Individuals with intellectual disabilities are among the most vulnerable members of our community. While many are capable of leading fulfilling lives, holding jobs, and even raising families, there are some who silently endure challenges and require additional support. In an ideal society, those facing mental difficulties would have mentors or guardians genuinely dedicated to their well-being, guiding them through life’s decisions with their best interests at heart.
However, for 24-year-old Vera Jo Reigle from Findlay, Ohio, her reality was starkly different. She faced profound isolation in a world where those closest to her were, in fact, her tormentors. Poverty, drug addiction, neglect, and abuse converged to create a nightmarish existence for Vera Jo. In 2011, her tragic death sent shockwaves through a community known for its caring and compassionate nature. It prompted a crucial conversation about the need to improve the identification and support of individuals who may be unwilling or unable to seek help.
It was around 2AM on the 27th of March, 2011, when a train operator noticed something in the middle of the tracks near the Blanchard River and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. bridge. At first, he thought that the object may have been a deer. However, upon closer inspection, he saw that it was the lifeless body of a young woman.
The train operator immediately called police, and upon their arrival, one of them identified the body as Vera Jo Reigle, who lived on Center Street, just a couple of blocks away.
Vera Jo had been born on 11 July, 1986, to Verna Messersmith and Willard Reigle in Findlay. She was intellectually disabled and suffered from a deficit hyperactivity disorder. Before her body was discovered on the train trains, Vera Jo had lived a life that was nothing short of horrific. She was just 11-years-old when her father began to molest her. He was found guilty of the sexual abuse and sentenced to 20 years at Lima’s Allen Correctional Institution.
Vera Jo possessed the cognitive abilities of an eight-year-old child. Despite her challenges with reading and math, she attended specialized classes and achieved a significant milestone in 2005 by earning her high school diploma. Among those who knew her, Vera was cherished as a gentle and reserved individual who found joy in singing along to country music. She also actively participated in various Special Olympics events, embracing opportunities to showcase her talents and determination.
Upon the gruesome discovery at the train tracks, it was first speculated that Vera Jo had been hit by a train. However, her autopsy showed otherwise. Dr. Mark Fox determined that she had suffered blunt force and sharp force trauma to her torso, head and legs, and that the attack had been committed at the train tracks where her body was discovered.
News of Vera Jo’s murder swiftly swept through the region, sparking an intense public outcry. It didn’t take long before an arrest was made. Within the following day, authorities apprehended 21-year-old Daniel Bixler from Tiffin and his 17-year-old girlfriend, Nicole Peters from Fostoria, in connection with Vera’s tragic death.
Remarkably, just three weeks before Vera’s murder, Bixler had been released from prison. His incarceration had begun in July 2008, following convictions on charges of burglary, theft, and receiving stolen property in Seneca County. Bixler’s history was marred by a pattern of violence and drug abuse, dating back to his juvenile years and continuing into adulthood. He had previously faced charges of assault and domestic violence during his youth, including one particularly distressing incident of assaulting a 7-year-old with a baseball bat.
Bixler and Peters were charged with aggravated murder as the investigation into Vera Jo’s death continued. Detectives learned that at the time, Vera Jo had been living with the Brooks family, and had been here for the past five years. She had a 17-month-old daughter with Zach Brooks, who they had named Willadean.
According to Zach’s mother, Cheri Brooks, she looked at Vera Jo like her own daughter, commenting: “She’d do anything you asked her to do.” Also living in the home was Zach’s brother, Michael, and his wife, Shannon. About a week before Vera Jo was found dead, Bixler and Peters had moved in. Bixler wasn’t a good influence on anybody. he had been living life as a transient, and consumed alcohol, ecstasy, cocaine and marijuana on a daily basis.
Detectives uncovered a strange dynamic within the Brooks home. Bixler’s father, Daniel Bixler Sr., was Cheri’s cousin. This didn’t stop them from having a baby together named Scottie. For years, the Brooks home had been rife with abuse. Cheri’s first five children, including Scottie, had been taken away by child protective services after allegations of sexual abuse. At the time, Bixler Sr. was incarcerated after stabbing his wife’s lover.
Detectives continued in their investigation, and one of their first points of action was to piece together Vera Jo’s last-known movements. To establish more, they interviewed all of the Brooks family as well as Vera Jo’s family. According to her sister, Ashley, she had seen her the day before she was found dead. She was sitting outside the Brooks home. Ashley recalled: “I said, I love you, and she said I love you too. She has never told me I love you. Every time I said I love you she said yeah.”
According to Zach and Cheri, Vera Jo had left the home on the night of the murder with a “new boyfriend.” When pressed for more information about this man, all they could say was that he was black. However, further investigation began to unravel a disturbing story.
Because of Vera Jo’s intellectual disabilities, she found it difficult to from relationships. When she was 19-years-old, she began to groom Zach Brooks, who was just 13-years-old at the time, unaware that what she was doing was wrong. When Vera Jo’s mother and stepfather moved away, Zach’s mother, Cheri, offered Vera Jo a place to stay. Four years later, Vera Jo and Zach gave birth to a baby girl, Willadean.
Cheri had a problem with not allowing her children to leave home. Since so many had been taken away from her, she forbade any of the others from leaving, even into adulthood. Some members of the Brooks family even compared themselves to the Manson family.
In the two years leading up to Vera Jo’s murder, police had been called to the family home at least ten times due to complaints of harassment, threats, child abuse, neglect, fighting and poor living conditions. On the 21st of January, Vera Jo’s sister, Ashley, called police and said she was being held at the home against her will and wasn’t allowed to “be involved with her baby at all.”
According to Ashley, the only reason Cheri agreed to let Vera Jo live with them was because she was receiving Social Security disability checks. Officer Marcia Hill responded to the report and uncovered that Cheri was Vera Jo’s guardian and the payee her disability checks. Vera Jo was routinely beaten by members of the Brooks family, particularly Zach and Cheri.
Officer Hill reported that Vera Jo’s face was bruised and cut, and she had sustained a broken nose. When she questioned Vera Jo, she claimed that the injuries were caused by an ex-boyfriend from Lima. The truth, however, was that Vera Jo had been so broken down by the abuse that she accepted what she was told to do and what she was told to say.
When Officer Marcia Hill was questioned as to why she didn’t follow up or investigate any further, she said: “I asked her if she thought this environment was healthy and safe for her and Willadean. She stated she thought it was. I pointed out all the hazards I could see with just this room. She looked around the room and said this was all she needed.”
During the welfare check on Vera Jo, Officer Hill also noted that the home was filthy. The bathtub was filled with black mold and a mattress sat on top of rotting food. There was even a pig living inside the home, confined to a closet by a piece of plywood.
Three days later, police returned with a Children’s Service worker, Officer Shawn Nungester, who reported seeing cockroaches in the home. The report read in part: “When we opened the door, a very foul smell was coming from inside the house. The house was very dirty and it did not appear that the Brooks family owns a vacuum for the carpets.” In addition to beatings from the family, Vera Jo was also withheld food.
As news of the previous calls to police were made public, the community were left questioning why more hadn’t been done to protect Vera Jo. The school system, social service agencies, health care providers and law enforcement all had rules in place which they are required to follow dealing with people with mental disabilities that may potentially be suffering from mental or physical abuse. There are checks and balances built which are supposed to prevent these individuals falling through the cracks and getting lost in the system. Despite the numerous investigations, they did not result in the state providing Vera Jo protection.
In the wake of Vera Jo’s murder, her biological mother, Verna, travelled back to Findlay to arrange her funeral. She spoke up about the Brooks family, commenting in the media that they “were talking back to her, saying I didn’t love her and I didn’t want her.” She said that Daniel and Nicole had abused her in the hours before her death and that the entire Brooke family knew about it.
Just days later, Willadean was removed from the Brooks home. She was placed into foster care while Verna and her husband attempted to seek custody. Then on April 5, Daniel was formerly charged with aggravated murder, two counts of kidnapping, felonious assault and tampering with evidence. Nicole was then charged with aggravated murder.
Investigation had uncovered that on the night of the murder, Vera Jo had been sexually tortured and beaten by both Daniel and Nicole within the Brooks home. There were numerous witnesses to the brutal assault, with some reporting that they had tortured Vera Jo and stomped on her. According to Scottie Emmons, son of Cheri and Daniel Sr., after the assault, Daniel and Nicole said they were going to take a walk with Vera Jo. They ordered her to put his shoes on.
By now, Vera Jo was terrified. She asked Scottie if he could come with them, fearing for her safety. Scottie went to put his shoes on but when he returned, Zach produced a knife and told him he wasn’t going with them. Vera Jo was then forced out of the home by Daniel and Nicole. They stripped her naked in freezing temperatures at the train track.
Shrouded under the dark night sky, Nicole stabbed Vera Jo once. “Show me your love,” she ordered Daniel as she passed the knife over to know. Daniel responded by stabbing Vera Jo several times on the chest, back and throat. He stabbed her in the leg to prevent her from escaping. Nicole then took the knife back and stabbed Vera Jo repeatedly. As Vera Jo attempted to defend herself, she cried and said that she couldn’t breathe.
When Daniel and Nicole returned to the Brooks home that night, Daniel bragged “I killed that bitch and she’s dead on the tracks.”
Following the arrests, Daniel led police to the murder weapon, a butcher knife they had disposed of in the Blanchard River. According to people within the Brooks family, the motivation behind the murder was that Vera Jo had allegedly sprayed mace and caused somebody within the family to have a miscarriage. Others said that Vera Jo had angered Nicole by looking at Daniel that was misinterpreted “as she wanted to have sex with him or be his girlfriend.” Some more rumors suggested Vera Jo had to die after she accidentally dropped a brick on Cheri’s foot.
Amid the deluge of media attention on Vera Jo’s life and tragic demise, many raised questions as to why other members of the Brooks family hadn’t faced charges. Vera Jo, who grappled with mental disabilities, seemed to have served as little more than a source of monetary gain for Cheri and her relatives.
However, in the middle of May, news broke that four members of the Brooks family had been formally charged with obstruction in relation to Vera Jo’s murder. Among them, 18-year-old Zach Brooks, who happened to be the father of Vera Jo’s baby, faced two counts of obstructing justice. Cheri Brooks, Michael Brooks (Cheri’s 26-year-old son), and Shannon Brooks (Michael’s 21-year-old wife) each faced one count of obstructing justice.
The charges stemmed from allegations that the four family members had provided false information to the police during the investigation into Vera Jo’s murder and had impeded the inquiry on the day Vera Jo’s body was discovered, back on March 27th. Furthermore, the second obstruction charge against Zach entailed accusations that he had intimidated a juvenile witness who had come forward to the authorities with crucial information pertaining to Vera Jo’s untimely death.
All four pleaded not guilty, and Cheri, Michael and Shannon were released on personal recognizance bonds. Shortly thereafter, 14-year-old Chuck Brooks, the youngest son of Cheri, was charged with obstruction.
In June, Daniel Bixler pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He had taken an exam which his defence attorney, Keith Scherloh, said “expressed a potential limited comprehension by mental retardation and a low level IQ.” Judge Reginal Rouston subsequently issued an order that Daniel be evaluated at the Court Diagnostic and Treatment Center to determine whether he was competent to stand trial.
Two months later, Zach pleaded guilty to two counts of obstructing justice and agreed to testify against both Daniel and Nicole in their upcoming murder trial. In court, he admitted to lying when he told police that Vera Jo had left the house on the night of her murder with a new boyfriend. He also admitted to threatening a minor’s life after he divulged details to him about Vera Jo’s murder.
Michael followed suit, pleading guilty to one charge of obstructing justice. He admitted that Daniel and Nicole had confessed to the murder to him and his wife, Shannon, who also pleaded guilty. Cheri then pleaded guilty to obstructing justice. She admitted that she knew Vera Jo had left the home with Daniel and Nicole yet claimed to police she left the home with a new boyfriend.
Towards the end of August, Daniel was deemed competent to stand trial. However, he then changed his plea, and pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, kidnapping, felonious assault and tampering with evidence. He remained emotionless throughout the entire court hearing, and admitted he “went to the tracks with Vera Jo and I ended up stabbing her.” Daniel Bixler was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 40 years.
Nicole also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, two counts of kidnapping and tampering with evidence. During her court appearance, she said that the murder of Vera Jo had been planned. She claimed that Zach, Cheri, Garth (one of Cheri’s sons) and Shannon had helped to plan the murder and that Zach had provided them with the murder weapon. The murder was planned, she said, after Shannon accused Vera Jo of causing her to have a miscarriage by spraying mace.
According to Nicole, every member of the Brooks family was present when Vera Jo was brutally beaten before her murder. She said that many of them even took part. According to Daniel’s attorney, Keith Schierloh, the Brooks family had become frustrated with Vera Jo and said that something needed to be done about her. “”They kept trying to push someone into doing this. And unfortunately, Danny, all he knew, from his upbringing, from his family, from being in prison prior to, was unfortunately, violence,” he said.
Nicole Peters was sentenced to 23 years in prison, which was the longest sentence she could legally receive. once her sentence was handed down, Nicole made an apology. She stated: “Vera was a very sweet, kind, enthusiastic individual who lived life to the fullest. For her to be beaten the way she was is something no one should have to be put through. I know no amount of ‘I’m sorry’ will justify or bring Vera back, but this is me making amends and taking responsibility for my actions.”
Vera Jo’s mother, Verna, contended that Nicole’s apology was purely for show in front of the judge. In the wake of the unsettling revelation that the Brooks might be equally culpable, Vera Jo’s family couldn’t help but wonder why they escaped with a lenient sentence. “Why are they not in prison? Why are they not where Nicky and Danny are going?” questioned Vera Jo’s cousin, April. Notably, Garth had not even faced indictment in the murder investigation.
The guilty pleas raised more questions than answers, chiefly among them: why? What drove them to kill Vera Jo? Was it driven by jealousy, a thirst for revenge, unbridled fury, or some twisted, intrafamilial horror? These motivations may forever remain a mystery. Yet another pressing concern lingers: how did an intellectually disabled woman, already familiar to social services, end up so exposed to harm by those entrusted with her well-being? The warning signs were apparent, but they seemingly fell by the wayside.
Some speculations emerged, suggesting that Cheri fixated on Vera Jo and Zach’s daughter, Willadean. Allegedly, when Zach lost interest in Vera Jo, the Brooks family saw no further use for her. Willadean was ultimately transferred to the Children’s Protective Services where she was put up for adoption. Zach had attempted to get custody from behind bars, but he was unanimously rejected.
In 2013, a gravestone was eventually installed to honor Vera Jo’s burial site. The generous contribution came from Steve Johns, the co-owner of Findlay Monument Co., who was moved by the documentary “Goodnight Sugar Babe: The Killing of Vera Jo Reigle.” The black gravestone bears Vera Jo’s photograph, adorned with purple ribbons.
As of today, Daniel and Nicole remain behind bars, while all other individuals involved in Vera Jo’s murder walk free.
- The Courier, 30 March, 2011 – “Victim’s Family Seeking Answers”
- The Lima News, 29 March, 2011 – “Two Charged in Slaying of Findlay Woman”
- Norwalk Reflector, 30 March, 2011 – “$1M Bond Set for Tiffin Man Accused of Woman’s Slaying”
- The Courier, 2 April, 2011 – “Disturbing Story Emerges of Murdered Woman’s Life”
- The Courier, 5 April, 2011 – “Murdered Woman’s Child in Foster Care”
- The Courier, 6 April, 2011 – “Vera’s Legacy”
- The Courier, 6 April, 2011 – “Man Indicted for Murder”
- The Courier, 7 April, 2011 – “2nd Murder Suspect Named”
- The Courier, 8 April, 2011 – “Murder Suspect Moved to Jail”
- The Courier, 23 April, 2011 – “City Murder Suspect Faces New Allegation”
- The Courier, 30 April, 2011 – “Judge Binds Teen Over to Adult Court”
- The Courier, 17 May, 2011 – “Bixler Murder Trial Delayed Until Fall”
- Review Times, 17 May, 2011 – “Benefit Planned to Purchase Headstone for Murder Victim”
- The Courier, 18 May, 2011 – “More Charges Filed in Reigle Murder Case”
- Review Times, 27 May, 2011 – “Brooks Family Members Arraigned in Murder Case”
- The Courier, 14 June, 2011 – “Reigle Murder Suspect Enters Insanity Plea”
- The Courier, 15 July, 2011 – “Teenager Charged with Obstructing Murder Probe”
- The Courier, 16 July, 2011 – “Judge Orders Bixler Evaluation”
- The Courier, 29 July, 2011 – “Suspect’s Rights Were Violated”
- The Courier, 13 August, 2011 – “Brooks to Testify in Murder Cases”
- The Courier, 16 August, 2011 – “2nd Member of Brooks Family Agrees to Testify”
- The Courier, 27 August, 2011 – “Murder Suspect to Get 2nd Evaluation”
- The Courier, 3 September, 2011 – “Peters Not a Suspect at First”
- The Courier, 20 October, 2011 – “Second Man Sentenced in Reigle Case”
- The Courier, 27 October, 2011 – “Brooks Matriarch Sentenced”
- The Courier, 21 January, 2012 – “He Doesn’t Have a Sorry Bone in his Pathetic Body”
- The Blade, 31 January, 2012 – “Fistoria Woman Sentenced in Murder”
- The Courier, 31 January, 2012 – “Peters Sentenced to 23-Year Term”
- The Courier, 29 March, 2012 – “Bixler Sentenced for Reigle Murder”
- The Courier, 29 March, 2012 – “Vera Reigle”
- The Courier, 26 November, 2013 – “Post-Mortem”
- The Courier, 6 December, 2013 – “Gravestone Donated for Murder Victim”