The Final Chapter: A 27 Year Crime Odyssey
By G. David Yaros
On Friday, 17 Oct 2008, the final chapter of this 27 year crime odyssey may have been written in the Indianapolis, IN courtroom of Judge Robert Altice, Jr. On this date the parties in State v. Averhart assembled in conference in preparation for the commencement of the death penalty trial #3; scheduled to begin on Monday, 20 Oct 2008, in Fort Wayne (Allen County), Indiana.
Such pre-trial conferences are not at all unusual, particularly in major criminal cases. What was highly unusual here was the outcome of this particular pre-trial conference. The outcome was highly unusual for a number of reasons; none of them good!
On 11 Aug 1981, Rufus Averhart brutally murdered Gary Police Lt. George Yaros during the act of fleeing from an armed robbery of the Glen Park Branch of the Gary National Bank at 37th and Broadway. He committed this heinous act a mere 13 months after having been released from the Indiana State Penitientiary, at Michigan City, after serving only 7 1/2 years for his participation in a 1972 home invasion that resulted in the resulted in the murder of Leonard Wick. At the time of Mr. Wick's murder, Rufus was all of 18 years old.
The facts surrounding Lt. Yaros' murder were particularly gruesome: Lt. Yaros respoded to a burglar alarm at the bank. At the time, the bank had been experiencing a number of false alarms. On his arrival at the scene he immediately detected the armed robbery in progress, and radioed in for backup, stating: "This is the real thing, send help immediately!
3 men came charging out of the bank, armed to the hilt. Gunfire was exchanged. In that exchange Lt. Yaros was hit, and went down. Rufus Averhart kicked Yaros' .38 cal. police revolver away and stepped over him on his way to the get away car. He than had second thoughts. He returned to the prostrate and wounded Lt. Yaros, drew a .44 cal. magnum revolver and shot him at point blank range, causing his sure death.
On this date, at this time, George Yaros was but a few short months away from retirement, after rendering 30 years of service to the citiizens of Gary. Additionally, he planned to take a part-time job as a security guard at this very bank.
Averhart and his cohorts were eventually apprehended, after a high speed chase by other officers. At the time of his apprehension, Averhart had abandoned the vehicle, ditched some of his clothing and was non-chalantly walking down the street. It was only with the help of a law abiding citizen, who was willing to get involved by pointing him out, that he was arrested.
In a pre-trial maneuver, Rufus sought to have the trial moved from Gary to Fort Wayne. He contended pre-trial publicity prevented him from obtaining a fair trial in Lake County. His motion for a change of venue was granted. In April of 1982, after 4 days of testimony, Rufus was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair.
That should have been the end of the story. Unfortunately, it was but the beginning of an odyssey that has dragged on for over a quarter of a century. Twice he was successful in having the death penalty sentence overturned. Each time, a new sentencing trial was ordered. The first retrial yielded the same result. A sentence of death was again imposed by the jury. The second death sentence was vacated on the grounds the manner in which Allen County selected jurors yielded a racially imbalanced jury pool. A third death penalty trial was ordered; and scheduled to begin on Monday, 20 Oct 2008.
Death penalty trial #3 was fraught with problems, from the perspective of the Lake County prosecutor. The prosecutor's problems arose because of but one reason, the passage of time. In the quarter century, plus, since the original trial, few witness remained. In the natural course of life events, they had succumbed to death over the years. Additionally, key physical evidence no longer existed. While the prosecutor was willing to proceed to trial a third time, the likelihood of success was not good.
Not only were the odds not good, the stakes were extremely high, due to changes in Indiana sentencing laws during the last 28 years. In 2002, Indiana conferred the power on jurors in capital murder cases to impose a specific sentence of life without parole. The effect of this change was that an individual receiving a life sentence would actually serve a life sentence. A novel concept it seems, especially in this day and age!
The Indiana Supreme Court, in the exercise of judicial wisdom (?) ruled the new law could not apply to Rufus Averhart in any sentencing trial in 2008; on the grounds the law did not exist in 1982. This ruling mandated only 2 possible outcomes. Either the death penalty would be reimposed for a third time, or the jurors could opt for a life sentence. NOTE: I said a life sentence, not a sentence of life without possibility of parole.
This distinction is critical to what happened on Friday, 17 Oct 2008, at the pre-trial conference in the matter of State v. Averhart. In Indiana, a life sentence, for parole eligibility purposes, is deemed to be a sentence of 60 years. A person serving a life sentence in Indiana becomes eligible for parole after having served one-half of the full sentence. In the case of Rufus, one-half = 30 years. 30 years in this instance means the 2-time murderer could be released from confinement, again, in 2011; three short years away!
The mere possibility that Rufus could be let loose to wreck havoc and death once again on the good citizens of Indiana is, and should be, more than frightening!
Given the obstacles to be faced at death penalty trial #3, and the stakes in play, it is obvious very tough decisions had to be made. Any such decisions entailed a choice of the lesser of two evils. All sane persons know, and believe, that scum Averhart deserves to die for his deed. But would he, after death penalty trial #3?
I tell you, I am glad I was not put in the position of having to ponder that question. I am also certain Lake County Prosecutor Carter was equally glad that he alone did not have to make this decision. Unfortunately, my cousin, Tim Yaros did. In these circumstances, the prosecutor does not act without input from the victim's family. Lt. Yaros' wife, my Aunt Ann, is indeed alive. But, alas, at age 83, she is not well. Consequently, the burden had to be shouldered by Cousin Tim. I regret that circumstances conspired to dictate the decision he had to make, but fully understand and respect it.
A decision was reached to do whatever was necessary to keep Rufus behind bars, where he most definitely belongs. A plea agreement was reached. The agreement called for Rufus to plead guilty to a charge of armed robbery and receive a sentence of 14 years, consecutive to the life sentence he is currently serving.
This agreement is significant for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Rufus has consistently told anyone, and everyone, who would give him the time of day, that he was never at the Glen Park Branch of the Gary National Bank on 11 Aug 1981. By pleading guilty to robbing that very same bank, he had to admit he has been lieing for the last 27 years! Secondly, by pleading guilty to the robbery charge, Rufus is not eligible for release until at least the year 2018. If there is any accountability in the penal system, he will not be released until such time as he has served his entire 74 year sentence. That would be in the year 2055. At that point in time Rufus would be 102!
Of even more importance, the plea agreement eliminates the trauma Lt. Yaros' immediate family would have to endure from a third trial. I can tell you, from personal knowledge, for the last twenty-seven years the subject of Rufus Averhart has been an all consuming one for both my cousin and aunt, and rightly so. If this decision permits them to have some closure, reduces their anxiety somewhat and lets them once again get back to living, it is indeed a gift.
Alas, however, I do fear the final chapter in this saga has not been written. While the legal battles may have ended, the painful loss, and its consequences, will forever remain and continue to have their ongoing impact. Aunt Ann has had to endure life from age 55 to age 83, and beyond, as a widow. Cousin Tim has had to go from a very angry youth of 25 to a saddened middle-aged man of 54, all without the guidance and companionship of his father. His children have lived their entire lives without ever knowing their grandfather. Knowing my uncle as I did, there is no doubt those grandchildren would have loved him dearly!
The next chapter of this tragedy shall be written in the year 2018, by the Indiana Parole Board. No matter what picture the self-acclaimed artist and cause celeb Averhart tries to paint for that body, one must hope and pray it sees the person for who he truly is: an incorrigible scumbag who values no life, but his own. To grant him release, at any time, is to dishonor the family legacies of Leonard Wick and Gary Police Lt. George Yaros.
Justice has eluded Gary police Lt. George Yaros for the past 27 years, since the fateful day he was the first to respond to a bank robbery in Glen Park.
The veteran officer, weeks away from retirement, was gunned down by bank robber Rufus Averhart, who was on parole for killing an elderly man in a 1972 home invasion. The eight years in prison didn't do much to rehabilitate him. The bank robbery came about a year after Averhart left prison.
On Aug. 11, 1981, Averhart robbed the Gary National Bank at Ridge Road and Broadway, where witnesses saw him stand over Yaros and shoot him.
The highly charged case was venued out of Lake County and moved to Allen County, where Averhart was convicted of murdering Yaros and sentenced to death in 1982.
In 1993, the Indiana Supreme Court tossed out the death sentence, citing Averhart's ineffective counsel. Another Allen County jury sentenced Averhart to death in 1996. Once again, the Supreme Court turned aside the ruling, this time because a computer glitch tainted the jury selection. No blacks were on the jury.
By 2005, Lake County prosecutors were told too much time had passed to pursue a death penalty. Then, the Supreme Court ruled last year the death penalty trial could move forward. It was set for trial again on Oct. 27 in Fort Wayne.
Throughout the legal wrangling, the Yaros family has attended every hearing, every police memorial service.
There won't be another trial, nor a death sentence for Averhart.
Prosecutors reached a plea deal, agreed to by the Yaros family, that will keep Averhart in jail for about 10 more years. Prosecutors worried so many witnesses had died they may not secure another death penalty. Now, at least his family has closure, but George Yaros still doesn't have justice.
Killer of Gary Police Lt. George Yaros in 1981 to Be Released
Compiled From a nwiTimes Report by Bill Dolan
[16 Oct 2016]
GARY — The verdict still stands that he murdered Gary Police Lt. George Yaros during a bank robbery 35 years ago — a crime punishable by death.
He said he has seen some of his closest friends on Indiana’s death row marched off to the prison execution chamber. But Zolo Agona Azania has avoided three of his own death sentences, and on Feb. 8 he is scheduled to be freed. He says he is entering a changed world as a changed man.
"I know what suffering is," Azania said in a telephone interview with The Times from the Miami Correctional Facility near Bunker Hill, Indiana, where he is finishing his 35th — and last — year of a 74-year sentence.
He said, "I’ve learned some things I wouldn’t have, if I had not gone through this. I’ve seen people just give up on life. I dealt with the situation as it faced me. I never gave up hope. I try my best to be a positive individual, to have something positive to say. Perhaps I can help someone."
To the family and friends of the fallen police officer, he remains Rufus Averhart, the name Gary police knew him as when they were chasing him with guns blazing Aug. 11, 1981, after the 57-year-old police veteran died in the line of duty outside the Gary National Bank branch near 37th and Broadway.
Averhart had the courts change his name to Zolo Agona Azania in 1991.
They are still galled by his public-relations campaign from his death-row cell, in which he has claimed his conviction was a racist conspiracy, and the court decisions that invalidated jury and judicial recommendations that Azania be put to death.
"I feel like I failed my dad," Tim Yaros, a son of the fallen officer, said recently. "My wife and I and kids have been fighting this for years at his trials and hearings. Now, he’s going to walk the streets."
"He doesn’t deserve to be on the street," Philip Pastoret, a retired 30-year Gary police veteran said.
Azania said, "I know I’m innocent." He declined to recount the day of the crime or return to his fiery indictment of the criminal justice system that convicted him, simply observing, "Human-made laws aren’t infallible."
His extensive court records begin with a 1972 conviction for the manslaughter of Leonard Wick, 69, of Gary. It was overturned many years later, but he served several years in prison. On his release he graduated at the top of his Martin Luther King Academy class and won a scholarship to Purdue University.
The late Ernie Hernandez, a local reporter, did a feature story on Azania’s release from prison and rehabilitation, which was published only days before the fatal bank robbery.
Pastoret, the retired Gary police officer, said the day Lt. Yaros died "is imprinted on my mind." "It was a sunny day. I was working traffic," Pastoret said. "I saw Yaros that morning driving on Ridge Rd when an alarm went off at the Gary National Bank. Yaros was about a minute and a half, maybe two minutes, ahead of me.
As I turned up at the bank, I could hear gunshots in the back." Police and prosecutors said the robbers, wearing plastic masks and gloves, disarmed the security officer, looted the teller drawers and were leaving the building when Yaros confronted them about noon that day.
Wally DeRose, another retired Gary police officer, said, "I had stopped at a restaurant and was a quarter of a mile away from the bank when I heard the call that there was a chase on and a shooting at the bank."
DeRose, who wasn’t an eyewitness but did conduct an initial investigation into the crime, said, "The bank’s alarm went off all the time. But when George got there he called out that it was real this time. He did everything right. He got behind his squad car, they came out and shot through his car and wounded him, and then went over and finished George off."
Pastoret said, "I saw the two-tone blue Ford LTD coming out of the drive-up window going the wrong way and drove past me. I took off after them."
He said the high-speed chase continued northwest through Gary. "Averhart was wearing a powder blue suit. He and his buddy were leaning out the back windows of the car shooting back at me," Pastoret said.
"Because it was a hot summer day and my air conditioner was broke, my windows were down on my car, so I had a chance to fire back at them until my gun was empty. Averhart jumps out of the car and runs. There are two more in the car in the front and the back. I took off after them.
"They tried going into the Delaney (Housing) Projects. I came right up onto their rear bumper and floored it and drove us right into a tree and jammed their doors," Pastoret continued. "The driver was trying to climb out the passenger window. I jump out of my car and run around there, pulled him out. He was struggling. I said, you better hold still or I’ll blow your brains out. But I didn’t have a gun. I handcuffed him.
"Little did I know the guy in the back seat was about to shoot me in the back with a .44 magnum, and Officer Ron Flournoy, had seen me chasing them and just like in the movies, puts a gun to that guy’s head and told him, ‘pull that trigger and you are dead.’ That is how we got those two."
Pastoret said Officer Chuck Oliver arrested Averhart, who was on foot, about the same time, nearby.
Tim Yaros remembers, "I was working at a brick factory on Martin Luther King Dr. It was a hot day. I heard over the intercom, ‘Tim, you have an emergency phone call.’ My boss handed me the phone. It was my wife, and she said something happened to Dad."
He said as he arrived at the old Gary Mercy Hospital, at 5th and Polk St, "I saw all these police cars. A police officer came up to me and said, ‘Tim, I don’t think he made it.’ Sixteen minutes later, they told me he passed away. You could see the powder burns. They shot him at point-blank range."
DeRose said of Yaros, "He was in World War II, as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne. He jumped into France on D-Day, he jumped into Holland in August. Then he was in the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded, and in a field hospital that was captured by the Germans — and then to die in the streets of Gary."
- Azania’s journey
Azania and two co-defendants were originally charged with murder and murder in the perpetration of a robbery in Lake County Criminal Court in Crown Point. The trial was moved to Fort Wayne’s Allen County Court after Averhart’s defense lawyer argued he couldn’t get a fair trial in Lake Co. because of pretrial publicity.
A jury heard seven days of evidence before finding the three men guilty of robbery-murder and recommending Averhart’s execution on state’s evidence he shot Yaros at point-blank range.
Former Allen Superior Judge Alfred Moellering imposed the death sentence a month later. The accomplices each received 60-year prison terms, which they completed several years ago.
The Indiana Supreme Court upheld Averhart’s murder conviction in 1993, but overturned his death sentence on grounds Azania’s trial lawyer failed to present compelling testimony or arguments why his client’s life should be spared.
The high court also ruled the prosecution withheld from the defense inconclusive gunshot residue tests. The tests showed no residue on Averhart’s hands. Although Averhart was wearing gloves, the court said residue might have collected on his hands through holes in those gloves.
Three years later, the death penalty phase was retried and the second jury condemned Averhart to death again.
The Indiana Supreme Court overturned the second sentence in 2002, because of a computer glitch in Allen County that caused blacks to be underrepresented on his jury.
Shortly before a third death penalty trial was to begin in 2007, the Yaros family agreed to let the Lake County prosecutor drop the capital punishment request in return for Azania accepting a 74-year sentence that the Yaros family had hoped would be tantamount to a life sentence.
The sentence was shortened, because Azania earned credit for the prior years he had served for good behavior in prison.
Azania, now 61, said, "I want to go back to school, but I need a livelihood to support myself. I want to work with computers. I’m in a computer class in career development training. I’m learning how to do resumes and job applications on the computers and how to do banking."
Hernandez wrote 35 years ago that Azania’s accomplishments were an argument against capital punishment.
"They never retracted that," Tim Yaros said.
"Ernie Hernandez was right," Azania said.
[COMMENT -GDY]: Rufus claims he has seen/known suffering. I will tell you what suffering is. Tim Yaros stating 35 years later that he feels "like I failed my dad." That is suffering. Has Rufus ever once uttered a word in apology for the suffering he as caused to the Yaros and Wick families? I have never heard it.
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