The Journal Gazette
Thursday, May 12, 2022 1:00 am

Trial begins in 'brutal' slaying of 4

Defense argues evidence doesn't tie man to crime

JAMES D. WOLF JR. | The Journal Gazette

Cohen Hancz-Barron’s murder trial began Wednesday morning with opening arguments and tearful testimony from the victims’ relatives who found the four bodies.

Allen County Deputy Prosecutor Tom Chaille gave the jurors a timeline of Hancz-Barron’s actions from the night before the June 3 homicides on Gay Street to his arrest in Lafayette, where he drove in a truck allegedly stolen from a neighbor. Much of it was captured by surveillance cameras and electronic devices, Chaille said.

Defense attorney Tony Churchward told the jurors the slayings were horrific, but the facts don’t show that Hancz-Barron committed them. There are no eyewitnesses or credible confessions, Churchward said.

Hancz-Barron is charged with four counts of murder for allegedly killing his girlfriend, 26-year-old Sarah Zent, and her children: Carter Mathew Zent, 5; Ashton Duwayne Zent, 3; and Aubree Christine Zent, 2. The Allen County prosecutor’s office has also added a sentence enhancement of life without parole.

“It’s unbelievable; it’s brutal; it’s horrifying,” Chaille told the jurors.

It may have started as a domestic fight. There was food thrown against a wall, vegetable oil poured on Zent’s back, a spatula and the oil bottle found by her body, crushed potato chips strewn around and “a lot of empty beer cans in the kitchen,” Chaille said. However, the prosecution doesn’t need to prove a motive, he added.

Based on evidence, Sarah Zent was attacked in multiple ways but died from cuts to the throat. She also had bruising, signs of strangulation and cuts to her side, one that reached her liver.

Chaille said the children also died from knife wounds to their necks. Autopsies discovered the boys had bruises on the backs of their heads, showing they were hit with a blunt object or slammed against something.

The children were left face down on a bed, and their mother was kneeling next to it. They were all covered with a blanket when they were found.

A neighbor’s surveillance system captured Hancz-Barron going to the house about 12:30 a.m. and smoking outside with Sarah Zent at 1:30 a.m.

After 5:30 a.m., Hencz-Barron texted the neighbor to borrow his truck, saying his sister was in an accident and at the hospital.

The neighbor said no but Hancz-Barron took it, using keys the neighbor had given Zent, and was recorded doing so by a nearby school’s surveillance video.

Chaille also told the jurors that Hencz-Barron called his mother, telling her he was in a shooting in Ohio and that she needed to move and change her name. Chaille said Hancz-Barron told her, “You’re never going to want to see me again when you’ve found out what I’ve done.”

When police arrested Hancz in Lafayette that afternoon after tracing his phone, he threw a knife he was holding down. It had the DNA of the victims on it and was consistent with the type of knife used on Zent’s family, Chaille said.

After Hancz-Barron was arrested, he asked police whether he’d serve time on a warrant for another crime before or after this one, Chaille added.

Churchward told the jurors that all evidence was circumstantial, and his defense team won’t cross-examine all witnesses because they’re not contesting that a murder happened, just who did it.

“It’s going to be very, very easy to let your emotions get to you,” Churchward said. “Just make sure that you’re holding the right person responsible.”

The first person to testify was Melanie Fields, mother of Sarah Zent and grandmother of the children.

Frequently breaking down in tears, Fields told about Sarah Zent’s neighbor contacting her to say he was concerned because Zent wasn’t responding to calls, and the children weren’t out playing that morning.

The neighbor, Fields and Sarah’s sister, Joselyn Zent, entered the house, which was in disarray and looked as if someone was moving things about. They didn’t see the bodies under the blanket at first and were texting Sarah’s friends, looking for her.

During her testimony, many in the courtoom were also crying. The trial is expected to continue into next week.

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