burglary, out in a couple months. Donny was given a promise that if he testified against his father, the prosecutor would not seek the death penalty. Now, Donny hated his father and wanted him in prison, but he also didn’t want to send his father to the chair. Donny took the deal and Ted was convicted by a panel of three judges. But the prosecutor reneged on his promise to Donny and Ted was sentenced to death. So, again, Donny recanted his testimony, admitting he’d made it all up. And Ted had to be retried. A jury found Ted guilty in that trial, too, and he was re-sentenced to seven-to-life.
There is not a single piece of physical evidence that links any of these men to the homicides of Karen LaSpina or Philip and Dorothy Porter. And the testimony of the getaway driver, Danny Crawford, does not hold salt if you’ve ever been to Shaker.
“We drove around a few neighborhoods,” Crawford said in his official statement to police. “And came across a couple houses that looked like they might be good prospects but we decided on the Porter house. We parked right next door to the house out in the street.”
The Porters lived on Lee Road. There is no parking on Lee Road to this day. A shifty-eyed guy sitting in a ragged car in front of a mansion at 8 p.m. on Lee Road in May is likely to be spotted by neighbors or police within minutes. But Crawford said he sat there for nearly a half hour, unseen.
The only thing that convicted the Sokes was Donny’s testimony and testimony from other jailhouse snitches, who cut their own deals with police. And each of them dealt with one officer, in particular — Detective Tom Doyle.
TOM DOYLE WAS THE SPOKESMAN for the Eastlake police for a number of years and cultivated close relationships with journalists in Cleveland. He still plays poker with some of them to this day. He has a gregarious nature and can tell one hell of story — whether it’s about going to war with the Hells Angels or how he was on the force when Eastlake formed their first detective bureau after a body washed up on the beach one day. Soon enough, he was investigating other high crimes. Doyle discovered early on that he was skilled at turning cons into confidential informants. And his informants helped solve his cases. And that was how a good detective proved his worth.
“When you’re a detective, you get holidays, weekends, nights because you’re good at solving cases,” he explained. “You start not solving cases, you’ll be back to dog complaints and druggies puking on you.”
The night of the Karen LaSpina’s murder, Doyle was attending another cop’s retirement party. Almost everyone in the department was there. The beer and booze were flowing and in the midst of their celebration, everyone’s pagers went off at once. That’s how they learned about the homicide. Just about everyone there knew Karen’s husband, Tony. Tony was a popular math teacher at Eastlake North. According to Doyle, Tony was also the guy who picked up their sports betting slips and drove them out to Dino’s bar, where some other guy took them to the Italians in Collinwood and brought back their winnings. Tony had just gone into business with an Eastlake cop, Leon Hodkey, buying up houses to remodel and flip. Tony was also a part-time dispatcher for the department.
Earlier that day, Tony had called Hodkey and asked him to come look at a new house. The cop came over and then Tony, Karen, and their three kids drove around with him for a bit. But they couldn’t find the house, so they returned home. “When they get home, Tony says to Karen, ‘I’m going to the store to pick up a Sweetest Day present. You go on inside and I’ll take the kids and we’ll be right back.”
Tony said that he found Karen’s body on the floor, inside, when they returned.
“By Monday, we knew that Tony had a girlfriend,” said Doyle. “Tony gets an attorney, refuses a polygraph.” Tony married his girlfriend six months later.
The detectives took carpet samples from the scene. They found blood that didn’t come from Karen. The lab told them that the blood contained “esterase D type 2,” a rare gene that only one in a hundred people have. So Doyle and the other detectives put together “vampire kits,” little packets that included a note card, a lancet, a piece of gauze, and a band-aid. Whenever they arrested someone for a violent crime they asked them nicely for a blood sample to see if they had esterase D type 2.
“August 15, 1989, I get a call,” said Doyle. “It’s Buddy Kovacic, the nephew of the police chief in Cleveland. He says, I got this informant.” That was Dan Ott, who suggested that Donny Soke might have something to do with the crime.
Doyle sent an officer down to collect a blood sample from Donny Soke. “When the officer asked for the blood, Soke said, ‘This is about the schoolteacher’s wife.’ Later, when I talked to him, I told him you should never play hearts, Donny. So he told us what happened. Funny thing is, he didn’t even have ESD-2 in his blood. But his father did.”
It was around this time that Doyle learned about Danny Crawford, Soke’s friend and sometime partner in crime. Doyle had a hunch that Crawford knew something about it all. So Doyle picked Crawford up from jail on a warrant to convey him to Lake County jail. “I put him in the back and I say, ‘My warrant says I’m to take you to Lake County, but it doesn’t say how. You can relax, you can smoke, you can drink coffee. But you cause any problems, I’ll put you in the trunk.’”
For a while all Crawford did was look out at the world through the back window. Eventually Doyle asked him what the fuck he was looking at. “I haven’t seen a tree in nine months,” Crawford said.
During their ride, Crawford told Doyle that, sure, Ted and Donny did the LaSpina murder. He agreed to testify against them.
Meanwhile, other jailhouse snitches were suggesting that Donny Soke and Danny Crawford were involved in even more crimes. Everyone wanted a deal from Doyle. One inmate said that when he shared a cell with Crawford, Crawford got drunk and said, “They didn’t have to kill the old man. He couldn’t even get out of bed. But they killed him and then drank his milk and ate his cookies.”
‘“Now, I hear this,” said Doyle, “and I’m thinking this inbred fucking hillbilly shit doesn’t read the paper. So how would he know about the milk and cookies [at the Porters]? He couldn’t.”
Doyle presented the information to detectives in Shaker Heights. At first they gave him the cold shoulder. And Doyle took it personally. He believed that the police in Shaker Heights looked at Eastlake as a “hick department.” It wasn’t a particularly good time for Doyle. At home, his marriage was falling apart. She wanted a divorce. And she wanted him to stop chasing the Porter case. But he couldn’t leave it alone.
Finally, two Shaker Heights detectives met with Doyle to hear him out. They came to Eastlake and Doyle introduced them to Crawford’s girlfriend. That’s when the girlfriend told them about how she’d sent newspaper clippings to Danny Crawford when he was in prison. Crawford really was a hick who read the news and he’d had all the details he needed to fabricate his story.
The detectives were furious. One thought Doyle was wasting their time. “He called me an asshole and then he left,” said Doyle.
When Doyle returned home that night, he found a half-eaten pizza in a box for supper. On the box was a note from his wife — she’d left and taken the kids.
The detective sat and ate the pizza and mused on his life. “What is wrong with you, Tom?” he wondered. “How can I see something nobody else sees?”
At 9 a.m. the following morning, Shaker Heights Detective Gerald Jankowski called. He thought there might be something to Doyle’s theory after all. So Jankowski and Doyle hit the prisons again, fishing for informants that could link the Sokes to Philip and Dorothy Porter.
Eventually, Doyle was able to get Donny to testify against his father to close the Porters homicides.
Doyle visited Donny shortly after the verdict. “Donny was exuberant,” Doyle recalls. “He thinks he’s getting out of prison because he made a deal to testify. But he pleaded guilty to a first-degree felony in the process. I tell him, ‘I don’t know why God takes angels and makes them babies and gives them to people like Ted Soke, but He did. And that man ruined your life. You’re fucked. You’re never getting out.’”
Donny started to cry. “But I felt good,” said Doyle. “I felt unburdened.’
The next day, Doyle accepted an award for being the top investigator in the entire state of Ohio. This moment was clearly the height of Doyle’s career.
On the way back to his empty house after accepting the award, the big, clunky car phone in Doyle’s vehicle rang. It was not good news. A judge had just vacated Ted’s conviction in the Porters case. Donny had contacted the court and said he’d lied on the stand because the police had offered him deals. Donny claimed that every word he’d said on the stand was untrue. Now, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor wanted Doyle’s head.
To this day, Doyle believes the Sokes killed Philip and Dorothy Porter. And it wasn’t a simple interrupted burglary, he says, but a targeted assassination — his working theory now is that Ted was a member of the Hells Angels and Philip had written some unsavory things about the motorcycle gang as a journalist two decades before and so he had to be gotten rid of.
Doyle is retired now but his last years on the force were fraught with controversy. On March 9, 2006, Doyle and another police officer were driving down U.S. 6, after having a few drinks. Doyle stopped the car in the middle of the westbound lane and got out to take a piss. A twenty-one-year-old in a Nissan came up behind him, swerved to avoid the car, and hit Doyle instead, sending the policeman flying. Doyle broke his shoulder and leg in the accident. The young man who hit him was actually cited for failure to control. After a twelve-week investigation, Doyle was charged with driving under the influence and improper parking.
Danny Crawford has kept close with Doyle over the years. Some time ago, according to Doyle, Crawford called him to ask for a ride back to town from prison. Since then, Doyle has spent around a thousand dollars of his own money to help Crawford acclimate to life outside. “Not because I feel guilty by any means,” Doyle wanted me to know. “The system fucked him.”
Doyle believes he always did what he had to do. And even if Doyle is retired, he’s still a cop at heart — he’s put two of his own sons in jail for heroin possession. “I’m a firm believer in doing the right thing,” he said.
According to Doyle, Donny is a serial killer and guilty of to two additional homicides. One of them, he says, is the murder of Nadine Madger of Willoughby, who was killed in 1980. Donny would have been thirteen at the time. For his part, Donny says he keeps admitting to crimes because Doyle keeps putting money on his commissary account. Prison is hell but some money for snacks and coffee makes it just a little more comfortable.
If Donny made it all up, then who killed Philip and Dorothy Porter? There were other suspects for a time. Before Donny confessed, the only leads the police had came from three neighborhood kids, David Branagan and his two friends. Let’s call them John and Bill. Bill was thirteen, John was fourteen, and David was fifteen at the time of the murders.
The boys told an intriguing story — on the night of the murders, Bill’s parents were hosting a preview party for an upcoming auction (they were moving out of town, soon, and selling some things before they left). When the adults weren’t looking, the boys stole some beers and snuck through Branagan’s backyard to the abandoned house beside the Porters’ residence, where they broke into a garage and let off some fireworks. They told detectives that as they were leaving they saw a black man in the Porters’ back yard.
“The boys observed the suspect looking through the rear windows,” the report reads. “The suspect apparently did not see the boys at first, as he was slightly crouched down, walking slowly by the rear windows and still looking inside.”
The boys didn’t tell their parents about any of this until the police came knocking at their door while canvassing the area. Bill and John sat with sketch artists who came up with two different drawings of a generic black man.
Five years after the Porters were murdered, Branagan inserted himself into another homicide investigation — the murder of Lisa Pruett. Branagan went to the police station the day after Lisa’s murder to tell them a familiar story — he’d run into a black man at a bus stop and he believed the man was responsible for Lisa’s murder as well as the murder of the Porters.
Branagan was twenty years old when Lisa was murdered, and was still living in his uncle’s house on Sedgewick Road, which runs parallel to Lee Road. Branagan’s home was just behind the Porters’ house, diagonally to the south, separated by some trees and bushes.
When Branagan spoke to police the day after Lisa’s murder, he told them he’d walked by the scene of Lisa’s murder that night, returning home from dropping off his girlfriend, Holly Robinson. He accurately described the police and the canine unit that had searched the corner of Lee and South Woodland. He said he’d been stopped by a detective but let go and that his aunt was awake when he got home. He said he spoke to her and then took a shower.
But when detectives brought Branagan in for a second interview, he admitted that he’d lied to them. He’d never spoken to police that night. He had quietly observed them without being seen. When the detective asked why he’d lied, Branagan said, “To build drama. And to pique people’s interest in me.” He also admitted that his aunt was asleep when he returned home. No one had seen him before he showered and went to bed.
Holly Anderson claims Branagan told her that he was breaking into homes the night of Lisa’s murder — several of Branagan’s former friends and ex-girlfriends also say he admitted to breaking into homes on Lee and Sedgewick for years. Branagan would use a knife to cut into screens and open windows and doors. A week prior to Lisa’s murder, someone cut into the screen on Joel Rathbone’s house, which was just behind the backyard where the girl’s body was found. The same person apparently tried to break into the house across the street from Rathbone’s too. And the night of the murder, Mrs. Bush, the owner of the property where Lisa was murdered, reported that she heard what sounded like someone breaking into a rental car in her driveway about twenty minutes before she heard the girl’s scream.
During the course of their investigation into Lisa’s murder, Shaker Heights police came to believe that whoever killed her had learned that she was sneaking out of her house to meet up with her boyfriend, Dan Dreifort that night. They knew that Kevin Young (who would later be tried and acquitted of the crime) had learned of Lisa’s plans from a friend of Dan’s named Tex Workman, while talking at Arabica on Shaker Square. The only other customers at the time when Tex and Kevin were talking about Lisa were David Branagan and Holly Robinson.
Just before Kevin’s very public trial, Holly Robinson met with Cuyahoga County prosecutors and told them that she believed Branagan could have murdered Lisa Pruett. He’d left her house with plenty of time to intersect Lisa on her way to her boyfriend’s. And Branagan, she knew, had a collection of skinning knives and he always kept one on him for protection. She says prosecutors were not interested in hearing her out.
“They said Branagan had an alibi,” says Robinson. “But I was his alibi. And so I didn’t think that was true.”
David Branagan died in 2017. Cause of death was “hypertensive arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease” and “cirrhosis of the liver.” Before he died, he fathered a child with a woman named Tracy Warner. Shortly before his death, Branagan began stockpiling weapons in their Twinsburg apartment, she says. When I asked Tracy whether she thought Branagan could be involved in Lisa’s murder she said, “Let me tell you a story he shared with me. When he was in preschool, a boy picked on him. He waited until lunchtime and then he put Comet cleaner in the boy’s sandwich. Do I think he did it? Sure. I wouldn’t be surprised.”
The stories about Branagan’s dark predilections continue to come in as news travels the grapevine of Shaker Heights. Just last month, this reporter was contacted by a former girlfriend of his from high school, a woman named Kim Forward. She started dating Branagan when she was just a freshman and he was a junior. She wasn’t allowed to be at his house if his adoptive parents weren’t home but he’d sneak her over, anyway, using a footpath only neighborhood kids knew about, a thin path that winds through backyards between Lee and Sedgewich from South Woodland all the way to where the Porters once lived. There was a spare bedroom over Branagan’s garage and he would take her there for sex. Sometimes he would bring out the knives he collected and use them during foreplay.
Kim knows firsthand how skilled Branagan was at breaking into homes. He would sneak into her house at night, quietly enough that her father, who was a Vietnam vet, didn’t hear him. Once inside, he would coerce her into doing things she didn’t want to do. “If you don’t, I’ll make a lot of noise and wake up your dad,” he’d tell her.
“Looking back, he had episodes of darkness,” she says, today. “Depressive episodes. Do I think he’s capable of having killed Lisa? Yes, I do. But we had it in our minds back then that it was Kevin Young.”
Branagan’s friend, John, lives in Florida these days. He still remembers the night the Porters died in great detail — how they broke into the property beside the Porters that night and saw an unidentified Black man in the back yard. “I watched this guy going around the house, trying to get in,” he says. “We bolted. Hopped the fence behind us and ran back to Sedgewick. Dave said the guy chased us but I didn’t see that.”
John says that Branagan grew more reckless as he got older. He stole wine from John’s parents and broke into the Millers’ house down the street and stole a shotgun. “When people mention David Branagan, I get nervous,” he said. “He always wanted to be bigger and better than you. He wanted the limelight.”
Bill’s story is a little different, today. He says he saw the black man come out of the back door of the Porters’ house. “I heard the screen door slam shut,” he says. “Then I bee-lined straight to the fence.” The detail about the door is odd, given that the house was locked from the inside when James Arnos arrived two days later.
After running home, Bill realized he’d his jacket behind. It had his name in it, he says, and he was afraid the police might find it. So he and Branagan went back and discovered it stuck in the fence.
Bill said that a couple detectives stopped by his house after Philip and Dorothy Porter’s bodies were discovered that Sunday. They took the boys’ statements. Later, one of the detectives came back to speak with Bill’s mother. He told her he thought her son was lying.
Not too long after that, Soke confessed to the murders and he never saw the detective again.
“I’m sure it was Danny Crawford I saw coming out of that house that night,” he says.
I had to point out to him that Danny Crawford is white.
THERE IS ONE WAY to know for sure who killed Philip and Dorothy Porter. The evidence could be tested. Somewhere in storage is that iron that was used to strangle Dorothy. The killer would have needed a firm grip on the cord.
James Arnos thinks it’s time for a definitive answer. “My family would like the evidence in the case to be tested for DNA so that we may know for sure and in the hope that it will bring some final clarity to this horrific event,” he says.
But for the moment, Shaker Heights police consider the Porters murders solved and the Lisa Pruett case has been deemed “inactive.”
Civil right attorney, Terry Gilbert, is currently reviewing Soke’s case “The misconduct of Detective Doyle is breathtaking,” he says,“a text book primer on how to corrupt the criminal justice system, by manipulating snitches and engineering false confessions to create the illusion of solving crimes. After 30 years of forensic DNA progress, we now know how these nefarious tactics are a leading cause of wrongful convictions, where vulnerable victims like Donny Soke languish in prison while Doyle walks away with bragging rights and no accountability.”
Final note: During the reporting of this story, Donny Soke changed his story once again. He now maintains he was involved in all of these murders. His letter was notarized and came, not from the prison where all his other letters went sent from, but from the home of retired detective Tom Doyle.
James Renner is a former Scene staff writer and founder of the nonprofit The Porchlight Project, which raises funding for new DNA testing for Ohio cold cases. porchlightonline.org. His next book, about the unsolved murder of Lisa Pruett, is set to be published next year.