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Jessie James COWANS





Classification: Homicide - Murderer
Characteristics: Juvenile (16) - Robberies
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: 1977 / 1996
Date of birth: October 23, 1960
Victims profile: His best friend, who was in a wheelchair / Clara Swart, 69
Method of murder: Manual strangulation / Strangulation with a phone cord
Location: Monroe County, Ohio, USA
Status: Sentenced to 15 years to life in 1977. Paroled in 1989. Sentenced to death on April 17, 1997

On August 29, 1996, Jessie Cowans murdered a 69-year-old woman in the course of burglarizing and robbing her home on Lindale-Mt. Holly Street in Amelia. Cowans used the strap of the woman's purse to strangle her. Cowans had been released on parole a second time in May 1996 for committing a prior murder and robbery.


'I was in prison and you visited'

By Peter Bronson - Enquirer staff writer

Jesse James Cowans is on death row in Ohio for murdering an elderly Monroe Township neighbor, Clara Swart, in 1996. She was found in her own home, strangled.

When he was 16, Cowans strangled his best friend, who was in a wheelchair. He was arrested for armed robbery when he was 8 years old. Half his life has been locked down in prison. But he's sure he's going to heaven.

Clay Shrout got up one morning in 1994 and murdered his parents and two sisters at their home in Florence. Then he went to Ryle High School in Union and held his trigonometry class hostage.

He's in a Kentucky prison, serving life-without-parole sentences. Technically, he can seek parole in 25 years. He believes he will someday go to heaven.

Both cons have murders in their past but hope in their future because both have a friend named Steve Schlechty - a tool designer in Wilmington who gets up at 3 a.m. two Saturdays a month to visit Shrout, Cowans and other prisoners in the heart of darkness.

"They're where they belong," Schlechty says. "Personally, I feel Clay should die for his crimes, but the state said otherwise."

Shrout was a hard case. After 10 years in prison, he had 29 pages of disciplinary reports. "He was into witchcraft and the occult," Schlechty said. So Schlechty wrote to David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" serial killer who terrorized New York City in 1977.

Berkowitz, who now has his own Web site that proclaims his faith in God, helped to bring Shrout to Christ, Schlechty said. "He gave me some good advice. He said the occult is serious business and that you can be controlled by it."

Now, "Clay is doing very good, but he has a very difficult time forgiving himself for what he's done," Schlechty said.

Cowans was so violent he had to be wired with a shock device during his trial. But lately, "The guards I talk to never have a problem with Jesse," Schlechty said. "He's a new man, I can tell you that. I would feel very comfortable having Jesse Cowans in my house with my wife and children. Same with Clay. I know him well."

Schlechty admits, "My own father thinks I'm crazy for going in there. It's a very dark place, a very heavy spirit."

But prison officials tell him his visits help. And he says Shrout and Cowans "have been a blessing to me."

If the word of God is a two-edged sword, this is where we feel the sharp edge. Nothing cuts deeper to the heart than to hear that evil murderers have been "saved."

Cowans still denies he killed Swart, but the evidence is airtight: He told a jailhouse snitch how he killed her; he knew details before they were released by police; his palm print was found in her home; and items from her home were found in his bedroom or buried in his yard.

When Schlechty saw a picture of Cowans in the paper, "I figured if any man ever needed help, he did," he said. So he visited him in jail. "I saw a man beginning to melt from the inside, who knew he was in big trouble."

Cowans has nobody else - no relatives or friends on the outside, Schlechty said.

A simple act of Christian kindness turned Cowans' life around.

"He told me that Jesus could save anybody no matter what they have done or how bad they thought they were," Cowans wrote. "I didn't believe it."

That's the beauty of redemption, Schlechty said. "There is nobody on this earth too bad to be forgiven. Thank God for that."

We can believe it. Or not. But the evidence speaks for itself.

"God's done for them what prison reform cannot do," Schlechty said. "He changed their hearts."


They let the wrong guy walk

By Peter Bronson - The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sunday, September 22, 1996

Some kids get the names of presidents and heroes, to lift their eyes to high expectations. Some get names handed down like heirlooms, to remind them of the family trees over their shoulders.

Jesse James Cowans got a name like leg-irons - and spent his life living down to it. Way down.

On Sept. 2, he was arrested for the murder of Clara Swart, 69, whose fatal mistake was to live near the Monroe Township home where Cowans moved when he was paroled from prison less than four months earlier.

Pictures of him scuffling with court deputies came as no surprise to cops, prosecutors and judges. For nearly 30 years, they knew him as a punk-troublemaker who never grew up, only grew worse, a bad-actor hard case with a lifetime reservation at the Lucasville College of Criminal Knowledge.

Prison ''shrinks'' and guards have filled a phone book with warnings that yell ''Danger!'' to anyone who listens.

But for some strange reason, members of Ohio's Parole Board were deaf or deliberately derelict. They ignored the alarms and let him loose. Twice.

Here's their explanation from a story by Enquirer reporter Kristen Delguzzi:

''This guy - I don't know what happened to him,'' Margarette Ghee, chairwoman of the parole board, said, sighing deeply. ''I was just appalled. It's really tragic that this woman lived to be 69 years old and had to die like this. This is bothering everybody.''

She said they relied on prison records, substance-abuse counseling and psychological tests that indicated he was unlikely to commit another crime.

You have to take their word for it. Prisoners have privacy rights. Their records are secret.

But this time the secret leaked. I've seen a copy of the Jesse James Cowans record - and it shows that the parole board made a fatal mistake and let the wrong man walk.

The Parole Board's own March 29, 1995 risk assessment, a year before Cowans was granted his second parole, rated him in 10 categories, such as prior felonies, alcohol and drug abuse, and prison behavior. In every category but one, he had the highest risk-score possible. On a maximum-risk scale that stops at 40, he had a 37. On a scale of 1-4, with 4 as the highest possible risk, Jesse James Cowans rated a 5 - which was inked out and ''corrected'' to a 4.

On the Parole Board's quick-glance matrix, 4 means: ''Usually Will Not be Released Until After Two (2) or More Continuances'' (added time). A 5 means, ''Release is Not Appropriate.''

The Hamilton County Prosecutor's office said as much in repeated letters telling the parole board that ''this office strongly opposes any type of parole, furlough or release of the defendant, Jesse James Cowans.''

Cowans was raised in Over-the-Rhine with 17 brothers and sisters. A report noted, ''All but one of Cowans' male siblings have been . . . sent to the penitentiary.''

He started his own outlaw legend at age 8, when he was arrested for armed robbery, using a gun he found in a car to hold up a store. That's right, 8.

By age 16, he had five more convictions, including forgery, assault, menacing, trespassing and repeated runaways from foster homes.

In 1977, at age 16, he strangled a wheelchair-bound friend, robbed the man's wallet, ring and watch from his corpse, then turned up the gas on a stove in the dead man's apartment and tried to set a fire.

He was sentenced to 15 years to life for aggravated murder and robbery. A prison psychologist said he had lived a life of ''basically . . . raising hell,'' and recommended maximum security: '' . . . officials can expect a host of rules violations, covering the entire spectrum.''

They were not disappointed. Prison records tell the story: threats to prisoners and guards; caught with a weapon, an 8-inch spike; set fire to cell; ''threw urine and defecation'' at guards; attacked guards with a steel bucket; charged guards with pencils; fighting with inmates and guards; tried to scam a woman with letters asking for ''protection'' money.

''Attitude hostile and angry,'' incident reports said. ''Really bad attitude.''

Cowans said he was high on alcohol, pot and ''reds'' when he committed the murder. ''Chemical dependency is the root cause,'' a counselor declared.

Yet his record shows repeated punishments for ''drinking hooch'' and using drugs - in prison.

Still, he was paroled in 1989 after serving 12 years and four months of his ''life'' sentence. He lasted 16 months on the outside before he was caught with a knife, pills and marijuana after leaving the scene of an accident. Back in prison, he piled up six more violations, including ''seductive and obscene acts,'' fighting, two drug violations and four involving ''intoxicants.''

This is the parole model who was turned loose on Clara Swart's neighborhood. Five out of four for risk - off the meter in the danger zone. And Jesse James rides again.

There's a name for something like that, but I can't print it here.



MO: Strangled paraplegic man (1977) and elderly woman (1996).



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