Friday, November 21, 2014

A Family Tragedy - "Shock, Confusion, Grief"

Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.


     Prosecutors called it "a bloody massacre."
     The March 5, 2011, brutal murders of 70-year-old Joseph C. McAndrew, his wife, 64-year-old Susan C. McAndrew, and their son, 23-year-old James McAndrew, in the family's Holstein Road home in Upper Merion stunned the local community. The arrest of the couple's other son, Joseph Jr., sent additional shockwaves through the community.
Convicted killer Joseph McAndrew Jr./Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     "He snuffed out the lives of three people who were wonderful people who were having great impacts in their community and that's the tragedy of what occurred," Montgomery County First Assistant District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said this week when Joseph McAndrew Jr., 27, was sentenced to three consecutive life prison terms after he was found guilty but mentally ill of three counts of first-degree murder.
     "The family is devastated by what happened. The far-reaching impacts of what occurred are unimaginable," Steele added, referring to the grief suffered by the victims' relatives.
     That grief, that loss, was palpatable in the courtroom when Steele, with a sorrowful tone in his voice, read to Judge Gary S. Silow a heart-wrenching letter written by the killer's half-sisters, who are the daughters of the elder, slain McAndrew. You could have heard a pin drop in the courtroom as deep sadness flowed from the pages of the victim impact statement and was soaked in by all who listened. One could not help but be moved by the revealing, candid words.
   

Montco First Asst. DA Kevin Steele & co-prosecutor Kathleen McLaughlin
Excerpts of the McAndrew family's victim impact statement appeared in daily newspaper accounts about the sentencing hearing. However, because of limited space in daily papers, the entirety of the statement could not be included in the typical news accounts. So I am sharing the poignant statement, as read in open court to Judge Silow, to provide readers with a better understanding of the confusion and anguish suffered by those in the wake of such an unimaginable tragedy.


Honorable Judge Silow:

This statement is being made on behalf of Joseph McAndrew Sr.'s daughters and their husbands.

There are no words that can adequately describe the full impact of the horrific actions that took place during the evening of March 5, 2011. Those actions abruptly altered the path of our lives forever. The past three and half years have been filled with shock, confusion, disbelief, grief, depression, anger and anxiety. Everything we thought we understood in our lives, had to be reexamined. Simple things in life became great challenges, for example:
  • being able to go alone into the basement at night
  • having dinner in a restaurant and not anxiously be watching the door to make sure the defendant isn't entering
  • focusing on the blessings in life, when all you want to do is cry
We had to rebuild our confidence in the things that most people take for granted everyday; all while trying to deal with and accept the loss of our dearest loved ones, Joe Sr., Sue, and Jimmy. We know life is not easy, but no family should have to go on the path we have encountered and will continue to encounter.
  • The defendant didn't have to go through and clean out the home, which was once filled with so many wonderful memories, but now stands as an awful reminder of the tragic actions that took place.
  • The defendant will not have to explain to our children why they won't be able to see their Nana, Pop Pop McAndrew or their Uncle Jimmy.
There is absolutely no justifiable reason for the actions that resulted in the loss of our father, mother and brother. Those actions can only be accounted for by true evil, nothing else.

By the grace of God, our family has begun picking up the pieces. We continue to pray that God will work in our hearts to be able to forgive the defendant for this horrific act. However, we will never forget what happened by the hands of the defendant.

Your Honor, while this victim impact statement conveys some of the impact of the defendant's actions to our lives, this statement isn't really about us. If it were, we would have elected not to make a statement. This statement is really about our obligation to confront evil. This obligation requires us to give you some insight into the far reaching, long lasting effects of that night that are beyond the scope of this trial. In doing so, we encourage you to sentence the defendant to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. It is imperative that the defendant never again has the opportunity to harm another person.

Sincerely,
The McAndrew Family

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Swinehart Murder Still a Fascinating Tale

 


     It's a crime that has stayed alive in the minds of many Pottstown-area residents. The January 1982 murder of 44-year-old Pottstown real estate magnate David Swinehart ranks as one of the infamous stories that grabbed headlines in the region for more than 14 years in the 1980s and 1990s. The tale of greed, sex and conspiracy that ended with Swinehart being smashed over the head with a baseball bat and stabbed 14 times became known in local circles as the "Crime of the Decade."
     Interest in the crime continues to this day.
     Indeed, at 9 p.m. tonight former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr., now a county commissioner, will be featured prominently on Investigation Discovery Channel when the network airs a program that examines the Swinehart murder and the subsequent trials related to the crime, according to county spokesman Frank X. Custer. Castor prosecuted three of the five defendants charged in the case.
David Swinehart...killed January 1982
     Castor’s appearance tonight marks the fifth case involving Castor that Investigation Discovery has profiled in recent years., Custer said.
     I remember the Swinehart case well as it was the focus of much of my time when I took over the county courthouse beat for The Mercury in 1991. I had a front-row seat to all the drama that unfolded.
     Swinehart, trial testimony revealed, was stabbed and beaten to death with a baseball bat as he left his home in the 200 block of Maugers Mill Road in Upper Pottsgrove on Jan. 15, 1982. Swinehart and his wife, Patricia Ann, were estranged at the time and Mr. Swinehart had been visiting his four children who ranged in age at that time from 6 to 17, according to testimony.
     Prosecutors alleged Patricia Swinehart conspired with Thomas and Jeffrey DeBlase, her nephews through marriage, to kill her husband in order to collect more than a half-million dollars in life insurance money and so the socialite could continue her sexual affair with Thomas, then a handsome 24-year-old construction worker and former Pottstown High School quarterback.

Patricia Swinehart/Mercury file photo
    Patty Swinehart denied ever asking either of her nephews to kill her husband and she was acquitted by a jury of murder charges during a high-profile trial that lasted several weeks in January and February 1994. The DeBlase brothers were both convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the death of their uncle.
    When Patty Swinehart and Thomas DeBlase, for the first time in many years, came face-to-face in court during Thomas’ trial in 1996, she forced to testify against her ex-lover and about their affair, there wasn’t an empty seat in the courtroom.
     For a brief time, soap opera took over a court of law.







The Mercury/ Dec. 31,1989
     Following is a brief synopsis of the case, compiled from The Mercury’s vault:
     Jeffrey DeBlase, now 57, was convicted in 1985 of first-degree murder in connection with the slaying of his uncle. Sentenced to life in prison, Jeffrey DeBlase is currently housed at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, Huntingdon County, according to court records.
     Jeffrey DeBlase was the first of five defendants to stand trial for the murder.


The Mercury/ Feb. 3, 1996
     DeBlase’s brother, Thomas, Swinehart’s wife, Patricia, and two other Pottstown area men, Terry Lee Maute and Arthur Hall, also were charged with taking part in one of Pottstown’s most notorious crimes.
     Prosecutors called the case a “contract killing,” alleging Patricia Swinehart conspired with her nephews and Maute to kill her husband. The motive, authorities alleged, was to collect $523,000 in life insurance money and to allow Mrs. Swinehart and Thomas DeBlase to continue their sexual affair. The DeBlase brothers were Mrs. Swinehart’s nephews through marriage.
     Thomas DeBlase, now 56, was convicted Feb. 2, 1996, of first-degree murder and is serving a life prison sentence at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township in Northumberland County.
     Patricia Swinehart, who would be72 now, was arrested July 28, 1993, more than 11 years after her husband's killing. At the time, prosecutors said the arrest came after they uncovered new information about the case. She was acquitted of all murder charges in February 1994 during an emotional trial at which she was represented by veteran criminal defense lawyer Frank DeSimone. She denied any involvement in the killing.
     Maute, who would be 66 now, was acquitted of murder charges in 1985. However, he was sentenced to a 20- to 64-year jail term on unrelated forgery and theft charges.
     Hall, who would be 65 now, pleaded guilty to robbery charges in connection with the crime and served a 29- to 59-month county jail term.
 
I will be interested to see what Castor has to say tonight during the national television program that examines the case.
 
    


                                   

Monday, October 20, 2014

Montco's Marge Cesare keeps 'Hope Afloat'

    
     Marge Cesare, first deputy of Montgomery County's Jury Selection Board, will be celebrating life and raising awareness about breast cancer when she participates in the 2014 International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission (IBCPC) Dragon Boat Festival in Florida later this week. Cesare, 62, who has worked for the jury board 13 years, is a member of the Philadelphia-based dragon boat team, "Hope Afloat USA."
     "I'm a 14-year breast cancer survivor and I joined this team two years ago. It's the best move I ever made, actually. The camaraderie there, everyone on the boat is a breast cancer survivor, so there is a lot of understanding," Cesare said as she prepared to head to the Sarasota area on Oct. 24 to take part in the competition. "The people are beautiful people."
     Cesare said a relative who also is on the team approached her two years ago and said, "You've got to try this."
     "I tried it and instantly loved it," said Cesare, who has competed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont with the team, one of several that represent Philadelphia. "We were in five races this year and took home a medal in every race."
     The team, last month, won a Gold Medal in Cape May at the Cape May Dragon Boat Festival.
     Cesare, one of 20 paddlers on the boat, said she enjoys being on the water and the thrill of the competition.
     "Oh, it's a rush. It's just a rush," Cesare, of West Norriton, smiled brightly. "You're nervous once you first get out there. Once you start, you're so in the zone you can't hear anything around you except the drummer on the boat telling you what to do. It's exciting and the adrenalin is flowing."
Marge Cesare, first deputy of Montgomery County Jury Selection Board, wearing her team jacket.
Photo courtesy of Marge Cesare
     With the competition comes a lot of personal fulfillment, Cesare said.
     "You just feel so honored to be on a team like this, so lucky to be on a team like this and have these friends," said Cesare, a mother of two and grandmother of four. "You grow to love these people. They become your second family. I'm so humbled being on that team."
     About 3,000 breast cancer survivors and supporters from all over the world are expected to participate in the event, according to organizers. The festival marks the first time that international teams have competed in the U.S. Teams from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Italy and New Zealand are expected to participate in the event.
     "Our team is excited this event is being held in the USA and we are eager to head to Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota to paddle," Peg Schofield, president of the group, said in a news release. "Being part of this world-class event at a world-class rowing venue is simply joyful. It enables us all to put our fears behind us and paddle forward to celebrate life."
     The festival kicks off Friday, Oct. 24, with pre-race events that will include training sessions, educational forums and social activities focusing on breast cancer awareness, wellness and healthy lifestyles. Race days are Oct. 25 and Oct. 26.
     The IBCPC is an international not for profit organization whose mandate is to create positive, proactive breast health awareness through the development and support of recreational dragon boat paddling teams within the framework of participation and inclusiveness. The organization promotes a healthy, active lifestyle and provides organized opportunities for physical fitness and wellness education among breast cancer survivors and their supporters, according to its website. For more information visit www.ibcpc.com
     Kudos to Marge for raising awareness and for celebrating life.
     I'm sure her courthouse family wishes her much success and is cheering her on.


    

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Remembering Shirley

     Those passing through the hallways of the Montgomery County Courthouse at lunchtime during the last several months noticed a void. The chair, regularly  occupied by Shirley Jane Dilliplane, of Pottstown, sat empty while she reportedly recovered from an illness.
Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     "Where's Shirley?" many concerned courthouse employees often were heard saying as they strolled past the chair on the courthouse plaza level where Shirley, 52, sat each day on her lunch break, between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m., crocheting blankets and joking with fellow employees she had come to know during her 28 years working for the county as an accounts payable clerk.
     Shirley's laughter and sense of humor were a constant, day-in-and-day-out, at that location, and courthouse visitors noticed when she was not there. I, on many occasions, was witness to the strong-willed, friendly woman speaking her mind, and she would often have a comment about the tie I wore on any particular day. Many in the courthouse family would stop and chat with her about her latest blanket creation.
     Sadly, word came on Sept. 22 that Shirley, a 1980 graduate of Pottstown Area High School, had passed away.
    
Memorial to Shirley Jane Dilliplane
     In the days that followed, some employees who knew the longtime county worker created a memorial, in the chair considered Shirley's. The memorial began with a flier, attached to the chair, announcing Shirley's funeral details. But soon, another employee added a floral tribute and then another added a crocheted blanket, gently draping it over the arm of the wooden chair. Finally, a photo of a smiling Shirley was placed on the wall behind the chair.
     "We saw her every day. She used to sit in her same place. We saw her knitting every day. She always talked to everybody," recalled Lisa Blake, a courthouse employee who often talked with Shirley. "She had a sense of humor, funny, and was always nice to everybody."
     "She liked to joke with me about Christmas because I hated Christmas. She likes it and I hate it and she'd put things on my Facebook page a lot," Blake laughed.
     In addition to crocheting blankets for relatives and friends, Shirley, a daughter of Marie A. (Garner) and the late Richard E. Dilliplane, also loved to read, attended Allentown School of Business and obtained an associate degree in accounting. In addition to her mother, Shirley is survived by a brother, a sister and numerous nieces and nephews, many of whom she would often mention with love and laughter during her conversations with others.
     Those who took the time to create the memorial for Shirley exhibited a special kindness. I'm sure your thoughtfulness was appreciated by many.
     "I tell God to tell her, 'Hi,'" Blake said.
     Rest in peace, Shirley. You will be missed.

In Memory of Shirley Jane Dilliplane

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Mother's Tears and a Letter of Grief

     You could have heard a pin drop last week in a Montgomery County courtroom when a mother's anguished words, read by a prosecutor to a judge, filled the courtroom where one of the men responsible for her son's murder was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
    Gloria Watson's grief was palpable.
    While Watson, of New York, was not able to join other relatives in the courtroom on that day, Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Strubel read a victim impact letter penned by Watson, whose son, Vincent Taylor, also known as Victor Baez, was gunned down outside a Pottstown bar on March 22, 2013. With each word uttered, the eyes of some of Taylor's relatives shed another tear.
     The entirety of Watson's heartbreaking letter could not be included in a typical news account of the day's events. So, I thought I would share all of those sorrowful words here to give readers a better understanding of the pain that is suffered by those left in the wake of the tragedy of murder.

"To whom it may concern,

     Where do I start? This is the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life. My eldest son, Vincent Taylor, was murdered on March 22, 2013. Everything in my life changed that very moment I got the news. I have not been the same since.
     I have cried every day since that day. Every time I remember him I cry. If he was sick for a long time I would have at least had time to prepare myself that may be, may be he could die. How does a mother accept the death of her child? You bond with that child from the womb and see that child growing up and becoming a man, only to lose him so senselessly.
     An empty void has been left in my heart that will never ever be filled. There was only one Vincent and to me he was everything. He loved life and loved having fun.
     To you who murdered my son, I say to you, you did not only put my son in the grave, but the family who loved him and cared for him, our lives have changed also. I don't imagine that you even gave thought that your life would have changed too. The only difference is you are still alive and if you have a family they can still come and talk to you, but you are obviously dead inside to yourself and to the world for you have committed murder.
     Your life has changed also from that moment because you will no longer have a freedom to make something of yourself, but that your every dignity will be taken away from you and you will now become part of a world of an animal and to be caged. I hope you will have that time to experience all the indignities that you switched your very life for.
     May God have mercy on your soul." - Gloria Watson

     (NOTE: Michael Romain Hinton, 27, of Norristown, was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to a mandatory life sentence for his role in Vincent Taylor's death. Hinton's cousin, Maurice Laverne Andrews Jr., 20, of Pottstown, was convicted of third-degree murder in connection with the slaying and is scheduled to be sentenced next month.)

Friday, September 19, 2014

New Guidelines for District Court Judges

                                                                 
   The 30 magisterial district judges, or as I still call them district court judges, in Montgomery County now have new guidelines to govern their actions while on the bench and outside the courtroom.
    According to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, the policies are part of a revised version of the Rules Governing Standards of Conduct of Magisterial District Judges that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued this week. The new rules take effect Dec. 1.
    The guidelines are designed to bring greater clarity to rules affecting the conduct of Pennsylvania's district court judges, rules that have not changed significantly in 40 years, officials said. The guidelines complement a similar rules overhaul approved earlier this year applicable to conduct standards for trial and appellate judges that had been in place without revision since 1973, according to a press release from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
  
     The new set of rules for district court judges mirror many of the rules for trial and appellate judges that took effect last month. Much of the updating was based on language used in a model judicial code adopted by the American Bar Association and guidelines used in other states.
    "We are fully committed to maintaining the public's trust and confidence in the judicial system," Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Ronald D. Castille said. "These updates help enhance the integrity of our court system so its fairness can remain beyond question."
    The rules differ from the recently adopted rules for other judges in Pennsylvania because district court judges are not required to have a law degree and they may have outside employment that does not conflict with their judicial duties, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
    Judges who violate the rules can be suspended or removed from office. A judicial disciplinary process laid out in the state constitution provides for an independent agency - the Judicial Conduct Board - to investigate misconduct complaints about judges and prosecute misconduct violations when appropriate.
    There are a total of 526 district court judges statewide, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
    The new code of conduct essentially consists of four canons that discuss judicial ethics. They are:

     CANON 1 - A MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE SHALL UPHOLD AND PROMOTE THE INDEPENDENCE, INTEGRITY, AND IMPARTIALITY OF THE JUDICIARY, AND SHALL AVOID IMPROPRIETY AND THE APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY.

     CANON 2 - A MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE SHALL PERFORM THE DUTIES OF JUDICIAL OFFICE IMPARTIALLY, COMPETENTLY AND DILIGENTLY.

    CANON 3 - A MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE SHALL CONDUCT THE MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE'S PERSONAL AND EXTRAJUDICIAL ACTIVITIES TO MINIMIZE THE RISK OF CONFLICT WITH THE OBLIGATIONS OF JUDICIAL OFFICE.
 
   CANON 4 - A MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE OR CANDIDATE FOR JUDICIAL OFFICE SHALL NOT ENGAGE IN POLITICAL OR CAMPAIGN ACTIVITY THAT IS INCONSISTENT WITH THE INDEPENDENCE, INTEGRITY, OR IMPARTIALITY OF THE JUDICIARY.

    To view a complete list of the rules and for more information about the Code of Conduct readers can visit The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania's website at www.PACourts.us













Friday, September 5, 2014

Pottstown native Nicholas Reifsnyder is moving on...


     Pottstown-area native and Hill School graduate Nicholas Reifsnyder, who worked in the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office for more than seven years, first as a summer intern while in law school and later as an assistant prosecutor, is moving on to a new challenge. Reifsnyder is joining the law practice of James P. Lyons in Maple Glen where he will concentrate on criminal defense work.
     "He's a local defense attorney and he's one of the best we have so it's an honor and a privilege to be working with him," Reifsnyder said recently as he prepared to leave the DA's office.
     Reifsnyder rose through the ranks as a prosecutor, working his way from the pre-trial division to the economic crimes unit, to the drug unit and then was promoted to the major crimes unit where he was captain of the elder abuse division. Reifsnyder summed up his time as a prosecutor as "fantastic."
     "It's a great place to work. You're working with very bright and very talented people, people who really believe in what they do. The bosses are great people to work for," said Reifsnyder, referring to District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, First Assistant District Attorney Kevin R. Steele and Deputy District Attorney Thomas McGoldrick. "All-in-all it was a magnificent experience and I wouldn't trade these last seven years for the world."
     Reifsnyder was born in N.J. but his parents moved to the Pottstown area when he was in the second grade and he attended local public schools and also attended St. Aloysius Catholic school. He is a 2000 graduate of The Hill School. He completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard University and graduated from Temple University Law School.
Nicholas Reifsnyder on his last day as a Montco prosecutor. Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     Those he worked with in the office praised Reifsnyder for his legal acumen and friendly nature.
     "He was someone who was diligent. He was intelligent, he spotted issues. He was someone that the younger people counted on to go to for advice and he will be missed," said Assistant District Attorney Jason Whalley, who worked with Reifsnyder on the drug unit and considers him a friend. "He understood the issues, he prepared and was a good teammate when we were both on the same unit."
     Fellow prosecutor Jordan Friter, who leads the district attorney's sex crimes unit, recalled he and Reifsnyder began their jobs as prosecutors on the same day.
     "Nick is one of the smartest people I have ever had the opportunity to work with. We always bust his chops about going to Harvard," Friter joked. "He keeps the mood of the office light all the time and we're going to miss him a lot."
     Friter said it will be "strange" to appear against Reifsnyder in a courtroom battle.
     "It is strange. When you come into the office you never think about that actually happening but now it's a reality and he's got a job to do and I look forward to going against him," Friter added.
     At the notion of going up against his former colleagues, Reifsnyder said, "Everyone's got a job to do. They have a job to do. I'm going to have a job to do and one of the good things about the people in the office is they don't tend to take things personally. They understand that the defense bar has a job to do just like they do. It might be a little bit weird at first but I think that that will disappear pretty quickly."
     Prosecutor Kathleen Colgan recalled she was a certified legal intern in the office when Reifsnyder accompanied her during her very first court appearance.
     "Nick is a brilliant attorney and I've learned an immeasurable amount by working with him," Colgan said. "Nick has a brilliant legal mind and he had the ability to explain complicated nuances of the law to an intern in a way that I was able to understand it as a very young attorney. He's continued to be a mentor to me."
     Others had this to say as Reifsnyder said his farewells to the office.
     "Nick Reifsnyder was a huge asset to our office and we're definitely going to miss him," said Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden. "He was an excellent prosecutor, very passionate about his cases."
     "Nick was a great guy to work with and he was always willing to help out with a case," added prosecutor Laura Adshead.
    "Nick was a tremendous prosecutor who demonstrated an extraordinary knowledge of the law and was a powerful presence in the courtroom," said fellow prosecutor Jeremy Abidiwan-Lupo.
     Several years ago, Reifsnyder helped prosecute a Pottstown merchant who sold synthetic marijuana from his downtown convenience store, a crime that ended in a state prison term for the store owner. The prosecution of the store owner and a business associate were an outgrowth of the investigation of a May 2012 double-fatal wreck on State Street in Pottstown during which the driver of the vehicle was driving under the influence of synthetic pot, known as K2, which had been purchased at the store.
     That prosecution marked the first time that a store operator was charged in the county with selling K2 under a state law that went into effect in August 2011 and criminalized such activity.
     "It was a privilege," Reifsnyder said, to participate in that important prosecution.
     Ironically, one of Reifsnyder's legal foes during that case was Lyons.
     "It's a new challenge," Reifsnyder said about his decision to turn to criminal defense work. "I'm looking forward to being able to make sure that people are getting fair trials. You've got to put the commonwealth's evidence to the test. I hope to give the people that I represent the best representation that I possibly can."
     From a personal standpoint, Reifsnyder was always available for press questions and never tried to dodge the press while his cases played out in court. And he always treated reporters with respect, understanding we have a job to do too.
     I look forward to reporting about Reifsnyder's defense career.
     Congratulations, Nick. Best of luck.