Now We Know Who Killed Brad Lee Bellino
BOARDMAN, Ohio – They came to the news conference, sat quietly, not seeking to make their presence known. When it was over – and most reporters were gone – they paid their respects by thanking Boardman police for identifying the man who killed 12-year-old Brad Lee Bellino 51 years ago.
“We were in his sixth-grade class at Glenwood Middle School. We went to his funeral. It was just awful,” the woman said.
“It was very traumatic for kids our age to have something like that happen,” the man said.
The man and woman, friends since grade school, did not want to give their names, lest they suggest any equivalence with the suffering endured by the Bellino family over the sadistic killing of their classmate.
“We just really wanted to know,” the man said.
In naming Joseph Norman Hill, who died in 2019, as the man who killed young Brad, Boardman Police Chief Todd Werth urged reporters to respect the Bellino family’s privacy. No link between Hill and Bellino or his family has been identified, he said, and the family does not intend to make any public statements.
“We believe there is sufficient evidence to present to a grand jury if Hill was alive, and that, ultimately, it would have led to his indictment,” Werth said. “While Hill cannot be fully held accountable for this horrendous crime, our hope is that after 50 years knowing who is responsible for Brad Lee Bellino’s death can bring some sense of closure to his family and friends.”
On April 1, 1972, when Brad was first reported missing from his family’s home on McClurg Road, Hill was 32, married, living on Shadyside Drive in Boardman and driving a truck for a bottled water company, the police chief said.
Hill and his family moved to San Bernardino County, California, in 1978. There, he lived in 14 residences and died in 2019 from cancer. His body was cremated.
Trash collectors found Bellino’s body April 4, 1972, inside in a dumpster behind the former Isaly’s at the Boardman Plaza. He was last seen at a friend’s residence on Teakwood Drive in Boardman.
Werth credited a long list of Boardman police officers and other law enforcement agencies that kept the cold case open.
“Investigators followed up on several hundreds of leads, not only at the start of the investigation but as information and potential tips came in over the years,” he said.
In 2001, under the direction of former Chief Jeff Patterson, Bellino’s clothes were sent to the Ohio Bureau of Investigation forensic laboratory. Bellino’s body was exhumed, DNA was taken from his femur bone and from his mother and a DNA profile was obtained from evidence.
“Over the years, numerous potential suspects were checked against the DNA sample and also through the national Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database with negative results,” Werth said.
“In 2019, Boardman Police Captain Albert Kakascik revisited the case and started work to facilitate the use of familial DNA testing and genetic genealogy,” he continued. “The department contracted with Parabon Nano Labs to analyze the DNA sample and provide leads based on the family trees related to the familial DNA. During the next four years, DNA samples of persons identified by Parabon with possible familial links to the unknown subject were taken [for testing]. Some of the individuals volunteered their samples while others were collected by other means. The results of this testing helped to eliminate certain branches of the extended family tree and to focus on others.”
The DNA testing, which resulted in a 98.28% match to Hill, cost $29,000 over four years – a small price to pay to close the case, said Mahoning County Prosecutor Gina DeGenova.
“I can’t say enough about the hard work of this police department who worked tirelessly throughout the years, 50 years,” she said. “They continued to look. They didn’t let it go. They kept looking as technology improved, as DNA analyses were created.”
As Kakascik explained in an interview following the news conference, the laboratory that did the DNA genetic genealogy used “public sites like Ancestry.com” and came up with a family tree dating to “a couple of men and women who had children in the 1800s.”
The testing determined the killer would be someone of Welsh ancestry with fair skin color, brown or hazel eyes, brown or black hair color, according to Kakascik.
“We slowly worked down,” he said. “They know from a percentage of the DNA that it came from this family tree. … And they’d say, try this section. They’d compare it and say, ‘No, it’s not from that tree,’ and we kept moving down.”
DNA samples from members of potential family trees were collected voluntarily and involuntarily – a process that continues today as police in Boardman and California investigate whether Hill committed other sadistic sexual crimes and homicides.
The final match came from DNA voluntarily collected from one of Hill’s relatives “who is appalled and upset” at learning a family member is a sadistic killer, Kakascik said.
According to Werth, Hill has just one arrest on record; in 1986, he was charged with “lewd conduct” by Los Angeles police.
Boardman police are “in contact with the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department,” Werth said, in an effort to solve potential cold cases there. Hill’s DNA is on file with the national database. But so far, no hits.
Police here are also reopening the case of 12-year-old David Evans, whose body was found in January 1975, six days after he was reported missing by his parents. His body was found at a corner of Market Street and U.S. Route 224 – not far from where Bellino’s body was found 10 months earlier.
Werth was asked if there is evidence from the Evans case from which DNA could be obtained. He declined to answer, citing an ongoing investigation. “At this time, we don’t have specific information linking Mr. Hill to that case. But it is something we are looking at,” he said.
In December 1970, a third young man, 15-year-old Thomas Baird of Boardman, was found badly beaten on Lake Park Road in Boardman. Before he died, detectives spoke with him at the hospital. They asked him if he knew who assaulted him. And he actually shook his head and said, ‘Yes.’ But they never found out who,” Kakascik said.
Finding out who killed Brad Lee Bellino brought relief and sadness to the two classmates who were there for the announcement of his killer.
“He was a nice kid, a lot of fun and mischievous,” the man said.
“He was just a boy,” the woman said.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.