"My family and myself are good, decent and very honest people."
It was the 19th of July 2016. A Tuesday. Twenty year old Sierah Joughin spent the afternoon with her boyfriend of seven years, Josh Kolasinski, cycling in rural Fulton County, west of Toledo. Sierah was a student at the University of Toledo and lived with her grandparents in Metamora, Ohio, United States.
Later that night, when Sierah's mother Sheila Vaculik arrived at her parents' house, she noticed that Sierah's bedroom light was off which was unusual. Sierah was very close to her family and four siblings so if she had made plans to stay out for the night, she would have let them know. Sheila was a bit concerned initially but that concern turned to panic when she heard from Josh at 10.30pm that night. Josh asked Sheila if Sierah was home and when she confirmed she wasn't, he told Sheila that he sent Sierah a number of text messages and received no reply. When he called her phone, it went straight to voicemail. He called a number of times but every call went straight to voicemail. When Sheila couldn't reach Sierah either, she reported her missing to the police and went out to look for her.
Sheila confirmed to police that Sierah didn't return home at all after the bike ride with Josh. Police spoke to Josh as he was the last known person who saw Sierah. He told police that they went out that day for a bike ride on some rural roads and between some cornfields. He shared a Snapchat video that he took of Sierah that day that showed her on her purple bike and she was smiling. He said that he was on his motorcycle at the time and they stayed close together until they reached a certain point on County Road 6 when Sierah said that she would cycle the rest of the way home. Josh lived in a different direction so he gave her a kiss before he turned and went back down the road. It was around 6.45pm when Josh last saw Sierah. Josh told Sierah he would be in touch later but when he sent the text message to her after he got home, he didn't hear back from her.
Police noticed from the Snapchat video Josh shared with them that she was wearing a Fitbit watch so they began to try to track that and her phone. At the same time, police searched County Road 6 and the area where Josh last saw Sierah. They noticed that there was some disturbance in a section of the cornfield. Some of the stalks were broken.
Sierah Joughin on her bicycle
When police investigated further, they found Sierah's bike a few rows into the cornfield and there was blood on the handlebars. The area where her bike was found was just a half mile from her home. They found Sierah's sunglasses. They also found a second pair of sunglasses that did not belong to Sierah, a screwdriver, and a motorcycle helmet that appeared to be covered in blood. There was no sign of Sierah though but due to the disturbance, blood and the items that were abandoned, police believed that there had been a struggle of some sort. Police believed that there was a possibility that Sierah had been abducted so they widened their search and spoke to people who lived close by.
Cornfield along County Road 6
As part of their investigation, they spoke to a man named James Worley who lived on a three-acre property west of Toledo. He ran a small engine repair shop out of his home and lived with his mother and brother. James told police that he was aware of the location they were searching as his motorcycle had broken down there earlier that day. He informed them that he lost his helmet, screwdriver, sunglasses and fuses. That concerned police as those were the same items they found beside Sierah's sunglasses. Without any prompting, he told police that he didn't steal anything or kill anyone. Along with what he told police and the fact he had what appeared to be fresh marks on his arms and bruising on his legs, police immediately secured and searched his property.
Police found rope, tape, zip ties, handcuffs, firearms and ammunition, video recording devices and film. Inside one of his barns on his property, police found what they described as a makeshift dungeon that was hidden behind tall hay bales. There were restraints attached to the walls and a freezer with what looked like blood inside it. There was also a strong smell of bleach. But there was no sign of Sierah anywhere.
Police searched his truck and found more zip ties, a ski mask, two sets of handcuffs, rope and tape. They believed that he knew where Sierah was but James wasn't willing to give police any information. He asked them:
"How do you kidnap or take somebody on a motorcycle?"
Three days after Sierah was last seen alive, her body was found in a shallow grave buried in a cornfield just 12 miles from James's home. She was bound, gagged and hogtied. Her wrists were handcuffed and bound to her taped ankles with rope. There was no physical evidence that Sierah was sexually assaulted.
An Autopsy was conducted and the Autopsy confirmed that Sierah died of asphyxiation. The Medical Examiner believed it would have taken over several minutes for Sierah to die and the asphyxiation was the result of a large plastic object that was placed in her mouth. The Autopsy found no evidence of sexual assault.
“I simply ask that you follow the trail of evidence.”
The Court heard that James used a computer at his home just one month before Sierah was taken, on the 24th of June at 5.03am, to search for:
"hogtyed + teen."
On the day Sierah disappeared, the Court heard that James spent the day using that same computer searching and looking up pornography websites. Detective Morford testified that he searched the computer and found terms, videos, and documents under the user labeled Jim. It was password protected. Detective Morford told the Court that he recovered search terms and videos and they included the words:
Lucas County deputy coroner Dr Cynthia Beisser testified in the case. She performed the Autopsy and described Sierah as 5 foot, 4 inches tall and weighing 122 pounds at the time of her death. She testified that when Sierah's body was found, her wrists and ankles were bound. She testified in relation to the injuries on Sierah's body. Sierah had contusions on her left leg and a laceration on her forehead. Sierah had a broken upper left incisor in her mouth and a hairline fracture inside the back of her skull.
Dr Beisser testified that a foreign yellow object, the object appeared to be a dog toy, had been placed in Sierah’s mouth and that object was attached to a binding around the back of her neck. She described the object as a large yellow oval plastic device that was three inches long and two inches wide and the Court heard that due to the size of it and how it was placed in her mouth, it would have blocked Sierah's airways to her nose and mouth which would have deprived her brain of oxygen for a matter of minutes. She believed that Sierah's broken tooth may have been caused by the object being forcibly pushed into her mouth.
Dr Beisser concluded the object asphyxiated Sierah and it could have taken up to ten minutes for her to die.
Dr Beisser testified that Sierah was not sexually assaulted.
The Prosecutor, Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman, asked Dr Beisser if the hairline fracture in Sierah’s skull could have been caused by a motorcycle helmet and she confirmed that the helmet could have caused that injury.
Defense attorney Merle Dech opened the Defense case by telling the Jury that the Prosecution simply could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the essential elements of the case and on that basis there was only one option open to the Jury. They should find James not guilty.
It was their case that James had no idea who Sierah was and didn't see her on the 19th of July. It was their case that the evidence against their client was weak. They admitted that his items were in the cornfield that day but they were there because he left them there when his motorcycle broke down. They referred to a witness report who saw a man in the cornfield wearing red shorts. The Jury heard that even though police conducted a thorough investigation and search of his property, no red shorts were found and it was their case that police arrested the wrong man.
In relation to the makeshift dungeon that police discovered in his barn, the Defense told the Jury that there was an innocent explanation for it. The Jury heard that it wasn't a dungeon and that it was just a room in the barn that had restraints attached to the wall. The restraints were there as James planned to use it for a pornography studio. He was starting a new business and that was why he had searched for pornography on his computer also.
The Court heard testimony from Lawrence Krise. Lawrence testified that he knew James and that he also lived on County Road 6. Lawrence testified that he went to James's house around once or twice a month and when asked if James ever mentioned pornography, he admitted that they would occasionally watch pornography together when James's mother went to bed. He testified that James showed him the panties and that he wanted to open a casting couch type pornography studio.
The Jury heard recorded interviews between the police and James in which James told them that he planned to use the panties for amateur pornography shoots.
In relation to Sierah's injuries, the Defense referred to the laceration that was to the front of Sierah's head and a wound on the back of her head and they asked Dr Beisser if a motorcycle helmet is the only object that could cause such an injury. Defense Attorney, Mark Berling, asked:
"It's a fact isn't it that there are a number of possibilities of things that could have been used to inflict those wounds?"
Dr Beisser confirmed that the injuries, while they may have been caused by a motorcycle helmet, may also have been caused by a different object and she testified that the possibilities are almost infinite. It was the Defense case that James's helmet was not the object that caused Sierah's injuries.
It emerged that Sierah's abduction wasn't the first abduction that James was involved in. James already had a conviction for abduction in relation to a different incident prior to Sierah's death. In 1990, he violently abducted a woman who was cycling at the time and he was charged with kidnapping and felonious assault. In that case, James saw a woman, Robin Gardner, riding her bike on a rural road near Toledo. James, who was driving at the time, hit into her bike on purpose which caused her to fall into a ditch. He got out and offered to help her but hit her over the head instead and dragged her into his truck where he handcuffed her. He cut her leg with a flathead screwdriver and Robin began to scream. He told her:
"Do what I say or I'll kill you. I'm serious, I'll kill you."
“I can’t go bird watching. I can’t go hiking, and I love to be in the woods alone, and I can’t. He stole that from me.”
James's execution is currently scheduled for the 20th of May 2025.
Sierah's murder prompted the creation of the Ohio Senate Bill 231. It provides for a searchable database of felons living in the state who are convicted of specific violent offenses. The statute was signed into law in December 2018.
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