John Lelless remembered as a gifted detective
STEUBENVILLE — It’s been more than 20 years since Rachel Muha’s phone rang and the voice on the other end of the call broke the news that her son was missing.
“He was very calm,” she recalls. “It had to be hard, saying that to a mother two-and-a-half hours away, but he had to do it.”
It was John Lelless, then a detective with the Steubenville Police Department, who had to tell Muha her 18-year-old son, Brian, and his roommate Aaron Land had disappeared from their off-campus apartment.
“I remember asking him questions. He had no answers,” she recalled. “At one point he said to me, ‘You have to have faith in me.’ I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know you and I’m supposed to have faith in you?’ But at the same time, I was thinking ‘he’s the only link between Brian and me now so I had to trust him.’ I was able to trust him, because he was honest with me, every step of the way. He knew what he should tell us and what he should not tell us until the time was right.”
Lelless had joined the department in May 1990 as a patrolman. Nine years later he was working in the detective division where he’d rapidly developed a reputation for his work ethic, his laser focus on details, his passion for understanding human nature and what made people do what they did.
“He was an amazing person. he cared about everything he did,” said John Stasiulewicz, who worked with him in the detective division back in the day. “He put his heart and soul into everything he did, every case. He could be vicious, he could be kind, he could be whatever he had to be to do the job. We all kind of made up names for him when he showed up on the scene … we’d call him ‘Quincy’ or ‘Ace,’ we had all kinds of different nicknames (for him).”
Lelless “loved the job, he put his heart and soul into every case,” said Stasiulewicz, who also retired from Steubenville Police Department. He’s now Cross Creek Township chief of police and JMHA head of security.
“I don’t think I ever saw an individual who loved his job that much,” he said. “It made it easy to work with him, people just really trusted him … criminals, victims … he was easy to talk to.”
And talking was something Lelless liked to do, particularly in interrogation.
“He’d sit in there and talk with people for hours,” Stasiulewicz said. “I’d have to go in and check on them, they’d look at me and say, ‘I can’t take it anymore.'”
Lelless had a habit of showing up at crime scenes at all hours and telling people what to do, Stasiulewicz said. “Back then, we didn’t use BCI, so you had to become good at what you do,” he said. “There were things I wouldn’t look for but he would tell me to look for them, so I’d put it in the back of my mind for the next crime scene. That’s one thing he taught me, that you need to be at the crime scene, go to the autopsy, so you know exactly what happened. He followed cases from beginning to end.”
Wintersville County Judge Michael Bednar had high praise for Lelless, who he got to know back in his days as police prosecutor.
“He was good, he was really, really good,” Bednar recalled. “He was very dedicated, very professional — perhaps the best detective I’ve ever been around.”
Like Stasiulewicz, he said Lelless was driven. “He just had to settle cases, he had to solve them,” he said.
“Besides being good in the field, he was a good interrogator, too. I remember we had a night of violence — a shooting, domestic violence, arson — and a lot of the defendants had the same last name. It was tough getting it all sorted out, there had to be five or six cases” but he did it, Bednar said. “During those years we had a lot of homicides, there was a lot of stress associated with putting the cases together and presenting them to the court. When he testified, I would tell the other young officers to go watch him — they could learn to testify by watching him. He knew what to say and what not to say.”
John Green was one of those young officers. Now a lawyer in Summit County, Green was a rookie patrolman in 1994 and Lelless his training officer.
“I was 23 years old and had no idea what I was doing, I was fresh out of the academy,” he said. “I learned a large part of what I know about police work from working with John.”
Lelless, he said, “worked hard, he was savvy, he took great pride in making a connection with the people he came into contact with under all circumstances, good, bad or indifferent. He could relate to just about anyone.”
Prosecutor Jane Hanlin said Lelless was always far more interested “in making sure the right person was held accountable than just attaining a conviction.”
“He was quite honestly the best detective I met in my life,” she said. “Nobody could outwork him; he’d investigate until he got to the bottom of a case.”
Solving cases is what drove him, she said. And even after he retired from the police force and went to work as an investigator for her office, “it wouldn’t matter how much later, if evidence came to light, he’d still want to go back and solve cases.”
Hanlin said Lelless was the “most thorough, competent investigator” she ever met.
“And on the personal side, I just adored him. He was quick witted … charming, just a legend in Steubenville. There’ll never be another like him. Hardnosed as he was as a detective and investigator, he was just as wonderful a husband and family man.”
Common Pleas Judge Michelle Miller said Lelless was “recognized as one of the best if not the best detectives we had in Jefferson County, and his service to the citizens of Jefferson County cannot be overstated. It truly is a loss for our community.”
Common Pleas Judge Joseph Bruzzese called him “a good guy and a great detective,” recalling Lellass’ efforts first to find Muha and Land, then to find their killers.
“He always did a good job, every case he was involved in,” he said.
Good as he was, Lelless “didn’t do it for pats on his back and accolades,” Capt. Ken Anderson said. “He did it because he loved his job. To him, helping victims and getting justice for them was more important. He was the voice of the victims. He wanted to get justice for them, answers for their families, closure. The only thing those people want is their child back and you can’t give them that back, but you can give them answers, some sense of justice, closure. John did that.”
Anderson said the cases that haunted Lelless were the ones he couldn’t solve, “because those people didn’t get answers, he couldn’t help those people.”
“I think that speaks to the kind of person he was, how hard he worked, the kind of pride he took in his job,” he said. “There weren’t that many that went unsolved, and it wasn’t because we didn’t work hard enough or you didn’t do everything you could. Sometimes there’s not enough evidence to make an arrest or get a conviction. It wasn’t for lack of trying on his part, that’s for sure. I just thought it was interesting a couple of cases that really stuck with him were couple of the cases that went unsolved.”
Lelless, 62, died Sept. 14 at his home. He is survived by his wife, Nancy; children Matthew (Michelle) Lelless of Wellsburg, Heather Lelless, Jami Anderson, and David (Enza) Anderson, all of Steubenville; and sisters Rhonda (Brad) Levenhagen of Minnesota, Bonnie Mullikin and Jennifer (Brian) Kaiser both of Wisconsin.
Muha said what sticks with her is how much Lelless loved Steubenville and how deeply he believed in the justice system.
“I can hear his voice telling me to trust him,” Muha said. “I will remember him as the person who did what we could not do. We could not arrest (anyone), we could not gather the evidence, he did everything we could not do. He was standing in the breach, covering for us, making sure not only were Brian and Aaron’s killers brought to justice, but also that the city of Steubenville was a little safer knowing that people who could do that were not walking the streets.”