Studying a Killer
Studying local serial killer Thomas Lee Dillon
When Thomas Lee Dillon died in October, many residents of the Tuscarawas Valley region recalled the fear they felt during 1989 to 1992, when he killed Donald Welling of Strasburg and four outdoorsmen in eastern Ohio.
His arrest just before the start of deer-hunting season in 1992 was a relief for those otherwise hesitant to head out to the fields and woods.
Dillon, 61, of the Magnolia area, died Oct. 21 of natural causes in a prison medical facility. He was sentenced July 12, 1993, to 165 years in prison with no parole eligibility after confessing to all five slayings.
“The Dillon case was a tragic, but very fascinating case,” said Dr. Jeffrey L. Smalldon, a forensic psychologist in Columbus.
“It really sticks out. Nearly 20 years later, it’s still one of most interesting for me as a forensic psychologist.”
Today, Smalldon will speak to a class at Kent State University at Tuscarawas about his involvement in the case and offer observations about his profession.
Assistant Tuscarawas County Prosecutor Michael Ernest teaches the court-functions class this semester and wanted to make it more interesting to students.
He decided to track a particular case all the way through the legal system. Smalldon is the final speaker. Other presenters were Sheriff Walt Wilson, who was the lead detective during the case, and defense attorney David Doughten of Cleveland, a New Philadelphia native.
Former county Prosecutor Ron Collins also spoke about the case, although the murder charges and sentencing were through Noble County.
Dillon was responsible for killing cattle and other animals in Tuscarawas County and for setting hundreds of fires at barns and vacant buildings throughout the region.
“They’ve provided a significant amount of insight,” Ernest said of the presentations.
Smalldon has been involved in nearly 300 death penalty cases at the state and federal level over 20 years. Dillon’s plea agreement spared him the death penalty.
Smalldon also consults in hundreds of cases throughout Ohio involving disputes over child custody, determining competency to stand trial, sex offenders and risk assessments.
“Part of my involvement in the Dillon case stems from my long-standing interest in serial and episodic violent crime,” he said, adding he’s corresponded or talked personally with Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy.
“It goes beyond reading books about cases. I wanted to hear them speak and how they sounded.”
He said media interest in Dillon revived in 2002, during the Washington, D.C., sniper attacks. Ten people were killed and three others critically wounded at locations in Washington, Maryland and Virginia during a three-week span that October.
“Some of the national media had heard about the outdoorsmen serial killings in Ohio, and because I had worked on that, they contacted me,” Smalldon said. “They asked what we’d learned from the serial sniper here.”
He said that Dillon was “a very angry guy, who tended to express his negativity in passive-aggressive ways, rather than directly.” All but one of his victims was shot from a distance with a high-powered rifle.
Smalldon emphasized that he only knew what he was hearing in the media about the Washington, D.C., sniper.
“Others were willing to profile that case, and were grossly incorrect in most instances,” he recalled.
About Dillon, he told them about “how well camouflaged he was in the community. There were a lot of aspects about his lifestyle that didn’t call attention to him. People who knew him were aware of his corrosive sense of humor and that he was an oddball in some ways. But he was not what people wish to see in someone who commits such crimes. He didn’t have a big ‘S’ for serial killer on his forehead that you could see and run away from him.”
Instead, Smalldon recounted from the evaluation report he prepared for use in court that Dillon was a 20-year employee of the Canton Water Department.
“He was active in church,” he said. “He was married to a nurse. They had a son and lived in a very well cared for home” off state Route 800, just north of the Tuscarawas-Stark County line. “He played tennis occasionally. In many ways it was a normal life.”
Dillon had a “very high IQ at 135.” However, Smalldon recalls seeing a televised interview with “some classic moments. Asked if he thought about his victims, he said not really. They literally seemed to have no more reality to him as individuals and in families than the man in the moon.”
Dillon, who stalked the woods of eastern Ohio and shot five outdoorsmen to death between 1989 and 1992, died today, state prison officials said.
Dillon, 61, died in the prison wing at the Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus at 7:55 a.m. following an unspecified near-three-week illness.
He was serving five consecutive life terms, with no possibility of parole for 165 years, after pleading guilty in 1993 to five counts of aggravated murder.
Until he was hospitalized on Oct. 4, Dillion had been housed at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville, where he was a trash-crew worker.
Dillon, from Magnolia in Stark County, drove the rural back roads with a high-powered rifle in his search for victims and also claimed to have set 160 arson fires during his journeys.
His victims included:
- Donald Welling, 35, of Strasburg, who was shot April 1, 1989, while walking or jogging on Rt. 94 in Tuscarawas County.
- Jamie Paxton, 21, of Bannock, was shot both from long- and close-range while bow hunting on Nov. 10, 1990 near Rt. 64 in Belmont County.
- Kevin Loring, 30, of Duxbury, Mass., was killed Nov. 28, 1990, while deer hunting in a rural reclaimed strip mine area near Rt. 98 in Muskingum County.
- Claude Hawkins, 48, of Mansfield, was fatally shot March 14, 1992, while fishing near Wills Creek Dam off Rt. 274 in Coshocton County
- Gary Bradley, 44, of Williamstown, W.Va, died April 5, 1992, while he was fishing in a rural recreation area off Rt. 83 near Caldwell in Belmont County.
The murders were solved when a friend of Dillon’s contacted police with suspicions about the Canton Water Department draftsman and a gun dealer turned over a rifle, which was used in the slayings, that Dillon had sold him.