On Episode 21 of Suffer the Little Children Podcast, I featured the case of one-year-old Sereniti Sutley, a tiny princess with a quick smile and sparkling blue eyes who died just three weeks after her first birthday. For the most recent episode of the podcast, I provided updates on the cases I covered from episodes 13 through 24, including Sereniti’s.
First, a quick recap for anyone unfamiliar with Sereniti’s story.
The case began on October 7, 2017, when Sereniti’s mother, 22-year-old Kelsie Blankenship, found the baby lifeless in her crib in the early morning hours. Based on the Sereniti’s injuries, medical staff and police believed she was raped and beaten to death.
When Sereniti died, the only people with her in the family’s Conneaut, Ohio apartment were her mother, Kelsie, and Kelsie’s 37-year-old boyfriend, Joshua Gurto, who had been dating for about three months. Joshua was questioned by police the same day and released, but soon after, he was charged with two counts of aggravated murder, three counts of murder, one count of rape, one count of felonious assault, and one count of domestic violence. At that point, Joshua went on the run, leading police on a three-week manhunt that ultimately ended in his capture at a Sheetz gas station and convenience store in Franklin Park, Pennsylvania.
Sereniti’s mother, Kelsie, continued about her life, participating in news interviews about her daughter’s murder and so on, for an entire year, until on October 12, 2018, she was arrested and charged with two counts of felony murder, one count of felonious assault, two second-degree felony counts of endangering children, one third-degree felony count of endangering children, and one misdemeanor count of domestic violence.
As a result of Kelsie’s indictment, the death penalty specification associated with Joshua’s aggravated murder charges was dropped, although Prosecutor Nick Iarocci declined to give specifics about why that decision was made, saying that it was the “fair and correct thing to do” and that the reason “may come to light in the future.”
I’d bank on Joshua testifying against Kelsie at trial, but that remains to be seen.
In the two years since Kelsie’s arrest, the two cases have crawled at a snail’s pace through the legal system, mainly because of dozens and dozens of motions filed by both defense parties. Kelsie Blankenship was evaluated against the wishes of her defense team and deemed competent to stand trial. In June of 2020, a motion her attorney made in July of 2019 was denied to suppress a statement Kelsie made to a therapist about having a desire to kill her child.
Kelsie’s trial was scheduled to begin in May of 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused an indefinite continuance. In September, Judge Marianne Sezon scheduled Kelsie’s trial to begin at 9:00 AM on Tuesday, February 9, 2021.
In December, subpoenas were sent to no fewer than 33 witnesses, proving that Kelsie’s trial will definitely encompass at least several days. I’m strongly hoping it will be live-streamed. In the meantime, Kelsie remains incarcerated on the fifth floor of the Ashtabula County Jail.
In Joshua’s case, the same judge scheduled a motions hearing for March 17, 2021 to rule on any pending motions that have not been decided by one week prior to the hearing. She also scheduled a status conference for April 7 and set Joshua’s trial to begin at 9:00 AM on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.
Joshua, too, is still being held in the Ashtabula County Jail, although he’s on the third floor.
Now for the update, and this one is huge. In December, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, Ashtabula County Prosecutor Cecilia Cooper, and Conneaut Police Chief Michael Colby announced that Joshua Gurto was indicted on December 16, 2020 in a 16-year-old rape case. He was charged with two first-degree felony counts of aggravated burglary; one first-degree felony count of rape; and one second-degree felony count of felonious assault.
Although I couldn’t find any details about the crime itself, the Highland County Press said that a recent review of the case by the Conneaut Police Department and the Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Cold Case Unit led to the resubmission of evidence from the sexual assault that took place on December 18, 2004.
Attorney General Yost said, “This indictment is exactly why we created the Cold Case Unit. The application of today’s crime-fighting technology on old cases can lead to long-due justice… Science keeps marching on, and so a case that 10 or 15 years ago might have been unsolvable, suddenly, today, in the light of new science, becomes solvable. We can open up a new clue that leads to new avenues of investigation and sometimes to get the bad guy… BCI’s Cold Case Unit, along with our law enforcement partners and prosecutors, are going to keep the bad guys up at night: your sins will find you out.”
Prosecutor Cooper said, “This case is a great example of how much we can accomplish when we work together. Victims of cold cases should never give up hope.”
In the 2004 case, evidence was found by Chief Colby’s late K9 partner, Nik, but forensic testing performed in 2004 was inconclusive. The Press said, “Old-fashioned police work, combined with further DNA analysis, was able to match the offender’s DNA profile to Gurto.”
Incredibly, the BCI’s Cold Case Unit was only launched in September of 2020, and this was the first indictment connected to the unit’s work. According to Ohio Attorney General spokesman Steve Irwin, the Cold Case Unit is currently reviewing evidence from about 150 unsolved cases, including homicides, sexual assaults, missing persons cases, and unidentified remains.
I get a little giddy over things like this; cold cases being solved by DNA is one of my absolute favorite things to see in the news. There is always hope that a case can be solved, even if years or even decades have passed. Yay science!
Anyway, it’s been over three years coming, but with trials scheduled for February and May of this year, justice will soon be served for baby Sereniti.
Click here for my ongoing coverage of Sereniti’s story.
Sources: News 5 Cleveland, Highland County Press, Cleveland 19, WKBN, Ashtabula County Courts System portal, Ashtabula County Jail website