Shawn M. Grate was one of the quiet ones – a boy-next-door type in suburban Ohio who played softball and football in the backyard with the neighborhood kids. At least, that’s how Grate was according to his childhood friend, Julia Pennington-Smith. “He was one of my best friends growing up,” she told the local newspaper, the Marion Star.
But that didn’t last. Grate, 40, began amassing a pretty serious criminal record – including burglary in 1996 and abduction in 1999, when he held two women captive with a butcher knife while one was holding his infant child. Since 2007, he’s been convicted of identity theft, drug paraphernalia possession and misdemeanor domestic violence. Aside from his record, we know from reports that he was married to a woman named Amber Nicole Bowman from 2011 to 2012, and in 2013, Bowman filed an order of protection against him after repeated threats to her and her daughter. His former landlord, Jim Cristman, noted that despite offering Grate odd jobs to earn some cash, he “was always chasing women and had a young daughter, but wouldn’t get a job to pay his back child support.” Cristman eventually kicked Grate out of the apartment due to complaints of destruction of property, stealing, and months of unpaid rent. Shortly after the eviction, Cristman’s truck was lit on fire.
However, no petty criminal record could have predicted what Grate was really capable of. Around 7 a.m. on Tuesday, September 13th, an Ashland County, Ohio, 911 dispatcher received an urgent call from a barely audible woman who claimed to be kidnapped by Grate. During the 17-minute call, a woman (whose identity has not been disclosed) describes being held captive by Grate, who is asleep throughout the call. She says they’re in a vacant home across from a laundromat, though doesn’t know her exact location. The woman notes Grate has a taser and that she fears for her life should he hear her on the phone, or should the police break down the door of the home.
According to the Associated Press, Grate and the woman had known each other for about a month an a half before he abducted her to “engage in sexual activity.” It remains unclear how long the woman was held captive but, according to an AP interview with Bruce Wilkerson – pastor of Pump House Ministries, which owned the empty property – the homes were padlocked and checked weekly. And yet, even with weekly inspections, Grate seems to have made his way into the home with three different women – two of whom never left.
When authorities arrived on Tuesday morning, they woke Grate up and took him into custody. In their search of the property, police found the remains of two women, one of whom was Stacey Stanley, 43, who was reported missing by her son after stopping at an Ashland gas station with a flat tire on September 8th. Grate then led police to a nearby property where a house was destroyed by a fire in June. Forensics experts searched the debris and found remains of a woman, whom Grate later confessed to killing.
As the news of the 911 call and three uncovered victims surfaced, women who had run-ins with Grate near the laundromat shared eerily similar stories. He surveyed the neighborhood for women of varying ages, befriended them, and attempted to lure them into the vacant home where he was found on Tuesday.
According to the local Norwalk Reflector, two eerily similar stories of Grate’s stalking occurred just one week before he was found. Bailey Finley, 17, frequented the laundromat across from the Covert Court site of Grate’s abductions. She recalled a few times when she was there, either alone or with her 2-year-old son, and Grate would help carry her laundry home. His neighborly help evolved into an invitation to his “home” – the home where Stanley’s body was found – on Sunday evening. “One thing that I really thought was weird,” Finley said, “was that people have told me that both of those places were abandoned but he would always come through the side door [of the house] but everything was always so blocked off [in the front of the house.]”
The Reflector found that a mother-daughter pair found themselves in Grate’s sights in the days before his arrest, as well. Lisa Zehner, 45, and her daughter, Brittany Lutz, 20, were sitting on a bench last Friday when Grate approached. He appeared friendly, asking how they were before walking away. He returned after Zehner got up to use a restroom, leading the women to believe he was lurking from afar. Grates did away with the small talk and asked Lutz if she did drugs and if they could hang out, that he’d buy her beer. He gave her his telephone number, which she promptly deleted after he walked away.
The three women found themselves thinking “that could have been me” on Tuesday when the news broke with the story of Grate’s abductions. Before even seeing the photo, Finley heard the story and “figured it was him.” They’ve seen reports of rape and harassment in their county, but never abduction. Suspicions remain whether Grate’s victims stop at three or if more bodies will be uncovered. For now, he remains jailed on abduction charges.