AKRON, OHIO — By all appearances, Cythnia George had a picture perfect life...and as a contestant in the Mrs. Ohio contest seven years ago, she was ready for her closeup.
Cindy seemed to have it all. The wife of a well-known, wealthy Akron restaurateur, and lived in a sprawling mansion on 18 acres, raising seven loving children.
George daughter: My mom’s just such a loving person. I mean she’s open to anyone.
George daughter: I have never met a more charismatic person than my mom
She was proud of her life, and of her husband, Ed George.
Cyndi George first met her husband in 1978 when she walked into Ed George’s supper club, the Tangier, a hulking block-long Moroccan-themed entertainment spot. He was a serious, self-confessed workaholic—a 40-year-old confirmed bachelor. She was 16 years younger, outgoing, and fun-loving. They had in common a devout Catholicism.
After a five-year courtship, the couple had a fairy tale wedding in 1984. Then, a succession of pregnancies, followed by two adoptions. Over the years, the George family—and the family business—prospered.
Phil Trexler, reporter, Akron Beacon Journal: Everyone knows the George family and Tangier restaurant.
Phil Trexler is a veteran reporter who works for the Akron Beacon Journal
Trexler: The Georges are part of the old tradition of Akron—wealth and prominence.
Cindy George had come a long way from her humble beginnings as a factory worker’s daughter.
She was beaming on stage with a fourth place finish. But little did people know, that behind the swimsuits and smiles, a lurid scandal was unfolding. Before long, it would tarnish the patina of perfection Cynthia George liked to show the world. Infidelity... Jealousy... Murder.... More the stuff of soap operas than beauty pageants. And it all began to unfold a year after that contest with an execution in broad daylight that stunned the police and the public alike. It was a murder that seemed to have nothing to do with Cindy George.
911: What is your emergency?
Caller: I need immediate help. We have gunshot wound at BJ’s Wholesale club.
On Father’s Day weekend in 2001, a man drove his motorcycle into this gas station. He calmly stepped off, pulled out a gun, blew a hole into a customer’s head and sped away.
Caller: He’s bleeding profusely.
911: Is he conscious?
The violence stunned many in Akron. This rust belt city was once the home to the rich tire barons Goodyear and Firestone. Trexler says Akron is now a simpler place and such a big city shooting seemed out of place.
Trexler: It was—almost right out of "The Godfather," the way this killing went down.
Corderi: It looked like a contract killing.
Lt. Whiddon: Yes. It was definitely unusual. And, that’s something we don’t get too often around here.
Akron homicide detectives Dave Whiddon and Vince Felber did not have a lot to go on. Other than this grainy security camera video, a bullet fragment and eyewitness descriptions of the getaway bike.
Det. Felber: Lime green and black, ninja-style motorcycle. Some call it a crotch rocket, some call it a ninja-style motorcycle.
People at the scene said the killer wore a dark helmet that didn’t reveal any features, and was brutally efficient.
Det. Felber: The clerk that worked at the gas station—she was outside her booth.
Corderi: So the whole crime took, what? Two minutes?
Det. Felber: Not even. Thirty seconds.
Thirty seconds that would stretch out into years of titillating headlines, the unveiling of sordid family secrets.
Trexler: It had all the elements of a Hollywood novel. It had beauty. It had wealth. It had adultery. You had five soap opera storylines all colliding at one time.
The victim? 44-year-old Jeff Zack. Detectives wanted to find out who he was and why someone would want to kill him in such a cold-blooded way.
They learned that Zack left behind a wife and a son, and that he had struggled all of his life to find success. In his 20’s he tried to become a pilot in the Israeli military. Then went on to work as a stockbroker and headhunter, before giving the scrap metal business a try. At the time of his death he owned and serviced vending machines around Ohio.
His mother, Elayne Zack, said her son’s life had been difficult from the start.
Elayne Zack: He was severely rejected by his own father, his biological father. He had been very close to him. Then, when I divorced him he kind of rejected him. It was weird.
And that, she says affected him his entire life—in business and in relationships.
Zack: He couldn’t take rejection. He couldn’t take it.
Detectives also learned that Zack had a volatile temper and a police record that included domestic violence and harassment charges and involvement in a prostitution ring.
Det. Felber: Jeff Zack had a very colorful life. He was hot tempered, stubborn. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and we knew he had, more than likely, made some enemies.
Lt. Whiddon: We talked to several people that had confrontations with him. He wasn’t type of the—a person that would back down.
Reporter Trexler covered the case from the start.
Trexler: When we first—when we first looked at Jeff Zack, we understood him to be a typical suburban father. But as we started to tear away at who Jeff Zack really was, we found a—a complicated man. We found a dark side to him that created a mountain of possible motives for his killing.
Police found that three days before Jeff Zack was killed, someone left a bizarre and threatening message on his answering machine.
Answering Machine Message: “All right buddy, you’ve got one more out. So you need to start answering your cell phone, okay?”
What did that strange message mean? Had a business deal gone bad? Did Jeff Zack’s temper get him into a dispute that turned deadly? As detectives investigated, they learned something else that surprised them. The struggling businessman had wealthy, successful friends...well-known to many In Akron—Ed and Cindy George. They’d met a decade earlier at the George’s supper club.
So police went the George’s home the day after the murder to speak with Cindy...a meeting that didn’t go as planned
Det. Felber: The detectives described her as being heavily medicated. She did know Jeff Zack and that they were friends. After that she just said, “Well I think my husband needs to be here and I don’t want to talk anymore.”
After that, the George’s hired lawyers and clammed up, and the detectives say the George’s friends and family also refused to cooperate.
Lt. Whiddon: We kept getting the same answer. Ed George told me not to talk to you.
Corderi: So, the fact that they were closing ranks, did that make you suspicious?
Det. Felber: Of course. In my experience, somebody that doesn’t want to talk to the police is almost always guilty.
Corderi: Or has something to hide.
Det. Felber: Right, right.
Was that the case? Or was the George family — prominent people held in high regard in the community — just trying keep the family name from being associated with such an unseemly crime?
Police continued investigating all leads and learned more unflattering details about Jeff Zack. His widow told investigators he’d been openly unfaithful to her and recently ended a long-term affair with a married woman.
Corderi: So his wife not only knew about the affair, but knew about when the affair went sour?
Lt. Whiddon: Yes.
Det. Felber: He had broken up with someone he loved for a long time and he was distraught over it.
The affair quickly became the focus of the investigation.
Det. Felber: Two married people having an affair, cheating on both their spouses. That’s a motive for many homicides.
It would take more than a year of detective work to get close to the truth and it was a complicated path full of surprises.
Detectives were able to rule out Zack’s widow as a suspect. And so they focused on Zack’s former lover — someone with a lot of secrets.
Lt. Whiddon: I don’t think anybody realized that she had another life.
They’d soon discover, she was a dangerously desperate housewife.
Det. Felber: There was no one big piece of information. There was no witness. There was no gun.
Detectives Vince Felber and Dave Whiddon faced many obstacles as they tried to find out who shot Jeff Zack execution style at a busy Ohio gas station in June 2001.
Det. Felber: We had to get little bits and pieces here and there from any sources we could and just put ‘em all together.
Some of those bits of information were titillating, especially when detectives learned the name of that married woman Zack had been romancing—Cindy George...the stylish stay-at-home mother of seven young children, the affluent wife of one of Akron’s biggest restaurateurs.
Elayne Zack, Jeff Zack's mother: She was a beauty queen. She lived in this mansion. All of this attracted Jeffrey.
Zack’s mother, Elayne, said the affair was an open secret.
Zack: She was very attractive. And Jeffrey was a typical egocentric male that probably enjoyed having this beautiful blonde.
Now detectives understood why Cindy George and her husband Ed didn’t want to talk them. Remember, the Zack and George families became friends in 1992, but at some point, the relationship between Cindy and Jeff evolved into a 10-year affair. When Cindy broke it off, Zack’s mother says, she also broke her son’s heart.
Zack: He wasn’t his usual self. So, I knew that there was probably some trouble.
About a month later, Zack was dead. Detectives wondered, could the affair or the breakup somehow have led to the murder? With Zack’s widow already ruled out as a suspect, who else would be so angry? Who else might have a motive?
As detectives probed more deeply, they learned that before the killing, Ed George had complained to police that Zack was calling his house constantly and harassing his wife.
Det. Felber: So that kind of lead us to believe that Ed was not happy with Jeff Zack, and the fact that Jeff Zack was dead. There might be a connection.
Zack: I suspected Ed George.
Corderi: Why did you suspect Ed George?
Zeck: Because I knew that Jeffrey was having an affair, and just assumed that Ed George finally had it.
But Ed George had an ironclad alibi — he and Cindy and the kids were at a family wedding the day of the shooting, seen her in this picture. Still, the murder looked like a contract hit. Detectives say they could not ignore the possibility that Ed George had hired someone to kill his wife’s lover.
Det.: Mr. George was such a rich, powerful man—who possibly could have had—connections which could have done a hit.
Getting answers was difficult. Ed George was not talking to the cops, and detectives say he had convinced most of his friends and relatives not to cooperate... everyone listened, except for this woman.
Marianne Brewer, Georges' nanny: I didn’t want to talk, but I felt it was my duty at that time to talk.
And she had plenty to say. Marianne Brewer had seen a lot in her 13 years as a nanny for the Georges'. She told detectives that Ed George was a good and devoted father, but Cindy? Well, that was a different story.
Brewer: She was always—“Look at me. Look how great I look. What—Look at all these children I had.” It was always a big show.
She says behind the facade of the perfect mother and dutiful wife was a manipulative, adulterous woman who spent much of her time either out of the house or talking on the phone incessantly. She says Cindy even carried on with Jeff Zack in her own home.
Brewer: I saw ‘em kissing And sometimes in the evenings he would come over there. And they’d disappear someplace.
But over time, the former nanny says Zack became jealous and abusive. After a heated phone call approximately one year before the murder, Marianne Brewer says Cindy was shaken up and terrified.
Brewer: I said, “Why do you put up with this? Why do you talk to him?” “Why do you let him come around here,” She says, “You don’t understand. He threatened to take my baby away from me and go to Israel.”
What did that mean, "take her baby to Israel"? Detectives believed the answer might be a motive for murder.
If this were true, it certainly could explain a lot. Zack’s threats might have tempted the Georges to take drastic action, but it was just a theory. To find out for sure, detectives would have to do something highly unusual in a murder case—force the George’s youngest daughter to take a paternity test.
Becausec Zack’s threats might have tempted the Georges to take drastic action, but it was just a theory. To find out for sure, detectives would have to do something highly unusual in a murder case—force the George’s youngest daughter to take a paternity test.
Detective: They were stalling us. They didn’t wanna cooperate with us. So we had to take measures to have forensic testing done.
Det. Felber: We didn’t wanna go that way. We wanted them to cooperate.
Corderi: How did you react when you got the test results?
Detective: Well, I don’t think we were surprised.
Because the test results proved what they’d suspected. Jeff Zack had indeed fathered the child, who was born 7 years before the murder.
Corderi: You had to know this was going to be explosive.
Lt. Whiddon: Right.
Det. Felber: We knew that that was gonna be the motive. Up to that time, you know, volatile affair, harassment, that’s a motive. But to protect your daughter from getting—either taken from you or having a paternity suit filed, that was more of a motive than we had previously.
Still, it wasn’t enough to break the case. The detectives believed Ed George either alone or together with his wife Cindy had found someone or some way to get rid of Jeff Zack, but they still had no way to prove it. After almost a year, they were no closer to finding the gunman.
Det. Felber: We knew the person who shot Jeff Zack was not Cindy George, wasn’t Ed George. We needed to find that third person. And we weren’t coming up with much.
Corderi: So that looked like someone was gonna get away with murder?
Det. Felber: Yes.
Lt. Whiddon: Yes.
That is, until a new lead suddenly appeared: an unexpected witness who would hold the key to the case.
Trexler: There was very little for the police to go on—and it seemed like it was one of those cases where it may never be solved.
Jeff Zack’s execution-style murder had faded from the headlines, and a year into their investigation, the detectives were at a dead end. Though they had come to believe that Ed and Cindy George were somehow behind the killing.
Det. Felber: It was frustrating because we knew that somebody had some information. We knew somebody knew exactly what happened.
Summit County District Attorney Sherri Bevan Walsh felt the same way.
Sherri Bevan Walsh, district attorney: There was certainly a lot of frustration because it was such a public case. So when some of that critical information finally did come in, it was a big sense of relief that finally this investigation is going to really start moving.
The critical information came from this woman. And what she told detectives was about to blow the case wide open.
Det. Felber: She believed that her ex-husband, John Zaffino, was the one who shot Jeff Zack.
John Zaffino: It was the first time detectives had ever heard the name. He was a 35-year-old truck driver, and his ex-wife, Chris Todaro said he was violent.
Christine Todaro, John Zaffino's ex-wife: He was a maniac. He would go from zero to Mach Ten in three seconds. Anything could set him off, just off the scale is the best way to describe him.
Had the detectives been focusing on the wrong suspects all along? Had they been looking too closely at Ed and Cindy George? Had there been someone else entirely with a motive to kill Jeff Zack? Todaro says a month before the murder, Zaffino had told her about a man he disliked, and had described him as a tall, white-haired Israeli.
Todaro: He told me that they had gotten in a fight and that he had beat him up in front of his posse.
Then, when she read about Jeff Zack’s murder and saw his picture in the newspaper, she knew it was too much of a coincidence. So she says she called Zaffino.
Todaro: All I said to him was, “Was that you?” And he laughed and snickered. And he said, “Well, let’s just say the guy’s gonna have a hard time parting his hair from now on.”
Detectives wondered if this new mystery man was the same person who’d left that threatening message for Jeff Zack just days before he was killed...
”All right buddy, you’ve got one more out. So you need to start answering your cellphone, okay?”
Detectives played the tape for Todaro. And when she heard it, she knew right away it was John Zaffino.
Todaro: He’s talked to me like that a thousand times. Millions of times. It was definitely his voice.
Next, detectives hatched a plan to catch Zaffino. First, they convinced Todaro to wear a wire, hoping she could get her ex-husband to confess on tape. Then, they planted a story about the murder in the local newspaper, giving Todaro a reason to call.
(recorded call) Todaro: You need to read the paper.
Zaffino: What’d it say?
Todaro: It’s in there about that guy, that guy you took out.
Zaffino: Cause, you know, you know they listen.
Although Zaffino never confessed on tape, there are about a dozen recordings in all. He did sound concerned his ex-wife might turn him in.
Zaffino: …the only thing that would ever put me in prison and death is you…
Todaro: …f@&k you, I’m getting out, I don’t like that, no.
Zaffino: …and maybe the electric chair.
Certainly John Zaffino seemed like a good suspect, and as detectives continued to dig, they began finding witnesses and evidence that pointed to John Zaffino as the triggerman.
A co-worker who sold him two handguns in the weeks before the murder.
A black ninja-type motorcycle with lime green stripes registered in his name, the same kind of bike described by witnesses.
Another ex-wife, who said Zaffino ditched the motorcycle at her house in Pennsylvania, just days after Zack was killed.
Lt. Whiddon: He had told his ex-wife that this bike was wanted in Ohio.
And she told police the motorcycle’s distinctive stripes were masked, covered with duct tape. Detectives believe Zaffino had been making an effort to cover up his crime; it was time to make their move.
Lt. Whiddon: We were convinced that John Zaffino committed this murder.
On September 25th, 2002, a year after the murder, they arrested John Zaffino. He was charged with aggravated murder in the death of Jeff Zack. The announcement came as a surprise to reporter Phil Trexler.
Trexler: His name had never come up in all of the work that we’d done. It came out of nowhere.
John Zaffino would plead not guilty and the case was once again back in the headlines. And the detectives called Elayne Zack with the news her son’s suspected killer was in custody.
Zack: I couldn’t believe it. I really was ecstatic that finally some justice was being served.
A few days later, as news of the arrest continued to spread, detectives received a tip that convinced them Zaffino had once before tried to murder Zack.
Lt. Whiddon: I received a phone call from a park ranger that said, you know, we’ve dealt with this guy before, too. We know about John Zaffino.
Zaffino was stopped and questioned in a park just outside Akron, about a month before the homicide. There was an empty holster in his car. Then, a few days later a loaded handgun was found hidden in the woods, and it matched the description of the gun Zaffino bought from his co-worker.
Lt. Whiddon: And he said that looks exactly like the one I sold him.
Detectives say Zaffino had been in the park waiting for Jeff Zack to show up, but he never did. It was, they say, a botched hit that set in motion the violent Father’s day weekend shooting that stunned so many in Akron.
But there was still one major questioned left unanswered: What was John Zaffino’s connection to Jeff Zack...and why would he want to kill him?
As if this story weren’t tangled enough, there were more complications to come—an explosive piece of information that police say went a long way to explaining Zack’s murder.
Since Jeff Zack was gunned down, detectives had followed a winding trail in pursuit of an elusive murderer, from a bloody gas station scene to a posh mansion full of secrets to a tough talking blue collar worker with an apparent grudge.
They finally thought they’d found their man—John Zaffino, but they lacked a motive... until his ex-wife let them in on a secret—Zaffino was having an affair with none other than Cindy George.
Todaro: She was giving him clothes, money, paying his payments, paying his rent, paying his phone bills.
Police say Cindy, the married, mother of seven, had not one lover, but two at the same time—Jeff Zack and John Zaffino. She first met Zaffino at this bar in the summer of 2000, and now, a year after the murder, they were still seeing each other.
Lt. Whiddon: Now there’s a connection between John Zaffino and Cindy George and Jeff Zack and Cindy George.
To detectives, it looked like a love triangle turned deadly. Finally, detectives believed they’d pieced together the puzzle behind Jeff Zack’s killing, and now it was up to prosecutors to convince a jury.
Sherri Bevan Walsh, district attorney: This was one of the most intense cases that we had in this office, and certainly one of the most publicly followed cases that we’ve had in a long time.
Up until John Zaffino’s trial in February of 2003, the sordid details of the case—the illicit affairs, the child out of wedlock, the connection to the socially prominent George family—were secrets confined to an ongoing police investigation. But those secrets were about to be revealed. The case would become the topic throughout Akron and change one family forever.
Trexler: Wherever you went, it was the talk of the town. It was just—things like this don’t happen to—to rich, beautiful people in Akron.
John Zaffino had pleaded not guilty, and prosecutors believed that Cindy George somehow had masterminded the murder plot, but they didn’t have the evidence to charge her. Now, in order for them to convict Zaffino and establish a motive, prosecutors had to expose Cindy’s secrets to show her connection to the alleged murderer and victim.
Corderi: What was his motive?
Brad Gessner, assistant prosecutor: His motive? He was going to be the hero for his girlfriend.
Corderi: Get rid of her problems?
Assistant prosecutor Brad Gessner argued that a love struck Zaffino killed Jeff Zack because Zack had been harassing Cindy and threatening to take away their child when she ended the affair. Even though Cindy was not on trial, her public image was taking a beating.
Trexler: People took a different look at Ed George and Cindy George and took a step back and realized that maybe that fairytale marriage and lifestyle that they live—were living was not what it appeared to be.
Cindy had been called to testify in Zaffino’s trial, but had pleaded the fifth. Still, her silence didn’t stop her secrets from spilling out.
Her extramarital antics were a source of gossip and shame that affected the entire George family—a husband who was the public face of a popular restaurant and nightclub and seven children who had to go to school every day.
Corderi: How difficult was it?
Cindy George's daughter: It was very difficult. I mean just hearing news reporters bash our mom.
Alysiarose, Annamaria and Antoinette are the three of the Georges’ oldest children. They say they leaned on each for strength.
George daughter: We had to each hold each other together to get through it. Cause everyone was falling apart.
Up until the murder trial, they say, they didn’t realize Zack was their mother’s lover... just that he was a strange family friend who showed up too often and at odd hours while their father was working at the restaurant.
George daughter: I just didn’t like it when he was around. I just felt a bad vibe from him.
Corderi: So he would just show up?
George daughter: In the middle of the night sometimes. Like the alarm would go off. And we always wondered why it went off. It was because of him. It just scared us.
The sisters—at the time ages 9 to 17— went to Catholic school and were involved in many activates. As their mother’s dirty laundry was aired in newspapers and on television, they say they often heard unkind comments.
George daughter: You kind of have to ignore it. You know, the real truth in your heart. They don’t know your mom—you know, my mom. They don’t know the person that I know.
During Zaffino’s trial, the girls say their mother sat each of them down separately and, with much difficulty, told them about her long-term affair with Jeff Zack.
George daughter: I could tell that she didn’t even like want to tell us. But she knew she had to.
George daughter: When she said sorry to you, she even cried about it. She meant it. And you could tell. It just took us a while to get over it.
Corderi: Did you sense that she felt ashamed?
George daughter: Oh yeah she felt very—
George daughter: Very.
George daughter: --ashamed. She felt very ashamed.
George daughter: It was very heartbreaking. Like you don’t really know how to deal with it.
Corderi: Did any of this at any point shake your faith in your mother?
George daughter: Yeah, I lost a lot of faith in her for a long time. When you hear that it’s so shocking. And when you’re growing up with such like great morals, to hear that it’s just—it’s very—heartbreaking.
But they say they couldn’t remain angry at the woman who had loved them and had raised them to believe in forgiveness.
George daughter: I mean it was hard at first. I mean, you know, I was mad at her for a little bit. But I mean I learned to forgive her. She’s still my mom.
Corderi: Did she ask you for forgiveness?
George daughter: No.
George daughter: We did it ourselves. And I could tell that she was deeply—sorry for what she had done. And you know, regretted it.
But remember, it wasn’t just adultery. The trial also revealed that Jeff Zack was the biological father of the George’s youngest daughter. Cindy later sat her down to explain what that meant. We’ve disguised her identity for her privacy.
George daughter: I was 11.
Corderi: What was that like for you? Did you get what she was saying?
George daughter: At first I didn’t. But then I really understood it after a while
George daughter: Yeah, it made me feel a little bit weird at first, but, I mean, I realized that she’s my mom, and I’m always gonna love her, no matter what kind of mistakes she makes.
George daughter: She told me that she—that he really wasn’t what she thought he was and that it was a mistake, and that she was really sorry about it.
George daughter: No. I just—I don’t—a lot of people make that mistake.
She calls Ed George the “dad of her heart.” And her sisters say the news has changed nothing.
George daughter: It was hard to hear, but she’s still our sister, you know? I mean she is my dad’s daughter, you know, he still—you know, loves her exactly as a daughter and she’s—nothing has changed between that.
They say they felt very protective of their father as he suffered through the embarrassing publicity.
George daughter: You really felt bad for him. You know, because no husband should have to go through that.
Corderi: And not publicly.
George daughter: Right, and not publicly.
In the meantime, John Zaffino was facing murder charges for killing Jeff Zack. He declined to testify in his own defense during the five-day trial. Prosecutors, remember, were convinced that Cindy was the real mastermind, but when they tried to strike a deal with Zaffino in exchange for turning on Cindy, he refused.
Corderi: Wasn’t she sort of an invisible co-defendant in that case in terms of how often she came up and her role?
Brad Gessner: Yes, because John Zaffino had no reason to have any connection to Jeff Zack other than through Cynthia George.
Corderi: But she wasn’t there?
Brad Gessner: Yes.
Corderi: Was that frustrating for you?
Gessner: Oh, absolutely.
With all the evidence presented—the motorcycle, the guns, the affairs, the taped calls, the alleged botched hit in the park—it took the jury less than four hours to reach a verdict: guilty. The prosecutors tried one more time to get Zaffino to turn on his lover.
Corderi: Didn’t you ask to delay sentencing after Zaffino was convicted to try to work out the deal to lessen his sentence?
Gessner: Yes. He said he did not do this and she was not involved.
The court sentenced Zaffino to 23 years to life. So, a murder solved, a case apparently put to rest. But was justice really served? Not, says Gessner, according to several jurors who demanded to know one thing from the prosecutors after the trial.
Gessner: First questions were, when is she being tried?
Trexler: There was a great outcry from the public demanding that Cindy George be held accountable for this murder as well.
Perhaps no one voiced more outrage than Jeff Zack’s mother, Elayne.
Elayne Zack, Jeff's mother: I nagged the police all the time. I wanted both people that were responsible to be convicted and put where they belong. People don’t get away with murder.
Corderi: And it seemed to you that she was getting away with murder?
For the next two years, under a cloud of suspicion, Cindy George was free to go about living a normal life with her family.
Until news broke in January 2005 that police had uncovered new evidence.
“Cynthia George, the wife of Tangier owner Ed George is behind bars tonight.”
Cindy George was arrested for the murder of Jeff Zack. This time the harsh glare of publicity was unrelenting—a wealthy former beauty queen with seven children accused of having one lover kill another.
Trexler: It was a bombshell. People had been waiting and waiting for it so long. They thought it would never happen.
Prosecutor: What did John Zaffino tell you about Cindy George and the murder of Jeff Zack?
Todaro: He told me that she knew everything about it. Everything that was going on.
Just before Thanksgiving of 2005, four and a half years after Jeff Zack was murdered, Cindy George would have to face justice.
Conspiracy to commit murder and complicity to commit aggravated murder.
With her family and friends looking on, Cindy appeared unglamorous and subdued. Surrounded by a team of five veteran, top-tier lawyers.
Corderi: Had you ever seen that before?
Gessner: Five lawyers for one defendant? No. I calculated and I figured she had an excess of 200 years of legal practice sitting there.
Gessner: With what we had, it wasn’t. It was more one of those feelings of—I—she knows she’s guilty. She had to go to the—this extent to try to find some way out of this.
Just as the trial was about to start, there was surprising news from Cindy’s defense team—she wanted her case heard by a judge instead of a jury a very unusual move.
Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove: I was surprised, perhaps even stunned.
Now, Cindy George’s fate would be in the hands of only one person, presiding judge Patricia Cosgrove. She says only a tiny fraction of criminal defendants make that request, and for good reason.
Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove: You have 12 individuals sitting on a jury. You would only have to convince one of those individuals either of the person’s innocence or create some sort of reasonable doubt.
Corderi: Do you think it showed on the defense’s part that they were afraid of the judgment about her moral conduct, that a jury might have?
Walsh: I’m sure that that weighed on the minds of the defense attorneys.
Prosecutors Brad Gessner and Mike Carroll had successfully convinced a jury two years earlier of John Zaffino’s guilt. And now they’d have to prove to the judge that Cindy George was the spark that ignited the murder plot, that even though she didn’t pull the trigger, she was just as responsible as Zaffino for the death of her former lover.
Day 1 of the trial
MIKE CARROLL: What this evidence is going to show is the defendant, Cindy George, had a problem in her life. And her problem was a man named Jeff Zack. And she solved that problem through a man named John Zaffino.
The case was circumstantial; there was no gun recovered, no eyewitnesses, yet prosecutors say there was plenty of evidence to prove that Cindy persuaded Zaffino to kill Zack to keep him from exposing her secrets—the affairs, the child born out of wedlock, secrets that threatened her lavish lifestyle should her husband find out.
Gessner: She had already talked to divorce attorneys in Cleveland. And that that was not an option. Her way of dealing with not being penniless, with not being divorced, was to permanently and finally get rid of Jeff Zach.
Even though Zaffino had already been convicted, prosecutors needed to show once again that he was the triggerman Cindy manipulated.
Robert Cole, a friend, testified that he sold Zaffino two hand guns, one of them a .357 magnum, the suspected murder weapon.
Robert Cole: I know John and know how he is, that is why I had asked him ‘don’t be doing something stupid’ you know because I had sold him the weapon. I was afraid he was gonna go out there and shoot somebody with it or something.
Then, prosecutors wheeled in Zaffino’s motorcycle, and several witnesses said it looked just like the one the killer had ridden.
Next, Zaffino’s ex-wife from Pennsylvania took the stand. When Zaffino ditched the bike at her house just days after the murder, she says its distinctive lime green stripes were concealed.
They also called Chris Todaro to the stand, Zafffino’s other ex-wife, the one who had secretly recorded several conversations with him.
She told the court what zaffino had said to her after zack’s murder.
Christine Todaro: I said, “Was that you?” And he hesitated for a minute. And, and then he said, “Well let’s just say the guy’s going to have a hard time parting his hair from now on.”
Once Zaffino was established as the murderer, prosecutors set out to prove their main point—that Cindy George had been pulling the strings all along. And they turned once again to Chris Todaro.
Gessner: She was that connecting voice, that voice of what John Zaffino said and why he was doing it.
Todaro testified that Zaffino had told her Cindy George was in on it all the way.
PROSECUTOR: What did John Zaffino tell you about Cindy George and the murder of Jeff Zack?
TODARO: He told me that she knew everything about it. Everything that was going on.
Knew about the murder, prosecutors argued, and financed it.
To back that up, prosecutors called to the stand a bank manager who verified Cindy’s records—on the day John Zaffino bought the so-called getaway bike for just under $5,300 dollars, Cindy George made a cash withdrawal for the same amount.
Corderi: How important was that to the case?
Walsh: The fact that Cindy George paid for that motorcycle that he used in the crime—we thought was very significant. She’s funding what he needs to have in his possession to commit the crime that they were planning.
And the funding didn’t stop there. Prosecutors argued that Cindy also footed the bill for Zaffino’s cell phone. The monthly statements would turn out to be key evidence.
Detective Vince Felber said an incriminating pattern emerged as he pored over hundreds of calls between Cindy George and John Zaffino.
Records show the night Zaffino was spotted in that park about a month before the shooting, Cindy was on two cell phones at the same time...with Zack and Zaffino
Prosecutors argued Cindy was trying to lure Zack to the park because Zaffino was hiding there, ready to ambush him. But the park ranger who suddenly showed up foiled the plan.
Gessner: How is it that John Zaffino is there waiting for Jeff Zack with the gun if someone isn’t going to lure him there? And who is the person going to lure him there? The girlfriend with the problem, the girlfriend who’s on the phone with both of them at the same time while he’s sitting out in the woods.
Prosecutors say that failed park showdown led to “plan b”—the hit at the gas station a month later. And on that day, they say, the pattern of phone calls appears to be the most damning of all.
Det. Felber: We saw that John and Cindy were on the phone up until seven minutes before the homicide.
Prosecution: And what time was Jeff Zack murdered?
Prosecution: And from that time, were there any calls between those 2 phones?
Detective: No, there were not.
Det. Felber: Twenty minutes after the homicide, John calls Cindy back or they talk again.
Walsh: Why is it that Cindy George is the first person he calls right after a shooting? Yet she doesn’t even know about any of this going on?
And there was more on Cindy’s mind than just murder, said prosecutors. They were about to unveil evidence they believed would show that Cindy’s criminal behavior didn’t end when Zack was killed.
Summit county prosecutors had just laid out several days worth of evidence in an attempt to show that Cindy George had conceived and bankrolled the plot to kill Jeff Zack.
Now they wanted to tell the court what Cindy did after the murder, how she acted like a guilty woman tying up loose ends.
Corderi: When you look at Cindy’s actions after the murder, what picture does it paint?
Walsh: Someone who is really making a lotta effort to make sure that this is not discovered and just making sure that she’s covering her tracks.
An elaborate cover up, prosecutors say, that began just two days after the murder, when Zaffino ditched the so-called getaway bike in Pennsylvania. Zaffino called a friend to ask for a ride back to Ohio.
Frasher: I was sleeping one morning. My phone rang. It was John. He told me that he had taken the motorcycle to his ex-wife and that she wouldn’t bring him back to town and asked me if I would come and pick him up.
Prosecution: Did you do that?
Frasher: Yes I did.
The friend testified that Zaffino made one very significant phone call during the ride home.
Prosecutor: And do you have anyway of knowing who was calling or who he was talking to?
Frasher: He had told me that it was Cindy wanting to know if he was on his way back.
Prosecutors say Cindy also paid Zaffino’s expenses for the trip and that was just the beginning. With the help of Detective Whiddon, prosecutors set out to prove that Cindy George also made sure Zaffino kept his mouth shut with cash and promises.
Prosecution: In the course of your investigation, did you find that there was a payment in addition to what John Zaffino or his family paid his lawyer for his defense?
Prosecution: And can you tell the court where that payment came from?
Whiddon: Um, it came from the Georges.
Prosecutors say the Georges secretly passed thousands of dollars to Zaffino before and after his trial to help pay for his legal fees. The detective showed the paper trail—a series of checks that went from Ed and Cindy to their attorneys. Then from their attorneys on to Zaffino’s lawyer.
Sherri Bevan Walsh, prosecutor: It totaled around $15,000— that was paid to Zaffino that we were able to track as coming directly from the Georges.
Corderi: And you brought that up in court as hush money.
Walsh: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Hush money, the prosecutors say, that was discovered after Zaffino’s conviction when Detective Whiddon listened to recordings of Zaffino’s phone calls from prison...
During one call to his sister Judy, Zaffino says his “friends” better step up and pay for his appeal, or else.
Zaffino: ...I said, “Call my friends. You tell them that they will pay for it. And just to get the checkbook out and not to worry about it. That’s they way it’s gonna be, or they’re gonna lose their freedom.”
Zaffino: That was the deal, Judy. If anything ever happened they’d take care of it.
Prosecutors say it was a threat Zaffino made several times, and there was no doubt at whom those threats were aimed.
Prosecutor: In the course of this telephone call, we hear him say “my friends.” In the call state then who his friends are?
Prosecutor: And who is that?
Whiddon: The Georges.
Four months after this call, the Georges sent Zaffino’s lawyer another check.
Prosecutor: And were you able to determine the nature of that transaction, where that began from, or originated?
Whiddon: From the Georges’s.
Prosecutor: And that was $10,000?
Whiddon: That’s correct.
The deal, say prosecutors, was ongoing. As long as Zaffino kept quiet about Cindy, she would always help him.
Gessner: And there in jail and he’s in for the rest of his life, it’s his hope that she can do something still to get him out.
Prosecutors say Cindy also promised to take care of Zaffino’s son financially, and that once Zaffino got out of prison, he eventually would run the George’s restaurant.
Walsh: She has all this money and she will take care of him and she will make sure that she bails him out. Because that was the plan
Finally, the prosecutors argued that Cindy used more than just money to keep Zaffino quiet. They displayed a series of letters Zaffino and Cindy had written to each other after his conviction.
In one, Zaffino writes: “What are you going to do now? You said that you would not leave me here. I could have knocked 20 years off my sentence if I would implicate you. I stuck by you and now I have lost my life...”
And then he writes Cindy should pay for some big legal guns to get him out of jail:
“I need some new lawyers to fight for my life, like F. Lee Baily, Johnny Cochran, Gerry Spence...somebody big that will use the media and win.”
Then, detective Whiddon read the court two letters Cindy sent to Zaffino in response...
“Johnny, Johnie, Johnie, Johnie, I worry so about you...”
...One letter that sounds as if it’s written by a woman still longing for her lover.
“I miss all your stubborn bullheaded pig-headed ways, but most of all I miss you.”
Walsh: And it was all set up that way just to remind him of her never ending love that she has for him.
Corderi: Do you think it was more than just bad judgment on her part?
Gessner: I think it was trying to make sure that the evidence of her involvement never came out.
And in another letter, Cindy warns Zaffino of the importance of listening to their attorneys.
“Pray for their wisdom. We cannot make one mistake.”
Gessner: The most incriminating part in her letter to him is when she said, “We can’t afford to—to make one mistake.”
Walsh: I can’t think of another interpretation for that, “We cannot make one mistake—“ other than what we believe that means is, “Don’t mess up. We’re in this together. And—“We did this together.”
Why would Cindy take such rash action—write Zaffino letters and pay for part of his defense? Prosecutors say it was an explosive equation: affairs plus motive plus phone calls and money equals murder... guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
But the defense had yet to tell Cindy’s side of the story, and the public was eager to hear every sensational detail.
Trexler: For four and a half years, you never heard Cindy George utter a word in her own defense. We all wanted to hear what Cindy George had to say about the murder of her boyfriend.
Cindy was about to get some help from an unlikely source—the man she’d betrayed not once, but twice, a man incredibly who was still standing by her.
District Attorneys Brad Gessner and Mike Carroll had just made a compelling case against Cindy George. They exposed her as an adulteress with a child born out of wedlock, as a woman having not one, but two affairs who ultimately persuaded one lover to kill another.
And now, those high-powered defense lawyers, with nearly 200 years of legal experience among them, were about were about to take on the local prosecutors.
The defense suggested that John Zaffino acted alone, and immediately went on the attack, trying to undermine the testimony of the prosecution’s key witness, Zaffino’s ex-wife.
There was not one bit of evidence that proved Cindy George planned and financed the hit on Jeff Zack, the defense said, and at no time did Zaffino say on tape that Cindy knew about the murder beforehand.
Meeker: Do you have any explanation for the judge as to why a tape where he said, “She knows all about the murder,” didn’t find it’s way into evidence in this case, if in fact it exists?
Todaro: It does exist, and no, I have no explanation.
In fact, it didn’t exist. And under cross examination, Detective Felber had to admit that John Zaffino never once directly implicated Cindy George during the secret recordings.
Meeker: Have you found on a taped conversation in John Zaffino’s voice where he said, “Cindy George knew all about this happening?”
Felber: No—Not in John Zaffno’s voice.
And the same went for those recorded phone calls of John Zaffino from prison...
Defense lawyer: There’s not one single place in all of that 5 - 6,000 minutes where he implicates Cindy George in this murder in any fashion is there?
Whiddon: Yes, That’s correct.
Then, the defense argued that the court did not get the full story from those recordings of Zaffino’s calls from the prison. The prosecution had played portions that sounded as if Zaffino was keeping his mouth shut as part of a deal. But the defense played other parts of the same recordings to try to show that Cindy was innocent and Zaffino knew it.
Zaffino: They offered me immunity from prosecution if I would say that the Georges were, you know, involved in this murder. And I said I can’t. I said tell me what you want me to say, because I don’t know anything about the George’s being involved with any murder.
And after his conviction, Zaffino explained why he refused to make a deal with prosecutors to give up Cindy in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Zaffino: I said, “No. I can’t lie and put somebody else in prison.” Because I know what it’s like. I’ve been here and I surely wouldn’t do it to them. They—as far as I know they’re innocent, you know.
Bowler: He says such things on these phone calls like, ‘Even if I’m offered a deal, and I’ve been offered a deals, I’m not gonna lie on against somebody just so I can get a better deal,’ correct?
Whiddon: Yes, something similar to that, yes.
Bowler: Over and over he says I’m not gonna lie to help myself, true?
Next, the defense set out to explain away the suspicious pattern of calls between Cindy and John Zaffino: the ones from the night of the alleged botched hit—and the ones from the day of the murder. They argued there was no way to know what was said—certainly no way to prove that Cindy was discussing a murder plot.
After all, Cindy spent many many hours on her cellphone with both lovers day and night. And perhaps even more crucial, the defense was able to show that it was Zaffino—not Cindy—who initiated the calls the day of the murder.
Still, what would explain why the George’s paid some of Zaffino’s legal bills, the so-called hush money sent through two of Cindy’s lawyers? The defense said prosecutors had it all wrong. They were merely sharing expenses and information, a common practice among defense lawyers. And to prove it they called Zaffino’s attorney to the stand.
Pyle: Do you know of anything in the code of professional conduct that bars attorneys from engaging in such joint defense agreements?
Whitney, Zaffino's attorney: There is not.
Pyle: Did you ever understand that these monies were being paid or given as a shake down to keep John Zaffino from saying something?
Whitney: Absolutely not.
The defense then took on one of the most important parts of the prosecutors case – motive—claiming that Cindy had no reason to kill Jeff Zack...
They’d been broken up for months... and Zack had stopped harassing her five weeks before he was gunned down.
Cindy’s therapist testified that Cindy had been taking steps to end her affair with Jeff Zack amicably. And even though the break-up was messy, there were no signs that Cindy was capable of violence.
Meeker: There’s never any indication by her or a discussion as part of any part of a plan that she wanted to hurt, kill, injure in any fashion, this friend that she was trying to remove herself from?
Meeker: Did she ever indicate to you that she wanted to do any harm to this friend?
The defense needed to counter the ugly picture the prosecution painted of the former beauty queen...
And they turned to the man most hurt by Cindy’s actions—the man who had been publicly humiliated by his wife’s betrayals...—had every right to be furious and vindictive.
Meeker: How long have you and Cindy George been married?
Ed George: 21 years.
As astonishing as it was to many, Ed George was still living under the same roof with his wife and was paying for her defense. And now he took the stand as Cindy’s principal character witness.
Ed George: After what we’ve gone through here I think you would never believe how great a family I have and how wonderful my kids are and I think the major influence comes from the mother.
He praised his wife and said he believed in her innocence, although he had no idea about her affair with Zack.
Defense attorney: Did you ever know that he and your wife had a sexual relationship?
Ed George: No.
Defense attorney: Your wife never told you that and he never told you that?
Ed George: Correct.
Defense attorney: Did you ever suspect that?
Ed George: No.
Defense attorney: What did you believe their relationship to be?
Ed George: Good friends.
And he says he was also in the dark about Zack fathering the girl he believed to be his youngest daughter.
Defense attorney: At this point you had no idea that they had a sexual relationship?
Ed George: No, I did not.
Defense attorney: In addition, you had no idea that any of your children were fathered by Jeff Zack?
Ed George: Correct.
What he did know, he testified, was that Jeff Zack had become a pest, making harassing phone calls to Cindy, even while the family was attending Christmas eve mass in 2000, Cindy’s cell phone rang.
Ed George: It was Jeff Zack and he she had asked Jeff Zack to please, she just wanted to be with Jesus tonight and then he made a horrible horrible remark, knocked me out of my seat.
Defense attorney: Were you upset?
Ed George: Yes, I was.
Defense attorney: She upset?
Ed George: Yes.
Once Zack was murdered, he said, Cindy as just as shocked as he was.
Defense attorney: Did you show her the paper?
Ed George: Yes.
Defense attorney: And did she read the article at that time?
Ed George: She glanced at it.
Defense attorney: What was her reaction?
Ed George: She was stunned.
Ed George: She was just speechless and just stunned and we both just stood there, we couldn’t believe it.
Then it was prosecutor Brad Gessner’s turn. As he grilled Cindy’s husband during cross examination, Ed George held his own and stuck by his wife.
Brad Gessner, prosecutor: Would it be fair to say there’s quite a bit in the life of Cindy George that you weren’t aware of back in June 2001?
Ed George: Some things.
Gessner: Some things?
Ed George: Yeah. And some things she doesn’t know about me also.
Gessner: Were you aware of John Zaffino?
Ed George: No.
Gessner: Did she tell you that she paid John Zaffino’s cell phone bill for him?
Ed George: No.
Gessner: Did she tell you that she spent $5,300 to purchase John Zaffino a motorcycle?
Ed George: No.
Gessner: What did she tell you about the murder of Jeff Zack?
Ed George: She said she had nothing to do with it.
Corderi: What did you think of his testimony?
Gessner: What else could he say? It was sad. He was getting on the witness stand trying to say, “My wife, the mother of my seven children, is this wonderful woman. And basically, I’ve been able to ignore all these things she’s done so let’s hope everyone else does.”
If court bystanders were now expecting to hear Cindy’s version of events, they would be sorely disappointed. She decided not to take the stand in her own defense.
Trexler: You expected to hear her voice, something to say, “I didn’t do this.” But, you know, again, we didn’t get that. I think there was a great amount of let down when the case was closed.
In closing arguments, Cindy’s lawyers once again stressed the lack of evidence in this circumstantial case.
Bowler: There’s been no evidence whatsoever that Cindy George procured or solicited anybody to do any kind of a homicide.
But is that how the judge would see it? Cindy George and her family would have to wait four agonizing days to find out.
Corderi: Did any of you at any point think—maybe she did do it?
George daughter: No. There’s not a doubt that crossed my mind that she could have done this. The woman that I knew. The charismatic, loving, humble person I knew, no—in no way had the capacity to plot this murder
They were about to learn if the court agreed with them or if their mother was about to go to prison for very long time.
Because Cindy George had waived her right to a jury of her peers, Patricia Cosgrove had to act as both judge and sole juror in the case... After hearing all of the evidence, she alone would decide Cindy’s fate. It was a rare experience that left her with a new perspective.
Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove: Those heavy burdens we put on our citizens in terms of juries. I’ve found a new found respect for their responsibilities.
A judge is trained to look only at the law, but she says, there is a human element in this case she could not ignore.
Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove: Knowing that you hold somebody’s life and future in your hands.
Corderi: So even knowing the law, there’s struggle involved?
Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove: You’re dealing with a person’s life and you want to give them every, every doubt that you can. And I struggled to do that.
It was Thanksgiving weekend, 2005. But, for Judge Cosgrove, there was little time for turkey and stuffing.
Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove: I came in Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday for four days. And I went over every piece of evidence. I reviewed all of my notes and deliberated essentially for four days before arriving at my verdict.
It was a circumstantial case pieced together with phone and financial records, tape recordings and letters—all of the scandalous details, the affairs, the child born out of wedlock, the secrets that fascinated the public, were irrelevant, she says.
Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove: As judges, we’re used to dealing with facts and the law and legal definitions and those kinds of things don’t come into our decisions or concerns.
Judge Cosgrove says parts of the prosecution’s argument were unconvincing, particularly the evidence that Cindy George tried to lure Jeff Zack to a park so Zaffino could shoot him.
Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove: The only thing the State proved in reference to that particular date was that there was phone calls. Beyond that, there were no financial records, there were no statements. That sort of stood out there in and of itself.
And there was no way to know what was said on all those hours of cell phone calls. And what about Zaffino’s calls that were tape recorded? Although they certainly sounded incriminating, at no time did John Zaffino say that Cindy George put him up to it. There was no direct statement implicating her in the murder, but the judge says that’s not uncommon.
Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove: I have yet to see a murder committed on tape, videotape, audiotape. It just doesn’t happen. So you have to retrace every step, every movement of individuals. And that’s how you arrive at evidence.
Evidence was built around the theory that Cindy George manipulated John Zaffino into killing Jeff Zack and then tried to cover up her role in it.
While Judge Patricia Cosgrove spent four days deliberating over the holiday weekend, there were many anxious people awaiting her verdict, including the prosecutors.
Corderi: Were you feeling pretty confident? Or were you wavering?
Gessner: As confident as you can be. The minute you finish your closing arguments and you sit down, you immediately start to say, “What didn’t we do? What could we have done better?”
Sherri Bevan Walsh: If we said it differently, should this have—yeah, should we have changed this around?
Meanwhile, Cindy had been free on $200,000 bail. She was trying to celebrate what could be the Georges’ last Thanksgiving together as a family.
George daughter: She tried to make it seem like this was a normal family dinner. Like, we had nothing to worry about. And every holiday—she would do a brunch, you know, on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it didn’t stop her from doing it. She still did it.
Corderi: You had to be aware that this verdict was hanging over your head.
George daughter: Yeah. It was still there and we said a prayer at the table if she might go. I know I was very confused but I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was just kind of nerve-racking. You didn’t really know what to do.
Corderi: Because this decision wasn’t just about her life, it was about your life.
George daughter: Right. We had to change as a family. It was too soon, we thought.
Finally, Monday morning came. The judge had reached a verdict. Cindy’s husband Ed and several of their children came to court to support her. The courtroom was packed and emotions ran high.
Trexler, reporter: The stakes for Cindy George couldn’t have been any higher—not only losing her freedom, but also losing her husband and her children. Yeah, for Cindy, this was her life was on the line.
The murder victim’s mother, Elayne Zack also was there. She’d waited four and a half years for this moment and says she was disgusted by the way Cindy acted in the courtroom.
Elayne Zack, Jeff Zack's mother: Cindy was like having a party. She went and she greeted everybody. There were a lot of people there for her. I couldn’t believe it.
The judge could have chosen to announce the verdicts on the two counts right away. Instead she read aloud from a lengthy decision explaining her conclusions.
Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove: Giving them a glimpse into the Court’s reasoning just from an integrity point of view, I think it’s the right thing to do.
But the time it took to read the document only intensified the anxiety in the room. At the moment she revealed the verdict on the first count, the alleged botched hit in the park, there was dead silence in the court.
JUDGE: The Court finds the Defendant Not Guilty of Count One and the accompanying firearm specification.
Det. Felber: When she reads the first count, I’m like, “Oh, don’t—please don’t do this.” And you hear the—the cheering, and everything.
But Judge Cosgrove made it clear she wasn’t finished.
JUDGE: Alright. Now the court’s going to turn to count two, the complicity to commit aggravated murder...
As she read through the verdict for the second count, the mood in the courtroom shifted.
JUDGE: Based on the totality of the evidence produced at trial, the court finds beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant, Cynthia Rohr George is Guilty of Complicity to Commit Aggravated Murder in Count Two for the Death of Jeff Zack...
Cindy sobbed in disbelief. Then the judge called her to the bench and asked if she had anything to say before sentencing. After remaining silent for so long, Akron finally would hear the first words from Cindy George.
Cindy George: First of all, I just want to tell you that I didn’t. And I know it points that way but I didn’t...
As Cindy’s daughters cried out, the judge handed down her sentence.
JUDGE: Pursuant to the revised code, the court hereby imposes a life sentence.
There was bedlam in the courtroom as Cindy turned to her family.
Walsh: You can’t help but feel bad for the children.
Gessner: Regardless of whatever she did, she’s still their mother. But you also have to look at what mother would inflict that pain upon their children?
Cindy George went to prison with the hope of parole at least 23 years away. She’s never told her version of the story... until now. After more than a year behind bars, she’s about to break her silence.
Cindy George: All my life I believed in the justice system. And I just couldn’t believe that this happened to me.
Cindy George was a long way from home—behind the razor wire of the Ohio Reformatory for women. There was barely a trace of the beaming beauty queen left in this softspoken 52-year-old mother of seven. More than a year after her conviction, she was still reeling from the verdict that sent her to prison for 23 years to life.
Cindy George: I just remember looking at my children, and the horror on their faces. And just how this could happen to our family.
Corderi: You had faith that there would be an acquittal?
Cindy George: Yes.
Looking back on the past four and a half years, the stories that portrayed her as a vain, self-centered, scheming adulteress, Cindy said she’d been misunderstood—that she’s not a villain, but a victim of mental illness, of physical and mental abuse, of bad legal advice.
Corderi: What do you think it is that people don’t understand about you
Cindy George: The way it’s been portrayed is how a mother of seven children has two affairs and—I think that’s the most misconstrued conception.
Corderi: Misconstrued in what way? You’re a mother of seven. Did have two affairs.
Cindy George: Right.
Corderi: Well, what is missing from that picture that would make someone look at that a different way?
Cindy George: Of how it started. And the depression. And what I was up against.
Cindy said she began to battle depression during her many troubled pregnancies.
Cindy George: Headaches that never went away for one minute. They would actually nail blankets up and the windows so that the light wouldn’t come on.
Her marriage, she said, was once very strong.
Cindy George: We knew that it would be forever from the minute we met.
Corderi: If you were so happy, then why did you start an affair with Jeff Zack?
It’s a question she never quite answered, except to relate this story about Zack coming to her rescue when her husband had insulted her.
Cindy George: He came over to me and said to my husband, “You have such a wonderful wife.” And “She’s got seven kids.” And my husband said “If you think she’s so great—if you want—if you can afford her you can have her.”
Corderi: Your husband said that?
Cindy George: (SOBBING) And I know it was just a joke. But to me (SOBBING) it was like a ton of bricks. Jeff Zack steps up behind me and says, “You don’t deserve that. Why don’t you come over and talk to me and my wife.” And that started a bond.
She said her husband spent most of his time at the family’s restaurant... and that Jeff Zack always was around the house.
Cindy George: In the beginning it was infatuated. Cause I was lonely. But it turned quick.
Corderi: Turned ugly quick?
Cindy George: Very.
Cindy said Zack was moody and would become abusive...their sexual relationship began, she said, when he came to her home one night in a rage.
Cindy George: (SOBBING) And he came in. (SOBBING) And bad things happened after that.
Corderi: Your first night together he raped you?
Cindy George: Yeah.
Corderi: Why didn’t you tell your husband?
Cindy George: My husband had such a good name. And the family had such a good name. And I was afraid of what my husband would do.
As hard as it may seem to believe, Cindy said she stayed with Zack for 10 years because he terrorized her. Zack would call at all hours, she said, demanding her time and attention, threatening her life if she crossed him.
Cindy George: Things got worse and worse. Where he threatened—with a razor blade at my face. Or pour acid down my throat. Or—set—set me-- (SOBBING)
Corderi: Set you on fire?
Cindy George: Yes. So that I would be able to smell the smell of gasoline.
Corderi: He had gas rags?
Cindy George: And he would put them to my face.
Corderi: Did anyone know about all these things?
Cindy George: No. (SIGH)
The threats and violence she described cannot be verified because she never went to a hospital or to police. However, in court, her therapist testified that Cindy was afraid of Zack. And when we talked to the former nanny, she told us said she knew of one instance when Zack was violent.
Marianne Brewer: One time she came home and she was kinda beat up. And I said, “What in the world happened to you? And she said, “Jeff did this.”
So in the middle of this mess, why would Cindy decide to make it even more complicated by taking on another lover?
Corderi: Why did you start an affair with John Zaffino?
Cindy George: It didn’t start as an affair. All I know is in this whole darkness, that somebody was extending their hand.
When they met in that bar in 2000, she said Zaffino was kind, trying to help her work out her problems with Zack.
Corderi: Did you ask him to kill Jeff Zack?
Cindy George: I never asked anyone to kill—
Corderi: Did you encourage him—
Cindy George: No.
Corderi: --in any way?
Cindy George: No. I never asked him, I never paid him. I never knew. He was just trying to help me.
She said if Zaffino murdered her former lover, he was acting own his own... even though some evidence at trial made it look like she was in on it.
Corderi: Did you give Zaffino $5,300--
Cindy George: Yes.
Corderi: --to buy a motorcycle?
Cindy George: Yes I did. He asked me to buy—if he could borrow money to buy the motorcycle.
Corderi: But you had no idea that it was gonna be used in the commission of a crime—
Cindy George: No. No.
And what about the phone records that showed her talking to Zaffino before and after the murder? Cindy said that was coincidence.
Corderi: What were you talking about?
Cindy George: I don’t remember much about it.
Corderi: He never told you what he did—
Cindy George: No.
Corderi: —that he had taken care of your problem?
Cindy George: No.
So then why did she hide all of this from the police?
Cindy George: I did exactly what my attorneys everything that I know.
And that, Cindy said was her greatest mistake—listening to her high priced-attorneys. She said they were the ones who convinced her to opt for a judge instead of a jury. And they also told her not to testify.
Cindy George: I even said, “This isn’t going to make sense. I need to tell the story. I need to tell the truth.”
And about the giving Zaffino money to help pay for his defense, which the prosecutors characterized as hush money?
Cindy George: My husband and I never thought it was above board. But they kept saying, “It’s done all the time. And this is how it has to be done.”
She said even those affectionate letters she wrote to Zaffino in prison were her lawyers’ idea.
Corderi: So you were just following your attorney’s advice—
Cindy George: They handled everything. Every single thing that they told me to do is what we did.
Corderi: Do you take responsibility for anything that’s happened?
Cindy George: I take responsibility for adultery; adultery. I take responsibility for allowing fear to keep me in a place of not getting help.
Cindy said her family’s support gives her strength in prison, but her children said the separation was overwhelming...
George daughter: think it gets worse actually everyday, because you just think of the memories and the person that’s not here anymore.
George daughter: It does get harder ‘cause she’s missing more… and she’s just starting to, you know, miss birthdays and things.
And the children said their father was suffering as well.
George daughter: You can see the hurt in him a lot. You can see the loss in him a lot. He really longs for my mom a lot. And now you know he really loves her. There’s just a lot of burden on him.
So, is Cindy George the misunderstood victim she purports to be? Or is she a master manipulator playing for sympathy? She hired a new attorney to handle her appeal... and hoped to get a new trial with a jury that will see things her way.
Cindy George: Zaffino was helping me get stronger. Never in a million years did I ever think that it would be turned around like this. And I would be here.
The former beauty contestant who once seemed so radiant... was now saddled with a new, decidedly glamorous title—convicted murderer... and Jeff Zack’s mother believed it was a title she’d keep for a very long time.
Corderi: If she indeed is granted a new trial with this appeal—
Elayne Zack, Jeff Zack's mother: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). She’ll be right back where she belongs.
Corderi: It doesn’t worry you?
Elayne Zack: Not even a bit.
But Elayne Zack and everyone else who followed the trial were in for a big surprise.
While Cindy George was trying to get used to living the life of an inmate, her children were at home praying that their mother would be granted a new trial.
George daughter: We just try to pray and believe that hopefully some good outcome will come but we, I mean, we just try to hope for the best.
Victoria Corderi, Dateline correspondent: Can you guys make it through another trial?
George daughter: We made it through one, I’m sure we can make can it through another.
Corderi: George daughter: As a family.
Brad Barbin, a former state and federal prosecutor took on Cindy’s case, knowing full well that most appeals are a long shot.
Brad Barbin: Appeals generally are not fruitful. You lose appeals all the time. It’s a fact of life.
But he says Cindy’s trial was so unusual in the way it played out, he had hope the appeals court would not ignore the case.
Barbin: When you have the kind of fact pattern that nobody’s ever seen before and nobody can believe, that’s when you get a retrial. That’s when you get somebody walking out of jail because the evidence just isn’t there.
The fact pattern? A lawyer’s way of saying that Cindy’s defense team made a lot of mistakes... and so did the judge who decided the case. He says there was no evidence that Cindy was part of a plot to kill Jeff Zack.
Barbin: Affairs do not equal murder. And no way of twisting this evidence shows that she ever asked anybody to do anything.
Barbin says the defense should never have convinced Cindy to ask for a judge instead of a jury.
Barbin: It’s a circumstantial case. You have 12 opportunities to convince with a jury. You have one with a judge. It’s as simple as math.
Corderi: A judge could move away from the passion and the scandal and the gossip and really just look at the law. Doesn’t that argument hold at all?
Barbin: It doesn’t because it’s a very simple case. The case comes down to did she ask anyone to do anything for her? That’s all this case is about. Or did somebody else do something on his own? It’s not complicated. You don’t need a judge for that. You just need 12 people to listen to the facts.
And he says the judge should have taken Cindy’s defense lawyers off the case when it was revealed that two of them helped funnel the so called hush money to Zaffino’s lawyers. He says in effect Cindy’s own lawyers helped to create evidence that the prosecution used against her.
Barbin: A lawyer can’t create evidence against a client and then step away and say, I don’t know what the big deal is here. They’re not allowed to make it worse for the client.
Cindy’s defense lawyers are, well, defensive about Barbin’s analysis of the case... they would not consent to an on camera interview but told us opting for a judge instead of a jury was something they all agreed on, including their client.
They sent us these statements...
“Ed and Cindy George should thank God for the advice, recommendations and decisions of her trial team.”
“From the beginning, we argued that there was simply no convincing evidence to convict Cynthia George of the charges against her.”
Barbin argued before the Ohio district court of appeals earlier this year...
The detectives who had devoted years to the case did not seem very worried.
Corderi: There’s a chance that this could be sent back for another trial. What would you think about that?
Det. Felber: It’s not a problem.
But that’s not what happened. And they were shocked—big time—at what happened.
Cindy George will not be getting a new trial. In a stunning turnaround, the appeals court reversed the verdict completely, ruling on only one of the arguments Barbin made. In fact it was the same argument Cindy’s defense attorneys had made at trial—that there was not enough evidence to convict her.
In a 2-to-1 decision, the court wrote: “What the state failed to prove is why Zaffino killed Zack or that George said or did anything to solicit or procure Zaffino to commit the crime.”
Barbin: The bottom line is we have a big win today.
Attorney Brad Barbin was ecstatic.
Barbin: Nobody wants to let a murderer free. But the reality is, if you look at this evidence, she’s not a murderer and she didn’t ask anybody to do it.
And no one could agree more than the long-suffering husband, Ed George.
Ed George: We’re estatic. It’s fair. It brings the family back together.
He said it was time for second chances for Cindy and for their family.
Ed George: This is emotionally draining, believe me, this is tough. We’ll get it all back together and re-start our life.
Reporter: And you’ve kept the faith from day one?
Ed George: I never left. I never left, because she was innocent.
But that’s not what prosecutors believed.
Prosecutors: We are shocked at the appellate courts decision to reverse and remand the conviction of Cynthia M. Rohr-George.
And they weren’t giving up. The ruling meant that Cindy George could walk out of prison a free woman. Because of double jeopardy, she could never be tried again for the murder. The prosecutors filed an emergency appeal with a higher court, hoping to have her conviction reinstated. Should they win, Cindy could be sent back to prison, and forced to serve out her original sentence.
Corderi: So Cindy George has gotten away with murder. Is that how you see it?
Sherri Bevan Walsh: The appeals are still pending. So at this point in time, I don’t know that I want to conclude that she’s gotten away with murder. She’s getting close.
Judge Cosgrove still stands by her verdict. She says this is the first time a reversal like this has ever happened to her.
Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove: It is a case full of firsts, unusual twists and turns.
Corderi: You said you’re not going to criticize the Appellate Court. But personally, what was your reaction?
Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove: Sure, from a personal point of view, I’ll be honest, I was very disappointed. The fact that they differed from my opinion, I guess that’s what our system is about.
Then two days later, she decided—over the objection of prosecutors—to set Cindy free.
And Brad Barbin was there for her release. He said no matter what happens to Cindy George in the court system, the damage had already been done.
Barbin: So now she’s got to deal with the emotional baggage of what happened to her. They vilified her.
Moments later, Cindy emerged from jail, emotional but, it appeared, hopeful.
Cindy George(crying in car): I just want to thank everyone that’s helped me, prayed for me. I’m just so thankful to god. I just need to go home... I just want to go home.
Reporter: What will you say to your family?
Cindy George: Get this house cleaned up.
Two hours later, Cindy George returned to the comfort of her spacious mansion and the loving arms of her family.
So is this scandalous episode really over for Cindy George? Freed for now from criminal court, Cindy George may find it even more difficult to get relief from another... the less forgiving court of public opinion.
Trexler: I think Cindy George is always gonna be a prisoner in her home. In the community, she’s always gonna have that suspicion. There’s always gonna be whispers.
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