Hunting peace: from Steubenville to Croughton

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing
There was blood on his shirt. A dark crimson that stained the fabric, as Terrell Yarbrough bragged to his friends about killing two college students and stealing their Chevrolet Blazer during a robbery at a street-level apartment in Steubenville, Ohio, May 31, 1999.

"They got their heads shot off," Yarbrough allegedly told a friend, after inviting him for a ride in the stolen vehicle and confiding that he had killed "two white boys" to get it.

It was roughly 5 a.m. when Yarbrough, and his accomplice - Nathan "Boo" Herring forced their way into the apartment, waking the occupants - who were all students at the nearby Franciscan University. Andrew Doran heard "a loud series of crashes" and immediately crawled out a window. He silently re-entered the house through a side door and called out to his roommates: Brian Muha and Aaron Land.

There was no answer.

In the darkness, Doran saw a hooded figure with a white handkerchief over his mouth - later identified as Yarbrough. Before Yarbrough could react, Dornan ran from the apartment to a nearby house, where he phoned the police - who arrived at the scene minutes later to find the both the perpetrators and the two students missing. Immediately, detectives began calling friends and family of Aaron and Brian, hoping for some lead as to their location.

"Hello," Kathleen O'Hara said as she answered her house phone.

The man on the other end identified himself as a detective with the City of Steubenville Police Department. He told her a 911 call was recently placed by Doran, and then asked if she knew the whereabouts of her son, Aaron.

"Yes," O'Hara answered. "He's at Franciscan University."

There was a long pause. O'Hara said she could feel her stomach knotting. The detective told her there had been a robbery, blood was found at the scene and her son was missing.

"At that moment, I could feel myself swirling down the drain," she said, 16 years later during the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast at RAF Croughton, England. "The last thing I said to him was 'I love you and I'll see you soon.'"

Speaking to U.S. Air Force Airmen of 422nd Air Base Group, O'Hara said Yarbrough and Herring were drunk and high on a combination of beer, cocaine, marijuana and prescription drugs when they used a .44-caliber handgun to repeatedly beat Aaron and Brian, before forcing them into the back of the Blazer. 

"This was a turning point in my life," O'Hara continued. "Sixteen years later I can tell this story without breaking down."

With their frightened hostages in tow, Yarbrough and Herring drove the stolen car to Pittsburg - stopping briefly in Washington County, Penn. There, alongside the highway, Yarbrough pulled Aaron and Brian out of the car and into a wooded area. At gunpoint, the two students were taunted and tortured.

Then, in a moment of calculated inhumanity, Yarbrough raised the gun to the back of each boy's head and calmly pulled the trigger.

"They did it," O'Hara said. "These two crack addicts beat, tortured and murdered my son and his friend. I remember thinking, 'why didn't God protect my son?'"

With her faith shaken, seemingly beyond repair, O'Hara said she waited anxiously for any news of her son - unaware that his lifeless body was being hidden under a bush in the dense forest. After hiding the bodies, Yarbrough and Herring took Brian's ATM card and some cash and continued on their way to Pittsburgh.

Fortunately, thanks to Doran, the police were already in pursuit. After unsuccessfully attempting to use the ATM card, and stealing another car, Yarbrough and Herring were arrested. However, their capture was of small comfort to a grieving mother who was doing her best to carry on.

"I wanted to die," O'Hara said. "But, I couldn't allow them to destroy me, my family and my faith. God didn't do this. Two people with a gun did this."

Eventually, Yarbrough and Herring were tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison - where the full weight of their crimes acted as a constant companion.

"I can only say, I know in a certain situation such as this, apologies ain't going to get it," Herring said during the penalty phase of his trial. "But I am so terribly sorry. I would like to send my sympathies out. If I could turn back the hands of time..."

As Herring lost composure and wept openly on the witness stand, O'Hara watched from across the courtroom.

"Life is not fair," she said, recalling that day. "It doesn't ask you what you want. Life gives you what it gives you and it's your job to step up."

Reconciliation with this tragedy did not come easily for O'Hara. She fought with herself constantly, trying to accept what had happened and move on.

"I wanted peace," she said. "I sought it daily. Turning to God helped me more than anything else."

O'Hara said renewing her faith in God allowed her to come to terms with this tragedy and realize that protection offered by God does not necessarily equate to protection from death. From that realization, O'Hara said she found a new sense of compassion and love in her life.

"You can do so many things in this world," she said. "But if you don't have love you are just a banging cymbal."

Despite living through the death of a child, O'Hara said she is committed to continuing working with survivors of violent tragedies as a psychotherapist.

"The great fruit of suffering is compassion," she said. "It is in that purification that your heart is cracked open and you begin to understand the suffering of others."