The following is something I intended to put out last year to update the public and give a sense of the workload we typically face in the District Attorney’s Office. I never had the chance. We were so busy with other cases, including several more murder trials, that the piece was never put out. Now with the pandemic hitting all of us, the courts closed for most things, and my office operating with a reduced staff and/or at home I thought it would be a good idea to put this out. It would be a shame for these cases to be forgotten.    

A Winter of Murder Trials

The following is something I intended to put out last year to update the public and give a sense of the workload we typically face in the District Attorney’s Office. I never had the chance. We were so busy with other cases, including several more murder trials, that the piece was never put out. Now with the pandemic hitting all of us, the courts closed for most things, and my office operating with a reduced staff and/or at home I thought it would be a good idea to put this out. It would be a shame for these cases to be forgotten.    

The winter of 2018 – 2019 was a busy one for me; murder trials, three of them.  But even before that, in the fall 2018, we had a horrific murder case we were intensely preparing for trial, Commonwealth vs Eric Jones. 

Commonwealth v. Eric Jones

Jones shot to death his girlfriend, Morgan McGee. The shooting took place in their own home in A Pocono Country Place. McGee had been shot twice; the first shot hit her in the chest. That shot happened in the child’s room, right in front of the kid, a one year old girl. The child was so close to her mother when Jones shot her that blood spattered onto the baby. 

After the first shot, Morgan tried to escape, she struggled down the hallway to the front door; bleeding from her wound, she left a bloody trail marking the route of her attempted escape. At the front door, as she grabbed the door knob, leaving bloody smudge marks on it, Jones brought her down to the floor, pointed his gun at her head, and fired a final time; execution-style, the bullet tore through the back of her right hand and into the side of her face.  

A neighbor heard Jones laughing in a mocking tone right before the second shot.  After that the neighbor recalled that everything became eerily quiet. The neighbor saw Jones hurriedly putting items into his car and then driving off. Interestingly, as he backed out of the driveway, he struck his garbage can, got out of the car and set the can upright before taking off. It was a very strong case and because the baby’s life was endangered; the body of her mother would not be discovered until hours later, we had sought the death penalty.

Jones is interviewed by Detective Sergeant Lucas Bray

On the day of jury selection Jones decided to plead no contest to Murder in the First Degree. We spoke with McGee’s family length, going over the pros and cons and they were agreeable. So we withdrew the death penalty and the court took the plea of murder in the first degree and sentenced Jones to the mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole. A fitting result for a horrible thing. 

I want to thank the the investigating team from the Pocono Mountain Regional Police, Detective Sergeant Lucas Bray and Detective John Bohrman for their hard work. Thanks also to Assistant District Attorney Cate Pirolli for valuable help in preparing for trial. Also Detective Sergeant Wendy Serfass, from our Criminal Investigations Division, who, as usual, provided an important contribution to the prosecution.

One of the heroes of the case was that neighbor who came forward when he didn’t have to, at some risk to his own personal safety, his courage was a good refreshing thing in such a terrible case.

Morgan McGee

Commonwealth v. Kyle Kresge

The first of the murders to go to trial was Commonwealth vs Kyle Kresge. 

On Valentine’s Day of 2017, Kresge shot and killed his friend, Larry Purcell. The shooting happened in Kresge’s own home in Effort, very near to the intersection of Route 115 and Gilbert Road. The case was going to be a jury trial in front of Judge Steve Higgins. But strangely, at the last minute, the defense gave up the right to jury trial and instead elected to have a bench trial in front of Judge Higgins. I’ve never had that happen before. I have prosecuted several bench trials, trials where a judge sits as a fact finder as a jury would, those cases all involved an understanding that the exposure of the defendant would be limited. Sometimes they’re called a “high/ low trial”.  For example, the ‘high’ could be a conviction of murder in the third degree, with the ‘low’ being manslaughter. But this case was different; here the defense wanted the judge to be the jury, with the result being anything from not guilty to guilty of first-degree murder. The defendant rejected our offer for him to plead guilty to third-degree murder. So instead of presenting the case in front of a jury, Judge Higgins literally became judge and jury.

I’ve learned that you always have to be flexible, so with a new audience to work in front of, that is Judge Higgins, I modified the presentation of the evidence to bring into focus the legal issues in a more “lawyer-ly” way. The defense also presented a lot of legal analysis in their presentation. Judge Higgins was himself caught off guard by his new status as fact finder and no doubt carefully evaluated the evidence and the law being presented during the trial. The judge had to comb through difficult questions. 

First, whether the witnesses were truthful or credible, which is something that all jurors must do. But here the witnesses were under the influence of drugs at the time of the killing. When that happens, which is not uncommon, you always have to look at the physical evidence, stuff that can’t lie, forget or become confused; that type of evidence is a great way to measure whether a witness should be believed.  In the Kresge case there was a lot of that evidence. There was a surveillance tape from a nearby convenience store which gave us the time the victim left the store and went to Kresge’s house, which was only a minute away. It also gave us the time that Kresge took off upon initially seeing the victim pull up the driveway. And then, about 45 minutes later, it showed us Kresge coming back to the scene. 

There was a lot of ballistics evidence. Corporal Joseph Gober of the Pennsylvania State Police did an excellent job in performing what is called ‘range of fire’ testing on the shirt that the victim was wearing. He compared the gunshot residue found on the victim’s shirt with gunshot residue patterns he made by shooting into cloth targets at varying distances. His range of fire estimate coincided with the testimony of the witnesses. Kyle Kresge killed Larry Purcell from several feet away.

Kresge on his way to PSP Fern Ridge

The judge also had to weigh potential defenses, defenses which we had to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt.  There were several possible defenses, including self-defense, the stand-your-ground law, and the castle doctrine. These defenses are, oftentimes, difficult to understand and apply. In fact, one of the main complaints I get from jurors is how difficult some of the jury instructions actually are. The complex instructions involving self-defense are no exception. Sometimes it helps to try to boil down concepts like self-defense into basic emotions. With self defense there has to be fear. If a defendant’s actions do not seem to be based in fear; a fear for his own life, a compelling or immediate fear, but instead his actions seem motivated more out of malice, or coldness, or an anger, then self defense shouldn’t be found to exist. 

Mr. Kresge’s acts showed malice, an intent to kill, anger, but not fear. 

First, he left his house as soon as Mr. Purcell arrived. He was gone for almost an hour. Instead of going to the police or calling for help he came back with a gun and he immediately used it to kill. He shot Larry from several feet away right in the center of his chest.  Larry never had a chance. After he shot Larry and as Larry lay dying, Kresge never called 911; in fact he tried to keep others from calling 911. He also took steps to remove the body from his house, strip it down so that it was nearly naked, and piled trash and debris on it. He also buried the gun in his yard. These were not the actions of a man in fear for his life.

In the end, the judge found Kyle Kresge guilty of murder in the third degree, ruling that he did not act in self-defense or even under the heat of passion, but rather killed Larry Purcell with malice. 

Mr. Kresge, is no stranger to the criminal justice system. Judge Higgins has sentenced him to state prison for 18 to 36 years. An appeal has been filed by his lawyer. 

Larry Purcell leaves a mom, a dad, and five children. 

In this case the Commonwealth was helped greatly by the Pennsylvania State Police, including the lead investigators Corporal Mark Barron and Corporal Bruce Wesnack. I would also like to thank Assistant District Attorney Mark Matthews for his great help in preparing the case for trial and the questioning of various witnesses. Thanks also to Detective Sergeant Wendy Serfass for all her help.

Commonwealth v. Brandon Wilson

Yogi Berra, a famous baseball player back in the 50s, was known for odd quotes; one of them was “it’s deja vu all over again!” Well that was the second winter trial, Commonwealth vs Brandon Wilson, aka ‘Shoota’. You see, I had already tried Wilson about three years before. He was one of the shooters in a drive-by shooting of a trailer home in Hamilton Township. The shooting left Darcy Kravchenko dead with a bullet hole through his head. Wilson and 16 year-old Daygun ‘DayDay’ Mitchell fired a .357 single action revolver at the house. Wilson fired the first three shots and Mitchell fired the last three. It was the very last shot fired which killed Kravchenko who, awoken by the earlier shots, looked out the window at the same instant that a bullet came crashing through.

The motive was not really connected to the victim at all, but rather his son, who played a role in arranging for the sale of fake painkillers to a young woman, named Kaylynn Bunnell. When she complained to her best friend, Jacqueline Harrigan, her boyfriend Bruce ‘Savage’ Murray, ‘Shoota’ and ‘DayDay’, all gang members of the Black PStone Gangster Briminal Set, which at that time was pretty big here in the Poconos, decided to retaliate. They drove to the Kravchenko residence. The two females, Bunnell and Harrigan knocked on the door and tried to lure Kravchenko’s son outside. When taht failed they returned to the others who decided to seek permission to do a driveby shooting from the gang’s leader, known by the street name of ‘Black’, i.e., Sirvonn Taylor. Taylor authorized the shooting. He was the last to be charged even though he wasn’t in the car at the time of the shooting. When Wilson was arrested in New York City, having fled and hid there for about 1 month, he, through his lawyer, made arrangements to give a statement to us in hopes of pleading guilty to the lesser charge of Murder in the third degree. The statement was taken down by a court reporter in the presence of his own lawyer. One of the things that he agreed to upfront was that if his statement proved to be untruthful or he failed to cooperate, his statement could be used against him. Although he gave the statement, Wilson later refused to testify against Black.

He withdrew his guilty plea, got a new attorney, and went to trial. We used his statement against him and the jury found him guilty of 3rd degree murder. He appealed and his conviction was overturned on the basis that we shouldn’t have been able to use his statement against him at trial. So he was given a new trial. The stakes were limited to whether he was guilty or not guilty of third degree murder. A retrial is a very difficult thing for prosecutor. I don’t think the Defense likes them either. For one thing, the strategy from the first trial is laid wide open for everybody to see. I didn’t want it to seem like deja vu all over again.  So it’s important to try to approach the case from a different angle. The different angle was kind of forced on me in the second trial since I couldn’t use Wilson’s own words against him. I had to rely more on co-defendants, which is something I don’t like to do. Co-defendants or accomplices are people that jurors are told by the judge, as part of the jury instruction, are ‘corrupt and polluted sources’ and their testimony should be treated with great caution and disfavor. Isn’t that something? Jacqueline Harrigan testified in the first trial. She had an incredible memory and went on in great detail, but her testimony in the first trial wasn’t that big a deal because I had Wilson’s own words to rely on.

So in looking for a different angle, one that avoided the bad jury instruction about accomplice testimony, I remembered that there were other parts of the case, parts that weren’t used in the first trial. There were statements made by some of the gang members to friends or girlfriends, after the shooting in an effort to cover up and hide evidence. I remembered DayDay telling his teenage girlfriend about the shooting the next day at the high school, and how Black wanted them to meet at a gang house and to bring the gun. I remembered some texts messages from DayDay telling Wilson he needed to speak to him right away. But Daygunn Mitchell refused to testify. I couldn’t force him, I had no leverage, he had already been sentenced; I couldn’t offer him anything. I understood that he didn’t want to be labeled a snitch and go through the rest of his state prison sentence with that over his head. His girlfriend, Shaye Sickle was incarcerated at the time on drug charges. She believed that she would be helping Daygunn by her testimony, so she agreed. I also threw in the testimony of the gang leader himself, Black. Black was being used by Federal prosecutors to go after dozens of gang members under the RICO Act. Black turned out to be a pretty good witness. In fact, the defense attorney sarcastically called him the ‘prince of testimony’; Prince being another one of his nicknames. It is ironic that in the end the testimony of his gang leader was used to convict Wilson a second time. After all, it was Wilson who refused to testify against his Prince in the first place. In the end, Wilson stood before the court at sentencing a second time. He addressed the court, what we call an allocution, his opportunity to tell the court how he felt about what he did. His allocution was all about himself, never mentioning what he did to the victim or even the victim. In the end, he was sentenced in total to about two and a half more years than what he got the first time, based largely on his horrible record as an inmate awaiting his new trial. He’ll be eligible for parole around 2040.

I’m always fascinated by chance, the odds of something happening, luck, fate, whatever you want to call it. I came across something like that during the preparation for the Wilson retrial. It never came up in trial itself, but as I was talking with Shay Sickles about the case she told me she knew her boyfriend Daygunn had been keeping the .357 caliber revolver in his bedroom at his grandmother’s house during the months before the murder. It was gang property. She told me that he once brought her outside and they both fired the gun for target practice. She told me that since Mitchell’s incarceration she had been seeing a new guy, a fella named Maldonado. In fact, she had just been arrested with Maldonado. Maldonado had himself survived a gunshot to the head during a home invasion which happened a couple months before the murder of Darcy Kravchenko. Maldonado was shot with the same gun used later to kill Kravchenko. So here was a young girl, around 16 years old; the same gun she fired, her one boyfriend used to shoot Darcy Kravchenko in the head, and that same gun was used to shoot her other boyfriend in the head. What are the odds of that?

Commonwealth v. Barbara Rogers

The strangest of the winter murder trials was the last one, Commonwealth vs Barbara Rogers. The Rogers case happened the same week as the Jones homicide. The case was strange from the start. Barbara Rogers was about 43 years old at the time of the murder. The victim was her boyfriend Steven Mineo, about 12 years younger. Stephen was shot point-blank contact with a .45 caliber Glock. The muzzle of the Glock had been pressed against the center of Steven’s forehead at the time it was fired. The bullet passed straight through Steven’s head and was later found embedded in a mattress. From the angle, it was clear that Steven was sitting on the floor of the room at the time he was shot. It was also clear that the shooter stood above him. The apartment was a single room studio type apartment full of clutter. Despite being in his early thirties, Steven was a very immature fellow who collected Japanese anime figures. He and Barbara Rogers had met through an online cult based in Ohio run by a woman named Sherry Shriner. Shriner was believed by The Cult to be a prophet able to discern and guard against reptilians, alien life-forms masquerading as human beings. The cult also believed in vampires and witches who were capable of great mischief and death. Over the years, Steven and Barbara grew friendly online. Eventually, Steven invited Barbara to come stay with him and his father in a small house in New Jersey. According to his dad, Barbara was Steven’s first and last girlfriend.

Barbara stayed with Steven and his father in their house in New Jersey for only a month or so. Mr. Mineo Sr realized that there was something wrong with Barbara. She would never greet him, smile, or engage in conversation. She also had strange eating habits; he recalled that she would eat peanut butter out of jar the with her fingers and leave it out in the kitchen. She would not put her stuff away. She was also fond of beer, something that the elder Mr. Mineo did not appreciate. Stephen’s brother Charles also found Barbara strange and did not approve of the relationship. Finally, Mr. Mineo told Steven that Barbara had to go. Steven replied that if Barbara had to go then so would he. In a couple weeks following this discussion Steven and Barbara moved out. Steven  liked the gun laws in Pennsylvania. So he elected Pennsylvania as his destination. Steven believed in the Apocalypse and in the requirement that to survive the apocalypse you should be properly equipped with weapons, gear, meals ready to eat, and anything else one might need to survive an apocalypse. The couple rented a small efficiency apartment which Steven called the ‘Pocono Resistance Headquarters’. The money for the apartment, and for everything else, came from Barbara. Barbara received Social Security disability and a pension from her eight years in the military. Records indicated that she suffered from a mental disorder and was discharged honorably. She had a history of depression, alcohol abuse, and suicide attempts. She also complained that she heard voices. She had been married twice leaving both husbands and also her own children behind.

In the months following their relocation to Pennsylvania, a profound event changed their lives. It started with a comment made by Barbara during an online conversation. She had expressed pleasure in eating raw meat. She was denounced as a ‘reptile, a vampire, and a witch’ by Sherry Shriner and the other members of the cult. Despite the time and effort that Steven put into the cult he went to Barbara’s defense. He denied that she was a reptile, a vampire, or a witch. He denounced Sherry Shriner as a false prophet and began a YouTube crusade posting numerous videos in an attempt to expose Sherry Shriner as a fraud. For her part, Shriner warned Steven that Barbara would kill him, take his soul, and that he was in great peril.

On what would be the last day of Steven’s life the couple went to a nearby bar/restaurant, Lombardi’s in Tobyhanna, ate dinner and had drinks. A barmaid recalled Barbara’s last drink, right around last call, where she requested a Bloody Mary. After the bar closed, the couple returned home. According to Barbara, Steven who had been arguing with people online about the cult wanted to shoot his gun in the backyard. His gun was the .45 caliber Glock. Barbara told the police that they went back behind the shed. Steven fired two rounds and Barbara fired a third. Steven and Barbara went back into the house and Steven sat on the floor. Stephen had set his cell phone on the counter next to where he sat. Right around that time, and based on the analysis of the cell phone performed by detective Brian Webbe, someone asked Google to play ‘Billy Idol Eyes Without a Face’. One of the things very important to the cult was identifying who were the ‘reptilians’ among us. Interestingly, Billy Idol was widely believed by cult members to be not human but reptilian. With the music playing, Barbara took the .45, placed it in both hands and stood in an isosceles shooting position, with both elbows locked, pointing the gun downward against the forehead of Steven Mineo and shot him. Barbara would later try to explain her action, contradicting herself numerous times. At times, She said she did not pull the trigger but that Steven guided the gun in her hands to his head and told her to shoot it because he wanted to die. At other times, she claimed the gun went off unintentionally and she did not mean to shoot him. At other times she claimed she thought the gun might have been unloaded and that he could survive the shot. Her contradictory stories were so glaring that they were used as evidence of her guilty conscience.

Sherry Shriner would die a few months after the murder of a massive heart attack. Originally the defense was trying to obtain what is known as a diminished capacity verdict. Diminished capacity means that either due to a mental disease or an extreme drunken state a defendant at the time of the killing, was unable to form the specific intent to kill needed for a jury to convict of first-degree murder. If the prosecution can’t disprove diminished capacity, a defendant could only be found guilty of murder in the third degree not Murder One. The defense had Barbara evaluated by a forensic psychiatrist. We also had Barbara evaluated. Our evaluation was performed by doctors Robin Altman and Larry Rotenberg. The doctors found that Barbara did not suffer from a bipolar disorder claimed by the defense expert, but instead a personality disorder with narcissistic features, a preoccupation with herself, an emptiness, a lack of empathy towards others. When the relationship became unpleasant and she felt trapped in the small apartment with the very immature Mr. Mineo, opportunity presented itself. The opportunity was in a form of a loaded .45 caliber handgun and the fact that Mr Mineo was drunk and under the influence of an herbal supplement he had been taken known as Kratom. This an interesting plant originated in Thailand causes both an amphetamine-like upper as well as a barbituate type of reaction depending on the amount consumed.

There was also something weird about the gun. When a semi-automatic handgun fires, the expended shell is expelled out of the barrel and another loaded round takes its place. In this case only one shot was fired but instead of the expended shell casing ejecting, it remained inside the barrel. It wasn’t sticking up like it got stuck, something that’s known as ‘stove piping’, but it just stayed completely in the chamber. The defense was using this as evidence that Steven’s hands were definitely on the gun and that her story that he could have jerked the gun while she held causing it to go off was plausible. The defense was claiming Barbara did not have the intent to kill Steven and that this was just a horrible accident. They abandoned their defense of diminished capacity and went with the testimony of a noted expert on Firearms, Glocks in particular, a fellow named Manny Kaplesohn. Barbara’s family hired private attorneys to represent her, A father-in-law/son-in-law team. The men were experienced criminal defense lawyers. The defense refused an offer of a guilty plea to 3rd degree murder and instead opted for trial. Because they were not going with the diminished capacity defense I could not use the testimony of my psychiatrists. Additionally, the defense was going to use Steven and Barbara’s expulsion from the cult as proof of Steven’s depression and suicidal mental state to show that Barbara was not responsible for his death.

Rogers demonstrating how she held the gun when she shot Mineo

After about a week of trial in front of President judge Worthington and hours of deliberation by the jury, the defendant was convicted of murder in the third degree. The jury saw through the defense and apparently the length of the deliberation was based on a few of the jurors believing that Barbara was guilty of first-degree murder, but in the end agreed with the majority and found her guilty of third-degree murder.  Ms Rogers appeared at sentencing without remorse or empathy, still claiming that it was Steven’s fault. She was sentenced to State Prison for a term of not less than 15 nor more than 40 years. 

I want to thank Assistant District Attorney Andrew Kroeckel along with the lead investigators, Detectives Lucas Bray and John Bohrman, the same two who had brought the Jones case. I also am grateful to Detective Brian Webbe for his expertise. Once again my thanks to Detective Sergeant Wendy Serfass for all her hard work.

The cell phone as it looked at the scene with the last song played on the screen