Police say they’ve solved a 1980 murder case that rocked the community. But some harbor doubts about their conclusion.
BY EMILY AYARS ‘24 AND ADELAIDE PETRAS ‘24
In 1980, a tragedy caused ripples in the carefree suburban atmosphere of Upper Arlington: the murder of Barrington Elementary School student Asenath Dukat.
Residents were shocked by the murder, as Upper Arlington had always been known to be a community with low crime rates. According to the Columbus Dispatch, Upper Arlington was recently named the 14th-safest small city in the U.S. and the safest in Ohio.
Arlingtonian ran a story about Asenath’s case in 2019 titled “Innocence Lost.” The story outlined the events of the murder and included an interview with an anonymous representative from The Long Walk Home: The Asenath Dukat Project, a project dedicated to bringing awareness to the case. At the time of publishing, the case was still unsolved, and the community was pushing for further action from the Upper Arlington Police Department (UAPD).
To some, this is relieving news signaling the end of a decades-long investigation and is symbolic of the closure of an era full of distress. But others believe that the case should not be closed, as there may be more potential leads to investigate.
However, since the 2019 story, there have been developments in Asenath’s case. After over 40 years, the case has finally been closed this past August when UA Police declared Brent L. Strutner as the sole perpetrator.
June 3, 1980, was meant to be like any other day in Upper Arlington, Ohio. It had been a warm Tuesday afternoon, the second to last week of school before summer break for Barrington Elementary School. Asenath “Seannie” Dukat and her third-grade class were bursting at the seams with excitement for the end of the day.
“I remember that we got held back after school because we were being horrible,” Tracy Plummer, a former Barrington student and classmate of Asenath’s, said. “Mrs. Seubert gave us 10 minutes of detention.”
Once the time past their 3 p.m. dismissal was up, Asenath collected her things before realizing she had forgotten her lunchbox.
“So we walked down down to the cafeteria together and she got her lunchbox,” Karen Rossetti, a clasmate and friend of Asenath’s, said. “And so [Asenath] went out the door by the cafeteria, I went off to the other doors with my younger sister and we walked home.”
The eight-year-old Asenath lived a roughly 20 minute walk away from the elementary school on Malvern Road with her four siblings and parents.
It was her mother, Martha Dukat, who noticed when the clock struck 4 p.m. and Asenath still wasn’t home. She began calling around, frantically asking Mrs. Seubert and classmates’ parents if anyone had seen her daughter before reporting her missing to police at 4:34 p.m. It was later known that around 3:20 p.m., Asenath was spotted walking down the shaded street of Waltham Road by her classmates.
But that would be the last sighting of Asenath Dukat before 7:26 p.m., when a call came into the Upper Arlington Police Department scanner to notify authorities of a body discovered in a creek bed at the opening of a culvert near First Community Village.
Asenath had been found.
After hours of searching the neighborhood, the third-grader was found laying on her back in the stream, a 20 pound limestone rock found beside her body.
News spread like wildfire, and before they knew it, the UAPD had 600 people calling in with tips about the murder.
“I remember specifically my mom walking into the kitchen… and she showed me a composite picture of the person that did it,” an anonymous representative from The Long Walk Home said. “For the first time in my life, I felt scared and nervous that, you know, I could be harmed.”
Three days later, a funeral was held for eight-year-old Asenath Dukat.The once quaint community of Upper Arlington was rocked to its core by her murder.
“Everything changed,” Kathy Rossetti, a Barrington graduate and sister to Karen, said. “We never walked home from school again.”
A COMMUNITY ON EDGE
The once simple idea of walking to and from school or around the community was forever changed because of Asenath’s shocking death. Parents imagined the worst standing on their front porches as their children made the short 100 foot walk to a neighbor’s house.
“There was a sense of innocence and safety, and Upper Arlington changed forever from that time,” The Long Walk Home representative said. “Walking home by yourself from school, which was very normal, turned into getting picked up.”
Plummer remembers the following days similarly; walking anywhere alone became unthinkable.
“The next day was a school day, and I think we were supposed to have our [class] picnic, and they decided not to. They decided to do it on the school grounds instead,” Plummer said. “Because everybody was just really nervous. And everybody was driven to school and from school for the next, however many days were left.”
Karen Rossetti remembers the days following Asenath’s murder in vivid detail. The level of protection, by both the community and UAPD, skyrocketed. Parents flocked the streets to pick up their children after school, unwilling to risk Asenath’s fate with their own kids.
“The next day, the police swarmed the schools,” she said. “They were all over the schools. Yeah, all of us kids were scared. We were afraid of being on the playground.”
To increase childrens’ safety, a community member came up with the concept of “Safety Spots.” Safety Spots were denoted with an orange paper with a black circle and were placed in the windows of houses. Homes marked as Safety Spots were open for any child to come in if they were lost or felt as if they were in danger. The idea paid off when Plummer found herself in need of help on her way home.
“I decided to walk home from Girl Scouts and I went the wrong way,” Plummer said. “And so I went to a house… called my parents and told them I was lost.”
There have been other scenarios where kids have been in need of help and the Safety Spots have helped provide that sense of security to the community.
The UAPD got to work after Asenath was found. Officers patrolled the streets as detectives went from house to house, trying to recount the events leading up to her death.
“I’m eight years old, and Mom’s telling me to come down from my room, and there’s two detectives… and she’s like, ‘they want to talk to you’,” Karen Rossetti said.
All students in Mrs. Mariruth Seubert’s third-grade class were interviewed in an attempt to recall Asenath’s last movements.
Much of the police’s determination could have stemmed from the connection to an eerily similar attack only a month prior and less than a mile away from where Asenath was discovered. Prior to Asenath’s murder, on May 7, 1980, a nine-year-old girl was attacked on her way home from Tremont Elementary. She had been found in a secluded area near Waltham Road after being battered and most likely raped.
After some inquiry, the suspect was determined to have been spotted on a red 10-speed bicycle, but descriptions of his appearance varied.
Police believed that the perpetrator of this attack was also involved in the murder of Asenath Dukat. This theory formed partially out of the presence of a red 10-speed bicycle at both sites, as well as similarities in descriptions of the suspects.
The aforementioned suspect was identified as Brent L. Strutner, a 1979 Upper Arlington high school graduate. He attracted attention due to violent and unusual behavior in the months and days leading up to and following June 3.
Strutner was the first suspect who the UAPD publicly identified, and he was officially recognized as Asenath’s killer this year. Continuously developing DNA technology has played a major role in the solving of this case and the confirmation of Strutner’s involvement.
“The case is officially closed. If there ever were some updated, further types of advancements in DNA that would lead us to be able to make a lead that we haven’t already made, we would certainly submit any evidence for that type of investigation,” Keith Hall, a lieutenant with UAPD, said. “If some lead were to pop up or somebody came forward with information that we don’t have, then we would reopen the case for that as well.”
Additionally, Hall mentioned that after acquiring the DNA results that played a major role in the verdict around 2006, the police department had to continue deliberation in order to handle the evidence properly.
“So we were finally able to make that announcement after continuing to investigate the case for the next roughly 15 years till we were at today, to ensure that we were not missing anything to do with any co-conspirators,” Hall said.
Strutner struggled with mental illness, drug abuse, hallucinations and paranoia throughout his life and apparently had an “impaired ability to recognize unusual, problematic aspects of his behavior.” He later committed suicide on June 8, 1984, just a few days after the four-year anniversary of Asenath’s murder.
However, it must be noted that Strutner was not the only suspect; Robert “Chris” Winchester was and still is thought by many to be involved. Winchester, who could not be reached for comment, was only one year older than Strutner, and the pair resided on the same street, only six houses dividing them. Additionally, the two were reported to have been close friends, with Strutner being a henchman of sorts to Winchester.
“From what I understand, he was almost like the puppet master to Brent,” Kathy Rossetti said. “You know, Brent kind of was a follower to Chris.”
Similarly to Strutner, Winchester had a history of repeated violence, including the abduction of a 13-year-old girl that occurred near the Olentangy Commons apartment complex on September 27, 1980. Winchester was also a main suspect in the May 7 attack. Police drew parallels between the May attack and the September abduction, connecting all three crimes to each other. There were similarities in the execution of the crimes and the time frames in which the incidents occurred.
Additionally, footprints resembling Winchester’s were found at the scene of Asenath’s death. However, both the footprints and DNA evidence were labeled as “inconclusive findings.”
Although Winchester was convicted of the September abduction, he was unable to be confirmed as a player in the murder of Asenath Dukat.
Lieutenant Hall confirmed that the police department is no longer investigating Asenath’s case to any degree.
Many Upper Arlington residents have contributed to the case over the years by calling in with tips and keeping Asenath’s memory alive as the case went cold. But a select group of seven, all who have a relationship to Asenath or her case, decided to take on the case.
“The Long Walk Home: The Asenath Dukat Project” began about three years ago. Those behind the program have remained anonymous so as to not compromise the motivation behind the website and to focus on remembering Asenath’s memory.
“We just want to help bring closure to the community,” an active representative from the project said. “We’re not trying to be famous.”
Over the past few years, the group has worked with those in the community and the UAPD in an effort to bring closure to Asenath’s family.
“They were a big help,” Hall said. “I mean they were a second set of eyes, I guess, for the investigators throughout the years.”
Hall took over as detective sergeant of the case in 2016 and has since then worked to finish what 40 years of investigators have compiled.
“UAPD has been a good partner to us in answering questions and being supportive, and really anyone that takes an interest in the case has been very supportive,” the representative said. “We’ve had over 50,000 views of the website… We’ve had five podcasts made about it, all sourced from around the USA.”
The Long Walk Home has received outpouring support from not just the Upper Arlington community, but the nation as well. Both Karen and Kathy Rossetti share this interest, commenting on the impact this group has had on the case.
“Honestly, I think the Long Walk Home committee or group that started this has been the driving force behind getting the police more motivated, more involved…” Kathy Rossetti said.
The project has assisted in keeping Asenath’s memory alive and keeping her case from being put to rest. “Sometimes it’s foggy. It’s like I don’t remember,” Karen Rossetti said. “So The Long Walk Home has filled in a lot.”
Upper Arlington residents have expressed their gratitude to the website as well, praising the easily accessible information. Before The Long Walk Home, police held many of the answers and the select amount of information that was released was only accessible through the daily newspaper. Without the Internet, phones and the technology available today, many residents of the community were left in the dark.
“There was just so little information out there and I think we are definitely the first people that have gathered it, put it together [and] worked hard to make sure everyone knows the details,” the representative said.
The website is filled with every detail regarding the case. The information has been compiled over the years and has been consistently updated as new information is released. Since the case was recently officially closed and active investigation has stalled, the website remains at a stand still until new information, suspects or leads arise.
“It was built for people that truly care. It’s not like a surface level… this is every single detail,” The Long Walk Home representative said. “So it’s an opportunity for people that have an interest in this to really dig in.”
Those involved in The Long Walk Home weren’t the only ones who decided to take action after the death of Asenath Dukat—Youth Education for Safety (YES) was created in 1981 in an attempt to prevent similar situations. YES is a program intended to teach children to stay safe and is presented annually to each first- and fourth-grade classes in Upper Arlington City Schools. According to The Long Walk Home website, YES focuses on how to handle the following four situations: unkind behavior from a peer, stranger danger, good touch and bad touch and digital safety.
These areas of focus, along with the emphasis on encouraging parents to teach their children to remain aware of their surroundings, are reminiscent of advice printed in a 1980 issue of The Upper Arlington News. The advice, said to have been issued by Superintendent Dr. Homer Mincy and Barrington principal J.W. Goldsbury, included instructions such as, “Be alert to suspicious persons and dangerous situations,” and “Look for Safety Spot signs in the windows of homes where help can be quickly available.”
As can be seen in these programs and publications, the desire to help in some way echoed throughout the community. The Long Walk Home and YES are products of those whose grief led them to take further action.
“All that emotion and all that stuff stuck with us and never went away, and over time, we realized there were no answers, and there was no closure and no one really knew much about [the case],” the anonymous representative from The Long Walk Home said. “It almost felt like it kind of was so difficult for the community that nobody wanted to talk about it. And because there weren’t answers, it just frustrated people, so we decided to put it into our own hands and try and make a difference ourselves.”
THEORIES AND CONTROVERSY
After decades of unease surrounding Asenath’s murder, it may seem that the final verdict should come as a relief, as it officially pins down a perpetrator and supposedly clears up confusion about the case. Some share this sentiment, expressing satisfaction with the work of the Upper Arlington Police Department.
“Well, the police department [has] been tremendous in working for over 40 years to solve the case,”The Long Walk Home representative said.
There have been setbacks throughout the years, including the lack of technology after the crime first occurred. Plummer and other residents commend the UAPD in their efforts over the years with the limits they had, only being a suburb-wide department.
“It had to have been so overwhelming to them,” Plummer said. “I wish maybe they could have gone outside for some assistance.”
Despite this, numerous Upper Arlington residents have expressed their discontent with the fact that Brent L. Strutner was the only one confirmed to have been involved.
“No, they should go further. Definitely further,” Kathy Rossetti said. “It’s not just Brent. It’s more than that.”
Multiple Upper Arlington residents who have been following the case have expressed their confidence that Winchester was involved.
“They knew about [Strutner and Winchester] way early on,” Kathy Rossetti said. “I think if they would have pushed it maybe a little bit more, maybe they could have had these guys a little bit sooner.”
In addition to Winchester, some even believe that others were involved. The Long Walk Home website mentions two men who were questioned throughout the investigation but no conclusions were ever drawn that definitively linked the men to Asenath’s death.
Some have theorized that the possible others involved were part of some kind of drug operation involving Strutner and Winchester.
“[Strutner and Winchester] were also known to hang out in the Frankenstein’s cave. I guess some of the older people, older kids in high school used to do drugs down there,” Kathy Rossetti said.
Many other theories have been formulated over the years, including one that two additional men were involved with Strutner and Winchester.The Long Walk Home created pseudonyms for these two unnamed men, as they have never been officially linked to Asenath’s case. One is thought to have been an observer or participant in Asenath’s death because of his proximity to the crime. His house was also located on Malvern Road, which some speculate was used to assist in her death.
This theory is supported by the presence of unknown DNA found on Asenath’s body. A third male DNA profile was drawn in 2008 using DNA separate from that of the main two suspects.
Regardless of how credible these theories are, they are simply theories and will remain so unless further investigation is done into Asenath’s case.
“I definitely feel that it shouldn’t be closed, that we should be trying to continue to shake the trees and see if we can get more people to come forward,”Plummer said. “Because someone has to know something. Somebody does. Somebody who has some little memory in their mind that they just haven’t realized that it’s important. Or maybe they just are too afraid to get involved, but I really believe that somebody knows something.”