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From Left Field

September 22, 2011

By BOB SHRALUKA
    Tom Coolman is resting a bit more comfortably these days. Maybe the now-deceased, longtime sheriff of Adams County wouldn't necessarily have been pleased that Dick Tope was dead, but he certainly would be feeling good that Tope would never be leaving prison ... ever.
    Before embarking on a long (16 years) career as sheriff and chief deputy (4 years) of this county, Coolman was chief investigator for the prosecutor's office in 1974.
    And in that role he was called to a lonely farm field in Adams County where a body had been found. The body was that of a young Van Wert, Ohio, woman, who had brutally stabbed nearly 100 times. In part through Coolman's work, Ernest Richard Tope of Decatur was convicted of being the one who murdered Cheryl Felger.
    The memory of that night never left Coolman and, years later, when Tope first came up for parole, Coolman attended the parole hearing to speak against the notion of freeing the man. When subsequent hearings were held, Tom either attended or wrote letters to the parole board to oppose a parole.
    He always said he would do everything in his power to see that Tope was never freed. On August 30, Tope died of lung cancer. He was still in prison.

Looking back
    It was on a Good Friday in April of 1974 when Cheryl Felger, a 19-year-old Van Wert resident, left home on a bicycle to go to a friend's home. Earlier, she had made dinner for her father, Junior Lee (George) Felger, and 17-year-old sister, Kim.
    Life had been made tougher for the Felgers four years earlier when their wife and mother was killed in a one-car accident on a snowy night. The girls had done well, though; Cheryl, among the top 10 students in her class of 270 seniors at Van Wert High, was now attending the nearby Wright St. U. branch at Celina.
    Around 8:30 or 9 that night, Cheryl left her friend to go home and change clothes. She never got there. Tope and Timothy Lee Heckert, two Decatur men who had been drinking in a Van Wert bar, forced the girl to stop and to get into their car.
    Driving around in Adams County, the two men took turns raping the girl. Later, Tope took out a hunting knife and killed her, leaving the body in a field off County Road 200 West in the Monroe area. She had been stabbed 90 to 95 times. Testimony from experts said she probably didn't die for over an hour, eventually bleeding to death.
    It wasn't long before authorities pieced together what happened and, within two or three days Tope went to the sheriff's office and confessed.
    Heckert testified against Tope at Tope's trial. Heckert was thus allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and received a sentence of 10-25 years. Paroled after serving 14 years, he landed back in jail at least once more time in the intervening years.
    Tope was convicted of first-degree murder on April 25, 1975, and sentenced to life imprisonment on July 14, 1975. Indiana had no death penalty at the time.
    Eventually, reportedly due to a change in Indiana law, Tope became eligible for parole. He came up for parole in 1995, 1996, 2001, and 2006, the parole being denied each time.
    He studied law in prison and eventually earned some sort of law degree. Then, in 2006, he gained national attention when he sued the Indiana Department of Corrections, seeking to revoke the ban on porn magazines while incarcerated.
    Last April 14, Tope had what would be his final parole hearing. Denied again.
    Tom Coolman couldn't attend, nor could the father of the victim. He died in 2009. Kim (Felger) Miller kept the fight going, however. She didn't attend the hearings, not wanting to be identified in the event Tope was ever paroled, but she organized petition drives that circulated in a wide area of Ohio plus the Decatur area.
    Now the long fight is at last over. Kim Miller and her family no longer have to be concerned. Tom Coolman and George Felger are resting a little more comfortably.

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