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Suspect in Ohio toddler's rape and murder hitchhiked, lived in woods for weeks before arrest

Mary Ann Thomas
| Friday, Oct. 27, 2017, 5:12 a.m.
Allegheny County

A man accused of raping and murdering a 13-month-old girl in Ohio hitched a ride to Western Pennsylvania and spent weeks living in the woods before Franklin Park police arrested him early Friday, authorities said.

“We shrunk his world and he had no choice but to live in the woods,” said Pete Elliott, U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio.

Joshua Gurto, 37, is charged with rape and aggravated murder in the Oct. 7 death of Sereniti Jazzlynn-Sky Blankenship-Sutley in Conneaut, Ohio, a small town in the northeastern corner of the state.

About a week after the toddler's violent death, Gurto was spotted at a gas station about 15 miles away in Girard, Pa., according to Elliott.

Surveillance footage from Oct. 13 showed he was riding in a pickup at the time.

Police did not have a license plate number, but Elliott said state police in Ohio and New York used the pickup's make and model to narrow down the search for the driver. They determined he was from New York.

The driver told investigators that he picked up Gurto hitchhiking and drove him about 100 miles to Zelienople in Butler County, Elliott said. Gurto had told the driver that he was on his way to Florida.

Gurto was spotted again late Wednesday afternoon at a Sheetz store on Mt. Nebo Road in Ohio Township, about 20 miles from Zelienople. He left the store on foot.

Shortly before 2 a.m. Friday, Franklin Park patrolman Kevin Lestitian saw a man with a large backpack walking along the borough's Nicholson Road, near Wexford Bayne Road. The location is about 5 miles north of the Sheetz store in Ohio Township and about 5 miles south of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

“It's a state road with no sidewalks. Anyone walking along that road at 1:30 or so in the morning is going to attract attention. Any officer seeing that would stop and ask the person if they are OK,” Franklin Park Sgt. Walter Healy said.

Lestitian identified Gurto and took him into custody without incident.

The patrolman found a number of items in Gurto's backpack, including maps of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and a tent. Gurto also had a knife in his possession, Elliott said.

Gurto is in Allegheny County Jail awaiting extradition. Elliott said he expected Gurto to be brought back to Ohio in about a week.

Elliott said the three-week manhunt “was coordinated very well.” It included help from multiple law-enforcement agencies and more than 1,000 tips. Authorities also took out billboard advertisements and asked news outlets to publicize the search in areas where they thought Gurto might be, he said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4691, mthomas@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.

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