Unsolved killings going to Fayette County trial

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Date: 2002-01-01

Unsolved killings going to Fayette County trial

Matthew Junker
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Tuesday, January 1, 2002

Fayette County prosecutors face a new year of homicide trials involving cases past and present.

Informants, plus new methods of processing evidence, helped police to arrest defendants they say are responsible for four unsolved killings years ago.

Six other defendants face prosecution for more recent murders, ranging from a brutal stabbing to a fight at a house party that left one of the participants dead.

District Attorney Nancy Vernon said her office is ready for another year of prosecuting those charged with the crimes.

"We're busily preparing to try these cases," she said.

One of the first homicide cases due to be tried involves Roberta F. Gillin, 51, of Masontown.

She allegedly did nothing to stop her husband, James Gillin, from stomping to death their 25-year-old daughter, Helen, in 1992 and burning her corpse to conceal the crime.

State police at the Uniontown "cold case" squad arrested the Gillins after a family friend alerted them to a possible crime.

Roberta Gillin will face possibly life in prison, even though she aided police in the successful prosecution of her husband.

Witnesses testified that Roberta Gillin was upset because her husband was having sex with their adopted daughter and prodded him to "do something" about her.

A witness said Roberta Gillin fed the victim a toxic mixture containing rat poison and laundry detergent. After she began vomiting, James Gillin jumped on Helen Gillin's chest as she gasped for breath.

James Gillin was found guilty of first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse. He was sentenced Jan. 19, 2001, to life in prison, plus five to 14 years.

After the trial, Roberta Gillin attempted to plead guilty twice. The first plea, to charges of criminal conspiracy and abuse of a corpse, was rejected by Fayette County Judge Conrad Capuzzi.

She then entered a general plea of guilty to third-degree murder charges on March 5, 2001, before Judge Gerald R. Solomon. But she reconsidered less than an hour before her sentencing hearing.

Under that plea agreement, Roberta Gillin would have faced a maximum of 10 to 20 years in prison.

After the second plea was withdrawn, Vernon said she would seek a first-degree murder conviction.

Gillin remains free on a $25,000 bond, awaiting trial.

A second case handled by the "cold case" squad involves the brutal 1978 killing of Linda Mae Covach.

Vernon is seeking the death penalty against James F. "Silky" Sullivan, 54, of East Second Street, Grindstone, because of the severe beating Covach endured before she died on Oct. 31, 1978.

About 9:30 p.m., police contend, Sullivan drove Covach down a rural lane on sportsmen's club property, pulled her from the car, raped her, then beat her to death with a 12-inch-long metal pipe.

Sullivan was arrested for the killing in prison, where he was serving time for a parole violation stemming from a 1987 murder conviction. In that case, Sullivan kicked and beat Charles Wheeler of Uniontown to death in a secluded area of Jefferson Township.

He was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison.

That conviction made the arrest for Covach's killing possible. While he was serving time, Sullivan's blood was drawn and his DNA profile was added to a "DNA bank" of violent felony offenders.

The genetic profile allowed police to develop a case that led to Sullivan's arrest for the Covach murder. Sullivan is awaiting trial in prison, and Vernon said it could begin as soon as March.

A third "cold case" investigation led to the pending homicide trial of Gerald E. Powell.

Powell, 34, of Connellsville Township is charged in the shooting deaths of Edward and Karen Marie Povlik, whose bodies were found in their Broadford home on Jan. 1, 1996.

Vernon said she will seek the death penalty against Powell because two people were killed. The Povliks were found shot nine times on New Year's morning after throwing a party to ring in the year.

Police say the couple sold illicit narcotics.

While Powell was in prison awaiting trial, an alleged co-conspirator was found not guilty of the homicides in July. That man - David J. Robertson Jr., 35, of Lehigh Acres, Fla. - was convicted of two counts of conspiracy to commit the homicides. He was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison.

According to prosecution witnesses in the trial against Robertson, he identified Powell as the triggerman.

Powell has asked that charges against him be dismissed because a possible alibi witness has died since the killings. He is in prison awaiting a decision on that request.

Yet another "cold case" investigation led to the upcoming trial of Bernard Lewis Richardson III, 22, of 89 Grant St., Uniontown. That case could go before jurors as soon as February, Vernon said.

Richardson is accused in the May 25, 1997, shooting of Stephanie S. Steinberger, 24, who lived at 57 Lemon Wood Acres in North Union Township.

State police at Uniontown said Steinberger was locking her apartment door about 1:20 a.m. when she was fatally shot. A friend, Michael Dennis, 17, of Gibbon Glade was injured in the assault.

Police said Dennis had been slashed with a knife at a party in the housing complex about 20 minutes before the shooting.

Informants made the arrest possible, Vernon said.

The district attorney also is expected to prosecute alleged perpetrators of five more current killings, including the October stabbing of Christopher "Bubby" Kiss of Uniontown.

Nathaniel L. Stites Jr., 24, of 397 E. Main St., Uniontown, allegedly purchased crack cocaine from Kiss, then returned and stabbed Kiss more than 40 times. Police found the victim stripped naked in a pool of his own blood.

Stites told police he went to the Kiss residence to buy cocaine. He claims Kiss attacked him first, pushing him to the ground and getting on top of him.

"It just got bad. ... I don't remember cutting him," Stites said in an interview taped by Uniontown police.

Stites remains in the Fayette County Prison pending trial.

Another Uniontown stabbing is making its way toward trial as well.

Bruce A. Long, 44, is accused of stabbing his longtime roommate Walter Raymond Smith, 46, on March 21 in the apartment they shared at 30 Reppert Blvd. in Uniontown.

Police said the men had been involved in a previous knifing incident. On July 31, 2000, Smith was stabbed in the right shoulder; Long was arrested and charged with aggravated and simple assault.

Smith later refused to testify against his friend, and the case was dropped.

Long is awaiting trial in the county prison.

Vernon's office also must prosecute a retrial awarded by the state Superior Court.

Franklin J. Weimer, 33, of Hopwood was convicted of third-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child for allegedly using a shower brush to beat Zachary Johnson, 2, to death.

Zachary, the son of Weimer's live-in girlfriend, Julie Johnson, was left in Weimer's care while his mother worked on Jan. 24, 1998. The boy died two days later.

Weimer was sentenced to 22 years to 45 years in prison.

In June 2000, the state Superior Court vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial.

The Superior Court ruled that Fayette County Judge Gerald R. Solomon erred in not allowing a defense expert testify that the child's injuries could have been caused by Weimer playfully swinging him in the air, then striking a table leg with the boy's head.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht ruled the toddler died from blunt-force trauma inflicted with the wooden shower brush.

Weimer is free while awaiting trial.

An argument that allegedly escalated into a fatal fight late last year has yet to make it to a preliminary hearing.

Herbert Carl Herrington, 24, of 191 Cagey School Road, Point Marion, is accused of stabbing to death Charles Edward Cramer, 28, of New Geneva, during a fight outside a party in Nov. 2001.

Herrington is awaiting his preliminary hearing without bond in prison.

Most recently, police charged two youths in a fatal shootout at a Fayette County public housing complex last week.

Antonio Lanko, 16, and David A. Sims, 31, both of Uniontown, were charged with second-degree murder Sunday.

Lanko, Sims and Charles L. Lendell, 28, of Uniontown, allegedly attempted to rob residents and visitors to an apartment at 104 Lemon Wood Acres at about 8:30 a.m. Dec. 29.

Lendell was killed during the alleged robbery. Lanko, who was shot during the exchange of gunfire, was treated at The Uniontown Hospital and released.

Lanko was charged as an adult.

Both Lanko and Sims were arraigned by District Justice Larry Rubish and remanded to prison in lieu of bail.

If convicted, Lanko and Sims face a mandatory life sentence.

Matthew Junker can be reached at mjunker@tribweb.com or 724-837-0240.

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