Thomas Lee Dillon, who killed Donald Welling of Strasburg and four outdoorsmen in eastern Ohio from 1989 to 1992, has died.
The former Magnolia-area resident, 61, died of natural causes Friday in a prison medical facility, where he had been for about three weeks. Dillon was sentenced July 12, 1993, to 165 years in prison with no parole eligibility after confessing to all five slayings.
“I feel no sympathy for Thomas Lee Dillon whatsoever,” said Tuscarawas County Sheriff Walt Wilson, who was a detective and spent “easily thousands of hours” investigating. “He was a cold-blooded killer. He was a coward who ambushed and killed five men from a distance. He caused five families to prematurely bury a loved one. Hopefully, this will help them in some way to finally end this nightmare.”
“My knees shook a little when they told me, but at least he’s gone — we don’t have to worry about ever hearing from him or about him again,” said Deanna Welling, the wife of Don’s brother, Robert, of the Dover area. “We’re relieved that he’s gone. The first thing I said was, ‘Did somebody kill him?’
“It’s a shame he had to take five lives. His death is more closure than anything else. It’s another part of that ordeal that’s over. It’s about 20 years too late, but at least it’s over. Nothing is going to bring Don back, but we’re thankful that taxpayers don’t have to pay to support Dillon any more.”
Deanna recalled speaking to Dillon by telephone in jail.
“He knew a lot about the case,” she said. “That’s creepy.”
When officers searched Dillon’s residence off state Route 800, just north of the Tuscarawas-Stark County line, they found newspaper clippings about some of his crimes.
A story initially in The Times-Reporter and later picked up by other media resulted in Dillon becoming a suspect. The late Richard Fry of Canton was a friend who went with him to a gun show. Fry told The T-R in 1993 about the sly look on Dillon’s face as Dillon repeated the question, “Do you think I’ve ever killed anyone?”
Fry contacted Wilson. A multicounty task force of law- enforcement, including the FBI, eventually arrested Dillon Nov. 27, 1992, in Wilkshire Hills on an unrelated federal firearms charge.
“I’m glad that Richard Fry turned Dillon in,” Deanna said. “If not for him, it could have cost more lives. Dillon was a very sick individual.”
“Tom Dillon was the most evil and cold-blooded person I ever knew,” retired Tuscarawas County Sheriff Harold McKimmie said. He ended his career in 2001 after 44 years in law enforcement. “I don’t know how anyone who was around during Dillon’s crime spree could forget him and the shooting deaths of his five human victims as well as using guns and a bow and arrows to shoot farm animals and dogs. He was also responsible for 160 arson fires at barns and buildings. From what we found out, all of his crimes were random acts and his victims were decent people whom he never even knew.”
Dillon’s shooting victims were:
n Donald Welling, 35, of Strasburg, on April 1, 1989, while walking or jogging on Tuscarawas County Road 94.
n Jamie Paxton, 21, of Bannock, while deer hunting Nov. 10, 1990, in Belmont County.
n Kevin Loring, 30, of Duxbury, Mass., on Nov. 28, 1990, while deer hunting in Muskingum County.
n Claude Hawkins, 48, of Mansfield, on March 14, 1992, while fishing at Wills Creek in Coshocton County.
n Gary Bradley, 44, of Williamstown, W.Va, on April 5, 1992, while fishing near Caldwell in Noble County.
As lead detective, Wilson served with McKimmie and recalled working every day for seven straight weeks “when we really got into the thick of it and doing surveillance.”
A dead dog in a ditch lead to Dillon’s undoing. Fry said Dillon liked to shoot animals. Investigation revealed the dog was shot with a gun linked to Dillon.
A Canton Water Department employee, on his days off Dillon would buy beer and drive rural roads with a high-powered rifle or other weapons. He sold the gun used to kill Bradley to a gun dealer, who turned it over to the task force after learning that the group was seeking it.
The killing spree was featured as “Human Prey” on Nov. 10, 1998, on The Discovery Channel television series “The FBI Files.”
Paxton’s mother, Jean Paxton, said Sunday she was notified by Belmont County Sheriff Fred Thompson, who was a task force detective.
“It brought back a lot of emotions and memories that were always deep inside,” she said.
She said Dillon was in prison nearly as long as her son was alive. Dillon told her “for whatever sick reason” during a phone call that if he had known Jamie was only 21 he wouldn’t have killed him. She doesn’t believe it.
Dillon wrote to her twice, offering $1,000 to erect a monument where Jamie was killed or to establish a scholarship in Jamie’s name.
“I told him I didn’t need a monument up there to remind me what happened – all he wanted was to glorify himself,” Jean said. “And, I told him I would never want anyone to receive a scholarship from a murderer. At that point, I wrote him that we have nothing to talk about. I never heard any more from him afterward.”
Jean, now 70, said “it amazes me that” 21 years later, people still remember Jamie. Frequently, when people see her last name they ask if she is his mother or knew him.
“We found a letter on the property where Jamie was killed,” she said. “It was just a touching, heart-wrenching letter from a young girl, newly married, with a small child. She wrote that because of me she felt safer when her husband went hunting in the area. She never signed her name.
“As I told Sheriff Thompson, the case is officially closed now,” Jean said. “I tried to make something good come out of something bad. My husband and I have lots of wonderful friends, who never forgot about Jamie.”