Alleged killer's arrest opens family's old wounds, but brings closure

Posted: March 24, 2014

WHENEVER Omar Hanible walks down a block of Girard Avenue near 12th Street, he feels nauseated.

To most, the area seems innocuous: There's a storefront church, a hardware store and a few rowhouses. But to Hanible, it will always be the place where his mother, Cheryl, was strangled and left to rot 25 years ago.

"I can picture it in my head now, what happened there," said Hanible, who lives a few blocks from that stretch of Girard. "Even though it looks different, the whole place just sickens me."

But now, Hanible, 34, has found some relief, however small: Police this week arrested Rudolph Churchill, the man who they believe killed Cheryl and another woman, Ruby Ellis, within a five-week span.

Investigators tracked down the alleged killer through DNA evidence gathered at the two crime scenes, which were about a mile apart, nearly three decades ago.

"I thought it was over; I thought he got away," Hanible said. "When I heard the news, I just said, 'Finally.'

"Now, I think it's time my family knew why he took my mom from us."

The 'wild' one

Lavinia Hanible says she was inseparable from her "wild" sister Cheryl.

Hanible, 63, described her younger sister as funny and outgoing, someone who liked to have a good time.

But she was also a hothead, and wasn't afraid to speak her mind, regardless of the consequences.

"She got into her fair share of fights, and, yeah, she ran into trouble sometimes, but she didn't deserve to get killed like that," Hanible said last week at her home in West Philadelphia. "No one does."

Court records show that Cheryl had a long history of arrests, and was convicted of aggravated assault and related offenses - mostly from neighborhood fights, her sister said. She was stabbed in her left eye during one of those scuffles and wore a glass replacement for the rest of her life; it would later help in identifying her body, according to Lavinia.

"She had her ups and downs," Hanible said. "But when she was killed, she was doing good things, trying to correct her path."

Any progress Cheryl was making ended April 23, 1989, the day her body was found inside a burned-out, vacant bar on Girard Avenue.

"When I heard, I just cried for a while, maybe a day or two," Hanible said. "I just couldn't believe it.

"If I had known [Churchill], he wouldn't be here today. I would've gutted him like a fish."

Odd outburst

Lavinia's daughter Kishia was one of the last people to see Cheryl alive.

She curled her aunt's hair and helped her get ready for a night out on the town in celebration of her birthday, April 8.

Cheryl was planning to meet another woman, a friend, Kishia said.

"I knew she was going to meet her that night, and she never came back," she said. "It was heartbreaking; I couldn't believe it."

It's Kishia's belief that her aunt was killed that night - police said Cheryl's body was partially decomposed when they found her, 15 days after she was last seen - and that her aunt's friend knows more about what happened.

That suspicion arose from a scene that that woman, whose name neither Kishia nor her mother can recall, made at Cheryl's funeral.

They say that the woman repeated several times that "he didn't have to do that," and that she tried to jump into Cheryl's grave at the cemetery - something Cheryl's brother John also witnessed.

"We had to restrain her; she was a mess," said John, who still lives in Philly. "No one knew her or what her relationship to my sister was; it was very strange."

The only thing that is known about that night in April is what police have told the family: that the skin cells under Cheryl's nails prove that she put up a fight against her attacker, who was savage in how he ultimately killed her, strangling her with a shoelace.

The shoe that the lace came from, along with those skin cells, are what led investigators to Churchill 25 years later, police said.

A family 'curse'

Cheryl's death was too much to bear for her family, who then suddenly found themselves surrounded by tragedy.

A year after Cheryl's slaying, her brother Gregory was shot dead while attempting to rob a Southwest Philadelphia bar. And five years after that, Pamela Hanible, Cheryl's niece, was killed by a co-worker in broad daylight.

"It seemed like a curse, after she died," Kishia Hanible said. "And it felt so much worse, because she really was making a change."

Kishia said her aunt had been living at Genesis, a substance-abuse treatment center in Center City.

"She was spending more time with her kids, and working on getting more stability," she said.

As painful as the past is, the Hanible family as a whole is looking to finally move on, using the news of Churchill's arrest as means to find closure.

"I don't wish the death penalty on him, even though he took more than one life, but he'll get his one way or the other," Lavinia Hanible said.

"Taking a life for a life, what would that prove? It's not going to bring [Cheryl] back. Even if he rots in jail, he's going to suffer for what he did."

A teen cut down

Court records show Churchill is being held without bail in a county correctional facility. He's charged with two counts of murder and related offenses in the slayings of Hanible and Ruby Ellis, a 19-year-old woman found dead in an Oldsmobile five weeks before Hanible's body was discovered.

Ellis was also strangled, and the place where her corpse was dumped, a parking lot on Girard Avenue near 25th Street, was a mile and a half from where Hanible died, police said.

Ruby's family doesn't have much to say about her alleged killer's arrest, her aunt Patricia Ellis said. But they are relieved that he's been caught.

"She was a nice, normal teen," Ellis said. "She was just starting to live her life; she never had the chance to be anybody."

Ellis said her mother, Ruby, for whom the slain teen was named, summed up the family's view perfectly.

"When I told her he'd been caught, she only said one word.

" 'Bastard.' "

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