In dreams, Joseph Kupchik never remembers that he’s dead. Seems unaware that he plunged to his death off a parking deck in downtown Cleveland in 2006. It’s always up to his twin brother, Johnathan, to give him the bad news.
John’s dreams started shortly after Joe died and haven’t let up since. Sometimes the two of them are at home, playing video games. In this one, they’re shooting hoops. Joe bounces the basketball against the backboard, into the net, then returns it to his brother.
Joe, you’re dead, says John. You died.
But Joe only stares at him, uncomprehending.
He’s confused, John thinks. Or maybe I’m the one who’s confused. Maybe this is real.
It’s not, of course.
Joe is dead in the Real World.
The cops think Joe committed suicide. But if it was suicide, he found an unusual way to do it. A growing number of friends and family believe Joe was murdered.
Either way, when John wakes up, he’ll have to leave Joe behind. So let’s give them a moment alone. They’ve got a game to finish just now.
Joe and John Kupchik were hard to tell apart. Both inherited their mother’s deep, dark eyes and their father’s coarse, burgundy-brown hair. They had the same smile and gently sloping shoulders. Joe was slightly taller and had a larger nose and tilted his head when he met someone, almost bashfully. But they looked enough alike that John is reminded of Joe every time he looks in the mirror. He misses his twin and sometimes feels him, like an amputated limb. Their connection, that odd closeness that their sister Kate calls “the creepy twin thing,” is still being severed.
The Kupchiks live in a modest two-story home inside a nondescript subdivision in Strongsville, domiciles of the shrinking middle class. Joe—“Kuppy” to friends—graduated from Strongsville High School in 2004. He wasn’t much of an athlete; couldn’t make a lay-up to save his life, friends say. But he played games of pick-up football in the neighborhood and loved watching the NFL on weekends, Green Bay in particular. He often wore a giant cheese head in the living room, though it’s long been suspected he chose the team for its colors. Sometimes he made minor bets—a dollar or two—with John or his older brother Michael.
In the fall of 2004, then-18-year-old Joe and John decided it was time to discover their own destinies. John set off for the University of Dayton. Joe stayed home and enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College, taking accounting classes at the main branch in Parma.
During this time, Joe met many of his closest friends while working at Wendy’s on Pearl Road. Joe was a crew leader and opened the store on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Megan Rachow, who still works at Wendy’s, remembers Joe’s knack for making endless shifts a little more entertaining. During lulls they played tic-tac-toe on the parking lot with chalk. Sometimes Joe put sandwich buns in the fryer. In retaliation for some prank she can no longer remember, Megan once put a ladle of cheese sauce in Joe’s hat, but he noticed before putting it on. Out back one day, she offered him his first cigarette, the single puff coming out in loud coughs a moment later as he laughed and laughed.
That first year at Tri-C, Joe pulled a C average. He figured his shifts at Wendy’s were impacting his studies, so he quit in the fall of 2005. His transcripts show an immediate improvement. That semester, Joe took a full course load and earned two As and three Bs. He also became treasurer of the Tri-C Philosophy Club. Around this same time, he discovered online gambling.
The bets were small at first. He and John anted up $35 apiece to start an account at BoDog.com to bet on NFL games. They schemed over the phone and usually picked at least four winners for every seven games. By Christmas, their initial investment of $70 had ballooned to nearly $1,600.
Then Joe began betting on college basketball on their account, laying down more money and losing more often than not. When John complained, Joe gave him half their winnings—about $800—and changed the password.
During the long winter break from school, Joe also started a new job at Steak ’n Shake in nearby Brunswick. He worked the grill at first and then began to wait tables. A co-worker recalls that Joe charmed many of his regular customers but had a hard time fitting in with other employees. They picked on him for bobbing his head when he talked, a nervous habit. And for talking too smart. Joe complained to a close friend that co-workers often changed his schedule, giving him less profitable shifts. (According to a former manager of the Brunswick Steak ’n Shake, employees were allowed to change the schedule as long as someone showed up.) All Joe’s parents knew was that before leaving for work, he always left a note with his hours on the kitchen counter.
The morning of February 11, a Saturday, Joe’s father, George, gathered receipts and W-2s for the family’s tax filings. He also planned to fill out student loan paperwork, so that Joe could transfer to the University of Cincinnati later that year. While Joe was still in bed, George stuck his head inside his son’s room.
“How much money do you have in your bank account?” George asked, waking him up.
“Seven thousand dollars,” Joe replied.
After talking to his dad, Joe got up and dressed for work—black pants and a white button-up shirt. Before he left, Joe jotted down his work schedule for the day: noon to 10 p.m. George heard Joe shut the door of his Honda Civic. The sound echoes in George’s mind still: the last noise he ever heard his son make. It was a little after 11 in the morning.
Only later would George learn that Joe had lied about his savings account. Some of the money had been loaned out to family and friends, but a lot had gone toward online bets. That morning, Joe’s balance was $4.46.
Adam Worner, age 22, left the Blind Pig on West 6th that Saturday night around 1 a.m. and began the long walk back to his apartment on the east side of downtown Cleveland. His path lead him down Ontario Street. As he passed Fat Fish Blue, he came upon the body of a young man lying on the cement, just inside a thin alley, below a nine-story parking deck. He wasn’t the first one on the scene. Later, he would say that he saw a black man, about his age, dressed in jeans and a nice jacket, standing over the body.
“I don’t want to get into the blood and guts and gore of it,” Worner says. He’ll only say that the body belonged to a young man. That he was a bloodied wreck and unconscious, but not dead. That he was not wearing shoes. Worner used his cell phone to dial 911.
Sometime during the frenzy of activity as the EMS crew arrived and loaded the body into the ambulance, the black man quietly walked away. Worner is not sure he could recognize him if he saw him again on the street.
Officer James Foley arrived at the scene first and searched the garage. On the top floor, he found a Honda Civic with its driver’s side door open, the keys dangling from the ignition, the engine turned off. The driver’s seat was bloody, and a rolled-up white shirt covered in blood lay between the seat and the door, beside a bloody leather jacket. A pair of shoes rested on the floor under the steering wheel. A trail of blood snaked from the door to the railing. A six-inch fillet knife lay on the snowy cement a few feet from the car. Written on a piece of paper on the dash was Joseph Kupchik’s phone number and home address. (George later recognized the handwriting as his son’s.)
At 1:47 a.m., Joe arrived at MetroHealth Medical Center. EMS had placed him in a backboard and neck brace and had him hooked up to a ventilator. ER doctors discovered myriad injuries: broken ankles, a shattered pelvis, internal bleeding, and a punctured lung, the result of a stab wound in the left side of the chest, just below the collarbone. They tried to save him, but the damage was too extensive. Joe was pronounced dead at 3:08 a.m.
About seven hours passed before the Kupchiks learned any of this. As they arrived home from church at 10:30 a.m., police and media showed up simultaneously. Within minutes of the parents’ learning that their son was dead, Channel 5 was at the door seeking an interview. The family shut the reporters out to grieve alone, but the media smelled a mystery and weren’t about to forget it.
Dr. Frank Miller III, a pathologist for Cuyahoga County who was later appointed coroner, performed the autopsy on Joe’s body. There were some strange details, for sure. Take that stab wound below Joe’s left collarbone. Dr. Miller discovered the wound was quite deep, and that the knife had traveled front to back, downward, and left to right. That’s Joe’s left and right. So it didn’t come in straight, but at an angle, pointing down and toward Joe’s right side.
The other serious injuries were confined to Joe’s lower body. His skull was not busted and his teeth were not broken, even though he is presumed to have fallen nine stories—Dr. Miller maintains his injuries were consistent with a fall from that height. It appeared that Joe had landed feet first—both ankles, both legs, and four ribs were fractured.
Miller also noted marks on Joe’s stomach that looked like small cuts. There was no food in Joe’s stomach, just a small amount of a red-brown liquid. Most likely, it had been several hours since he’d eaten. The red-brown liquid was never identified.
Joe’s clothes were examined, too. His socks were clean, but his pants were caked with a white substance that turned out to be calcium sulfate, a compound found in de-icing material. His t-shirt, once white, was now mostly red and stiff with dried blood. It had been cut off during surgery and mended temporarily, like Joe, so that it could be photographed.
Cleveland Detectives Ignatius Sowa and James Gajowski were assigned to the case. They declined to be interviewed, but I managed to get my hands on a copy of their notes.
The detectives returned to the parking garage and got the video from the security camera that faces the entrance. Although they could not make out who was driving Joe’s Honda when it pulled into the garage, the time on the video matched the time-stamped ticket discovered inside Joe’s car: 1:04 p.m. Which means that the car was in the garage for over 12 hours before Joe’s body was found on the street below. (The only thing they know about his travels between leaving home and entering the garage is that he stopped at the Wendy’s on Pearl Road where he’d once worked and ordered a chicken nugget meal at the drive-through.)
Near the space where the car was parked in the garage, the detectives found a pack of Newport cigarettes, two pens, and a beer bottle. On the street, they recovered Joe’s belt buckle, which apparently had snapped off upon impact.
Sowa also noted that Joe had a roll of money tucked in his pocket: $103 (a ten, 5 fives and 68 singles). On the passenger seat they found Joe’s book bag. Inside were two printed magazine articles, “Decisions About Death” and “The Harm That Religion Does.” On the floor below was a textbook titled Deviant Behavior.
The detectives wondered what a preppy kid from Strongsville had been doing in a downtown parking garage for 12 hours. They wondered if it had something to do with the Ontario Café, a small bar next to Fat Fish Blue that turns queer after dark on weekends. They spoke to a regular twist known to frequent the club, but the man said he didn’t know Joe.
Sowa and Gajowski interviewed co-workers at Steak ’n Shake. The schedule for the week of February 11 showed that Joe was supposed to come in at 5 p.m., not noon. So they spoke to the managers who had been on duty at 5 p.m. that day, Amber Cooper and Matt Magale, who told them because it wasn’t a busy night, they decided not to call Joe’s house when he didn’t show up for work. One employee said Joe had appeared agitated during his Friday night shift and had forgotten to clock out.
Then the detectives learned the extent of Joe’s gambling habit. In a two-day period in January, Joe had lost $1,800. It appeared he’d withdrawn money from Charter One after a significant loss to his BoDog account. The night before he died, Joe placed a $450 wager on college basketball.
They also reviewed the contents of the computer disks found in Joe’s bag. Shortly before he died, Joe had written this passage:
Expectations can either be positive or negative, but rarely am I ever right. Whenever I anticipate an event probably to make my dreams come true, something usually happens where the situation turns into a nightmare.
Adding this up with the gambling, the somber reading material, and the helpful note with name and address left in the car, the detectives informed the coroner’s office of their conclusion: the kid had sat in his car for hours, stabbed himself, then jumped from the building. Suicide.
Dr. Miller has seen several cases in which people utilized multiple methods of suicide. There was the man who roped a noose around his neck before putting a shotgun in his mouth, for example. So he accepted the detectives’ theory. Dr. Miller postulated that the scratches on Joe’s stomach were probably “tick marks” where he’d tried to stab himself before finally getting the nerve to really push. He wrote up his own report for then–County Coroner Dr. Elizabeth Balraj.
Again, the media knew before the Kupchiks.
George Kupchik, Joe’s father, is director of operations for a company that manufactures silicone sealants and greases. The job is as exciting as it sounds, but after years of analyzing data George’s mind has become a finely tuned machine. When something isn’t working at the factory, it’s his job to find out why. He has learned from experience not to make rash decisions until he has reviewed all the evidence.
George was watching TV on May 22 when a local reporter for 19 Action News announced that his son’s death would most likely be ruled a suicide.
George demanded a series of meetings with Dr. Balraj and her staff to convince them that his son was murdered before the ruling was made official. George presented Balraj and Miller with his own report on Joe’s death, which he’d worked on during the Cleveland police investigation. He titled it Questions and Facts about Joseph Kupchik. There were many more questions than facts:
Where is Joe’s cell phone? (It should have been on him or in the car, but to this day it has not been found.)
Why did Joe not call off from work if he didn’t want to arouse suspicion?
Where is the other man who found Joe’s body and why didn’t he stay to talk to police?
With all the blood in the car (which George had to clean himself), would Joe have had enough strength to walk to the railing and climb over?
If Joe was covered in blood, why was there no blood on the railing where he would have boosted himself up?
Why would the police assume Joe was despondent over money, when relatives and friends owed him a combined $7,300 and he owned stock worth $4,000?
If he was contemplating suicide, why did Joe place an online bet the night before—$450 on Georgetown to win the NCAA Tournament, which wasn’t until March?
Where did the knife come from? It didn’t match any at home or from Steak ’n Shake.
Could the right-handed Joe have inflicted that odd stab wound on himself? And speaking of wounds, couldn’t those minor abrasions on his stomach have occurred when his belt snapped off upon impact?
George went on to note that Joe had been planning for his future. His grades at Tri-C were improving, and he’d just sent transcripts to the University of Cincinnati. He also explained that the Deviant Behavior textbook was required reading for a psychology class he was taking, and the articles found in his book bag and on the computer disk were for a philosophy class.
Dr. Balraj agreed there were enough unanswered questions to merit further investigation. She assigned two investigators from her own office, Alan Clark and Charles Teel. George knew that if the investigators could not prove reasonable doubt in Balraj’s mind, his son’s death would be forever labeled a suicide.
At the end of June, the Kupchiks were asked to return to the office of the county coroner. Dr. Balraj had settled on a ruling. The stakes were high not only for the Kupchiks, but also for Dr. Miller, whose reputation hinged on his own interpretation of the evidence.
Dr. Balraj informed George and Karen and Kate that Joe’s death would be ruled “undetermined.”
The Kupchiks were handed pictures of the crime scene, taken by detectives. Although the coroner was not ruling “suicide,” she still believed the evidence supported the likelihood that Joe had taken his own life. The pictures were supposed to illustrate her point. Instead, it only confused the problem. One picture showed drops of blood inside a stairwell near where Joe’s car had been parked.
“It was like, ‘What the hell is this?’” Kate says, remembering the moment. She asked, “Is this Joe’s blood? Has this been tested?”
The answer was no. According to Kate, Dr. Balraj took the photo and placed it next to her and exchanged a look with her protégé.
“I think she realized something hadn’t been done,” said Kate. “It was like, uh, yeah, you better test that.”
Additionally, they learned that fresh vomit had been found on the stairwell, near the second floor.
Subsequent testing showed that the blood in the stairwell was from an unknown female. The vomit was not Joe’s, either.
But the Plain Dealer seemed strangely reluctant to accept the new verdict.
“Apparent suicide can’t be ruled as one” was the headline of the article the next day. The first paragraph read: “Joseph Kupchik killed himself but the coroner won’t call it a suicide.”
It was another blow to the Kupchiks, who were now convinced that Joe had been murdered. It would no longer be enough for them to prove Joe hadn’t killed himself. Now, they had to find who did.
Joe hadn’t worked at Steak ’n Shake long, but it was long enough to charm customer Fran Nagle. Fran is a loud-mouthed Italian with a Pittsburgh accent and a friendly spirit. She’s hard to forget, and Joe would ask jokingly, “Would you like your usual table?” whenever she came in.
After Joe died, she thought about contacting the family. But when the June article appeared in the Plain Dealer, she decided to do more than that. She decided to get involved.
Fran met with Joe’s mother, Karen, and the two formed a quick friendship. Fran knew how to work public records requests from the classes she had taken to earn a private investigator’s license. She helped the Kupchiks gather evidence they needed to force the Cleveland police to take another look at the case.
One weekend, she and Karen drove out to the parking garage on Ontario to see what they could find. The two middle-aged women ascended the stairwell to the ninth floor but stopped short of opening the door. They heard a large group of people talking and music playing. “That place is party central on Saturday nights,” says Fran.
They also noticed a large wooden container that garage employees use to store bags of salt to thaw ice and snow. The container was plenty big enough for a body and had a clasp that could be locked from the outside with something as simple as a pen. The inside walls of the container were caked with white residue from bags of de-icing material. Fran wonders if it’s the same residue that was caked on Joe’s pants when they found him.
Later, Fran visited Steak ’n Shake and discovered something detectives had missed: Joe’s schedule for February 11 had been altered. He’d been scheduled to work noon to 10 p.m., as he’d told his parents, but someone had changed it and no one could tell her by whom or when. The detectives had spoken only to evening managers, who would not have known about the change.
She also spoke to a Steak ’n Shake employee who had befriended Joe in the few weeks he worked there. Her name was Sarah Esper, a sprite of a girl with amber hair and a mischievous smile. She told Fran that Joe had talked to her about asking a girl from Tri-C out on a date for Valentine’s Day, which would have been three days after his death.
When Sarah spoke to me in 2007, she remembered a little more. “Joe told me this girl had a boyfriend and that he didn’t want the boyfriend to find out about their date,” she says. “When he said that, he said it slyly.”
Examining Joe’s cell phone records, Fran noticed that in the days leading up to his death, Joe had called a friend named Tim Adams several times a day. Tim had called Joe’s cell phone, too. It seemed like a day didn’t go by without one calling the other. But on February 11, Joe didn’t call Tim. And Tim never called Joe. It wasn’t much, but it seemed odd.
She spoke to investigator Alan Clark about it, and according to Fran, Clark told her that he’d interviewed Tim, who’d claimed that his younger sister had told him a rumor about Joe: someone called “J.C.” supposedly knows what happened because he took Joe up to Cleveland, roughed him up, left his body some place, then came back later, stabbed him, and threw him off the building.
Tim told Clark he didn’t know who J.C. was, but Tim’s sister told Clark that J.C. was a friend of hers from Strongsville High School, and that the rumor was just a joke he had made in poor taste. Fran later learned something the girl apparently forgot to tell investigators: that J.C. had a twin brother whose first name also begins with J.
When George heard this, he was stunned. He had already called every number on Joe’s last cell phone bill. One number he hadn’t recognized rang into the voicemail of a man who called himself “J.C.”
Tim Adams, a bright-eyed kid with spiky red hair, says that after his long-time girlfriend broke up with him, he started getting together with Joe. They would go skiing or see movies, mostly. Two days before Joe died, Tim says he lent Joe $500 to place an early bet for March Madness. George repaid Tim at the wake, after Tim asked about it.
“I don’t think Joe committed suicide,” says Tim. “I think someone had to draw him down there. I don’t know if there was a basketball game that night, but if there was, maybe they lured him down for the game.”
In fact, there was a Cavs game that night, against the Wizards. Tip-off was at 7:30.
Since 2006, the Kupchiks have tried to gain access to security camera footage recorded at the Cleveland garage where Joe’s car was found from the afternoon and evening of his violent death. Key Bank owns the garage and the company’s security team handles the cameras. When George first requested the tapes, he was assured, via e-mail, by Chief Security Officer James Biehl, that the video he requested would be copied and put someplace safe until they were able to get a subpoena from the courts that would allow Key Bank to legally release the footage to the family.
At the time, George felt that this was an easy out for Biehl, who he believes did not expect George to actually get a court order. But he did. In 2007, George contacted a close relative who works inside the Cleveland Police Department, who called in a favor, and in a blink Key Bank was served.
The tapes, Biehl told the family, had been lost.
After speaking to the Kupchiks and Fran Nagle, I attempted to get more information out of Joe’s co-workers at the Brunswick Steak ’n Shake. Employees, however, had been instructed by managers on the day Joe’s body was found not to speak to anyone about it, especially reporters.
Amber Cooper, who managed Steak ’n Shake the afternoon Joe disappeared, no longer works for the company. She claims the managers who would have seen Joe come in, if he did, were Tonya Walters and Brian Weaver.
When contacted, Walters said that “there’s information that should be known” and promised to call back, but she never did. When reached again, she said that if she spoke to me, she would lose her job.
Brian Weaver, who now works at the Garfield Steak ’n Shake, was even less helpful. But he has reason to be wary of the media, who do better background checks than restaurant employers. Weaver has two felony convictions for stealing from the last company he worked for: Wendy’s. While he was district manager for five area Wendy’s restaurants, Weaver set up four “ghost employees” that he attached to the payroll, allowing him to cash bogus checks total ing more than $90,000. He was convicted in 2004. When Joe left Wendy’s, Weaver was the manager who hired him at Steak ’n Shake.
Of course, Weaver wasn’t the only manager with reason to avoid reporters asking questions about Joe. Matt Magale once tried to pressure Joe into joining a get-rich-quick scheme that promised financial independence by purchasing groceries online. Luckily, Joe didn’t bite, but it soured their relationship.
Magale was eventually transferred out of the Brunswick Steak ’n Shake after a high school co-worker accused him of sexual harassment.
There was one more thing Cooper said. She claims a Steak ’n Shake employee named Bryan Trimmer was hanging out with Joe a lot right before his death.
Trimmer moved from Brunswick to Coupeville, Washington, not long after Joe was found dead. A Steak ’n Shake employee passed along a message from me to Trimmer and he called one night a little after 1 a.m. Trimmer confirmed that he and Joe had spent time together; they went to Applebee’s once and sometimes drove around Medina in Joe’s car. Sometimes he asked Joe to give him a ride to work or home afterwards. Trimmer also said he worked from 3 p.m. to midnight on February 11.
When asked if Joe came into Steak ’n Shake to work that day only to be sent home because they weren’t busy, which is what some theorize, Trimmer said, “He didn’t come in; he called. He wanted to change his schedule. Said it had something to do with school.”
Joe’s cell phone records show no evidence of this.
When asked why Joe would go downtown, Trimmer said, “What’s the big deal? I go downtown all the time.”
When asked if managers and other employees would confirm that he was, in fact, working when Joe was missing, Trimmer hedges. “I’m not 100 percent sure if I was working that day. But I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.”
Brunswick police currently have a warrant out for Trimmer’s arrest for failing to appear in court on a misdemeanor charge of underage possession of alcohol.
Kate Kupchik sits at a table inside Caribou Coffee in Akron, sipping her drink and expounding on what may have happened to her brother nearly a year ago. She looks more like her mother than her other siblings, but has darker hair. There’s a little bit of Joe in her, too, in the contours of her cheeks. And she has her father’s analytical mind; she currently works as an accountant.
“I don’t think anybody intended to kill Joe,” she says. “I see it like this: they held a knife to him as a scare tactic and someone moved. Someone panicked. He was knocked unconscious. He was stored somewhere. They left and came back and then threw him off. Then said, ‘Let’s change his schedule to five so that we’re gone by then and we’ll be off the clock and off the hook.’ Maybe they said, ‘Here’s $1,000 to change the schedule, just shut up about it.’ Unfortunately, there’s people out there that would take the money. I think everyone involved is young, which is a good thing. Maybe they had a girlfriend or boyfriend then who they told. Maybe now, they’re broken up. And now, this ex will come forward and say, ‘I know what happened.’”
On February 11, 2006, as the day faded into evening and a nearly full moon hung in the winter sky, John Kupchik attended a party at a friend’s house near the University of Dayton. But he didn’t feel right. In fact, he felt distraught for no apparent reason. He wondered if he was getting sick. He left early and went back to his dorm to lie down.
He had no idea that at that moment his twin brother was dying.
Their connection persists, through dreams. Maybe one day Joe can rest in peace and John can rest through the night.
Anyone with information related to Joe’s case can give anonymous tips to Crimestoppers at 216-252-7463. You can also contact the family at HelpJoeK@sbcglobal.net.^ top
Excerpted from the book The Serial Killer’s Apprentice, copyright © James Renner. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by James Renner
An investigative journalist confronts 13 of Northeast Ohio’s most intriguing unsolved crimes and attempts to crack open dark secrets that have baffled Clevelanders for years, including:
• Abduction—In 2003, sixteen-year-old Georgina DeJesus disappeared on a West Side street . . . [ Read More ]
James Renner is a novelist, freelance journalist, and blogger. In his spare time, he hunts serial killers. His true crime stories have been published in the Best American Crime Reporting and Best Cre . . . [ Read More ]Amy Mihaljevic Blog