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Families search for answers in Columbiana County's unsolved murders

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LISBON, Ohio - A number of unsolved murders in Columbiana County has some victims' families wondering if they'll ever receive justice and know the reason why their loved ones were killed.

The cases include Melinda Todd, who was savagely murdered inside her Salem Township home in December 2012; 3-year-old Dalton Springer, who was beaten to death in November 2000; and Terry Ballard, who was stabbed to death and left at a BFI landfill in Poland Township in 1995.

In another case, farmer Gerald Klusch was declared murdered after an extensive search for him in 2011. His body was found two months after he disappeared; he had been shot to death.

The victims were all murdered in Columbiana County and their cases remain unsolved.

Klusch's widow, Leah Klusch, is still haunted by the brutality of the crime that robbed her of more memories with her husband of 43 years.

"This was a caustic, horrendous, violent crime perpetrated against a very gentle, positive man," Leah Klusch says. "I still wait for his truck to pull in the driveway or wait for a telephone call. The grief we all carry is very, very heavy."

Belinda Puchajda's cousin Michael Williams was found murdered in August 2005.

The unsolved crime became a call to action for Puchajda and she created the website Columbiana County Families of Homicide Victims. She was instrumental in helping to establish the Columbiana County Homicide Task Force.

"My main goal was to raise awareness on the unsolved murders in the county and try to get the average everyday people who have information to come forward with what they know," Puchajda says.

She believes there are as many as 30 unsolved homicides in the county, but Columbiana County authorities dispute that number saying the total cold cases is only a fraction of that.

Various law enforcement agencies working the cases say the biggest problem is a lack of evidence.

"Whether you're talking about homicides or any crime, there's one thing, and one thing alone, that drives criminal charges," county prosecutor Robert Herron says. "That's admissible evidence."

He says the prosecutor's job is to determine if evidence is sufficient enough to sustain a conviction, something he gets a lot of criticism for.

"We have an ethical responsibility not to file charges where that standard isn't met, and a lot of people don't understand that," he explains

Columbiana County Sheriff Raymond Stone says murder witnesses don't always stay at the scene making law enforcement's job harder when working on cold cases.

"The ones we do have open, we are continuously working on," he says. "Our detective bureau works on every lead that we do get and we work in conjunction with the prosecutor's office to see if there is enough evidence to file charges."

But unsolved murders are not just a concern exclusive to Columbiana County.

There are more than 5,100 cold cases statewide; that's why the state Attorney General has revamped his website to assist local communities allowing anyone with information to leave a tip.

Tips left on the website are forwarded to the agency investigating the case.

The Attorney General's office also dedicates other resources to help local law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes including the state's crime lab to analyze evidence and the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation assisting with interviews.

Leah Klusch has confidence that the Columbiana County Sheriff's Department will find her husband's killer; she says the case is moving forward.

In the mean time, her family is offering a $20,000 reward and are convinced someone out there knows exactly what happened when Gerald Klusch was murdered.

"I hope people are not reserved about getting involved if they know anything," Leah Klusch says, "because at least with our family, it will help us to heal."

Puchajda believes every victim's family deserves to know why their loved one was murdered.

"If someone knows something about every case in our county, and if they would just muster the courage to come forward, it would give the families so much peace," she says.

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