Murder victim's sister: 'there's a victim here and it's not him'

Debbie Pooley, left, was raped and murdered in 1987 by Gregory Wilson.
Debbie Pooley, left, was raped and murdered in 1987 by Gregory Wilson.

Debbie Pooley was a vivacious, outgoing woman.

She loved kids and taught religion classes for young people at her Catholic church in Ohio. She enjoyed performing in community theater and was always ready to listen to a friend's problems.

At 36, Pooley had a job helping manage a riverfront restaurant in Northern Kentucky, and she was in a relationship that her sister said might have gone somewhere if Gregory Wilson hadn't kidnapped, raped and murdered Pooley.

"She was so full of joy and life. She was everybody's friend, and everybody liked her," said Pooley's older sister, Bonnie Shinkle. "The world really lost a wonderful person."

Wilson was scheduled to be put to death Thursday, but Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd has halted the execution, citing concerns about the state's lethal-injection protocol and whether Wilson is retarded, which would bar execution.

Monday, the attorney general's office asked the state Supreme Court to let the execution go forward this week, arguing that several courts have upheld Wilson's sentence and that Shepherd's ruling was wrong.

As Kentucky contemplates only its fourth execution since the early 1960s, the case has again exposed the raw emotions surrounding the death penalty.

When an execution nears, defense attorneys ratchet up attempts to save the condemned person's life, and opponents of the death penalty renew their pleas that it is unjust.

That's been true in Wilson's case. His attorneys have argued he should not be put to death for a number of reasons, including that defense attorneys at his original trial did a poor job. Prosecutors have opposed those arguments.

In that 11th-hour swirl of legal motions and publicity, Pooley's family and friends say there has been too much focus on Wilson and not enough on the life he took.

Shinkle gave her first interviews this week to make sure people remember "there's a victim here, and it's not him."

"The focus seems to be always on the poor guy who did the terrible crime and not the family that's suffered all these years," said Shinkle, 62.

Advocates for Wilson say they must focus on his potential execution, but there is no intent to diminish the pain of Pooley's family.

"We are not in any way reducing our sense of compassion for the victim or her family," said Robert J. Castagna, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.

Pooley, the youngest of three children, grew up in Hamilton, Ohio. After high school, she attended college for a time in Tampa, and lived in South Florida for several years with her brother, Mike, who died 10 years ago, and with Shinkle.

Pooley's lively personality was a natural fit with the hospitality industry, and she tended bar at a restaurant south of Miami called Dalt's, her sister said.

Kathy Salce, who also worked there, said Pooley and Salce's future husband, Paul, entertained customers with their antics behind the bar.

Pooley's nickname was "Mom" because she was always ready to listen to people and help with advice, Salce said.

After Kathy and Paul Salce married, Pooley went with them on their honeymoon and helped them paint their new house.

"Whatever you needed, she was there," Salce said. "She just really cared about what was going on in your life."

Pooley often cared for her two nieces — Shinkle's daughters — when she lived with Shinkle, reading to them and taking them to the restaurant, where she made milkshakes for them while they did their homework in a booth, Shinkle said.

"She adored my daughters," Shinkle said.

In the early 1980s, Pooley decided to move closer to her parents.

The irony is that with South Florida booming, Pooley wanted to go where she thought people were friendlier and there would be less crime, Salce said.

She moved to Covington and got a job as an assistant manager at a restaurant. She was dating a man, and her sister thinks Pooley would have wanted to marry and have children someday.

"Who knows what might have happened?" she said.

But on May 29, 1987, as Pooley returned from visiting a friend and parked her car near her house, Wilson, then 30, and Brenda Humphrey happened to be walking by, said Donald Buring, former commonwealth's attorney in Kenton County.

Wilson had served time in Ohio for two rapes. Humphrey, who had been a prostitute, later testified the two were looking for someone to rob.

Wilson forced Pooley into the back seat of her car. While Humphrey drove, Wilson raped Pooley repeatedly, then strangled her despite her pleas to live, Buring said.

Buring said he thinks that after leaving some previous victims alive — and getting caught — Wilson killed Pooley to make sure she couldn't tell on him.

Wilson and Humphrey dumped Pooley's body in a field west of Indianapolis. Her body was not found for two weeks.

Wilson and Humphrey stole necklaces from Pooley and used her credit card for several purchases, Buring said.

Not long after, Humphrey, apparently bothered by the crime, confessed to a friend, who told police.

A jury recommended death for Wilson. Humphrey testified against him and is serving life.

Advocates for Wilson say he has become devoutly religious since going to Death Row and is deeply sorry for killing Pooley.

That doesn't change the fact that he was sentenced to die, said Shinkle, who has not seen any remorse from Wilson.

"There's God's laws and there's man's laws, and we have to abide by both," she said. "His death is going to be much more humane than the one he meted out to Debbie."

Shinkle said she supports having Wilson executed but takes no delight in it. For her, it's a matter of carrying out the sentence he received, and it will help her family to know the case is finally over.

Shinkle said her parents, Walter and Anne Pooley, never got over their daughter's brutal death.

They felt guilty celebrating holidays, and never put up a Christmas tree again, Shinkle said.

Walter Pooley, a retired newspaper press operator, died in May. Anne Pooley has had health problems; Shinkle, who lives in Florida, is staying with her to care for her.

Wilson's execution would be justice for Debbie Pooley after 23 years, Shinkle said.

"All of her hopes and dreams were taken away from her."

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