American Crime Revisited: The Murder of Jeff Zack

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It was an ordinary morning on June 16, 2001, when Akron, Ohio businessman, Jeff Zack, made a trip to BJ’s Wholesale on Home Ave, as he often did. He had been having a rough day after he was broken up with by a woman he had been having an affair with for a decade. Her name was Cynthia “Cindy” George. She was a prominent socialite in Akron, as she had been a beauty queen, but also because she was the wife of Edward George Jr., the wealthy owner of The Tangier; one of Akron’s most famous venues and restaurants. Jeff was filling up the tank of his Ford Explorer when a man riding a crotch rocket and clad in all black pulled behind him. The man got off of the motorcycle and walked to the passenger side of Jeff’s SUV. He lifted a revolver and through the passenger window, shot one hollow-point bullet straight into Jeff’s head. By time the ambulance reached the gas station, Jeff was already dead.

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Due to phone records, investigators determined that Jeff had been having an affair with Cynthia, and that they secretly had a child together that she raised with Edward. Jeff had frequented The Tangier and became so close with the George family that he was often invited to their home and spent hours on the phone with Cynthia daily. Due to his time spent running the restaurant and catering to he and Cindy’s seven children, Edward was oblivious to the romance between her and Jeff. According to the Georges’ nanny, Mary Ann, Cynthia was a conceited woman who was never home and was easily bored.

Investigators quickly ascertained that Cindy was not having one extramarital affair, but two. Not only did she have a relationship with Jeff Zack that started in 1992, but in 2000 she began another affair with a man named John Zaffino, an unemployed truck driver who would spend time with Cindy during the day. For a year, she continued relationships with both of them, maintaining romance with three different men in her life, including her husband. Phone records even revealed that sometimes, Cindy would speak with both men at the same time, with one on her cellphone as the other was on her home phone. However, May 2001 marked the time that Cindy decided she would end her relationship with Jeff. For the month following the break up, Jeff obsessed over Cindy, calling her home multiple times a day and hanging up whenever Edward would answer. Not long after, Jeff was killed.

After a year passed with no further developments in the case, John Zaffino’s ex-wife told police that John once told her he had “beaten up a white-haired Israeli” shortly after Jeff’s death made the news. After she confronted John, he claimed that Jeff would, “have a hard time parting his hair from now on.” This led the police to put John’s movements under a microscope. They found that he had recently purchased a crotch rocket and shortly after, he had drove it across the Pennsylvania border to sell it to a dealership that was owned by his first ex-wife’s fiancé. According to her, John had arrived with the motorcycle at night, and when he dropped it off, there was tape covering the green stripes. He told investigators that he was at a car show during the time of the murder, which a friend of his verified, however, phone records show that John did not arrive at the car show until hours after Jeff was shot. John was then arrested and charged with aggravated murder in the death of Jeff Zack.

Despite investigators believing that the case was almost over, things got more complicated after bank records revealed that Cindy George had withdrawn $5,300 from her account. The amount was the same sum of money that John used to purchase the motorcycle and helmets. Phone records allowed police to determine that John and Cindy had spoken on June 16th, both before and after the murder. A month prior, in May 2001, John had bought a Magnum .357 which took hollow-tipped ammunition. After these revelations, investigators established that Cindy and John had been planning the attack together for over a month.

John’s trial began in February 2003. During the trial, Cindy was called to testify but instead invoked her Fifth Amendment right. After three hours in March 2003, the jury found John Zaffino guilty of aggravated murder and sentenced him to life in prison. John and his attorneys appealed the conviction, but the Court of Appeals of Ohio’s Ninth District upheld the conviction on December 31, 2003.

Later, in January of 2005, Cindy George was arrested and charged with conspiracy and complicity to commit aggravated murder. Prosecutors introduced evidence that Cindy and John had attempted to kill Jeff on May 8th, 2001. Cindy was on the phone that day with both John and Jeff on different lines. She was going to ask Jeff to meet her at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where he would be confronted by John instead, who would then shoot him. The plan was foiled after a park ranger spotted John and inquired about his reason for spending 3 hours on a bridge there. At the time, the park ranger noticed that John had an empty gun holster. Almost two weeks later, a hiker found a .32-calibre pistol in the woods. Cindy pled “not guilty” and her trial commenced in November 2005. Prosecutors made a major break in the case when they discovered that Edward and Cynthia had paid $15,500 to John’s defense attorneys; a deal that was organized by Cindy’s 5-member defense counsel. Later, Cindy’s defense team requested a bench trial after they speculated it would be easier to convince a judge, rather than a jury, of Cynthia’s innocence. Cindy chose not to testify at her trial. On November 28th, 2005, Judge Patricia Cosgrove found Cindy not guilty of conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, but instead found her guilty of complicity to commit aggravated murder. She was sentenced to 23 years to life in prison.

After spending 1 year and 4 months in prison at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Cindy hired new attorneys to appeal her conviction. She blamed the demise of her case on her previous attorneys, saying she was a victim of incompetent counsel. She claimed that her former attorneys had foiled her trial by arranging the $15,500 deal between her, Zaffino, and his representation. Her new attorneys argued that she most likely would have been acquitted if the preceding counsel had not created a conflict of interest due to the payment. Despite this argument, on March 22, 2007, the Court of Appeals of Ohio’s Ninth District voted 2-to-1 to overturn Cindy’s conviction. They claimed that the evidence was not sufficient enough to prove she was guilty and ordered for her to be released that day.

Upon returning to her family in Akron, Cindy George has kept a low-profile and has not been photographed in public in over 11 years. Her husband Edward still owns The Tangier today, and the venue has been managed by their two daughters, Angelica and Antoinette, since 2015. In the past 16 years, a multitude of books, films, and television specials about the murder of Jeff Zack have been released. Although double jeopardy protections ensure that Cynthia George can never again be tried for any crimes regarding the murder of Jeff Zack, questions about her innocence remain to this day.

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