Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Today's News-Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Testimony in the Shenandoah beating trial got underway Monday with alot of posturing from the defense and prosecution. Security was tight at the Schuylkill County Courthouse and in the streets of Pottsville, but an expected packed courtroom never materialized. During opening statements, Assistant District Attorney Rob Frantz said that the defendants, Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak were instrumental players in the fight against Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez last July. Frantz said the state intends to prove that Piekarsky kicked Ramirez in the head while he was on the ground, and Donchak struck Ramirez with his fist, and had a metal object in his hand. Defense attorney Fred Fanelli, representing Piekarsky, tried to point the blame to others involved, namely Colin Walsh and Brian Scully, not on his client. Fanelli weaved a story that Ramirez was the aggressor during the "street fight". Donchak's attorney Jeff Markosky wants to prove that his client tried to stop the fight, diminishing his role during the fights. Piekarsky faces third degree murder, ethnic intimidation and other counts. Donchak is charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and related charges. About 60 people attended the trial in a very warm Courtroom Number 1. Testimony wrapped up around 5pm.

Testimony opened with two state police troopers, one an accident reconstruction specialist and a forensic investigator who recreated the scene in photos from various points at the crime scene. Neighbor Elizabeth Schlack, who made the 9-1-1 call as she viewed events from her bedroom window, testified what she saw about 126 feet to the street below, where Luis Ramirez's body lay after several battles between teenagers and the victim. A key witness who was with Ramirez, 15 year old Roxanne Rector, was grilled by both sides as to who struck the blows that mortally injured the 25-year-old Mexican near the Vine Street Park last July. Rector admitted that she and Ramirez were involved in a relationship, and said the two were engaged. Eighteen year old Ben Lawson, who was with defendants Brandon Piekarsky, Derrick Donchak, Colin Walsh and Brian Scully, said the group had been drinking in the bush before heading to the Polish American Fire Company. The group came upon Ramirez and Rector near the playground later that night, and attorneys for the defense peppered Lawson about his original testimony about the night's events, trying to deflect their clients involvement in Ramirez's beating. Lawson has had several meetings with law enforcement about his testimony, including an appearance at a federal grand jury hearing in Scranton. Colin Walsh, who originally was charged with Donchak and Piekarsky, pleaded guilty to violating Ramirez's federal civil rights, had his local charges dropped. Its unclear exactly what those federal charges are, since the records are sealed. WPPA/T102 News asked Fred Fanelli to comment about the federal probe, but he said "you'll have to ask Lawson."

Law enforcement officials were expecting a crush of protestors outside the county courthouse during the Shenandoah beating trial, but they never materialized. Three people camped away from the courthouse during the morning session, but were quiet. An attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union was also present. They were all gone by the afternoon. That may change as the trial goes on. In a related note, several members of the Shenandoah Valley school adminstration were in the courtroom Monday to see if any students were attending the trial instead of being in school. The school board adopted a policy last week that would impose sanctions against any student in grades 7 to 11 who attended the trial or protests during school hours.

A Friday morning drug sweep at Shenandoah High School netted no illegal substances. According to reports, a canine drug search was conducted in conjunction with the Shenandoah PD in a surprise inspection. A lock down was imposed while the inspection took place.

Frackville police arrested a 19 year old Dunmore teen late last week on theft and burglary charges. The Republican and Herald reports that Richard Campbell the Third is accused of stealing Xanax pills from a home on Second Street earlier this month. Campbell reportedly broke into another home on South Garfield Avenue in Frackville, but got away. He's also accused of stealing items from a Frackville convenience store. Campbell was arraigned and jailed in the county prison in lieu of bail.

A Sharon Hill woman is charged with drug possession after a search of her vehicle at SCI Mahanoy. State police at Frackville report that 30 year old Marsha Denton came to the prison to visit an inmate. Cops found a small amount of pot in her car in the parking lot. Denton will be charged in district court with drug possession.

Pa. House passes bill on teen, distracted drivers
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A bill that would impose new driving rules for teens and a fine for adults who let cell phones or other distractions cause them to drive erratically is on its way to the state Senate. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Monday voted 168-to-24 in favor of the bill. The vote comes less than a week after lawmakers narrowly defeated a measure that would have imposed an outright ban on the use of hand-held cell phones or sending text messages from behind the wheel. The latest bill limits how many under-18 passengers a junior
driver can transport and increases training requirements for teen drivers. The youngest drivers would be prohibited from driving while talking on cell phone, unless they're calling 511 or 911.

US Steel posts 1Q loss as demand drops
PITTSBURGH (AP) - United States Steel Corp. says it lost $439 million in the first quarter as the recession pinched demand for the metal. The nation's largest steel producer says it lost $3.78 per share. That compares with a gain of $235 million, or $1.98 per share, a year ago.
Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel says sales fell nearly by half to $2.75 billion. The company says it will offer more stock and debt and reduce its dividend to shore up its finances. It says lenders agreed to eliminate financial covenants from loans. And it's cutting capital spending. The steel industry has been hit especially hard by the global economic meltdown, which has undercut demand and prices for the metal used in everything from cars to office buildings.

Bishop asks for new trial based on love letters
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - A defrocked Episcopal bishop in Pennsylvania is asking a religious court for another trial based on newly discovered love letters related to his case. Charles E. Bennison Jr. was deposed last year after a church trial in Philadelphia found he covered up his brother's sexual assaults of a teenage girl in the 1970s. Bennison's lawyers now say a cache of more than 200 letters between the victim and Bennison's brother contradicts witness testimony at the trial. The attorneys also argue the letters show the victim tried to hide the relationship, making it hard for the bishop to intervene. The motion, made public Monday, asks for the charges to be
dropped or for a new trial. Church attorney Lawrence White declined comment.

4 Penn St. students busted in alleged drug ring
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Four Penn State students are charged with being part of a million-dollar drug ring. State Attorney General Tom Corbett says 23-year-old student Paul Spara of Ruffs Dale bought more than 400 pounds of marijuana from a New York resident to supply current and former students. Investigators say Spara bought 10 to 50 pounds of marijuana a
week from Jason Remington of Saquoit, N.Y., and sold some to fraternity members who in turn sold to other students. Spara is charged with 13 counts of possession with intent to deliver while Remington faces four counts. They both face conspiracy and other charges. It could not immediately be determined if the men had attorneys.

Ex-head of defense contractor Gichner gets 1 year
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A former executive of a south-central Pennsylvania company that makes shelters for the U.S. military is facing a year in federal prison after his sentencing on fraud charges. Charles Atwood II was sentenced Monday in Harrisburg federal court. He was also ordered to pay $294,000 in restitution. The 62-year-old Pompano Beach, Fla., man pleaded guilty in December to having Dallastown-based Gichner Shelter Systems Inc. file false contract documents with the U.S. Defense Department from 1997 to 2004. At issue was his failure to reveal his financial relationship with a company that marketed Gichner's products.
Defense attorney Fritz Ulrich says Atwood will probably appeal how his sentence was fashioned under the federal guidelines.

W.Pa. oral surgeon on trial for 17 sexual assaults
MOUNT LEBANON, Pa. (AP) - A trial has begun for a western Pennsylvania oral surgeon accused of sexually assaulting 17 female patients. The defense for 44-year-old Dr. Robert Boyda Jr. says the women suffered from hallucinations caused by propofol, an anesthetic used
ahead of surgery. The defense says the drug is known to cause vivid sexual dreams. Boyda has been charged with several counts of sexual assault and related charges. Initially, he was accused of assaulting 20 women, but three cases were dropped at the start of the trial on Monday
because the statute of limitations had expired. Prosecutors put a victim on the witness stand on Monday. They say they will also have two of Boyda's former assistants testify they witnessed some incidents.

Philadelphia police computer system to get upgrade
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Plans are in the works to improve Philadelphia's problem plagued police radio system. The computerized system is used by 911 operators to sort emergency calls and dispatch information to police on the street. Police and firefighters say the system suffers from intermittent outages that can compromise their safety. Deputy public property commissioner Frank Punzo said Thursday that a multimillion-dollar upgrade includes portable "repeater"
devices that will enhance and extend the digital radio signal, even underground. Also in the works is a major upgrade of software used to control the entire radio system. Mayor Michael Nutter's administration has estimated that the upgrades would cost about $40 million.

Trial begins in Pa. fake murder-suicide case
READING, Pa. (AP) - Jury selection is under way for an eastern Pennsylvania man accused of killing his former girlfriend and her 5-year-old daughter and trying to make it look like a
murder-suicide. Prosecutors say 28-year-old Albert Perez killed Duceliz Diaz-Santiago and her daughter, Kayla, in Jan. 2007 and hanged their bodies to cover up the crime. Investigators say Diaz-Santiago was hanged with an electrical cord in a closet and her daughter was hanged from a bathroom towel rack. According to court documents Perez told investigators he killed Diaz-Santiago but said Kayla was killed by her mother. Jury selection started Monday and could last a week or more. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Pa. trooper details struggle before suspect killed
GREENSBURG, Pa. (AP) - A sheriff's deputy in western Pennsylvania says he had an intense, terrifying struggle with a homicide suspect before the fugitive was fatally shot. Deputy Ronald Stokes testified at a coroner's inquest Monday in Westmoreland County, an area about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Stokes says 25-year-old Leroy Harris shot him in the leg. Stokes
also fired at Harris, who was wanted for two 2007 murders in McKeesport. Stokes says Harris refused to heed calls to drop his weapon and the gunbattle began. After Stokes and Harris were shot, the deputy says they both were on the ground trying to reach their weapons. Stokes says he recovered his gun first, and fired more than a dozen rounds. Other officers also fired their weapons at Harris.

Fate of Philly bike race postponed until Tuesday
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Organizers of the TD Bank Philadelphia Cycling Championship are waiting an extra day before deciding the fate of the financially troubled race. Event co-founder Dave Chauner says his group has been able to raise only $100,000 of the $500,000 needed to close a budget gap. Chauner had set a deadline of 5 p.m. Monday for deciding whether to hold the event on June 7. He now says he's meeting with a potential benefactor Tuesday about funding the race. He says a decision will be made after that meeting. The race, which runs from downtown Philadelphia to the Manayunk section of the city, has been held every year since 1985.

Harrisburg's Civil War Museum links to Smithsonian
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg is now an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The designation will allow the museum greater access to the collections and educational resources of the Smithsonian. The National Civil War Museum opened in 2001. Among its more than 24,000 artifacts are Gen. Robert E. Lee's Bible and the Confederate flag that flew over Fort Sumter. The museum's collection is worth an estimated $20 million.


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