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Katrina Marie CULBERSON






A.K.A.: "KC"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Kidnapping - Arson
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: August 26, 2012
Date of arrest: 4 days after
Date of birth: 1992
Victim profile: Celeste Fronsman, 29
Method of murder: The victim was beaten, choked and set on fire
Location: Muskingum County, Ohio, USA
Status: Pleaded guilty. Sentenced to life in prison without parole on November 6, 2013
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Fronsman investigation unique for Muskingum

The Celeste Fronsman murder was the highest profile case in Muskingum County in more than 15 years. Last week, the investigation culminated with the sentencing of the three Canton residents convicted of murdering the 29-year-old woman.

By Ed Balint -

November 9, 2013

Hours after a Canton woman was found beaten and burned in rural Muskingum County, investigators were in Stark County looking for those responsible.

Celeste Fronsman, 29, was found Aug. 26, 2012, on a remote road before rising from the pavement and crying out for help from a passing motorist.

Fronsman provided critical evidence with her will to live, said Brady Hittle, a detective with the Muskingum County Sheriff's Department.

She had walked or crawled — maybe both — 1,487 feet out of brush and weeds to state Route 208. Despite burns on 70 percent of her body, she found enough strength to utter the names of those who left her there before she died two days later. A man who helped her scribbled down one of the names for law enforcement.

"If Celeste had not made her way to the roadway ... there's a chance she wouldn't have been found unless a hunter came by that remote of an area," Hittle said. "They would have found bones."

Last week, the criminal case culminated with three Canton residents — LaFonse Dixon Jr., 34, Katrina Culberson, 22, and Monica Washington, 25 — being sentenced to life in prison on charges of aggravated murder, aggravated arson and kidnapping. Only Washington has a chance for parole after she serves at least 25 years.

Washington and Culberson had reached plea deals, testifying against Dixon at his trial late last month. A jury spared him the death penalty. Dixon's attorney said he plans to appeal.

With three convictions and the case now closed, Muskingum County investigators shed light on how they traced the mystery back to Canton and solved the crime.

The road to Canton

The Fronsman case connected inner-city Canton to the Tri-Valley Wildlife Area — an old strip mining site now state-owned and used for hunting.

Mark Bretz, of Newark, had dropped a cow off at a meat locker. He was heading home, reveling in the sun-drenched summer day. At about 8:30 a.m. he saw Fronsman on the remote stretch of road. Moaning and wailing, Fronsman threw herself on the hood of his vehicle.

Bretz called 911. Fronsman told him who left her there to burn alive: Katrina Culberson. At Dixon's trial, he testified that she also gave the names of Dixon and Washington. "Detectives were in Canton that afternoon by 4," said Muskingum County Prosecutor Michael Haddox.

Police didn't have much to go on. They were unable to interview Fronsman, who was put in a medically-induced coma due to her pain. She had given her own name. And the last thing she said was her Social Security number.

They had enough to take to Canton and confirm her identity — the burns made it difficult. But the record of a tattoo helped. At that point Hittle was confident Stark County was the place to be.

The detectives soon got well acquainted with Canton streets — the Newton Zone, Shorb Avenue NW and other neighborhoods sprinkled about Canton.

"People helped who you didn't think would because it was that bad of a crime," Hittle said. "It was unimaginable for everyone involved."

But he said the case could not have been solved as quickly and as effectively without the help of the Canton Police Department.

"The amount of help we got from them was unprecedented," Hittle said.

Even the suspects were in disbelief that Fronsman survived long enough to point the finger at them.

"I think they thought they had gotten away with the perfect crime," Hittle said. "I don't think they really believed what I told them — there was shock."

Why Muskingum County?

Why would two prostitutes and an alleged drug dealer pick that remote spot?

That's what Zanesville area residents wondered.

"There's no easy way to get to that location," said Ron Welch, assistant Muskingum County prosecutor. It turned out that Culberson had visited the area when she was younger.

There was also shock and disbelief in Zanesville at the violent nature of the crime: "What type of person does that to somebody?"

Welch recalled the late summer day he got the news. "We have a lot of meth labs," he said of his initial reaction. "You hear of meth labs exploding."

But there was no meth, no explosion. Fronsman had been doused with gasoline — after being beaten and then choked with a tow-strap on an early-morning ride from Canton to Muskingum County — and set ablaze.

Fourteen months later, Welch still cringes over the pain Fronsman endured. A doctor told him her lungs couldn't expand fully to draw in air because her skin was so tight from the burns.

"All that comes to mind is divine intervention," said Haddox, Muskingum's prosecutor since 1999. "I don't know how else someone wills themselves to live for that period of time."

High-profile case

The case is memorable for its cruelty, Haddox said. "I've been around a good while, and I've had some pretty horrific cases, but this one has to rank in the top three."

The other two also were gruesome: A teenage boy who murdered and dismembered a young girl in the early 1990s. In the other, a 14-month-old girl was found dumped near Dillon Dam after she had been raped.

"We see a lot of things come across our desk," Haddox said, referring to autopsy and crime-scene photos. "But this one will be impossible to get out of my head — just the horrific burns the victim suffered."

It was Muskingum County's highest profile case since a sheriff's deputy was slain in the mid-90s, Welch said. For about two months, Haddox and Welch worked on the Fronsman case — from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. or 11 most days.

This wasn't the first time Muskingum County has received statewide media attention for something unusual and tragic. In October 2011, a man released dozens of exotic animals from cages on his private reserve in the Zanesville area before committing suicide. Authorities killed more than 40 animals, including black bears, Bengal tigers and African lions, citing public safety.

That case garnered even more publicity than the Fronsman murder.

From Canton to Zanesville

The distance between Canton and Zanesville posed a logistical challenge. But "you either do the work or you don't get the conviction," Haddox said.

"Our sheriff's detectives did a phenomenal job considering the logistics," he said. "They lived in Canton."

Hittle and Todd Mahle, another Muskingum detective, spent a total of about four weeks in Canton, and returned periodically to check on witnesses and continue the investigation.

A Canton officer — Bryan McWilliams — shadowed the detectives, assisting them with finding witnesses and other work. The Muskingum investigators worked out of the Canton Police Department.

Police Chief Bruce Lawver said the department was happy to assist. "I think it was a very appropriate outcome," he said. "It's about getting to the truth."

The crime was based on a false motive, Haddox said. Dixon, who sold crack cocaine, suspected Fronsman of leaking information to Canton police that led to a drug raid, he said. Both Culberson and Washington testified to being crack cocaine addicts.

Fronsman never tipped off police, Lawver said. She also was not a confidential informant, he said.

Travel time

The distance — roughly a 90-minute trip — also was an obstacle for some Canton witnesses.

In at least one case, a detective drove a witness from Canton and back, he said. Hotel expenses were covered for about six Canton witnesses. Law enforcement also was posted outside some hotel rooms, Haddox said.

A few shouldn't have bothered to make the trip. They showed up drunk, high or belligerent — in one case, maybe all three, Welch said. They were not put on the witness stand.

"It's happened before," Haddox said of witnesses showing up soused or high. "That wasn't the first time, (but) that number in that case, that's unique."

But the prosecutor said he was not left with a negative impression of Canton.

"I don't think anybody had the feeling this was the run-of-the-mill Canton folk coming down to our county," he said. "I think everyone realizes every community has its bad apples, so to speak."


Woman sentenced to life for Fronsman burning death

Culberson sentenced to life for Fronsman murder

November 7, 2013

ZANESVILLE — Marie Rickmann will never forget the day Katrina Culberson walked down the street and into her life.

The then 7-year-old was outgoing, intelligent and great with Rickmann’s children, she said.

Culberson would hang out at Rickmann’s house all day, calling Rickmann “mom” and Robert Saloiye, Rickmann’s dad, “grandpa.”

Then drugs and prostitution became a factor. Rickmann lost touch with Culberson, and Wednesday, Culberson was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 2012 murder of Celeste Fronsman.

Wednesday was the first time Rickmann had seen Culberson in years, and Rickmann said it was heartbreaking and nearly impossible for her to reconcile the 22-year-old convicted killer with the 7-year-old girl she once knew.

“I think of Katrina as the child,” she said. “If you would have known her as a little girl, every single one of you would have fallen in love with this child.

“It’s very hard to believe. We loved this child and tried to help her, but the people in Canton just relentlessly pursued her into prostitution.”

A long process

Save any appeals, Monday marked the end of a case that stretches back to Aug. 26, 2012, the day 29-year-old Fronsman was found burned and beaten in the middle of Ohio 208. There were three suspects in her death — Culberson, 34-year-old LaFonse Dixon Jr. and 25-year-old Monica Washington.

Washington pleaded guilty to murder, kidnapping and arson in March and was sentenced Monday to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

Dixon pleaded not guilty but was convicted of the same charges in late October. He was sentenced Monday to life in prison without parole.

Of the three, Culberson was the first to admit her guilt, signing a plea agreement in September 2012 so prosecutors would not seek the death penalty. Wednesday, she was sobbing before the judge even entered the courtroom. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, hands and feet chained, she cried as she apologized to Fronsman’s family and friends.

“What I did was really horrible, and there’s nothing I can do to make it better,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Culberson’s attorney, Greg Meyers, of Columbus, asked for leniency, a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 41 years. Meyers said Culberson was raised under terrible circumstances — surrounded by drugs, prostitution and impregnated when she was 14 by a 22-year-old — and he asked the judge to take that into consideration.

“Her life was one of misery, of fracture,” Meyers said. “She’s now 22. We ask that you consider giving her some hope” of one day being paroled.

Muskingum County Common Pleas Judge Kelly Cottrill didn’t budge. Culberson’s plea agreement likely saved her life, Cottrill said, but she will spend the rest of it in prison.

“Ms. Culberson, you know what you did,” Cottrill said. “And you knew what you did the date you signed that plea agreement.”

Back then

When Culberson was 13, Rickmann actually gained custody of her for nine months. There was an incident with Culberson’s mother, and Rickmann stepped in to help. She enrolled Culberson in school, got her involved in cheerleading and swimming and did the best she could to undo a neglectful childhood, she said.

Rickmann isn’t a foster parent by trade, and Culberson is the only foster child she’s ever had, she said.

“It’s just, I loved Katrina. I wanted to help Katrina,” she said.

Once Culberson moved in, though, the phone rang constantly with adults from Canton calling for Culberson.

“We got Katrina out of that situation, and they just called constantly trying to meet up with her,” Rickmann said. “They relentlessly pursued her into prostitution.”

Eventually, Culberson’s mom regained custody, and Rickmann lost touch with Culberson until Wednesday. She thought of her often, but Rickmann knew the kind of life Culberson had chosen, and she didn’t want to expose her own children to those dangers, she said.

As Culberson was taken into custody Wednesday, she turned and said, “I love you guys. I love you guys,” to the group gathered on the benches behind her.

Then, she asked Rickmann to write her. Rickmann thinks she will, but she’s not quite sure what that letter might look like, she said.

“I don’t know what to say to her. It’s just a shock,” she said. “I always thought she’d be on the other side. I thought she’d end up a victim.”


Sitting in his office after the sentencing, Muskingum County Prosecutor Michael Haddox said it’s a relief to finally be done with the case. At the same time, he said it’s sad to think about how many lives were ruined. There’s the obvious sympathy for the victim, her friends and family, but there’s also some for the perpetrators who will spend the rest of their lives in jail, he said.

The bottom line, though, is they got what justice demanded, Haddox said. Culberson had a tough childhood, yes, but made her own choices, and she killed Fronsman.

“Even if you’re high, you make decisions” Haddox said, “and you have to live with your decisions.

“At the end of the day, (Culberson) is the one that poured the gasoline, and she’s the one that lit it. ... When you look at the victim whose life was wiped away ... how can you say that life without parole is a heavy sentence?”


Canton woman pleads guilty to murder in Fronsman death

Friends remember 'misunderstood' victim for strength, good heart

By Kathy Thompson -

September 27, 2012

ZANESVILLE -- In the end, Celeste Fronsman got the last word.

Her friends, Frank Vaughns and Howard Cammon, said the Canton woman may have been tortured and tormented in the last horrifying moments of her life, but ultimately, she showed strength.

"She drug herself from the spot they thought was going to be her grave, found the strength to make it to the road and with God's grace told authorities who did this to her," Vaughns said. "Celeste got the last word."

Vaughns and Cammon, also of Canton, traveled to Zanesville on Wednesday to sit in a courtroom and watch one of Fronsman's accused killers -- Katrina Culberson -- admit to her role in Fronsman's death.

Culberson, 21, pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated murder, one count of aggravated arson and one count of kidnapping in connection with Fronsman's death. She is facing the possibility of life in prison, because her plea agreement ruled out the death penalty.

Monica Washington, 24, and LaFonse Dixon, 33, both from Canton, also are charged in the case and still could face the death penalty if convicted as charged.

Vaughns and Cammon spoke of Fronsman's strength in the final, tormenting days of her life as she suffered through being beaten and burned. They also spoke of the nature of the relationship between the two women.

They described Fronsman as being misunderstood, and a victim of the more dominant Culberson.

When it comes to Culberson, Vaughns had two words to sum her up -- "pure evil."

"Celeste had a heart of gold. Did she have problems? Yes. But she wasn't a fighter," Vaughns said after Wednesday's hearing. "She was a very misunderstood young woman who seemed to take the wrong advice from the wrong people."

Cammon said Fronsman spent many days and nights at his home, trying to stop using drugs or just needing a place to rest.

"But K.C. (as Culberson likes to be called) was always after her," Cammon said, "and we don't know why, but Celeste would listen to K.C."

Cammon and Vaughns said Culberson abused Fronsman, blackening her eyes, punching her and even threatening to kill her.

"K.C. even came to my house looking for Celeste the week they took Celeste," Cammon said. "She was running all over my house, screaming for Celeste. The woman wanted to control Celeste in every way, and Celeste thought they were friends."

Alternately crying, staring straight ahead or shaking in court Wednesday, Culberson told Muskingum County Common Pleas Judge Kelly Cottrill she is "scared" and a little "confused" by the events since Aug. 26.

That's the day authorities say Fronsman was beaten, choked and set on fire just off Ohio 208 in the Tri-Valley Recreational Area in Muskingum County.

Law enforcement officials are not divulging details into how Fronsman arrived in Muskingum County.

She was discovered by a passing motorist, badly beaten and burned. She died two days later at the OSU Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

After what Muskingum County Prosecutor Michael Haddox called "extensive plea negotiations," Culberson signed a plea agreement just one month after Fronsman was discovered and the death penalty specification was removed from her charges.

But the agreement stands only if Culberson cooperates completely with law enforcement, Haddox said, including testifying against Dixon and Washington, taking a polygraph test and not having any further contact with Washington, Dixon or anyone else who might be involved in the case.

"There remains the option that if this agreement is void at any time, we're back to the original indictment," Haddox said.

Haddox told Cottrill his office is recommending for Culberson life in prison on the murder charge, 11 years --the maximum sentence -- for the aggravated arson charge and 11 years -- the maximum sentence -- for the kidnapping charge. All should run consecutively, Haddox said.

Cottrill has other options in sentencing. He could give Culberson a life sentence with parole possible in 20, 25 or 30 years.

Culberson told the Times Recorder in an exclusive jailhouse interview this month she and Fronsman were good friends -- to the point Culberson had tried to get Fronsman off the streets where she was working as a prostitute and get a "higher level of clientele."

But Cammon and Vaughns think differently.

"K.C. is an abuser," Vaughns said. "She and the rest are devils."

Vaughns said he was surprised to hear Dixon is a suspect in the murder.

"Fonse has always been a pretty decent guy," Vaughns said. "I've known his family and him forever. I just never thought he'd have something like this in him. But if he's guilty, he's guilty."

Dixon, who also spoke with the Times Recorder just after his transfer to Muskingum County, has denied being involved or being in the county at the time of Fronsman's death.

Dixon has pleaded not guilty to aggravated murder with two death penalty specifications, kidnapping and aggravated arson, and conspiracy to kidnapping and aggravated murder.

Washington has pleaded not guilty to aggravated murder with two death penalty specifications, aggravated arson and kidnapping.

Dixon and Washington are being held in the Muskingum County Jail on $5 million bonds.


Katrina Marie Culberson arrested in Celeste Fronsman's death

August 31, 2012

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Authorities have made an arrest in the gruesome death of a woman found covered in burns and suffering on the side of a rural Ohio road.

The Muskingum County Sheriff's Office said charges of aggravated murder, kidnapping and aggravated arson were filed Friday against 20-year-old Katrina Marie Culberson of Canton. It's unclear whether Culberson has an attorney.

A driver found 29-year-year-old Celeste Fronsman early Sunday on a road northeast of Zanesville. She had been raped and burned, and had a strap around her neck. She died two days later at a Columbus hospital.

The Franklin County coroner ruled the death a homicide but says it'll be four to six weeks before the exact cause of death can be determined because of how badly she was burned.



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