ASHLAND, Ohio -- An occasional drifterin just over a decade could always find a place to stay and someone to give him a lift. Even with little money to his name and a string of arrests in his past, Shawn Grate, 40, was magnetic enough to make friends with almost anyone.
“He just had this way about him that he could draw people in,” said Tim Denis, who struck up a friendship with Grate that fell apart nearly two years ago over a loan.
Denis got a string of angry text messages from Grate, ending with a warning that still gives him chills: “Meet the other me.”
Grate, described by those who know him as a charmer with a dark side, has been charged with killing two women whose bodies were found in a vacant home two weeks ago after another woman called 911.
On that call, the woman said that she had been tied up, but managed to partly freed herself to make the call from her captor’s phone while he was asleep. She is heard whispering to a dispatcher, terrified that she will wake him up.
the woman said in the call, begging, “Please hurry.”
Grate pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges outlined in a 23-count indictment, including the killings of the two women -- Elizabeth Griffith, 29, and Stacey Stanley, 43 -- and the abduction in Ashland. He showed no emotion, appearing via video feed as a judge read out the counts against him.
Once in custody, authorities say Grate told them he had killed another woman earlier this summer and a fourth woman sometime around 2005. Police now are looking at whether Grate was involved in the disappearance or death of a fifth woman over a year ago.
Investigators also want to know if there could be more victims from his past - a period when Grate piled up a long list of arrests, was married for about a yea,r and started a business making handcrafted wood signs that he sold at craft fairs.
The indictment says Grate repeatedly raped the woman who called 911. It also alleges Grate kidnapped Griffith and burglarized her home and charges him with abusing her corpse “in a way that would outrage reasonable community sensibilities.” The indictment accuses Grate of kidnapping, raping and robbing Stanley and destroying evidence.
Prosecutors say they’ll seek the death penalty if he’s convicted. Messages seeking comment have been left with his attorneys.
Grate’s legal problems began a year after he graduated high school. He spent four years in prison on a burglary charge from 1996 after violating his probation.
But most of his trouble centered on his treatment of women, with past charges including domestic violence, aggravated menacing and failing to pay child support. He has two children.
His former wife, who he had a daughter with, filed a protection order against Grate after they divorced in 2012.
“I have been estranged from my ex-husband for four years, and he is not a part of our lives,” Amber Grate said in a statement that asked for privacy after his arrest.
After his marriage ended, he moved from place to place in Ashland and Mansfield - two cities that sit between Cleveland and Columbus.
He sometimes lived with women he met or squatted in abandoned homes.
“He was definitely a charmer,” Denis said. “He was able to get people to do what he wanted.”
Grate didn’t have a car, he said, so he rode his bicycle or relied on friends to get around.
He worked a few maintenance jobs, but was determined to make a living selling the wood signs. For a short time, he peddled them at a storefront in Mansfield, but they didn’t bring in much money, said Denis, who still has a “Home Cookin” sign in his kitchen.
“Outside of doing his signs, he didn’t want to do much else,” Denis said. “He didn’t strike me as motivated to get another job.”
The home in Ashland where the two bodies were found was thought to be vacant. Both women were strangled, according to preliminary autopsy reports.
Authorities have not said how he met the women.
Stanley, of Greenwich, was reported missing five days before her body was discovered. Her son, Kurtis Stanley, said his mother had a flat tire late at night and was at gas station a few blocks from the vacant home.
“I think it was just an accidental run in,” he said. “He was out preying on women and he took my mom.”