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Charleroi beating trial opens with surgeon testifying on near-fatal injuries

A surgeon testified that Troy Harris was “borderline comatose” when he arrived at Allegheny General Hospital late one night last spring.

“In essence,” Dr. Benjamin Kautza said of Harris’ injuries when he arrived at the Pittsburgh hospital, “his entire mid-face was fractured.”

Kautza was called by Washington County prosecutors as the first witness in the jury trial of Joseph Olinsky III, 46, and Matthew Vasquez, 31. The two members of the Pagans Motorcycle Club are charged with crimes including attempted homicide, aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit. They are accused of participating in the April 18 beating of Harris, a former member, in a social club in Charleroi.

The beating occurred about 10 p.m. in the Charleroi Slovak Club, 700 McKean Ave. Surveillance footage of the bar area shows seven members of the Pagans entering and approaching. Within seconds, Vasquez and another man punch Harris as he reaches out for a handshake. The group appears to kick him once Harris falls to the floor, out of the camera’s line of sight.

His wife, Michele Harris, testified previously she was present and tried to protect her husband.

Deputy District Attorney Jason Walsh told jurors that Troy Harris – who turned 54 in November – had left the Pagans at some point and joined Sutars Soldiers, a rival outlaw biker club started by a former Pagan leader.

“That’s like committing treason to the Pagans,” Walsh said. He went on to assert that the beating was retaliatory.

Stephen Colafella, Vasquez’s court-appointed attorney, said his client had been attracted to the club because of the brotherhood it offered him. He’d been a member for years with no problems. Colafella said Vasquez had run into Harris, who lived in Fallowfield, in the community without incident – even after the older man was expelled from the Pagans.

He also asked jurors to see keep an open mind about Vasquez’s guilt, instead of making assumptions based on witness testimony that’s expected to be part of the case and deals with the culture of the Pagans and similar groups.

“What you’re here to do is to determine what Matthew Vasquez’s legal culpability is,” Colafella said. “What crimes, if any, did he commit?”

Renee Colbert, Olinsky’s attorney, referred to her client by his nickname, “Teddy.” She said he had attended a club meeting and was hanging out with friends during the events that led up to the beating.

“This was a bar crawl that turned into a bar crawl,” she said. She mimed revving a motorcycle and made engine noises several times in her opening argument.

She said the government would use records of calls to and from a cellphone involving Zackary Yagnich that night, but there was no evidence her client was part of those calls. She also said he was not “part of any agreement” to harm Harris.

Yagnich, 27, was a supporter of the Pagans and vice president of the Slovak Club at the time of the beating. He previously testified that he informed members of the Pagans that Harris was in the bar before a group showed up and attacked Harris. He opened the door of the members-only building for them.

During Kautza’s time on the stand, the physician said Harris was flown to AGH by helicopter and stayed in the intensive care unit until he was discharged to a long-term care facility on May 6. Within the first day or two of the stay, he showed no vital signs. He had had to be revived by hospital staff, who spent 10 minutes giving him CPR and administering epinephrine. He remained on a ventilator for most of his time there. His ribs were broken during CPR.

His initial injuries were all from the collarbone up, Kautza said. They could have been caused by repeated kicks to the head, and included subdural hematoma – blood pooling to create pressure on the brain – fractured eye sockets and swelling on his face. He had a stroke at some point. His condition had improved by the time he was released to the care facility, but his injuries still affected his cognition and would likely result in permanent changes, Kautza said.

“But for medical intervention, he would have died?” Walsh asked at one point.

“Yes,” replied the surgeon.

Olinsky and Vasquez are denied bail and being held in the county jail. Their trial before Common Pleas Judge John DiSalle is expected go to the end of the week. Charleroi Regional police charged them in mid-July through court papers that were filed under seal for a time.

Of 12 people charged, they’re the only ones who have not taken plea deals or agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in exchange for leniency. Vasquez’s former fiancée, Jamie Granato, 28, and Pagan member Paul Cochran, 55, are cooperating with prosecutors. So is James Baranoski, a 58-year-old private investigator and former state trooper who allegedly went to the Harrises’ on the Pagans’ behalf to bribe the couple to drop charges.

One government witness who’s not charged with any crimes is Heather Balsano. She said she was working in the bar earlier in the day when Yagnich contacted her using Snapchat. He mentioned he might stop by later, so she told him the Harrises were at the bar.

“I knew from past experience that he did not like to go in there when they were there,” Balsano said. So she told Yagnich the couple were there. When Colafella asked why exactly, she said she wasn’t sure.

Car crashes through Charleroi garage

CHARLEROI – Nim Mayhew said she was sitting in her Charleroi home Monday night when she heard a boom and the house shook.

When she went to investigate, she said, a car had driven through her attached garage and three of its occupants were fleeing on foot.

“It was scary,” Mayhew said Tuesday.

A man was flown to a Pittsburgh hospital with serious injuries after the car in which he was an occupant jumped the curb and crashed through a garage.

Charleroi Volunteer Fire Department said its crew discovered the injured man down the street from the crash after receiving a report about 8:30 p.m. that the driver attempted to flee the scene.

The garage at 910 Lincoln Ave. was heavily damaged. It was wrecked to the point where firefighters used cribbing and lumber to keep it from collapsing.

The name of the driver was not immediately available Tuesday.

Mayhew said her car was scratched during the crash. She said her insurance company was expected Wednesday to assess the damages. She said she believed her garage can be repaired.

Love you a bushel and a peck: Monongahela couple found each other in fight to keep chickens

“It’s kinda strange,” Michelle Parnell admitted of how she and her partner, Chad DeSantis, fell in love.

“Chad and I met when the city of Monongahela sent me a letter to get rid of my chickens.”

In early 2016, Parnell said she received the letter and took to Facebook to cry “fowl” about the issue. That’s how she found DeSantis, who was already active in local government. He knew how the city council worked, and more importantly, in this instance, how to work up an ordinance.

So Parnell had one request for DeSantis: “Help me keep my chickens.”

“We started our journey together fighting city hall to keep her chickens,” DeSantis said. “Had you told me six years ago that any of this was going to happen, I would have told you you were out of your mind.”

This fight was right up DeSantis’ alley, whereas Parnell was learning along the way. She didn’t realize it would be such a lengthy process, with multiple readings, zoning hearings and the like. Parnell estimated it took almost a year from start to finish.

DeSantis said the original ordinance prohibited agricultural operations that would gross $10,000 a year. By his calculation, that amount of profit would require over 150 chickens. The current zoning amendment, adopted Aug. 10, 2016, allows for no more than six hens within the residential district, as long as interested owners pay a $550 fee for a public hearing to verify their neighbors are on board with the nearby feathered friends.

“It made me realize how much grip local government can have on living your own life on your own property,” Parnell said of the process. “One person can make a difference in the community.”

But after the two worked around the “cluck,” the ordinance passed and the chickens saved, Parnell and DeSantis still had each other.

“We just kind of got used to having each other around,” she said.

Almost four years later, the couple lives together happily with Parnell’s two sons, ages 5 and 11, and six hens.

“We saved the chickens, and long story short, her, me and the chickens live happily ever after,” DeSantis said.

Parnell admitted when she first got that official letter, she was going to say her piece respectfully and comply with the city’s decision, even if that meant getting rid of the chickens. But her neighbors enjoyed the birds, and Parnell said they were not bothering anyone.

She said DeSantis printed the city’s entire code of ordinances, getting into the granular details. It was not in his nature to give in quietly.

“I had to grow some pretty thick skin pretty quickly,” Parnell said, adding DeSantis taught her to roll with the punches, but to also stand up and defend herself and what she believes in.

DeSantis also credits Parnell for some of his growth, too. He has been sober from alcohol since March 15, 2016, and is proud Parnell and the two boys have never seen him with a drink. She has given him a reason to be a better person, he said.

“I credit her for a lot of my strength. We are absolutely better together,” DeSantis said. “Together, we’re going to change the world.”

DeSantis said some in the city know him as a thorn in the backside, to put it politely. He ran a write-in mayoral campaign for mayor in 2015 and is active in local government.

But he’s proud to be known to ruffle feathers both at home and in the city.

Trump boasts of economic gains on eve of impeachment verdict

WASHINGTON – Standing before a Congress and nation sharply divided by impeachment, President Donald Trump used his State of the Union address Tuesday to extol a “Great American Comeback” on his watch, three years after he took office decrying a land of “American carnage” under his predecessor.

The first president to run for reelection after being impeached, Trump received a raucous but divided response from Congress with Republicans in the House of Representatives chanting “Four More Years” while Democrats stood mute.

“America’s enemies are on the run, America’s fortunes are on the rise and the America’s future is blazing bright,” Trump declared. “In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny. We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never going back!”

Setting a yardstick for success and then contending he’d surpassed it, Trump has now gone from an inaugural address that decried “American carnage” to extolling the “Great American Comeback,” offering the nation’s economic success as a chief rationale for a second term.

Trump spent much of the speech highlighting the economy’s strength, including low unemployment, stressing how it has helped blue-collar workers and the middle class, though the period of growth began under his predecessor, Barack Obama. And what Trump calls an unprecedented boom is, by many measures, not all that different from the solid economy he inherited from President Barack Obama. Economic growth was 2.3% in 2019, matching the average pace since the Great Recession ended a decade ago in the first year of Obama’s eight-year presidency

Trump stressed the new trade agreements he has negotiated, including his phase-one deal with China and the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement he signed last month.

The main suspense was whether he would address the charges against him.

Trump spoke from the House of Representatives, on the opposite side of the Capitol from where the Senate one day later was expected to acquit him largely along party lines. The first half of his nationally televised speech was largely optimistic, not mentioning the impeachment trial that has consumed Washington in favor of a recitation of accomplishments and promises.

Yet the partisan divide within Washington was embodied by the woman over his left shoulder, visible in nearly every camera shot: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

A frequent thorn in Trump’s side who authorized the impeachment proceedings that charged the president with abusing the power of his office to push Ukraine to investigate a political foe, Pelosi created a viral image with her seemingly sarcastic applause of the president a year ago.

Trump appeared no more cordial. When he climbed to the House rostrum, he did not take her outstretched hand but it was not clear he had seen her gesture. Later, as Republicans often cheered, she remained in her seat, at times shaking her head at Trump’s remarks.

Even for a Trump-era news cycle that seems permanently set to hyper-speed, the breakneck pace of events dominating the first week of February offered a singular backdrop for the president’s address.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who has presided in the Senate over only the third impeachment trial in the nation’s history, was on hand again Tuesday night – this time in his more customary seat in the audience. Trump stood before the very lawmakers who have voted to remove him from office – and those who are expected to acquit him when the Senate trial comes to a close.

The leading Senate Democrats hoping to unseat him in November were campaigning in New Hampshire.

In advance of his address, Trump tweeted that the chaos in Iowa’s Monday leadoff caucuses showed Democrats were incompetent and should not be trusted to run the government.

Among Trump’s guests in the chamber: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has been trying for months to win face time with Trump, his most important international ally.

The president offered Guaidó exactly the sort of endorsement he’s been looking for as he struggles to oust President Nicolás Maduro from power. Trump called Guaidó “the true and legitimate president of Venezuela.”

“Mr. President, please take this message back to your homeland,” Trump said. “All Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom! Socialism destroys nations. But always remember, freedom unifies the soul.”

Trump entered the night on a roll, with his impeachment acquittal imminent, his job approval numbers ticking upward and Wall Street looking strong.

In the closest historical comparison, Bill Clinton did not mention his recent impeachment when he delivered his State of the Union in 1999. In his address a year ago, Trump did remain on message, making no mention of how Pelosi had originally disinvited him from delivering the speech during the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history.

Trump spent much of the speech highlighting the economy’s strength, including low unemployment, stressing how it has helped blue-collar workers and the middle class, though the period of growth began under his predecessor, Barack Obama. And what Trump calls an unprecedented boom is, by many measures, not all that different from the solid economy he inherited from President Barack Obama. Economic growth was 2.3% in 2019, matching the average pace since the Great Recession ended a decade ago in the first year of Obama’s eight-year presidency

Trump stressed the new trade agreements he has negotiated, including his phase-one deal with China and the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement he signed last month.

While the White House said the president would have a message of unity, he also spent time on issues that have created great division and resonated with his political base. He attacked Democrats’ health care proposals for being too intrusive and again highlighted his signature issue – immigration – trumpeting the miles of border wall that have been constructed.

He also dedicated a section to “American values,” discussing efforts to protect “religious liberties” and limit access to abortion as he continues to court the evangelical and conservative Christian voters who form a crucial part of his base.

The Democrats were supplying plenty of counter-programming, focusing on health care – the issue key to their takeover of the House last year. Trump, for his part, vowed to not allow a “socialist takeover of our health care system” a swipe at the Medicare For All proposal endorsed by some of his Democratic challengers.

Many female Democrats were wearing white as tribute to the suffragettes who helped win the vote for women, while a number in the party were wearing red, white and blue-striped lapel pins to highlight climate change, saying Trump has rolled back environmental safeguards and given free rein to polluters.

Several Democratic lawmakers, including California Rep. Maxine Waters and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, announced in advance of the speech that they would be skipping it, with the high-profile New York freshman tweeting that she would “not use my presence at a state ceremony to normalize Trump’s lawless conduct & subversion of the Constitution.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was delivering the party’s official response and, in excerpts released ahead of the speech, was to draw a contrast between actions taken by Democrats and the president’s rhetoric.

“It doesn’t matter what the president says about the stock market,” Whitmer says. “What matters is that millions of people struggle to get by or don’t have enough money at the end of the month after paying for transportation, student loans, or prescription drugs.”