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Shotgun practice turns deadly

Ohio man charged in killings of two women in Beaver woods

Thursday, May 27, 1999

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Nineteen-year-old Todd Butler had a new 12-gauge shotgun, and on Tuesday night he wanted to go drinking and target-shooting.

Beaver County law enforcement officers search brush along a road for the gun used in Tuesday night's shootings. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

But he and his buddy, Nathan Criss, 23, didn't have a car to take them to one of their favorite spots -- the secluded Pennsylvania State Game Lands in Beaver County, across the border from their homes in Columbiana County, Ohio.

So they persuaded two Ohio friends -- Clairenda Collins, 21, of Rogers, and Loretta Haines, 18, of East Palestine -- to drive them to a popular party spot about two miles into the dense woods off Cannelton Road in South Beaver.

A 16-year-old boy, also from Ohio, came along for the ride, and the party of five picked up a 30-pack of discount beer.

They arrived about 6 p.m. and for several hours partied among the maples and pines along Watts Mill Road while Butler and Criss fired the shotgun at beer cans and rocks.

But as the evening progressed, the mood changed.

State police said Butler began talking about turning the shotgun on Collins and Haines, best friends who had attended an Ohio vocational school together. Then, police said, sometime between 8 and 9:30 p.m., Butler suddenly opened fire on the women.

Ohio and Pennsylvania authorities said Butler, for reasons they don't yet understand, first shot Haines from close range as she sat on the ground near a bush, hitting her in the upper chest.

Then Butler aimed the gun at Collins, who was a few feet away, and fired twice, also striking her in the upper chest.

Todd Butler, 19 

Both bodies had to be positively identified using dental records because the tissue damage was so severe.

"As far as I know, there is no motive. It appears to be a kill-for-thrill kind of thing," said state police Trooper Don Neill.

"They shot at some cans and drank some beer, and eventually Mr. Butler apparently decided to shoot the two women."

The women's blood still stained the grass yesterday afternoon as state troopers scoured the woods for evidence.

After questioning Criss and the juvenile, police caught up to Butler yesterday afternoon in Ohio and charged him with two counts of homicide. He was being held last night in the Columbiana County Jail awaiting extradition to Beaver County.

As troopers gathered evidence and reporters swarmed to the scene yesterday, everyone was asking the same question: Why were the two women shot?

Investigators would not discuss what Butler had said before the shooting, but Neill said, "There were comments made that would lead us to believe he was responsible."

Clairenda Collins, 21 

After the shooting, Criss and the juvenile told police that they were both in fear for their lives from Butler. But they said they all climbed into Collins' Chevrolet Corsica and drove to Ohio, with Butler dismantling the shotgun en route and ditching the parts in the weeds along Watts Mill Road. The three stopped at a Dairy Mart store in East Palestine, Ohio, where they left the car and got a ride from a friend.

When Criss arrived home, he told his parents what had happened, and they ordered him to notify police. At 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, he walked into the Columbiana police station and told an officer what he had seen. Then he accompanied police as they drove to the site.

They found the bodies after 1 a.m. A Beaver County deputy coroner pronounced both women dead at 4:22 a.m.

State troopers spent the morning collecting beer cans as evidence and searching for the rest of the dismantled shotgun, which Butler had bought last week. As of last night, they had found only the barrel of the gun in the weeds. They also found an empty box of shotgun shells and dozens of spent shells in the grass and along the road, debris from recreational shooting.

Meanwhile, other troopers interviewed Criss and the juvenile at the state police barracks in Beaver County and found that their stories matched. Troopers then prepared a warrant to arrest Butler, who they said has a criminal record for aggravated assault in Ohio. They then went to his house in Columbiana and arrested him without incident.

Criss and the 16-year-old have not been charged, and Trooper Randall McPherson said police do not expect to charge them.

Loretta Haines, 18 

Police said Butler and the other young people were all friends, but apparently none of them were romantically involved. Troopers knew of no animosity among them, either.

Collins and Haines were best friends, and both had been students at the Columbiana County Career Center in Lisbon, Ohio. Collins had graduated in 1977, and Tuesday was Haines' last day of school. A high school senior, Haines had visited the vocational school with Collins on Tuesday to see her teachers for the last time.

"She came here last night to give me a hug and to say goodbye," said Gayla Thompson, a secretary in the office. "They were going to move in together."

Seniors at the career center had a moment of silence last night during an awards ceremony to honor the memory of Haines, who was in the food service program.

School administrators described Haines as a good student, energetic and thrilled to have recently passed her math proficiency test, the last hurdle to graduation.

"Loretta was an extremely hard-working young lady," Principal Tom Sapp said.

He said Haines loved working with children as part of a school program in which students demonstrated skills in elementary schools.

"Loretta was one of our main food service demonstrators, and she loved doing it. She was proud of what she had learned here," the principal said.

Before the ceremony, Sapp sat down with the seniors, some of whom had not heard of the shootings.

Sapp said he had received word of the shootings yesterday morning from Haines' father.

Both Sapp and Superintendent Edna Anderson described Haines as outgoing, friendly and popular. They remembered Collins and described her as quiet.

The administrators said both girls' deaths hit faculty, staff and students hard. While other students have died in traffic accidents, this was the first time such a tragedy had affected the school, Sapp said.

"This is just so overwhelming. People try to make sense out of a car accident, but you can't make sense out of anything like this," Anderson said.

Haines had not planned to participate in last night's award ceremony. Instead, she was going to participate in graduation ceremonies at East Palestine High School.

Haines, who lived with her parents, was hoping to attend college in Pittsburgh, her uncle, William Haines, 62, of East Palestine, said last night. Her parents, who were saving up for college tuition, had bought her a car as a graduation present, but she never had the chance to drive it, Haines said.

"She was always a nice girl, she never was in trouble," Haines said. "When they told me this morning I sat here at the table for about a half hour before it sunk in because I couldn't believe it."

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