Deputy Sheriff Phillip J. Pence | Hamilton County Sheriff Department


Deputy Phillip J. Pence.
Deputy Phillip J. Pence.

Age: 26
Served: 3 years
August 15, 1981 to June 10, 1984


On May 14, 1984, William G Zuern (25), of 726 State Avenue, suspected that Gregory Earls was a police informant during his father’s drug investigation; so he shot and killed him. Zuern was arrested, arraigned, and sent to the Hamilton County Workhouse to await trial.

The Workhouse at 3208 Colerain Avenue was built in 1869 and did not have plumbing for the cells. Each prisoner was issued an overnight pail in lieu of a toilet. Zuern took the handle from a pail and, scraping it against the concrete, fashioned it into a spike.

On June 9, 1984, about 1:45 p.m., a prisoner, Loyal Hearst, reported to Corrections Officer Kenneth Schweinfuss that Zuern had a homemade knife and had threatened to kill him. That night, Corrections Officers Pence and Joe Burton were directed to conduct a search of Zuern’s cell.

They opened Zuern’s cell and ordered him out. Zuern, without warning, jumped from his bed and plunged the sharpened pail handle into Officer Pence’s chest. He staggered back and Deputy Burton slammed shut the cell door.

At first, neither officer knew that Officer Pence had been stabbed; but when he lifted his shirt he saw the wound, sat down, and lost consciousness. Corrections Officer James Horton called for a life squad at 10:26 p.m. They arrived at 10:35 p.m. and at 10:37 p.m. transported Deputy Pence to University Hospital with a hole in his heart. He told paramedics, “Tell my mom I’ll be okay.”

Sheriff Lincoln Stokes arrived at the hospital about 11 p.m. Evelyn Pence, Deputy Pence’s mother, was brought there soon after. Deputy Pence died on the operating table at 12:26 a.m. on June 10, 1984.

Deputy Pence’s funeral was conducted at Guardian Angels Church On June 15, 1984. He was then escorted by more than five hundred law enforcement officers of multiple jurisdictions to St. Joseph New Cemetery where he was laid to rest.

Zuern was found guilty of both murders. For the Earls murder, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. For the murder of Deputy Pence, he was sentenced to death. On October 5, 1984, the judge signed a death warrant ordering his execution within thirty days. Almost exactly 20 years after the murder, June 8, 2004 at 10:04 a.m., Zuern died after a lethal injection at the Southern Ohio Correction Facility in Lucasville. Deputy Pence’s mother did not live long enough to see justice done.

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This narrative was revised on June 9, 2009 by Cincinnati Police Lieutenant Stephen R. Kramer, Greater Cincinnati Police Historical Society President, based almost entirely on research conducted by Steve Barnett, former FBI Special Agent and Hamilton County Sheriff Office Director or Public Information.