Documentary relays tale of recent murder

A new DVD is being sold in the area, but it is not a heart-warming Christmas story. Actually, it concerns a real event – the brutal murder of a mentally-challenged young woman. The tragic tale of forced servitude, domestic violence and emotional abuse could have been the plot for a crime show or a horror novel. But it really happened in Findlay.

Findlay filmmaker J. David Miles has produced a documentary, “Good Night, Sugar Babe: The Killing of Vera Jo Reigle.” He is to be at Paper and Ink in Tiffin 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday to sign and sell copies of the DVD.

At the Northwest Ohio Independent Film Festival in September, Miles’ film won the Audience Choice Award and Outstanding Documentary. Since then, he has been promoting the DVD with signing events, benefit screenings and interviews.

Having worked for years as a freelance screenwriter, Miles used his own equipment and experience to research and produce the film. He did hire a professional for voiceover work and local musician Micah Tewers composed and performed the orchestration and contributed an original song. Most of the material came from the community.

Media all over Ohio and elsewhere carried the story of Reigle, 24, whose naked, mutilated body was found on a railroad bridge in Findlay in 2011. The victim left behind a baby daughter whose father was a young man named Zachary Brooks. Miles learned the couple had been living in the Findlay home of Brooks’ mother, Cheri Brooks.

The police arrested Daniel Bixler of Tiffin and Nicole Peters of Fostoria, who had fled to the Brooks’ home after committing an assault at Oakley Park in Tiffin. Miles attended their trials in which Bixler was convicted of murder and Peters of complicity. The pair also claimed other people played a role in Reigle’s death.

“There’s two cases here, a murder case and a conspiracy case,” Miles said.

He added the evidence against Bixler and Peters convinced the jury to find them guilty but he felt their motive was unclear.

With widespread public skepticism and many unanswered questions, Miles decided to learn more about the victim and the events leading to her death. After the murder, a group of citizens formed Voices for Vera to press for a more thorough investigation. Some of them knew of Reigle’s mental impairments and contended the system had failed to protect her.

Miles got started by speaking to members of that group.

“Everybody kept saying ‘Cheri’s behind it,'” Miles said. “The Voices for Vera people are the ones actively pushing for the conspirators to be arrested. … This whole network of Voices for Vera have been very helpful in unraveling all this.”

Zachary Brooks is serving a four-year sentence for obstruction of justice and threatening a witness. News reports said Cheri Brooks also was charged with obstruction, but the judge suspended her jail time because of poor health.

Miles obtained access to recordings of the interrogations of Bixler and Peters, read police and court records and newspaper accounts and viewed autopsy and police photos. He learned Bixler and Peters had lengthy police records, but they had no obvious reason to kill Reigle. They barely knew her.

A Findlay native, Miles works in technology at Marathon Petroleum Corp., but he studied filmmaking at Ohio University and had lived in Los Angeles, writing screenplays and editing stories for 20th Century Fox. A few years ago, he moved back to Findlay to focus on documentaries and research them for other filmmakers. He did not try to re-create the crime but to uncover the rest of the story.

“The way I look at it is, there are varying levels of guilt from those who just sat and didn’t do anything to those who actively did things,” Miles said.

The film includes shots of the railroad bridge and a few scenes from Tiffin, but most of the footage comes from interviews with Tiffin and Findlay residents who had a connection to the people involved. In court, Peters named several members of the Brooks family as co-conspirators, so Miles read comments they had posted on Facebook and made requests to talk to them in person.

At first, the Brooks relatives declined the invitations. Miles said he sensed they feared retaliation from Cheri Brooks.

Finally, her oldest son agreed to meet with Miles at a location in Tiffin. After he broke the silence, all but Cheri Brooks came forward. At least five other adults were at the Brooks house the day Reigle died, and all knew about what went on at the bridge.

During his research, Miles determined Reigle had been abused for at least two months before she was killed. Three others in the household said Cheri Brooks had become fond of Reigle’s baby, Willadean, contrasted with hatred for Reigle. The young mother was not allowed near her little girl.

“Think of the cruelty of that – Vera living in the house with her own baby and not being allowed to touch her own baby. She was being beaten for touching her own baby,” Miles said.

He learned Cheri Brooks also had been confiscating Reigle’s public assistance checks, in addition to her own. Cheri Brooks is confined to a wheelchair, but she coerced other people to carry out her wishes. One of Reigle’s duties was to massage Cheri’s diseased feet.

Two of the Brooks men said Cheri Brooks had tried to implicate Vera in the death of the youngest Brooks boy. The baby’s father, Zachary, sided with his mother and also abused Reigle, who had the mental capacity of an 8-year-old.

Miles interviewed people from the soup kitchen where Reigle and the Brookses went for meals, across the street from their residence. Some of the people serving food saw Reigle on a hot summer day wearing a heavy coat with the hood pulled up to cover bruises on her face and probably elsewhere on her body.

Another time, Reigle was commanded to stand and wait while the rest of the family ate. She left without having any food herself. No one reported either incident.

“Cheri’s aunt says people got tired of calling the cops,” Miles said.

In requesting all the police reports for the Center Street home, officers handed Miles a folder as thick as a phone book. He surmised the frequent calls for minor problems established a familiarity that kept police from believing a serious crime had been committed.

Officers knew it was difficult to deal with the family, but Miles wonders if they underestimated their potential for more sinister behavior.

When Cheri Brooks became curious to know what everyone else had told him about her, she agreed to an interview.

Miles said she described her own turbulent childhood. Her three siblings were adopted, but she remained in foster care, moving from home to home.

Miles surmised she learned to use lies and deception to manipulate any situation. She had children with multiple fathers. Some were removed from her custody because of abuse and neglect.

For unknown reasons, the younger ones were allowed to remain in her care. Of those, one is deceased.

“I wrote this script called ‘Shared Madness’ for Fox. I did a lot of research, and there’s a cultish aspect to the Brooks family,” Miles said.

Collectively, the family has a fierce loyalty to Cheri Brooks, who has passed along her mistrust of law enforcement and government agencies. As matriarch, she kept a tight rein on her offspring, who have a twisted sense of “family.”

Miles believes she has isolated her clan from the community by inventing injustices and evil intentions. Miles referred to the infamous Salem witch trials in which ordinary behaviors were interpreted as devil worship. When irrational claims are taken seriously by a group of people, fear escalates, he said.

Miles said Cheri Brooks’ accusations were refined and amplified until everyone turned against Reigle to some degree.

When Bixler and Peters joined the household, Cheri indoctrinated them, as well. Miles visited Peters and Bixler in prison to get comments that confirmed his hunch. They said Cheri Brooks encouraged them to beat and abuse Reigle at the house. Bixler admitted stabbing Reigle in the leg. Both said Zachary Brooks had taken them out to the railroad bridge a few hours before Reigle’s death.

“I think the reason they talked to me was because I was one of the first people to come to them and say, ‘Tell me your side of things.’ What I heard from them was that they were easily manipulated because of their situation,” Miles said.

Bixler had recently been released from Lima Correctional Institute. He and Peters had no money and minimal support from their families. Someone had given them the Brooks’ address, so they went there to get out of Seneca County, he said.

Bixler and others in the Brooks home told Miles about drug use there. After a week of hiding the two fugitives and giving them drugs, Cheri Brooks wanted to be repaid for her hospitality.

Bixler did not realize he was set up until Miles told him about what went on before he came into the house.

“Pointing a finger completely at Cheri is wrong because nobody made them do these things. I’m not trying to exonerate Danny Bixler or Nicole Peters of anything. They’re guilty, but there was more to it,” Miles added.

Miles said the public has been receptive to “Good Night, Sugar Babe,” so named for a quote in an interview.

If any good has come out of the murder, it has alerted the community to the plight of the mentally ill and the shortcomings of the systems intended to support and protect them, he said.

Miles said two domestic violence shelters had tried to bring Vera in, but did not follow through.

At least, Willadean has been adopted into a loving family and Reigle has escaped her tormentors, he said.

Criminal justice departments at universities and domestic violence shelters may be able to use the DVD for educational purposes.

Miles said his goal is not to make a profit but to recoup some of his production expenses from the film.