Death of a furniture salesman: Why his rival confessed 24 years later – Washington Post

It was near dusk in Lebanon, Ohio, when a successful furniture salesman named Richard Woods, then 41, walked into Just Living Rooms on Oct. 8, 1992. The furniture store was owned by rival salesman Sam Perone, who was not so competitive that he would not sell Woods a supply of Berkline home furnishings.

Perone had phoned Woods to have him visit the shop, said Woods’ wife, Susan.

“Sam Perone left a message saying he could see him Thursday night — the later the better,” she said in the missing person report filed in the early hours of Oct. 9, 1992, as the Columbus Dispatch wrote a year later.

The message Perone left for Woods would be revealed as a lethal trap, but only after 24 years had passed. “Sam Perone did not like Dick Woods,” said David Fornshell, Warren County prosecutor on Tuesday, according to WLWT. “We think there was an issue of jealousy.”

Just Living Rooms was Woods’ final destination of the day, after which his wife and four children expected him home for stir fry in Dublin, a small Ohio city an hour-and-a-half drive away.

Woods never made it back to Dublin.

“Part of his job required him to travel,” said Warren County Sheriff’s Office Lt. John Faine to the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2015. “His last stop that day was at Sam Perone’s furniture store. That stop there was the last time Richard Woods was ever seen alive.”

On the same day Susan Woods filed the report, police found her husband’s car, a 1990 Lexus, unlocked and empty at a highway rest stop a few miles from Perone’s store.

The police obtained a search warrant for Just Living Rooms as well as Perone’s house, truck and van. Susan Woods had described a possibly menacing interaction between her husband and Perone in the report she filed: ”On one other occasion, Mr. Perone took my husband into a field or a deserted road and more or less threatened him.”

Mark Florence, Perone’s attorney, told the Dispatch in 1993 that he believed her statement in the missing person report prompted the warrant. Although Perone was the last person to see Woods alive, Florence acknowledged, Woods had left Just Living Rooms at 7 p.m. unharmed. At the time, the lawyer also disputed Susan Woods’ interpretation of the answering machine message and the idea that Woods and Perone were rivals.

In Perone’s house, police found marijuana, guns, a meat saw and large amounts of cash, though nothing linking Perone to the crime. In a backroom floor of Just Living Rooms, authorities found human bloodstains. Forensic tests on the blood were inconclusive.

”Whatever samples were tested,” Warren County Prosecutor Timothy Oliver said in 1993, “they were unable to determine anything of value.”

Hours grew to days and then weeks. There was still no sign of Woods. Around Lebanon, missing posters appeared, which read, ”Help Us Find Our Dad!!”

A month after Susan Woods filed the report, a Lebanon man looking for decorative wild grapevines in a wooded ravine stumbled upon a corpse, the Dispatch reported in November 1992.

The man had been slain by two gunshots to the back of his head. The bullets passed through his body, and so could not be recovered to offer any clues. The dead man’s clothes — dress pants and tie — matched the outfit Woods had worn on Oct. 8.

There was enough evidence for the coroner to put the time of death around 7:30 p.m., and dental records confirmed it was Woods. Woods’ wallet was found emptied, but a gold necklace remained around his neck, puzzling the investigators.

”Whoever wanted Mr. Woods dead,” Warren County Sheriff Tom Ariss said to the Columbus Dispatch, “wanted to be sure the job was done.”

By spring 1993, Perone and his wife closed their Just Living Rooms store; the attorney Florence intimated the small town viewed the pair as outsiders. Years later, they would leave the area completely, moving to Arizona in 2002.

Local suspicions about Perone never fully subsided. A former Lebanon neighbor of Perone’s, Dave Campbell, told the Dayton Daily News in 2015 that what began as a friendly acquaintance took eccentric and then intimidating turns. The furniture salesman once invited Campbell over for dinner. While giving Campbell a tour of the master bedroom, Perone showed off a portrait of himself wearing only a loincloth, fashioned out of a leopard pelt, that hung above the bed.

Even stranger was how Campbell’s two dogs disappeared after Perone complained about their barks. When Campbell approached his neighbor, Perone showed up at the foot of Campbell’s driveway with a third, larger man.

“I also knew he was very dangerous,” Campbell said to the Daily News; he decided to let the matter of the missing dogs lie.

In Arizona, Perone continued selling furniture. He served as an officer on the board of the American Legion in nearby Cave Creek. It seemed as if he had left the business of Woods’ death behind.

That was, until concussion grenades shattered the tranquility of his north Phoenix neighborhood one Thursday morning in October 2015.

“Yeah, we don’t usually have explosions in our neighborhood with SWAT teams and arrests,” said Phoenix man Ron Heisner to KPHO. Police raided Perone’s house, taking him into custody and holding him at the Maricopa County Jail. It was, coincidentally, exactly 23 years since Woods’ disappearance. In the county jail Perone awaited extradition to Ohio, where he would be charged with murder.

Back in Ohio, 1,875 miles away, a police team had reopened the cold case. Investigators returned to wooded ravine, excavating the area where Woods’ body was found. New DNA technologies reviewed samples from Just Living Rooms and Perone’s house. And in 2012, detectives received permission to wiretap the Perone’s phones.

“DNA evidence is part of it,” Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said in a 2015 news conference at the time of Perone’s arrest, reported the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I believe we’ve successfully identified a motive.” He would not explicitly make clear at the time what that motive was.

But a year later, Fornshell had no need for reservation during a news conference on the steps of Warren County Common Pleas Court: Perone had murdered Woods out of professional jealousy, Fornshell said.

On Tuesday, Perone, now 68 and of Desert Hills, Ariz., pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and gross abuse of a corpse. Warren County Common Pleas Judge Donald Oda sentenced Perone to 11 years in prison, to which the year since his arrest has been credited.

Fornshell said DNA tests identified Woods’ blood on the inside of a door jam in the Just Living Rooms’ back office, and also in the basement of Perones’ old Lebanon residence. The only reason for that blood, the prosecutor said, would be if Perone had killed Woods.

On the wiretap, Debbie Perone, Sam’s wife, could be heard referring to a suspicious agreement. “Quote, remember our promise, remember our promise,” Fornshell said during a Tuesday news conference, reported Cincinnati’s WLWT5. “If you go down, I go down.”

In Perone’s public statement after his plea, he said his wife had nothing to do with the crime, the AP reported. Under the plea deal agreement she will not be prosecuted.

Gabriel Woods-Schneier, Woods’ youngest child, addressed her father’s killer in court.

“I spent 24 years of my life asking why you made that fateful choice, and how you can take a life as precious as my dad’s,” she said, according to WLWT5. “Because of you, I have no memories of my father.”

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