NEWARK — A Canton-area man was acquitted Thursday in the cold-case murder of a 21-year-old Columbus woman more than 25 years ago.

A jury in Licking County Common Pleas Court delivered the not-guilty verdict to Judge Thomas Marcelain after deliberating for about 40 minutes in the case against Gustave Sapharas, 73.

"I get to go home now?" Sapharas asked a court officer before being led out of court in handcuffs. He was expected to be released from the Licking County Jail, where he has spent almost a year, later Thursday.

The decision capped two days of testimony and closing arguments by special prosecutor Paul Scarsella and defense counsel Diane Menashe Thursday morning. Licking County Prosecutor Bill Hayes said afterward that he still believed Sapharas was guilty.

"The jury has spoken," Hayes said. "There were some other things that we could not introduce as evidence from his past that we thought clearly pointed to him. But the jury has spoken, that’s all I can say."

There was no disagreement on the basic facts of the case: Bonita Parker’s clothed body was found along a road in Licking County in August 1991. She was killed as the result of a single stab wound in her heart.

The Licking County Sheriff’s Office investigated a number of potential suspects at the time and thereafter, but did not have evidence to arrest or charge anyone with the crime, according to documents.

Later advancements in DNA science tied Sapharas to Parker, and detectives said he "was deceptive and admitted his dishonesty" during questioning at his Canton-area residence in March 2016.

Sapharas’ criminal record, which includes convictions for rape and assault, were not discussed during the trial, nor was an alleged stabbing incident involving another prostitute around the same time as Parker’s death.

Sapharas’ DNA was found under the Parker’s left hand fingernails and on her pantyhose, and a sample on her underwear was consistent with his profile.

There were two unknown male profiles in vaginal swabs; Sapharas’ DNA was not present.

Scarcella acknowledged that other suspects were considered, but investigators who testified during Sapharas’ trial said they were ruled out. And one of the suspects mentioned by defense counsel, now-retired Columbus Police Officer Oscar Singer, said he knew the victim for about a week and last saw her several days before her body was found.

"There’s no evidence that he was responsible for her death," Scarcella said of Singer.

But Menashe said there were at least three other possible suspects, including one spotted by law enforcement driving in the vicinity of Parker’s body a couple of hours before she was discovered, a boyfriend who was hogtied and robbed by Parker.

Menashe said prosecutors offered no evidence proving that Sapharas killed Parker. Sapharas maintained that he didn’t know or recognized Parker.

The DNA evidence, Menasche said, shows that "at some point in time, Mr. Sapharas and Ms. Parker met. At some point in time, some sexual relations occurred between the two." That's not proof of a murder, she said.

Sapharas was arrested nearly a year ago and held in jail on a $1 million bond on counts of murder and aggravated murder. The latter was dismissed by Marcelain on Wednesday on a motion from Menashe that there was insufficient evidence that Sapharas killed Parker with prior calculation.

mkovac@dispatch.com

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