The November 2004 call from Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John M. Solovan II was to the point: Would attorney Thomas A. Hampton serve as special prosecutor in a murder case scheduled for 2005?
A longtime prosecuting attorney in Belmont County, Ohio, the 54-year-old Mr. Hampton had been special prosecutor in a 1993 child rape case in which the defendant was sentenced to eight consecutive life terms.
That case was an anomaly, though. He had 13 years' experience prosecuting drug and other felony cases, but when Judge Solovan called, his practice was comfortably busy, and time with his wife and on the tennis courts were equal priorities with it.
"Sorry, judge, what case is that?" he asked.
The three boxes of evidence in the Anthony Proviano case didn't overwhelm him. What did, initially, was realizing how much remained to be done before Douglas Main's scheduled Jan. 4, 2005, trial on charges of murdering the 29-year-old medical student in December 1997.
Under Ohio's speedy trial law, defendants in custody must be tried within 90 days or released; more than two-thirds of Mr. Main's time already had passed.
In addition, Mr. Hampton discovered that evidence was missing from the Belmont County sheriff's office. Worst of all was the realization that the success of his prosecution rested on the credibility of Charles W. Dailey Jr.
While Mr. Dailey had shared important information with investigators during the past few years, it was parceled out according to how it might best serve his own interests. The special prosecutor knew that having the former head of a heroin ring and his friends as his key witnesses was a poor formula for success.
He continued the January trial date until April. In February, Mr. Hampton offered a plea agreement to Marlene "Slim" Smith, Mr. Main's ex-wife. In prison on murder charges in the case since October, she could plead to lower-level felonies in exchange for testimony against Doug.
But, he said, "it has to be true and it has to be something you can pass a polygraph [test] on."
She laughed at him.
A few weeks later, Deputy Bart Giesey, for nearly three years the sole investigator in the case, was let go in a reorganization by the new Belmont County sheriff.
In May, facing trial, Mr. Hampton reached an agreement with Mr. Main's attorney that his client's speedy trial rights would be suspended in exchange for release on his own recognizance.
By summer 2005, the special prosecutor knew the case against Mr. Main was weak: no witnesses, no fingerprints, no footprints, no matching hair fibers.
But three events that summer turned the case on its head. The first was the hiring of Charles Snyder, a veteran Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation agent in Boardman and former Akron police homicide detective, to assist Mr. Hampton.
The second was the discovery that the DNA in the gloves found near Anthony's body did not match anyone connected with the case.
The third was arrival of two anonymous envelopes at Mr. Hampton's office. They contained papers and writings of Ms. Smith, who, under speedy trial laws, had been released in July from the Belmont County Jail.
Mr. Hampton read the material and immediately sealed the envelopes to be used as evidence in any upcoming trial. Mr. Snyder set out to discover who'd sent them.
Her name was Leslie Long and her story was so compelling that the prosecution immediately arranged for a polygraph test. The results were "inconclusive," but her information rang more true to Mr. Hampton than his entire case against Mr. Main.
He kept the details to himself and Agent Snyder, but in November, a year after joining the case, he dropped Mr. Main's murder charges. The move infuriated Anthony's parents, Carmen and Maryann Proviano.
Because of Ms. Smith's antics in the courtroom during previous hearings, a series of competency hearings were held that fall to make sure she could stand trial in early 2006.
Mr. Hampton, meanwhile, had set up "Proviano tables" in his law office, where he spread his growing case file. He had turned the guest room at home into a second office where he often pored over court documents and investigators' notes at 3 a.m. The case was consuming him; his regular practice suffered.
Ms. Smith's trial was finally set for mid-February. The special prosecutor knew his work had really just begun.
Gallery of key figures
Index to the serial
Thomas A. Hampton describes his impressions of the Proviano case when he was named special prosecutor.
"It's the most difficult thing in my entire life ..."
Doug Main, once a prime suspect, explains why he feared special prosecutor Thomas A. Hampton more than anyone else in the case.
"He was just so sure that I did that ..."
Tomorrow: Trials and Tribulation