Cold case closed: Accused serial killer tied to 4 murders, 1 failed abduction

Quinlan Bentley
Cincinnati Enquirer
Cheryl Thompson was found dead in the Little Miami River on April 8, 1978.

The 44-year-old cold case of Cheryl Thompson, a University of Cincinnati student whose body was found along the bank of the Little Miami River, has been solved thanks to DNA testing, according to the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office.

Ralph Howell, of Roselawn, who died in an automobile crash in 1985, was posthumously indicted Thursday on charges of aggravated murder and rape.

Thompson went missing on March 24, 1978, after leaving her home on Wooster Pike, according to the Ohio attorney general's office. News reports at the time said she was supposed to meet her boyfriend at Gatsby’s disco, which was located at 3225 Madison Road in Oakley. She didn’t show up.

Two weeks later, an Ohio Department of Natural Resources employee found Thompson's body in Loveland, in a secluded area about 20 feet from the river, The Enquirer reported. The coroner ruled her death a homicide by means of strangulation and blunt force trauma. It was also determined that she had been raped, prosecutors said.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said a rape kit was collected from Thompson's body and stored at the Hamilton County Coroner's Office. He said the forensic limitations of the time prevented law enforcement from gathering any leads from that evidence.

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Prosecutors said the DNA sample taken from Thompson's body was sent this year to a third-party genealogy company, which narrowed the results down to a simple family tree.

Howell's cousin, brother and uncle agreed to undergo DNA testing, Deters said, adding all were excluded as suspects, though they related to investigators that Howell had died in the 1980s.

Cheryl Thompson’s body was found along the bank of the Little Miami River in 1978. Prosecutors charged a man in connection with her death on Thursday.

This past summer, investigators exhumed Howell's body, which was interred at Rest Haven Memorial Park in Evendale, to obtain DNA evidence, prosecutors said. His jaw bone was removed, and the DNA recovered from his corpse matched the DNA recovered from Thompson's body, Deters said.

The Loveland Police Department and Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation continued investigating Thompson's death decades after she was killed.

Renewed interest in Thompson's case lured investigators to a recently formed cold case unit through the BCI, Loveland Detective Steve Moster told The Enquirer in 2020.

Howell is suspected in at least three other killings

Prosecutors said Howell is thought to be involved in the deaths of three other women in Hamilton and Butler counties between 1976 and 1978, based on the similar circumstances surrounding those killings.

Those women are:

  • Charmaine Stolla, 17. She was last seen at 1208 Dewey Avenue in Cincinnati on Feb. 24, 1978. Her body was found on March 12, 1978, along Old Colerain Pike.
  • Nancy Ann Theobald, 18. She was last seen leaving her job at an Arby's restaurant in Clifton on Nov. 16, 1977. Her body was found on Dec. 26, 1977, on Becket Road in Butler County.
  • Victoria Hincher, 24. She was last seen leaving her home at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 20, 1976. Her body was found 11 days later on New London Road in Butler County.

Prosecutors say all three women were strangled and raped. Investigators do not have DNA from any of these killings, Deters said.

Anyone with information regarding Howell and the remaining unsolved killings should call 855-224-6446.

"There is no doubt in our mind that Ralph Howell was a serial killer," Deters said.

Howell arrested in '83 after failed abduction

Howell was arrested in 1983 on charges of abduction, the prosecutor's office said in a release.

In that incident, according to prosecutors, Howell stopped a woman on the side of the road in a truck containing newspapers and offered to drive her home. Howell was a delivery driver for The Enquirer at the time, Deters said.

According to court transcripts, the woman said she was stopped by Howell in Cincinnati's California neighborhood. He was driving a black and white camper truck. She said Howell asked her three times to get into the truck, adding that she refused twice but entered the truck the third time he asked.

The woman said Howell told her his name was Jim Miller.

"I'm not no animal, you know. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm going your way. I'll give you a ride," she recalled Howell telling her, according to the testimony.

Once the woman was inside his vehicle, Howell placed a rope around her neck and began to strangle her, the prosecutor's office said. He told the woman he wanted to have sex with her. She was able to fight him off and escape, prosecutors said.

She kicked the truck's door open and tried to jump out, but he caught her by the coat and blouse, the woman testified. He made the truck swerve in an attempt to make the door close again, she said.

"All I want to do is make love to you," the woman recalled Howell saying.

"You're going to have to kill me first," she replied. "You're not going to touch me."

She said Howell then apologized, saying he'd "never done this before."

The woman said she asked if Howell was married. "Yes," he answered, according to the testimony.

She asked if he would want someone to do the same thing to his wife, to which he answered "no," the woman testified.

According to the testimony, the woman said Howell then tried to lay his head down on her lap as she tried scooting out of the truck.

She said Howell then let her get out and pulled away.

Court records show Howell pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of unlawful restraint, a misdemeanor.