For aiming his gun at the chest of a wounded police officer and pulling the trigger, Zolo Azania has spent nearly 35 and a half years behind bars.

Twice, a jury recommended he die for the officer’s murder. And twice he escaped death.

Now, Azania is set to be released from an Indiana prison Monday. It will be his first taste of freedom since Aug. 11, 1981.

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That’s the day Lt. George Yaros’ life ended in a bank parking lot on the south side of Gary, Ind.

Yaros’ killing wasn’t the first time Azania had taken a life. He admits he killed an old man named Leonard Wick in a botched robbery in 1972.

As for Yaros’ death, the state of Indiana’s top judge once said Azania’s guilt “has been largely settled fact for more than a generation” — an assertion Azania disputes.

His lawyer says he’s a changed man.

Yaros’ family is far from convinced.

THE MAN IN THE BLUE SUIT

Tim and LaVonne Yaros still have copies of newspapers that reported Gary Police Lieutenant George Yaros murder during a 1981 bank robbery. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Tim and LaVonne Yaros still have copies of newspapers that reported Gary police Lt. George Yaros was killed after responding to a 1981 bank robbery. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

In 1981, authorities said Azania – then known as Rufus Lee Averhart – wore a blue suit as he and two other men rushed into the Gary National Bank around lunchtime, carrying revolvers and a shotgun and shouting, “Everybody hit the floor!”

They did, including a manager who huddled under her desk but peeked as the robbers scooped up $19,000 in cash. She spotted a shotgun-toting man in a vest and another robber in plaid. But the man in the blue suit stood out as the ringleader.

The manager quietly tripped an alarm. Responding, Yaros sped his squad car through an alley into the bank’s parking lot.

The robbers gathered near the rear of the bank, ready to shoot their way out. As they threw open the back door, one bent to a knee. The others stood above him in the doorway. Yaros took cover as the windows of his squad car exploded.

“This is the real thing!” Yaros cried into his radio. “They’re shooting at me!”

The lieutenant returned fire but was shot and slumped to the ground.

George Yaros | Sun-Times file photo

Lt. George Yaros. | Sun-Times file photo

The robbers ran to a blue Ford sedan waiting for them in the parking lot, their getaway all but assured.

Then, the man in blue stopped. As his accomplices waited, he walked to the burly, 57-year-old cop, a man who had served in World War II and survived six months in a German prison.

A retired teacher who was in the parking lot saw what happened next. The man in blue kicked Yaros’ gun away, shot him in the chest and left him to die.

The killer then jumped into the Ford just as its tires squealed, kicking off a wild police chase through Gary.

A shopkeeper ran over with a blanket for Yaros and told his girlfriend to call for a priest.

Yaros gasped. His right hand flexed. And then his pulse disappeared.

The retired teacher, William Pendleton, lingered in the parking lot after Yaros’ killing.

“He was a symbol of authority,” Pendleton, who died in 2003, told police. “And he was doing his duty. He was impeding their escape.”

Two miles away, the gun battle continued as police chased down the bank robbers. Eventually, they captured all three, including the 26-year-old Averhart.

Within nine months, a jury convicted Averhart of Yaros’ murder and recommended his execution. A judge set his date with the electric chair for Dec. 15, 1982.

Averhart promised to appeal “everything.” He was true to his word, and the Indiana Supreme Court overturned his death penalty twice, first in 1993, finding that his lawyer did a poor job, and again in 2002, over a problem that kept blacks off the jury at his second sentencing.

Chief Justice Randall Shepard dissented in 2002, pointing out that “24 jurors and two different trial judges have unanimously agreed that the state’s request for the death penalty was a just one.”

 

‘I WAS INVOLVED’

Miami Correctional Facility in Bunker Hill, Indiana in late September. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Miami Correctional Facility in Bunker Hill, Indiana. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

After their first setback, prosecutors promised to do whatever it takes “to see that the convicted murderer Rufus Lee Averhart (is) sentenced to the maximum penalty.”

In the end, he got a 74-year prison sentence. He’ll end up serving less than half that, thanks to good behavior.

Locked up for more than three decades, he has changed his name to Zolo Agona Azania in a nod to his African heritage.

Azania denies killing Yaros. In a jailhouse interview, he said: “I was involved. I was an accomplice.”

The other bank robbers – David North and Ralph Hutson – each was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Both have been freed. Hutson declined to comment. North could not be reached.

Azania admits to another killing, that of 69-year-old Wick in 1972. As a teenager, Azania pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and spent about eight years behind bars before persuading a judge to throw out that conviction on a technicality in 1982.

Prosecutors never pursued the Wick case further. Authorities said there would be little point now in retrying Azania because, in all likelihood, convicting him would result in a sentence of time served.

Azania has said he was framed in the 1981 bank robbery because he wouldn’t sell dope for a Gary police officer. He has written that, “Real information was whitewashed and covered up in order to hide the real reason why so many hands are at my throat.”

Yet his conviction still stands. As recently as February 2015, U.S. District Judge James T. Moody called the evidence against Azania “overwhelming.”

Zolo Azania's prison mugshot from 1994. | File photo

Zolo Azania’s prison mugshot from 1994. | File photo

Only one of the robbers wore a blue suit. Witnesses identified that man as Yaros’ killer.

Authorities tied the .44 Magnum pistol that killed Yaros to Azania. They said police found the gun behind a supermarket along Azania’s escape route.

Azania said the police planted it there.

In 2008, prosecutors in Lake County, Ind. wanted to pursue the death penalty a third time, but some witnesses had died of old age.

So, on Oct. 17, 2008, despite their vow to seek the maximum penalty, prosecutors struck a deal: Azania would be sentenced to 60 years in prison for Yaros’ murder and 14 years for robbery.

Michael Deutsch, Azania’s attorney, said his client is “someone that’s kind of really changed his life in prison, and in a way it’s fortunate that he wasn’t executed because the death penalty doesn’t give someone a chance to really change who they are.”

Bernard Carter, Lake County’s longtime elected prosecutor, wouldn’t discuss the case.

Yaros’ son Tim agreed to the 2008 deal that spared Azania’s life. Now, he said, “That’s where I think I failed.”

‘IF YOU KILL A POLICE OFFICER, YOU SHOULD DIE’

Funeral services for Gary Police Lt. George Yaros in 1981. | Sun-Times file photo

Pallbearers carry Lt. George Yaros’ casket at his 1981 funeral. | Sun-Times file photo

George Yaros was born in Custer City, Pa. His family moved to Gary when he was a boy after his father had landed a job in a steel mill there.

Yaros grew up in Gary and later served as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. He jumped on D-Day and was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. He was captured by German soldiers at a field hospital in 1944 and spent six months as a prisoner of war.

George and Ann Yaros got married in 1947 and had three children: Barbara, Jane and Tim. By the summer of 1981, George Yaros had two granddaughters. Five weeks after he was gunned down, his first grandson was born.

Fredrick Kowsky, then chief of the Gary Police Department, testified that the real tragedy of August 1981 was that Ann Yaros’ life was “destroyed” by the murder of her husband, who’d been nearing retirement.

After Ann Yaros lost her husband, her family got harassing phone calls from people saying the wrong man had been arrested. Tim Yaros said his mother didn’t return home “for a long time” after her husband’s death. When she did, the Gary Police Department kept a squad car in front of her house.

Tim Yaros, son of Gary police Lt. George Yaros, at his house in Valparaiso, Ind., in December. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Tim Yaros, son of Gary police Lt. George Yaros, at his home in Valparaiso, Ind. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

Tim Yaros and his wife, LaVonne, attended countless court hearings. Going to court became difficult, though, when the case was moved from Lake County to Allen County, 125 miles east.

In court, Yaros often had to see Azania.

“He has never looked me in the eye,” Yaros said. “He will never make eye contact with me. And I just feel like he’s a coward.”

In his view, “If you kill a police officer, you should die.”

For years, he said his mother would ask when she’d see the execution of her husband’s killer. She died in 2012.

LaVonne Yaros, daughter-in-law of George Yaros, at her house in December. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

LaVonne Yaros, daughter-in-law of George Yaros, at her home. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

When prosecutors approached Tim and LaVonne Yaros about the 2008 deal, they told the couple the odds of securing a third death sentence were 50-50 and that, if they fared poorly, Azania might soon walk free.

LaVonne Yaros said the couple agreed because the deal tacked an extra 14 years onto Azania’s sentence. They didn’t realize he would go free in less than nine years.

She said Azania should be grateful for his “very, very lucky break.”

That break is Azania’s third chance at freedom. He used up his first nearly 45 years ago, when he was still known as Rufus Averhart.

THE KILLING OF LEONARD WICK

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It was Dec. 23, 1972 – less than two weeks after Averhart’s 18th birthday. His friend Albert Clark had spent the night at Averhart’s house in Gary. The night before, Averhart told the 16-year-old Clark he wanted to “hit a crib,” according to court records.

After breakfast, Averhart pulled out a cardboard box and wrapped it like a present, taped a Christmas card on top and tucked a gun in his waistband, police records show.

Averhart, the oldest of seven children, liked to draw and build things, according to a pre-sentencing report. His father died when he was 9. He later told court officials he used the money he made through the city’s summer jobs program to help his family. But he also got into trouble. He was arrested at 11 for stealing dogs. The police picked him up for burglary when he was 12, then again when he was 16.

Around noon that day in December 1972, Averhart told Clark he “knew where there was a crib that an old man and an old lady lived in,” Clark told police. The two headed to the home of Leonard and Lourine Wick, posing as delivery boys for the Post-Tribune and bearing the gift of a tea set to celebrate the holiday season.

According to court records, Clark knocked. When the door opened, Averhart announced: “This is a stickup! Give us all your money!” And he pistol-whipped Leonard Wick.

“My God, we are being robbed!” Leonard Wick shouted.

The teens forced their way in and continued beating the man.

While Clark rummaged in a desk for cash, Leonard Wick went to a dresser, his wife said, “pretending to get them money.” Instead, he reached for his gun.

There were shots. Clark didn’t see who fired. But he saw Wick with a gun and bolted for a back bathroom window.

“Rufus was right behind me,” he said later.

Wick fell, bleeding.

The intruders broke through the bathroom window, which cut Clark’s hand on the way out.

When the police arrived, they found a .45-caliber automatic pistol in Wick’s hand. It hadn’t been fired. Shot in the chest, Wick was taken to Methodist Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead at 12:45 p.m.

Averhart and Clark regrouped at Averhart’s home, then Clark left. His hand wouldn’t stop bleeding. So he headed to Methodist Hospital – and ran into the police.

Averhart was picked up the next day – Christmas Eve 1972.

PRAISED, THEN HUNTED

Zolo Azania when he was being held on death row at a prison in Michigan City, Ind., in 2001. | File photo

Zolo Azania on death row in Michigan City, Ind., in 2001. | File photo

The young Averhart spent 494 days in what his attorney called the “hellhole of all prisons in the state of Indiana,” the Lake County Jail, before a judge sentenced him on May 6, 1974, to two to 21 years in prison – a typical range back then.

Averhart had pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. The judge asked if he’d shot Wick. He answered, “Yes, your honor.”

He got out of prison in July 1980 and got his GED the next year.

His graduation led to a profile in Gary’s Post-Tribune. Published Aug. 9, 1981, it ran under the headline, “The murder is history.”

“If there ever was an argument against capital punishment, it could be the life of Rufus Averhart,” the story began.

Post-Tribune readers saw a photograph of a smiling Averhart, in cap and gown, above the words, “He’s come a long way.” Averhart was quoted as saying that he went to jail “because of my social conditions” and that “life was meaningless for a black child in the ghetto.”

Averhart also told the reporter: “I was wrong. I was young, immature. I’ve had a lot of time to think.”

His freedom would end two days later – after George Yaros died in the parking lot of the Gary National Bank and the three robbers took off, guns blazing.

The car sped away at around 100 miles an hour.

First on their tail was Patrolman Phil Pastoret, who heard Yaros’ radio call and got to the bank in time to hear the gunfire.

The blue Ford came speeding out of the bank parking lot. “I took off after them,” Pastoret testified.

Right behind was Cpl. Charles Oliver. They chased the Ford 10 blocks before it turned. The robbers were shooting at them. Pastoret zigged and zagged, driving with his windows down because his car had no air conditioning.

The robbers kept going, racing over the Borman Expressway.

“This fellow that was leaning out of the window he got – he had on a blue suit and bushy hair, and he was leaning out shooting at me … I was trying to duck down,” Pastoret testified.

The robbers tried to swerve onto a side street, lost control and ran into a pickup parked by a grocery store.

Pastoret and Oliver caught up and opened fire as one of the robbers started running. The Ford took off.

Oliver chased the runner. Pastoret followed the Ford.”I was right on their tail,” Pastoret said.

But his gun was empty. He tried to reload. Then came his voice over the radio: “I’m going to ram them.”

“I wanted to stop them,” Pastoret testified. “They were trying to kill me.”

Pastoret got on the Ford’s bumper, stomped the accelerator and ran the car into a tree at 23rd and Fillmore.

The Ford’s driver tried to jump out, but Pastoret was there.

“I lost my gun in the crash, and the radio went flying, and I just got out of the car,” Pastoret testified. “I didn’t want them to get away.”

Pastoret punched the driver, threw him to the ground and told him not to move, or “I’ll blow your brains out.” He didn’t realize a second robber, in the back seat, had his gun trained on him.

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That’s when Officer Ronald Flournoy arrived, taking aim at the second robber and ordering him to drop his gun. He did, letting the gun fall next to a shotgun.

Two of the three robbers had been caught.

Six blocks away, Oliver ran after the third robber down an alley. The robber tossed a wig and jumped a fence.

The corporal jumped back in his car and, at 26th and Lincoln, spotted a group of shirtless men with brooms and shovels.

“Which way did the mother—— go?” Oliver asked.

One of the workers, James McGrew, said he told Oliver, “I think the man that you are looking for is there.” McGrew pointed to a “black guy with a blue jacket, a blue shirt and blue pants on” who had tossed something in the bushes and “slowly walked away.”

“That’s the son of a bitch that I want,” Oliver said.

He pulled onto Buchanan and found Averhart walking along the side of the street. Oliver grabbed his pistol, jumped out and told Averhart, “If you move, you’re dead.”

“Don’t shoot,” Averhart said, raising his hands.

Then, as ordered, Averhart laid down on his stomach and spread his arms out as the cop kept a gun on the back of Averhart’s neck while handcuffing him.

Later, Oliver returned to McGrew with Averhart in his back seat and asked, “Now, where did he hide the stuff?”

McGrew pointed to the bushes. Oliver searched. When he returned, McGrew saw a jacket and a gun in the corporal’s hands.

In an interview, Pastoret said, “Not hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about this.”

‘THE EVIDENCE WAS JUST UNBELIEVABLE’

George Yaros' funeral mass in 1981. | Sun-Times file photo

George Yaros’ funeral mass in 1981. | Sun-Times file photo

Jeffrey Ormiston and Vernon Pitcher were the foremen of the juries that urged that Averhart be sent to the execution chamber. Ormiston signed his verdict form in April 1982. Pitcher signed his in February 1996.

“We believed – our jury believed – that he was guilty,” Pitcher said in an interview. “And I’m sorry that the family of the officer and those involved will see him go free.”

Ormiston said he remembers not sleeping well during the 1982 trial, which took place at the Allen County Courthouse in Fort Wayne.

“The evidence was just unbelievable that they had,” Ormiston said. “It just linked everything together.”

George Yaros | Provided photo

George Yaros at his son’s wedding. | Family photo

The sleepless nights came when the trial moved to the penalty phase.

“You’re making a decision on whether someone should live or die,” he said. “I took it seriously. I just wanted to make sure in my own mind.”

Averhart stood out from his accomplices, Ormiston said, because he walked back to the wounded police lieutenant and shot him.

“I just couldn’t get beyond the fact that Averhart had a chance not to kill that officer,” he said. “But he chose to kill him.”

“It bothers me that people go through the process, the legal system, especially with two juries reaching the same verdict, and yet that means basically nothing,” Ormiston said of the convicted cop killer’s imminent release.

He didn’t learn that Averhart had previously killed someone else until after the trial.

“It would be horrendous if he got out and someone else died as a result of his being released,” Ormiston said.

LIFE OF CRIME IS ‘BEHIND ME’

Zolo Agona Azania, previously known as Rufus Lee Averhart, during an interview at Miami Correctional Facility in Bunker Hill, Indiana in late September. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Zolo Agona Azania, previously known as Rufus Lee Averhart, during an interview at Miami Correctional Facility in Bunker Hill, Indiana. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

The man now known as Azania said there’s no need to worry about him. In an interview at the Miami Correctional Facility in northern Indiana last fall, he said his crimes are “behind me.”

Now 62, with gray in his beard, Azania said he planned to get a small apartment in Gary. But he worried then that something could still go wrong, that authorities might come up with a reason to charge him with a new crime.

“I could also still lose my life in here,” Azania said.

After spending more than two-thirds of his life behind bars, Azania said he doesn’t want to go anywhere once he moves into his new apartment. “I just want to rest,” he said.

Azania said he wants to get a computer and do “prison support work,” for groups that advocate for wrongfully convicted inmates. Azania said he studied the law in prison and hates it “because the law is not based upon guilt or innocence.”

Though he denies killing Yaros, Azania said violence against police can be justified. He said it’s the job of the police to “protect the interests of the ruling class” and that violence is sometimes “the only way that an individual can actually see they’re wrong.”

In the Yaros case, Azania said the real killer is “between two people,” adding that, “I don’t know which bullet was which.”

As he did in court, Azania admitted killing Wick. He called his overturned conviction a flaw in the legal system “that favored me” but added, “What goes around comes around.

“There’s a price for everything that an individual does,” he said. “There are consequences.

“There are things that I’ve done that I got away with.”

EPILOGUE

Two days after Zolo Azania completes his sentence for the murder of Gary police Lt. George Yaros, an Indiana judge is expected to hand a life sentence to 28-year-old Carl Le’Ellis Blount in the 2014 killing of Gary Patrolman Jeffrey Westerfield.

Westerfield | File photo

Jeffrey Westerfield. | File photo

Westerfield, a father of five, was killed July 6, 2014 – his 47th birthday.

The officer had been looking for Blount after Blount was shot outside a home in the 2300 block of McKinley. Blount found Westerfield first. Fearing he was about to be arrested on an outstanding warrant, Blount shot the officer as he sat in his patrol car.

Blount made a deal last month with Lake County prosecutors, agreeing to plead guilty to Westerfield’s murder and avoiding the death penalty.

He’s set to be sentenced to life “without parole.”