Wrongfully imprisoned in a 6-by-10 foot Ohio prison cell, Dean Gillispie let his mind and his artwork transport him to an even smaller world.
He converted junk into miniature versions of places he wished he could be.
Gillispie used “procured” materials—such as teabags, soda cans, and foil paper from cigarette packs—to make models of nostalgic slices of Americana he pictured along his imaginary version of the legendary Route 66.
“Ain’t never been on Route 66, but I made one,” said Gillispie, who is now free to go there—or anywhere else he desires.
After languishing in prison for 20 years, Gillispie spent another decade working to clear his name on official court records. Late last year, an Ohio judge declared him “a wrongfully imprisoned individual,” and lamented “this nightmare that has been your life for the past 30 years.”
In 1991, a witches’ brew of mistakes, vendettas, and lousy luck landed Gillispie in prison for sex crimes he did not commit, plunging him into a dark world where he knew he didn’t belong.
An equally remarkable set of circumstances pulled him out and propelled him into national and international spotlights—another world where Gillispie, 57, of Fairborn, Ohio, doesn’t quite fit.
“To get the notoriety for the artwork is what really blows my mind,” Gillispie told The Epoch Times in interviews following a Cincinnati sneak preview of a documentary about his life.
“It goes from being made in a prison to an exhibit at the most famous contemporary art museum in America.”
It feels surreal for Gillispie to see his story featured in a film as he rubs elbows with art critics, philanthropists, and intelligentsia. “That’s not a dream I’m chasing,” Gillispie says.
True to his blue-collar roots, Gillispie would rather tinker with vintage vehicles. He still enjoys channeling emotions into his artwork—a talent that had lain dormant until he went to prison.
Gillispie also is fighting a battle he can never win: Trying to make up for lost time with his parents and other loved ones who demonstrated unwavering support.
That is the world where Gillispie feels he belongs, the world from which “the state of Ohio kidnapped me for crimes I didn’t commit,” he says.
How It StartedCourt records and Gillispie’s documentary tell the story of his conviction, incarceration, and exoneration.
In 1988, a pair of twins and another woman reported being sexually assaulted in two separate attacks near Dayton, Ohio.
In both instances, the victims were abducted from public parking lots at gunpoint during daylight hours. The perpetrator flashed a badge and claimed to be a police officer who was arresting them.
Police circulated a composite sketch of the suspect. It hung in the break room of a car factory where Gillispie worked.
After a heated union-related dispute, an enemy of Gillispie went to the police, saying he thought Gillispie resembled the attacker. Furthermore, his full name was Roger Dean Gillispie, which matched the name the women said their attacker used: “Roger.”
Gillispie was unaware he was being backstabbed. “I had no clue,” he said. Gillispie was affable and had few conflicts, other than the union dispute. He also had no criminal record.
A pair of veteran detectives suspected that the man who prodded them to investigate was being vindictive. They also doubted an attacker would use his real name.
Cold Case ReactivatedIn mid-1990, a rookie officer—who had ties to Gillispie’s work enemy—took over the investigation. Two years after the crimes, police put Gillispie’s picture into a photo lineup.
Among the six pictures, Gillispie’s mugshot stood out because it had a yellow background and was larger than the other images in front of blue backgrounds.
All three victims pointed to Gillispie as the necklace-wearing, gun-toting, cigarette-smoking rape suspect. Gillispie had never been known to wear a necklace, brandish a gun, nor smoke cigarettes.
At trial, his lawyer listed more than two dozen differences between Gillispie and the suspect’s description. No physical evidence tied Gillispie to the crimes.
Nevertheless, confronted with three weeping victims who identified Gillispie as their assailant, a jury convicted Gillispie of 18 charges: nine counts of rape and three counts each of kidnapping, aggravated robbery, and gross sexual imposition. His sentence: 22-56 years in prison.
Gillispie, then 24, was devastated. He and his family protested his innocence to anyone who would listen.
Finally, in 2003, after he had been in prison for a dozen years, the newly established Ohio Innocence Project accepted its first case: Gillispie’s.
A succession of 17 law students worked on Gillispie’s case under Professor Mark Godsey, who still heads the program today.
Jim Petro, who served as Ohio’s attorney general from 2003-07, got involved in Gillispie’s case in 2008, lending more credibility to Gillispie’s claims of innocence.
Godsey’s office scored a significant break when a tipster identified an alternative suspect who matched the composite and other physical descriptors; he had even used the fake name, “Roger.”
Godsey described the alternative suspect as “not just a good suspect, but an amazing suspect.”
An image of the implicated man appears to mirror the composite sketch when each was cut in half for comparison purposes—a chilling image used in court.
Another big break surfaced when Gillispie’s team learned that the original detectives’ report clearing him of suspicion wasn’t turned over to the defense as it should have been.
That paperwork was “lost,” authorities say. Gillispie’s legal team doesn’t buy that explanation; they allege document tampering.
Big Ideas, Tiny ArtworkGillispie still remembers the first piece of artwork he made in prison: a little house built from manila folders. Prison officials confiscated it as “contraband.”
But Gillispie found solace in his artwork, so he continued making it in defiance of prison rules.
Sometimes guards destroyed his carefully crafted creations.
Soon, the quality of his work began to inspire respect. Guards would admonish others: “Don’t mess with this guy’s art.”
Fellow inmates would sneak materials to Gillispie to collaborate in the magic he produced. And even the warden became a fan, displaying some of Gillispie’s confiscated artwork in his office at Warren Correctional Institution near Lebanon, Ohio.
Word about his talent spread.
By request, prison officials granted Gillispie and other prison artists permission to build full-sized structures for the Cincinnati Horticultural Society’s famous flower show. The prisoners’ handiwork included a cottage, a Hobbit’s home, and a giant keyhole symbolizing Gillispie’s desire for the prison doors to be unlocked.
Some of the works won awards and were featured in national magazines.
Gillispie logged more than 7,000 community service hours creating artwork for outsiders, while also making art that brought him a little joy in his depressing, cramped surroundings.
He still remembers the dimensions of the cells that housed him: 6-by-10 at Warren Correctional, then 7-by-9 at London Correctional—both shared with a cellmate.
Whenever someone commends his artwork, Gillispie tends to respond: “Get some time on your hands sittin’ in a little bitty box, and you’ll come up with some neat stuff ... Everyone has art in ‘em. It’s just a matter of having the time to do it.”
But, then again, Gillispie said, his story also shows that anyone can be wrongfully convicted.
Goodbye, 276Several of Gillispie’s miniature buildings bear address number “276,” his cell number in Warren’s Cellblock 3B. Gillispie longed for the day when, like his artwork, he would go out into the real world, too.
While fiercely fighting for his freedom, his mother, Juana, tearfully told a TV reporter: “We have no laughter.” His dad, Roger, worked 15 hours a day at his factory job to try to cover legal bills, especially before the Innocence Project got involved and worked pro bono.
Freed just before Christmas 2011, Gillispie felt elated but strange as he carried his belongings out of prison. After arriving at a bowling alley for a party, Gillispie climbed out of the vehicle, dropped to his hands and knees, and kissed the ground.
He gleefully danced with his mom in the entryway of the building.
As TV cameras shot footage under bright lights, someone asked: “How’s it feel to be free?” Gillispie responded, “I don’t know that I’m free,” because he recognized several bowlers; the prison guards’ bowling league was meeting that night, by chance.
Laughing, Gillispie quipped: “Where am I at, purgatory?”
After the celebration, he climbed into a limousine van, draped his arms around both of his parents, and headed home for the first time in two decades.
During the next three days, “600 people came to my parents’ house to see me,” Gillispie said, recalling his dad’s response when one visitor apologized for the onslaught: “Son, it’s been a morgue here for 20 years. Keep ‘em comin’.”
Still, Gillispie still wasn’t truly free. For months, he was ordered to wear a GPS monitor and couldn’t leave his house without permission while the courts figured out what to do with his case. For five years, he was required to report to a probation officer at least monthly, for drug testing; he couldn’t leave Ohio without permission.
Prosecutors kept seeking to retry Gillispie—a battle they lost in 2017, when the state Supreme Court finally decided “they were no longer accepting the prosecutors’ whining,” as Gillispie puts it.
Life After PrisonAfter his release, Gillispie became heavily involved with the Innocence Project, where he is a board member. He feels honored “to be part of an organization that saved my life.” The group’s work has led to the release of 34 people, including Gillispie.
Meanwhile, he continues rebuilding his life. Reminders of his incarceration can trigger anger, fear, or sorrow; other exonerees go through this, too. “Every one of us have PTSD of some form,” Gillispie said.
While still imprisoned, he produced a painting to express his resentment and sadness over everything he lost while incarcerated.
To the left, a self-portrait of him as a young man hovers. A piece of tape covers his mouth, with the words, “no one is listening” written on it.
To the right, the self-portrait depicts him 20 years older, with the words, “still no one is listening.”
Between the two, words and symbols of things that were taken away from him—wages, births, deaths, weddings, graduations—encircle a toilet bowl, symbolizing “life being flushed down the drain,” Gillispie said.
Prisoners who admitted their wrongdoing were being released one after the other as Gillispie stayed behind, he said; some convicted killers served shorter prison terms than Gillispie did. He thinks he would have died behind bars if not for the Innocence Project’s work.
Ironically, parolees who were convicted of crimes get more post-prison help than those who are released as exonerees, Gillispie said.
“It’s like, “OK, you won your case—see you later!”
He left with virtually no money. He also walked out of prison with excruciating back pain. He blames a fall off a ladder and “18 years of [prison officials] doing nothing about it.”
Now that Gillispie has been declared wrongfully convicted, that makes him eligible for compensation from the state of Ohio.
His lawyer Michele Berry-Godsey, wife of Innocence Project Director Mark Godsey, said the formula for figuring compensation is complicated.
Gillispie also has filed suit in federal court, alleging police violated his rights when they “suppressed exculpatory evidence, arranged an unduly suggestive eyewitness identification procedure, fabricated inculpatory evidence, assisted in maliciously prosecuting him, and destroyed exculpatory evidence,” a court record shows.
Battles still loom over all of that.
But no amount of money can make up for what he’s endured, Gillispie said. Top of mind is his intent to repay his parents, who are now in their mid-70s and still in debt for his court battles.
Gillispie doubts justice will ever be served in his case—not for him, for his family, nor for the victims and the actual perpetrator. He said he harbors no ill will toward the victims; he feels the system used them, too.
“I turned 25 in the county jail and got out when I was 45,” Gillispie said. “To come out an old man sucked.”
While his friends went on to create lives with solid careers, lovely homes, great cars, and families, Gillispie produced nothing other than his artwork.
To him, it’s priceless. That’s why he refuses to sell it, despite people offering to pay him a fortune for it.
Story Impresses FilmmakerRowen first met Gillispie in 2018, when Rowen was working for a company that shot videos on behalf of the Innocence Project.
Gillispie’s overall positive outlook despite his ordeal struck Rowen.
“Dean is such an engaging and fascinating person. He’s constantly blowing my mind with his commentary and his sense of humor,” Rowen said. “I was really driven to tell this story the way he tells it to people.”
Now an independent writer, director, and editor, Rowen has worked on video projects for famous singers such as Katy Perry, Jason Aldean, and Rascal Flatts. He, Gillispie, and Godsey are collaborating on the documentary that explores the causes and effects of wrongful convictions, as seen through Gillispie’s eyes.
The film is called “Spiz,” a nickname that Gillispie’s father made up for him during his boyhood.
Rowen has done several screenings of the still-unfinished project, including a late July event at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, where Gillispie’s artwork was on display.
Godsey said he wanted his client—who became a dear friend—to experience a special night surrounded by supporters. Dozens of people strolled through the exhibit and then filed into an auditorium to watch the 45-minute, half-finished film. Rowen is applying for grants to complete a full-length feature version of “Spiz.”
At times, people at the film preview laughed at Gillispie’s unfiltered, folksy witticisms; at others, they wept over the injustices his case reveals.
A student who worked two years on his case through the Innocence Project, Amanda Marie Smith, who is now a lawyer in Clinton, Tenn., said that experience made her wonder: “How many people are like that in our system?”
One of the most powerful scenes in the documentary was shot in April 2021, inside MOMA.
Gillispie’s raw emotion spilled over, “reacting to his art being featured at MOMA after 25 years of it sitting in prison and in his parents’ garage,” Rowen said. “He just narrated the whole story from there.”
Because Rowen was wearing earphones to monitor sound levels, “I could hear him sobbing right into my ear; I could just feel him recollecting.”
Letting His Soul ShineGillispie often repeats: “If you have a dream, think it, speak it, make it happen,” as he points to his head, his lips, and toward the listener.
That’s how he lives his life now that he’s free.
He no longer must scavenge art materials if he doesn’t want to; to make a commissioned sculpture, Gillispie perched stainless-steel butterflies atop rusted chains, a work called, “Imaginal Cell.”
The title refers both to a prison cell and to the microscopic cell that transforms a caterpillar into a butterfly.
On the sculpture, each shiny butterfly is inscribed with the name of an exonerated Ohio Innocence Project client, along with the number of years wrongfully imprisoned.
As he thinks ahead, Gillispie reflects on one of his favorite miniatures, a silver Airstream travel trailer that he constructed in 1995 after his parents bought a full-sized one.
As he worked on that sculpture, Gillispie had on headphones and was jamming to a tune that resonated with him.
He found “Soulshine” by The Allman Brothers encouraging: “When your world seems cold, you got to let your spirit take control ... Let your soul shine. It’s better than sunshine.”
Soon after his release from prison, Gillispie went on the hunt for an Airstream, even though he had little to pay for it other than “a pocketful of lint balls and a couple pennies.”
Still, he found a way to think it, speak it, make it happen. He bought an old trailer and spent a year restoring it. Then he achieved another dream. He and his Airstream, named “SoulShine,” were featured in Airstream Life magazine.
Next up: Gillispie’s finishing work on a 1953 Chevy wagon. He pictures it being featured in Hot Rod magazine. And he also imagines hooking SoulShine to the back of the Chevy and hitting the road.
He plans to take his time as he travels to the place that he pictured so long ago, Route 66.
For Gillispie, the long-awaited trip symbolizes freedom.
“People don’t understand what freedom is until it’s taken away,” he said. “Once you lose it, you have a totally different understanding of what freedom means in America.”