'Hard to fathom': Neighbors, friends support man charged in cold-case murder of baby

News-DemocratSeptember 18, 2013 

— Friends and neighbors of a former Indiana softball coach say they find it hard to believe that the 62-year-old grandfather could have murdered a baby boy 40 years ago in St. Clair County.

They say the Gary Warwick they know shares vegetables from his garden, cooks meals for friends and helps youths earn college scholarships.

"I've got a lot of questions," said friend and neighbor Mike Lovings, who owns a heating and cooling business in Portage. "The guy has been so good to this community. He's a good guy who would do anything for you."

St. Clair County prosecutors last week charged Warwick with killing 1-year-old Joey Abernathy in December 1972. At the time, Warwick was dating and residing with the child's mother, Cathie Melville, outside East St. Louis. Warwick was not the father of the child.

Prosecutors filed an initial murder charge against Warwick shortly after the baby's death, but the case was dismissed without explanation in 1974.

In the meantime, Warwick has lived mostly in Portage, a city of about 37,000 in northwest Indiana. He at one point had a lawn-cutting business and had been serving as a softball coach at Purdue University North Central, but resigned from the coaching job in the spring.

Warwick has lived in Portage's quiet Dune Trail subdivision, with bright flower beds and neatly-trimmed lawns, for about a dozen years.

Lovings said he coached with Warwick and Warwick's wife, Priscilla, in the Portage Youth Softball League.

"He's helped raise money for scholarships for hundreds of girls and shot video of their games and sent them to potential college coaches," Lovings said.

The walls of Lovings' business are covered with sponsorship plaques and pictures of players on softball teams he coached alongside Warwick.

"I don't think he's capable of raising a hand to a child. I've never seen him raise a voice at the children in all of the years that he's coached," Lovings said. "He always had a smile on his face, even when he was losing. Gary was dedicated to the game -- softball was his life."

Police and U.S. marshals arrested Warwick last week at an Indiana steakhouse.

"They do things to make headlines," Lovings said. "I think they're trying to win the case before it's tried."

Warwick remained in custody Wednesday in St. Clair County with bail set at $5 million. Lovings said marshals had been following Warwick for weeks.

"He didn't know why they dropped they case," Lovings said. "Gary has always been a man of his word."

The charge alleges that Warwick "struck and beat" the child, knowing that it created a strong probability of death or serious injury.

Investigators haven't revealed if they have any new evidence that led to the new charge.

An autopsy report found that the baby died from a "ruptured and lacerated liver with multiple other injuries to the head, and other parts of the body, particularly the feet." The toenail was missing from the child's big toe on his left foot, the report notes.

A coroner's jury recommended that the death be investigated by a grand jury.

St. Clair County sheriff's deputies recently reopened an investigation into the case after a daughter of Melville posted a video on YouTube, making a plea for justice. In the video, the daughter stated that Melville was fearful of Warwick, and went into hiding.

Lovings said prosecuting Warwick now, 40 years later, shows there's "something wrong with this picture."

Another neighbor, Kathy Corll, described Warwick as "a great neighbor and friend." Corll said she and her husband sometimes mowed Warwick's lawn, while he was suffering a medical ailment.

"We cut his grass for him when he got sick last year, and he did things for us. Every Christmas, he gave us a gift card," Corll said. "He's a nice man."

She added, "I've been praying that if it was an accident, that the truth will be revealed and justice will prevail. If it wasn't an accident, I pray that Gary can find peace and be freed from the hidden tomb he's been carrying inside of him. God and Gary know what happened."

Some neighbors said the Warwicks at one point had some marital problems, but they worked it out, and often were seen on their back porch, enjoying coffee together.

Corll said Warwick is a good cook and prepares dishes for friends and family.

This past summer, Warwick had a pool installed in his backyard and was often out there with his grandkids, Corll said.

"He'd be sitting out there, hugging and loving them," Corll said. "He grew a little garden and always supplied us with vegetables. He always wanted to share his garden with neighbors who didn't have a garden."

Corll's husband, Dave Corll, said of Warwick: "You're not going to find a better neighbor and friend."

Another longtime friend, Karen Westerman, said Warwick used to own a lawn-care business. Westerman's business, Northern Transmissions in Portage, serviced the vehicles for Warwick's business.

"He would give you his right arm if you needed it," Westerman said.

Neighbors said Warwick shut down his lawn business due to a medical problem.

Westerman said the news reports of Warwick's arrest shocked her.

"If I hadn't seen his picture, I wouldn't believe that it was Gary," Westerman said.

She added: "Anybody who knew him from around here is just in shock. It's hard to fathom, it's hard to swallow. I feel so sorry for his wife and kids."

Priscilla Warwick, approached by a reporter Tuesday outside the couple's home, declined to comment. Gary Warwick and Priscilla Warwick, his wife of 35 years, have two grown daughters and three small grandchildren.

Neighbors said the Warwick home often has the windows and shades open to let fresh air and light inside, but on Tuesday the home appeared dark, with the windows and shades shut.

Lovings said people should wait to hear all the facts before judging Warwick. Lovings said he hasn't spoken with Warwick since the arrest, but if he could, he'd tell him: "Hang in there. We're behind you 100 percent, and anything we can do for you, we will."

Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.

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