MOUNT VERNON – The murder trial of Caleb Sarge, the Mount Vernon man who allegedly shot and killed John Serio Jr. at his Sandusky Street residence in November 2019, began Tuesday at the Knox Memorial.
Sarge, 28, is charged with murder with a firearm specification, and tampering with evidence, a third-degree felony. If found guilty of murder, Sarge faces 15 years to life in prison.
Sarge allegedly shot and killed Serio Jr., a 41-year-old Mount Vernon resident, at 608 N. Sandusky St. on the evening of Nov. 25, 2019, according to police reports. He was indicted by a Knox County grand jury on charges of murder (with a firearm specification) and tampering with evidence a week later.
After months of law enforcement investigations, pre-trial motions and pandemic-related delays, the jury trial began Tuesday. It's expected to last all week, Knox County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Wetzel warned jurors, as more than 20 potential witnesses were mentioned by legal counsel during the jury selection process.
The trial is being held at the Knox Memorial for health and safety reasons, Wetzel explained. The theatre has been designated as an official courtroom by the Knox County Court of Common Pleas during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it allows for social distancing among jurors.
The Knox County Commissioners, who own the building, have granted the Common Pleas Court access for this purpose. This is the fourth criminal jury trial being conducted in the theatre since the pandemic began.
Following nearly three hours of jury selection Tuesday morning, where prospective jurors answered questions about firearms, drug addiction, experiences with trauma and more, both attorneys gave their opening statements, explaining what they expected the evidence in the case will prove.
Knox County Prosecutor Chip McConville laid the framework for the case against Sarge. He explained that just after 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 25, 2019, Knox County 911 dispatch received a call from an unidentified female concerning a dead body inside a house at the corner of North Sandusky and Calhoun streets.
The caller received a text that evening from Sarge, she told dispatchers, saying he'd shot Serio Jr. and that he was laying on his living room floor.
When officers arrived, they initially knocked on the wrong door, due to the vague location description from the caller. But they were quickly hailed by Sarge himself, McConville said, who stood outside the next house.
Sarge told officers that he'd shot Serio Jr., and that he was laying on the living room floor. Sarge was immediately detained, while officers went inside to look for the victim.
Upon entering the house, McConville said officers found Sarge's .22-caliber revolver on the table, along with knives and drug paraphernalia. They found a cell phone, later identified as Serio Jr.'s, submerged in a saucepan full of water. And they found Serio Jr., laying on his back, cold to the touch.
"He had been dead for several hours," McConville told the jury.
Officers also found a ledger, which appeared to list drug transactions between Sarge, the dealer, and his customers. It included the names of people who owed him money – one of whom was Serio Jr.
In an interview at the police station later that night, Sarge told detectives that he'd let Serio Jr. live with him for a brief period of time. That day, Sarge said, the two got into an argument over money and Adderall. Serio Jr. came at Sarge and allegedly tried to reach for his gun. That's why he pulled the trigger, Sarge told detectives.
But McConville claims there is more to the story.
DNA and forensic testing showed that Sarge had not only shot and killed Serio Jr., McConville said, but also that he'd done it from 21 to 36 inches away. And after Sarge shot Serio Jr., he didn't immediately call 911.
"As John Serio Jr. lay on the floor, he said, 'Help, 911,'" McConville told the jury. "Mr. Sarge stood over John Serio Jr. and watched him die."
The moments following the shooting revealed Sarge's intent, McConville said. According to cell phone records, Sarge texted his former girlfriend, ex-wife, and mother. He said the same thing to each person.
"He admitted to killing John Serio Jr.," McConville said, "and he asked for help in disposing of his body."
Sarge's defense, however, shared a different version of events.
Mount Vernon Assistant Public Defender Brandon Crunkilton described Sarge as a generous man who had fallen on hard times.
Following a difficult upbringing that included a stint in foster care, Sarge had started a cleaning business in West Virginia in his early 20s. He moved back to Ohio several years later and got married, Crunkilton said, but the relationship "didn't end well." That's when Sarge's life began to spiral out of control.
He started buying and selling drugs five weeks before the shooting occurred, Crunkilton said. And while Crunkilton called this decision "unacceptable, illegal, and morally wrong," he said Sarge was hardly a public threat.
"He was not a king pin ..." Crunkilton said. "It's common knowledge that if you're just starting out, you're not moving large quantities (of drugs)."
Regardless, this is how Sarge met Serio Jr. Their relationship began around the same time Sarge began dealing drugs, Crunkilton said, approximately five weeks before the shooting.
Serio Jr., who both attorneys said struggled long-term with substance abuse, had relapsed. He needed a place to stay, Crunkilton said, and Sarge offered him his basement.
On the day the shooting occurred, Crunkilton said Sarge spent most of the day around the house. He was planning his "Thanksgiving feast," Crunkilton said, which he'd renamed "Misfit Thanksgiving." He planned to invite people over to his house that "didn't really have anywhere else to go," Crunkilton said, to provide a sense of community during the holiday.
Around 4:30 p.m., Crunkilton said, Serio Jr. started a text conversation with Genevieve Daniels. She was looking to sell Adderall, and was wondering if Sarge would be interested in buying some pills off her for distribution purposes.
But according to Crunkilton, Sarge told Serio Jr. he was not interested. Just five weeks into the drug game, Crunkilton said Sarge was "already growing tired of the life he was living," and he feared getting caught.
When Sarge told Serio Jr. this, Serio Jr. texted Daniels back: "Never mind, he's being a b*tch." After pressing Sarge on it once more, and getting nowhere, Serio Jr. sent another text: "I'm about to whoop his fat ass."
According to Crunkilton, toxicology reports will show that Serio Jr. was high on meth at the time of his death. In fact, officials from the Licking County Coroner's Office told Crunkilton that "people have overdosed with less meth in their system." This is what led to the attack.
"Feeling invincible, (Serio Jr.) came at (Sarge) ..." Crunkilton said. "Mr. Sarge stands up, grabs the gun to defend himself, and as John Serio Jr. reaches for the gun, it goes off."
To this day, Crunkilton said, Sarge still doesn't know why the gun went off. While there's no doubt (through DNA and forensic evidence) that Sarge's hand was on the trigger, and the bullet from that gun killed Serio Jr., Crunkilton said Sarge still doesn't know why it fired.
In the moments after, Crunkilton said Sarge was stunned. Investigative officials said that even if Sarge tried to perform life-saving measures on Serio Jr. immediately after the shot, it wouldn't have mattered. The bullet went through Serio Jr.'s upper-left chest, between his peck and his shoulder. He died moments later.
While Sarge never called 911, Crunkilton said he also "didn't try to hide what occurred." He alerted officers to his home and led them to the body and the gun.
"He didn't know what to do," Crunkilton told the jury.
Sarge continued to cooperate throughout the investigation, Crunkilton said, completing numerous interviews with detectives.
Throughout the opening statement, Crunkilton emphasized Sarge's good-hearted nature. He described his childhood, where Sarge was "bullied, teased and mocked" for his weight, and said most of his life's work – even selling drugs, to a certain extent – was a subconscious effort to gain acceptance from those around him.
"Mr. Sarge is an extremely generous individual," Crunkilton told the jury. "He doesn't want to disappoint people."
The attorney detailed Serio Jr.'s battles with addiction, and in between expressions of sympathy, underscored the personal responsibility involved with recovery.
"When things go wrong, unfortunately, you don't always get to blame other people ..." Crunkilton told the jury. "(Serio Jr.'s) passing, while extremely tragic, was preventable."
And while Sarge never called 911 that night, Crunkilton noted that "he's not on trial for not calling 911. It's not a crime not to call 911. He's on trial for murder."
Both McConville and Crunkilton told the jury that in order to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Sarge committed murder, the prosecution will have to show that Sarge "purposely" caused the death of Serio Jr.
This is a higher threshold than negligence, or recklessness, or even the act of knowingly committing a crime, Crunkilton added.
"And you'll have to find beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not act in self-defense."
The prosecution called its first six witnesses on Tuesday afternoon, including law enforcement personnel on the scene that night, Knox County Coroner Dr. Jennifer Ogle, and Mount Vernon Municipal Court Adult Probation Officer Susie Eisel, who saw Serio Jr. (a client of hers) hours before his death.
These witnesses provided detailed accounts of where Serio Jr. was before the shooting and what happened after officers responded that evening.
The trial will continue Wednesday at 9 a.m.