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Neighbors ask 'why?' about the tragedy next door

Tuesday, October 31, 2000

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

RAVENNA, Ohio -- Ralph and Tammie Reaser live in the shadow of evil. The yellow crime scene tape is gone. So is the media throng. Still, they wonder whether they could have prevented the horror that happened next door. They never thought their neighbor could commit such a crime.

"I used to think that with people who snapped there would always be a sign," Ralph Reaser said.

Authorities believe Michelle Zonko Bica, 39, kidnapped the nine-months-pregnant Theresa Andrews, 23, from her Ravenna, Ohio, home the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 27 -- feigning interest in a 1999 black Jeep Wrangler that Andrews and her husband had for sale.

After Bica lured Andrews the four blocks to her Mill Road home, she fatally shot the woman in the back. Moments later, in her first-floor laundry room, she sliced open the dead woman's womb. In a crude Caesarean section, she removed the child and claimed the healthy baby boy as her own. Bica then buried Andrews' body in the dirt floor of her garage and covered the shallow grave with gravel, Portage County prosecutor Victor Vigluicci said.

The short, heavy-set Bica, who for nine months had duped neighbors, friends and family into believing she was with child, dubbed the newborn Michael Thomas Bica.

She told her husband, Thomas Bica, 41, she had gone into labor at home shortly after he left for work at 6:35 a.m. Sept. 27. She claimed she called her doctor, who in turn called an ambulance to take her and the baby to Akron General Medical Center. She said she was released later that same day because of a tuberculosis alert at the hospital, authorities and her relatives said.

Six days lapsed between Andrews' disappearance and the discovery of her body. During that time, Bica had friends, family and neighbors -- including the Reasers -- over to meet the stolen bundle of joy.

The Reasers slipped away from their 7-year-old son's birthday party Saturday, Sept. 30, for about 15 minutes to see the newborn next door. The baby was lying on the couch.

"I picked up the baby, and he was a cute little baby," said Tammie Reaser, 38. "She asked me to look at the belly button."

Michelle Bica worried that it wasn't healing properly, but Reaser assured her it looked fine. Bica told them the baby was healthy and had her nose and her husband's cheeks.

"I remember her saying, 'I'm glad I had my baby on the 26th because of what happened with the Andrews case on the 27th,' " Ralph Reaser, 40, said. "She said they were locking their doors more."

She told him she wasn't going to fly her "new arrival" flag out of respect for the Andrews family. Michelle Bica also told him she had met a woman at Wal-Mart "who was as pregnant as me and I wish I could remember the name. She lives just up the road."

In fact, the Bicas had met Theresa and Jonathan Andrews about a month earlier in the local Wal-Mart baby department. The couples discussed their babies' genders, their due dates and the fact that they lived not far from each other.

Before that encounter, Bica had been telling people she was expecting a girl due in early September. After that meeting, she told people she was expecting a boy due in late September, which was more in line with Theresa Andrews' pregnancy. Investigators believe Bica began targeting Andrews after that meeting at Wal-Mart.

The day the Reasers visited the baby for the first time, Bica seemed depressed and a little tired while her husband was a very proud papa.

"There was no way that he didn't believe that was his son," Tammie Reaser said.

"He was jubilant," Ralph Reaser added. "I shook his hand."

When Michelle Bica saw the two men talking, she yelled to her husband, "Hey, let's get the lawn mowed!"

"I think she was afraid there would be too much said," Ralph Reaser said.

In retrospect, the Reasers realize a lot of what Michelle Bica said that day was about the missing Andrews woman.

"She wasn't talkin' about her baby much at all," he said. "Seemed like she wanted to get stuff off her mind."

One thing she said still chills him.

"Ralph, you know, whoever did that to the Andrews woman, that person must have been a very mean or very wicked person."

Another fatal shot

The night of Monday, Oct. 2, authorities returned to Bica's home to question her a second time about Andrews' disappearance and why a call had been made from Thomas Bica's cellular phone to the Andrews' home the morning of Sept. 27.

"As Ravenna police pulled up to the house and got out of their cars, they heard the shot," Vigluicci, the county prosecutor, said.

"Michelle! Michelle! Michelle!" Thomas Bica screamed.

In a locked, upstairs bedroom, Bica had fatally shot herself in the mouth. She used the same .22-caliber handgun authorities believe she had used to kill Andrews.

The Reasers had gone out that night, leaving their children with the baby sitter.

"She didn't hear anything, but saw the [FBI] guys in suits in the back yard," Ralph Reaser said.

Michelle and Thomas Bica had moved into the modest, two-story, white frame house at 626 Mill Road about three years ago. The house had belonged to Thomas' grandmother.

"They were working on the house together as they were dating," Reaser said.

The Bicas met in 1994 while the then-Michelle Zonko spent about six months in the Portage County Jail. She had taken more than $10,000 from her employer, Allen Aircraft Products Inc., in Ravenna, fled to Arizona and ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of receiving stolen property, authorities said. The tall, burly, soft-spoken Thomas Bica was a corrections officer at the jail. They married in December 1997.

"They were like your perfect neighbors," Ralph Reaser said.

They didn't drink. They didn't smoke. They were friendly and very chatty. So chatty, in fact, that Ralph Reaser sometimes avoided making eye contact with one of them in the yard if he didn't have time to talk. They were never nosy and always willing to lend a hand.

"If I'm out back mowing and my kids were out front, she'd tell me when the kids were getting too close to the road," he said.

When Michelle Bica walked her dachshund, Schroeder, she'd stop out in front of the Reasers' home so their boys could pet the pup.

"My kids would get a little rough with her dog, but she'd say, 'Oh, Ralph, it's OK,' " he said.

On Sunday evenings, Michelle and Thomas Bica would sit together holding hands, talking and rocking on their wrought-iron porch swing, the one with the pink seat cushions. They talked about their plans to have children like any other couple would.

"They were always together and didn't go off on their own," Reaser said. "They were home bodies ... just the Beaver Cleaver type."

She kept an immaculate house. He kept an impeccable yard -- the kind of yard that makes other perfectly respectable yards in the neighborhood look bad by comparison, Ralph Reaser said.

Michelle invited Tammie Reaser and the boys over to a Halloween party she had for her nieces and nephews one year. They had fun bobbing for apples.

However, as sweet as Michelle Bica could be, she also could be hot-tempered.

"She would yell at [Thomas] a lot," Tammie Reaser said. "I'd hear her over there cussing at him, then she'd want to know if we heard."

Tammie Reaser always told her they didn't hear, even when they did. Other times, Michelle Bica would apologize for having been too loud.

The harshest words Tammie Reaser ever heard Thomas Bica utter about his wife were, "She spends too much time up there on the computer."

"She ruled the roost, and what she said went," Ralph Reaser said. "He just loved her so much, it was hard to get a rise out of him."

The gravel mystery

The Reasers were off work on vacation the week of Sept. 25 -- the week Andrews was kidnapped and killed. In fact, they spent a lot of time repainting the shutters and the window frame above the kitchen sink -- a window that looked out onto the Bicas' back yard.

The day before the murder, Tammie Reaser put up dining room curtains that obscured their straight-shot view over to the Bicas. The neighbors on the opposite side of the Bicas were out of town on vacation that week.

The morning of the murder, Ralph Reaser went running about 9 and then to the dentist about 10:15. Tammie Reaser left the house shortly after he did to run errands. Before they left, they both saw Michelle Bica raking and smoothing gravel in the driveway.

"Tom did all the work over there, all the raking and mowing," Ralph Reaser said. "That was a pregnant woman raking. That's why I thought it was odd. All of a sudden she was doing work, and she never did any yard work."

Ralph Reaser returned home about 12:20 p.m. He walked up the back steps into his house and had a straight view of the Bicas' back yard and the 20-foot area between the house and the garage. He saw nothing unusual.

"If I'd seen her over there with blood on her, I would have run over there to help her, thinking the baby came," he said. "Would she have put a plug in me?"

Two days later, on Friday, Sept. 29, more gravel was delivered to the Bica home.

"When they delivered the gravel, Tom was starting to tell the gravel guy where to put it," Tammie Reaser said. "Michelle told him to get back in the house and said, 'I want some of it in the garage.' "

Nine months of deception

Michelle Bica seems to have fooled everybody -- her husband, her friends, her family and her neighbors. The Reasers never had reason to seriously question her pregnancy.

"You see a heavy-set woman wearing maternity clothes, you think she's pregnant," Ralph Reaser said.

Bica told the Reasers she had miscarried in the past, though authorities haven't found evidence this was true. Throughout her fake pregnancy, she encouraged relatives to rub her belly and feel the baby kick. She showed relatives ultrasound pictures, toured a birthing center and fabricated a doctor's letter ordering her on complete bed rest, Thomas Bica's family said through their attorney, John J. Flynn of Kent, Ohio.

Thomas and Michelle Bica attended baptism classes in preparation for the child's christening. The Bica family hosted a baby shower for her in August.

Michelle Zonko Bica's family, too, believed she was pregnant, afterward saying she had lived a life of "fiction and deception" for nine months. Her family described her as a very bright child and a bit of a perfectionist. At 13, she discovered her father's lifeless body in the family garage after his apparent suicide due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

She didn't have run-ins with the law as a teen-ager. However, after graduating from high school, Michelle Zonko got her grandmother to co-sign a car loan for her. After she failed to make car payments, it was repossessed in Texas, where she was undergoing training as a fast-food restaurant manager, her relatives said through their attorney, Thomas E. Walters of Tallmadge, Ohio.

She divorced an Iranian immigrant she had married in 1983 without her family ever having known she had been wed. She had undergone counseling twice before after stealing from relatives and was ordered to undergo additional counseling after her time in jail. She often ran away from her problems. However, her family also described her as someone who volunteered to help animals in need, whom her friends considered a very kind person, and whom her grandmother considered a good and helpful granddaughter.

When Michelle Bica's family rushed to her home the evening of Sept. 27 to meet the bouncing baby boy, they were so caught up in the euphoria of the moment, her explanation about her swift hospital release seemed to make sense, her family said.

After her suicide, things stopped making sense.

"The family remains in shock. They have lost a daughter and a baby they believed to be their grandchild. They have asked themselves questions over and over. They simply have no answers," Walters said.

"Michelle never displayed violence in her life. She made very poor choices in the past but nothing indicative of criminal insanity. She had no known psychosis nor ever discussed harming another person .... The family is at a loss at offering any other insight into this tragedy."

Unanswered questions

"I feel bad for Theresa and Jon, her husband," Ralph Reaser said.

Jonathan Andrews, who finished making national media appearances a few weeks ago, now is concentrating on raising the 8-pound-6-ounce miracle that is his son, Oscar Gavin Andrews.

Reaser feels bad for Thomas Bica, too.

"He had a baby boy for five days, and now he's gone," Reaser said. "He had a wife he loved, and now she's gone.

"He did everything for this woman, and he went out of his way to make her happy. It got on my nerves how she took advantage of him."

In recent weeks, Thomas Bica has returned to his Mill Road home to pick up a few items and chatted briefly with Reaser a couple of times.

"He said he still can't believe it," Reaser said.

"He's struggling," Bica's attorney, Flynn, said. "It's still difficult."

Bica is living with his parents in neighboring Kent, Ohio, and hasn't granted any interviews. It's unlikely he ever will.

"Why didn't he know?" Flynn said people have repeatedly asked of his client. "What would be more believable, that his wife returned with a healthy baby after she was expecting, or would he have thought she was capable of kidnapping and killing and removing a child from a womb? How could anybody imagine that?"

Of his own volition and without an attorney, Thomas Bica underwent 10 hours of police questioning and a polygraph test the night his wife committed suicide and was released the next morning, the county prosecutor said.

Questions remain about whether someone as yet unknown may have assisted Michelle Bica. How did a 200-pound woman move the body of a 150-pound woman the 20 feet from the house to the garage, presumably in broad daylight? How did she know how to deliver the child quickly enough to save his life? Authorities said she had to have delivered the child within seven to 10 minutes of Andrews' death in order for the child to have survived.

Vigluicci had no comment on those specific questions but said the investigation continues. The Ravenna Police Department, the FBI's Akron and Cleveland offices and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation could wrap up the case this week, he said.

Touched by the tragedy

The Reasers still live in the shadow of evil.

One day recently, when Ralph Reaser was helping out at his children's school, a little boy who'd seen him on TV talking about the case asked him, "Don't you live by the house where they kill people?"

Tammie Reaser feels some guilt, wondering whether a change in their routine Sept. 27 might have made a difference. She started crying as she remembered how she and her oldest son overheard people at Burger King saying, "What about the neighbors? Why didn't they know?"

The Reasers attended Theresa Andrews' Oct. 8 memorial service, which drew more than 2,000 to Roosevelt High School in Kent. They felt obligated in some way and wanted "to show respect for the whole situation with them being our neighbors," she said.

She thinks they would have gone even if the Bicas hadn't been their neighbors. The Reasers needed a sense of closure just like the thousands of others touched by the tragedy.

"We have three small boys," he said. "It just makes you think."

Their children have been affected. The boys have been waking up in the night. They're afraid to sleep alone. They still remember the police cruisers next door the night "the lady killed herself because she was so sad," which is all the couple has told their oldest boy, who's 7, about what happened. They've told the twins, 5, even less.

The Bicas' Mill Road home hardly looked sinister the morning after Theresa Andrews' memorial service. Orange, crimson and gold leaves rustled in the trees. Their American flag hung just a bit uneven because it was twisted around the flag pole. "Welcome To Our Porch" read the sign beneath the mailbox.

Still, there was an eerie calm in the air, the kind that signals something is missing -- a couple from their home, a wife from her husband, a mother from her child.

Ralph and Tammie Reaser still live in the shadow of evil, but it recedes a bit each day. Someday, it may be gone, and they again may be able to gaze out their kitchen window without thinking of the tragedy next door.

"It's just going to take a lot of time," she said.

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