Hello. I’m Rebekkah Rosewood, and this is Thrice Cursed.
As promised, I’m working to slowly re-record and release the stories that I told on my former podcast, hopefully, as bonuses. I don’t have a ton of pre-amble for this one, but I will request that you listen through the cursed content bit at the end, as I have a few announcements that I make in there. And again I’ll say, because this is a re-recording, my format will be slightly different than you’re used to with original Thrice Cursed content. Because this was also done on my first episode ever on the last podcast, my source citing is quite abysmal. I don’t have actual links from the research I did back then, but just general news sites, so I truly apologize for that. As always, that information will be in the blog post. Now, into the case.
Today I’ll be covering the case of Barbara, or Barbie, Blatnik. She was a 17-year-old Garfield Heights, Ohio native, known for being a bubbly and free-spirited girl. She loved people, heavy metal music, makeup, and dancing, and she was last seen alive shortly after midnight on December 20th.
Standing in the kitchen on December 19th, 1987, Barbie spoke with her parents, and older sister. According to her sister, Donna, she had said she would be attending a party at a bike shop that evening. This bike shop, “Motorcycle Specialties” was known for having parties somewhat regularly. The owner would allegedly buy drugs and alcohol for those that would attend. I’m not sure if they’d get paid for any of this, but if not… I have to wonder why they were so generous with the drugs? I mean, I’ve never done a drug a day in my life and even I know that shit ain’t cheap. Regardless, as you can imagine, the type of guys that hung out there weren’t exactly the kind you would ask to walk you home at night. From what I could find, most had criminal records for assault, drug use, and the like -- none so far as murder, however. At least, not that I could ascertain.
After her sister told her to be safe, Barbie left her home for what would unfortunately be the last time.
A friend picked Barbie up from home at either 4 or 6:30 pm on Saturday December 19th. The discrepancy in time here is due to 2 separate newspapers reporting the time differently. From home, she took a taxi to her friend Phil’s house. Together, they then went to the bike shop. After growing tired of that party, her and two girlfriends left, and went to a local bar that would serve minors. They spent some time there, then the 3 decided they were ready to leave. Barbie asked her friends to drop her off at her on-again off-again boyfriend, Jerry’s house. The friends were hesitant, but Barbie was headstrong, and insisted.
In the aftermath of what’s to come, Jerry insisted that he never saw or heard from her that evening, and even had an alibi. This alibi was backed up by his father, who had ties to the Cleveland police department. What these ties were I couldn’t find. I also couldn’t find what his alibi even was, but information like that tends not to be released until well after the case is solved so that kind of makes sense.
Towards what was presumably the end of her evening and approximately 4 hours after she had left, Barbie called her parents. She stated simply that she was nearby, and would be home soon. When she didn’t end up returning home that evening, her parents assumed she decided to stay at a friend’s house, and put it out of their minds. Her father, John, later stated that,” she liked to party, to have fun. Her friends crashed over here sometimes, and sometimes she crashed over there.” Basically, it wasn’t unusual for her to stay out for the night.
Unfortunately, tonight was not one of those nights. Barbie was last seen near Warner Rd. and Grand Division Avenue shortly after midnight on December 20th, 1987. Later that morning, her body was found naked, save for only her class ring. She had been strangled, and sexually assaulted. She was found in a wooded area, not far off from the road, near the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls. It’s here where things get a little weird. -- Not in a graphic sexual nature so don’t skip ahead.
The road she was found on was largely unused, and quite overgrown due to newer roads being put in, which made this road obsolete. So, this road is overgrown and unnecessary, yet she was found within hours of being left there. For context, this road is about 30 miles, or 48 kilometers, away from where she had last been seen. If this doesn’t sound totally strange, I’ll reiterate a bit. The person who killed her drove all this way to dispose of her body, but didn’t drive further in, where people were less likely to find her. Maps of the area show that this road goes on for quite a ways, and as this was the middle of winter, if whoever did this drove further in, one snowfall could have prevented her being found until at least Spring. So… why? An officer on the case said that no attempt was made to conceal the body, and that it had to have been a conscious decision for the body to be left somewhat in the open to be found immediately. I’ll get into my theory on this towards the end.
The morning of December 20th went on as normal for Barbara’s family. Donna and her mother, Theresa, were out doing some last minute Christmas shopping that morning, and the entire time, the girls’ mother was overwhelmed with a feeling of dread. “Something’s weird. Something’s wrong,” she kept saying.
At the same time, the police showed up at their front door, where John answered. The police had a photo of Barbara and were asking questions about the prior evening. At this time, no missing persons report had even been filed, because again, crashing at a friend’s house was somewhat normal for Barbara. So think about that for a second. Barbara’s body was found so quickly that her parents hadn’t even thought to file a missing persons report yet. It just doesn’t make sense.
According to Donna, despite not having been too concerned the night prior, upon arriving home and seeing police officers in the driveway, that nagging feeling of dread she’d had all morning culminated when she said “Barbie’s dead.”
This case went unsolved for 32 years, but there were some theories. Three, to be exact. Theory one was that someone close to Barbara did this, and for a while, people thought it had been her on again off again boyfriend, however, as previously stated, he had an alibi. Theory two, was that it was someone at the edge of her social circles: someone Barbie thought that she knew, but evidently didn’t. And theory three was that there was a serial killer in their midst. There was some evidence to corroborate this, as 4 other women had been murdered in the area, and all of these cases were also unsolved. Police were able to rule that out, however, as the method of murder was different, and Barbie was younger than the other victims.
For 32 years, all questions regarding who could have done this to Barbie, had gone unanswered. That is, until May of 2020.
James Zastawnik, age 67, was arrested on May 6th, and charged with first degree murder. He was found, largely due to Donna Zanath’s constant efforts to keep her sister’s case alive, as well as the efforts made by James Renner, The Porchlight Project, and Colleen Fitzpatrick and her team at Identifinder’s International.
Renner, a well-known author and investigative journalist, founded the nonprofit The Porchlight Project in August of 2019. His goal was to find and provide funding for cold cases requiring investigative services and DNA testing. As I’m sure anyone listening is aware, the backlog of cold cases is boundless, and the funding to solve them is minimal. The Porchlight Project seeks to help carry that burden so that the families may finally be able to have, if not closure, answers.
This case was Porchlight’s first, and they funded the DNA testing done by Colleen Fitzpatrick and her Team at Identifinder’s International. Fun fact - this is the same team that cracked the DNA evidence leading to the arrest of The Goldenstate Killer. Frankly, Colleen Fitzpatrick is the hero we all need, and she is too good for this Earth. It’s rare that I fangirl, but this woman is just… I don’t even know how to explain it.
The DNA tests that were done utilized the DNA evidence taken from underneath Barbara’s fingernails. This evidence had both Barbara’s and the assailant’s DNA mixed. After extensive efforts, they were able to, marker by marker, separate Barbara’s DNA from the assailant’s, using Donna’s 23 & Me DNA sample as a guide. From there, they were able to create a DNA profile for her attacker.
Through this process, they were then able to narrow their search down to James Zastawnik and his 3 brothers.
After narrowing down the list of suspects to the Zastawniks, detectives then focused their attention on James Zastawnik, due to the proximity of his workplace to Barbie’s last seen location. At the time of her murder, Zastawnik was working in a factory on Warner Road in Garfield Heights. As I mentioned earlier, Barbie was last seen on the corner of Warner and Grand Division Road in Garfield Heights.
(Please keep in mind, I've never been to this area, or Ohio at all. If this image is incorrect, please feel free to email me and I will remove/replace with a corrected graphic. Thank you)
They were able to find this family’s DNA because 2 of his 3 brothers had been in prison, charged with- you guessed it! - sex crimes. Yeah, real bunch of winners there. Honestly, I’m not usually one to judge people based on their family members. I mean, look at my family. I’d be single forever if everyone judged me based on them. But it’s kind of a numbers game at this point. 2 of 4 children in the same generation have been charged with sex crimes. That’s more than just coincidence. I don’t know if it’s nature vs nurture in this instance, but either way, I find that out and I’m getting the fuck out of dodge. And before anyone comes for me, I’m not judging the people who knew and chose to associate with James regardless. I may have a pretty big no forgiveness policy when it comes to things like sexual assault, but I’ve also been known to forgive things that shouldn’t have been forgiven, and give second chances where they weren’t deserved. I’m also the QUEEN of ignoring my own intuition and overlooking a million red flags because I tend to see the good in people well before the bad bites me in the ass. I totally went off on a little tangent there, but all of this is to say, please don’t torment members of the Zastawnik family, OR the Blatnik family. Harassment and doxxing is a shitty thing to do.
Back on track here, I was only able to find information on one of the brothers, Robert, who was charged with two counts of gross sexual imposition and one count of abduction in December of 2013 in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. --Sensing a trend? Maybe?
A third brother, Benton, went missing on December 19, 2018, the anniversary of Barbara’s death.-- Not. At. All. Suspicious.-- He was 59 years old at the time of his disappearance, and is believed to have walked away from his home, never to return. Suffering from Neuropathy, causing severe mobility issues, I question how he got far enough to still be missing. In addition to these health issues, he left behind his eyeglasses, wallet, money, keys, and medications (including his very necessary seizure medication), taking only his identification. He remains missing to this day.
Lieutenant Chris Norfolk was unwilling to state whether or not James had previously been a suspect in this case. He did state, however, that he had been arrested in July of 1984, for exposing himself to 2 women. For those of you who are like me and have the memory of a pancake, that’s 3 years and 5 months prior to Barbara’s murder on December 19th of 1987. I find this flashing event particularly interesting, because information that I found on ancestry.com tells me that James had divorced from his first wife just one year prior to this incident. It really makes you wonder what else he may have done in between the flashing incident and Barbara’s murder, because clearly there’s been quite an escalation here. It is plausible that he jumped straight from one to the other, though I do believe it’s more likely that something more sinister than indecent exposure may have occurred between the two.
At the time of Barbie’s death, Zastawnik’s place of work was a factory only 1/8th mile from where she was last seen. This led investigators to believe that this was possibly a crime of opportunity, or a possible social link, as was previously considered.
Now here’s where I’ll get into my theory that I hinted at earlier. Please note that what I’m about to say is to be taken with even less than a grain of salt. I have no evidence to substantiate any of this, and a giant ALLEGEDLY should be tacked onto the front of this entire thing. I will once again request that you not reach out to either of the families involved in this horrible tragedy. While it can be easy to demonize the families of perpetrators, and attack them with questions of “how could you not know?!” The truth is that those families are also victims. And I’m sure it’s super frustrating for those of you that listen to all of my episodes to constantly hear this over and over again. But I’ve seen too many times in true crime podcasting where a fan base goes rabid and attacks innocent, grieving people in the name of a podcast, and those podcasters say nothing. I don’t want to ever be that, facilitate that, or have my intentions misconstrued to the point that I become party to it. So, I do apologize for the repetitiveness of my disclaimers, but it’s very important to me that the innocent parties be protected. All of that aside, I’ll get into my theory. Just remember the word ALLEGED.
My theory is that both James and his missing brother carried out the crime. While James felt no remorse, his brother did. This remorse became apparent when he insisted they drop Barbie’s body somewhere she would be found, likely for her family’s sake. Sure, they had murdered her and didn’t want to get caught, but at least her family wouldn’t have to wonder what happened to her. They wouldn’t spend sleepless nights wondering if she was lost and alone in the cold Ohio winter. They’d know that her suffering and subsequent death was swift.
Over the years, James and his brother likely had many conversations about whether or not they should come forward, and finally in 2018 it all came to a head. His brother was going to turn himself in, and James couldn’t have that happen. He needed to tie up his one and only loose end. On December 19th, 2018, the anniversary of Barbie’s death, it seems likely that the brother had some kind of meltdown. He could have called James and said he simply couldn’t do it anymore. Maybe James faked his agreement, and said he’d pick up his brother to turn themselves in together. Or maybe James insisted that they have one more conversation before the brother turned himself in. Then, James made sure that he could never tell the authorities what the pair had done. Obviously, his brother could have disappeared in a way that was completely unrelated to this, and I could be totally off base. But, based on what I’ve read, it just seems sketch, and like this could be a very real possibility. It makes sense that this would be why he’d disappear on the anniversary of her death, and why no one can find him now.
I also questioned whether or not the brother may have gone off and committed suicide after years of guilt finally wore him down. However, the fact that he had mobility issues causes me to question this. If he’s unable to walk much on his own, it’s unlikely that he would have been able to go somewhere to carry that out where he wouldn’t have been found in a somewhat timely manner. The fact that he’s still missing, to me, indicates that someone had to have been involved so that the body could be hidden.
Again I would just like to reiterate that my theory is completely unsubstantiated. These are inferences I’ve made based off of the information that has been released to the public. I will once again request that you don’t reach out to or target the families of either of these men.
At James Zastawnik’s arraignment which was done via video chat thanks to Covid, Zastawnik plead not guilty, and bond was initially set at $1 million. This bond was later lowered to only $100,000, which is a bit ludacris to me, but as we all know the justice is broken. Zastawnik is also being looked into for another unnamed cold case from 10 yrs prior, that has a similar MO. This case is obviously still ongoing, but is proof that even when you think you got away with it, you didn’t.
A post on the “Justice for Barbara Blatnik” facebook page aptly said in November of 2019 “We know you've been reading this. Oh, they'll be knocking on your door soon, you can count on it.” And how right they were!
Donna Zanath marked the arrest by visiting the area where Barbara was found, and leaving behind a memorial in the form of flowers, a butterfly suncatcher, and several pinwheels. She says that catching her sister’s killer doesn’t mean closure, but that she and her family can begin to move forward with their lives. Hopefully, this case moves forward as quickly as possible, and allows for them to do that. As of this re-recording, there have been no updates on this case that I could find. It doesn’t appear that a trial has concluded. Once it does, I’ll likely post a small update with sentencing information, and a motive should one ever come out. Either way, here’s hoping that whatever is left of his miserable life is spent behind bars. It will never be enough, and it will never take away the family’s pain or suffering, but at least, finally, he will be off the streets for good.
This has been the cursed tale of a murder left unsolved for 32 years, and a signal to those on the run, that even if you think you got away, you didn’t. We’re coming for you.
For more cursed content, find me on the sosh meedz --Am I cool yet youthez?-- at ThriceCursedPod. Join the FB group or discord server through the menu on ThriceCursedPod.com Check out the Thrice Cursed Blog where I post episodes in written form along with all their photos, and missing persons and unsolved features. You can also support me on Patreon, where I post ad-free episodes, and behind the scenes for each episode. Behind the scenes includes things like news clippings that aren’t free to the public, certain things I had to factor into my notes, various struggles I had, etc… You can find my patreon at Patreon.com/thricecursedpod. If a monthly commitment is too much for you, I get it. Times are hard as Mrs. Lovett of Sweeney Todd would say. Now, I have BuyMeACoffee, for those of you that want to support in some way, but don’t always have an extra $5 lying around I feel you, you can find that at BuyMeACoffee.com/ThriceCursedPod. And for an easier time for you, all of these links are on my website. FINALLY --I know, I feel like I’ve been talking about me FOREVER-- you can also find merch on the Thrice Cursed website under the merch link. I’ve kept my profit from merch minimal because I want everyone to be able to afford and enjoy it. I know how much it sucks to absolutely LOVE a podcast and want a t-shirt or a sweater, only to find out it’s like $40 for a shirt, which is a biiiigggg no for me. So, with a goal of full transparency, for every clothing item sold I will make $3, and for every sticker, I’ll make maybe 50 cents? All of this to say, I want you to rock the merch without having to give me an arm… or a leg, if you’d prefer.
Until next time, keep your curses hexy, and your hexes sexy.
News articles from back in the day
Justice for Barbara Blatnik fb page
True Crime Garage