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Jury returns mixed verdict in Charleroi beating trial

A Washington County jury delivered a mixed verdict Friday, finding two members of the Pagans Motorcycle Club not guilty of attempting and conspiring to commit homicide but convicting them of lesser charges in the April 18 beating that nearly killed a former officer of the biker club.

Matthew Vasquez, 31, of Monessen, and Joseph Olinsky III, 46, of McKeesport, were charged by Charleroi Regional police in July. The victim was Troy Harris, 54, of Fallowfield Township, who was attacked at roughly 10:20 p.m. at the Charleroi Slovak Club. Surveillance footage from the bar was shown repeatedly to jurors throughout the trial.

Testimony began Tuesday and closed Thursday. Jurors deliberated for about three hours following closing arguments Friday.

“We respect the verdict of the jury,” said Deputy District Attorney Jason Walsh.

The jurors found each defendant guilty of aggravated assault, conspiracy to commit aggravated assault and simple assault.

Common Pleas Judge John DiSalle said sentencing will occur in 90 days. He said they’d be denied bail, as they were before the trial. Vasquez and Olinsky looked intently ahead and showed little expression as DiSalle explained what would happen next in the case.

Both of their lawyers said they’ll appeal.

“I’ll be filing post-trial motions,” said Renee Colbert, Olinsky’s court-appointed attorney.

Harris was once president of the Fayette City chapter of the Pagans but was now a leader in the Sutars Soldiers, another motorcycle club started by former Pagans.

Testimony showed the pair and others who were involved in the attack had been at the Junction Tavern in Perryopolis beforehand.

Prosecutors contended that the two defendants and five other Pagans – including Paul Cochran, 55, who testified against his former comrades – went from Perryopolis to the members-only bar at 700 McKean Ave. to beat up Harris on orders from higher-ups in their organization.

During their closing arguments, the defense contended that claim wasn’t supported by the evidence.

Stephen Colafella, who represents Vasquez, said the prosecution didn’t “connect those dots” and show there was some conspiracy at play.

Walsh told jurors that it was no coincidence seven Pagans who live in different areas and belong to multiple chapters showed up at the same place, where Troy Harris happened to be.

“Use your common sense, ladies and gentlemen,” he said.

Vasquez said his friend, Zachary Yagnich – who is charged in the case and helping prosecutors – was going to the Slovak Club, where Yagnich, 27, was vice president. Vasquez said Yagnich, a supporter of the Pagans, would have been afraid to go alone because Harris bullied him.

Vasquez said the group stopped by there on their way to a bar in Monongahela, and it was his idea to go to the watering hole in Charleroi. He said no one told them to do so, and they didn’t intend to do anything to Harris.

His testimony differed in some respects from the account given by Yagnich, who said he’d spoken by phone to Vasquez and Brian Keruskin, president of the Fayette City chapter, about Harris’ whereabouts before he met the group of bikers in the parking lot and let them into the club. He maintained he didn’t know what the group was going to do in advance, but that Keruskin did tell him that some guys were on their way and he should leave.

Vasquez maintained the group happened to walk by Harris on their way to their seats. He said he saw Jason Huff slap Harris, who’d sneered and extended his hand toward Huff in a gesture of disrespect. Vasquez said he knew Harris to be dangerous and saw the older man had a gun holstered on his hip, so Vasquez punched him.

He said he then struggled to disarm Harris when he pulled a gun, and for a time Vasquez was on the floor with him. Video showed others kicking and stomping in the area of the floor where Harris was lying.

“What Matthew Vasquez did, ladies and gentleman, amounts to a simple assault,” Colafella said. “He punched (Harris) one time, without justification.”

Harris’ wife, Michele Mackey Harris, testified she saw no one else on the ground while she tried to protect her husband, who has lasting physical and cognitive injuries.

Following the verdict, Colafella said the outcome was “unfortunate” but that he respected it. He said preconceptions about clubs like the Pagans made it a tough case.

“There’s video evidence, and it makes it very challenging to try to distinguish your client from others, when it’s a scrum like that, when they’re all wearing the same shirts,” Colafella said. “I thought the case was well tried on both sides. Matt had the opportunity to go up and present his side.”

Keruskin and Michael Barringer, sergeant-at-arms of the national Pagans organization, each previously pleaded guilty or no contest to a conspiracy charge. Other than Cochran, Olinsky and Vasquez, those accused of pummeling Harris have entered pleas and received prison terms.

Using her client’s nickname, Colbert asked jurors to “let Teddy go home to his wife.” She said that none of the witnesses had specifically identified her client as having punched or kicked Harris. Additionally, she said there was no testimony implicating him in a plan ahead of time.

“Not one of those commonwealth star witnesses said that he had a weapon,” she said. “None of them said they made a phone call to Teddy. None of them said they received a phone call from Teddy.”

A love that withstood war, sickness and death

It was 1942, when Oliver West’s mother put an ad in a Pittsburgh newspaper requesting folks write to her son, an Army soldier in the 25th Infantry Division who had survived the attack at Pearl Harbor.

Gale Gregg, a Daisytown teenager, was one of multiple girls who had written to Oliver.

“One thing my dad always said was that a lot of women wrote to him, but my mom’s letters were the longest and the most interesting,” their daughter, Barb West Moore, said in a recent interview. “So he continued to write to her then, back and forth.”

Barb’s parents, Gale and Oliver West of Charleroi, had been pen pals for more than four years, while Oliver was stationed in Hawaii.

“In World War II, that was a time when people really cared about the servicemen, so a lot of people wrote to them,” Barb said.

Gale sent a photo of herself in a letter, and Oliver sent one of himself to her.

“My dad carried that photo of my mom with him, on his person, through the four-and-a-half years he was in the service,” Barb said.

Oliver’s life philosophy was very gracious and hospitable, Barb said.

“He always used to say that there are no strangers in this world, only friends you haven’t met yet,” Barb said.

Gale was more than a friend he hadn’t met yet. In fact, she got to meet his family, of Perryopolis, before she got to meet him. Gale went with his family to the Pittsburgh train station to greet Oliver the day he returned home Aug. 9, 1945. Nine days later, they were married.

“I don’t know what was in those letters, but they knew when he stepped off the train that they were getting married,” Barb said.

Some of her parents’ family members didn’t think the marriage was a good idea – that it wouldn’t last, Barb said. Gale and Oliver proved them wrong. Their love that withstood a war went on to carry them through a 48-year marriage, conquering a long-term illness and even death.

Oliver went to work in the steel mill, and Gale was a stay-at-home mother, raising their five children, Barb being the youngest.

“They lived the typical blue-collar life,” Barb said. “You never saw lovey-dovey all the time, but you’d see the way they’d look at each other. You saw the love. It was a great life growing up.”

True life companions, Oliver and Gale did everything together, especially traveling for veteran events and reunions with his 25th Infantry comrades. They returned to Hawaii for the 40th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

They hoped to make it to their 50th wedding anniversary, but in 1983, Gale became sick at 60 years old. She was very ill for 10 years, and two of those years she was bed-ridden. Oliver was at her side the whole time, Barb said.

“My mother was the most loving human being,” Barb said. “We were taught as kids that you never leave without a hug or without saying ‘I love you.’ I still do that.”

In 1993, at age 70, Gale died. They had been married 48 years, so he bought 48 yellow roses for her casket. A heartbroken Oliver could no longer live in their riverside house.

“He never left the kitchen,” Barb said. “He didn’t want to go in the rooms where my mom had been.”

Oliver died in 2006. Though they’re both gone now, Oliver and Gale’s children are carrying on their love, each of them working toward their own 50th wedding anniversary.

Their daughter Linda and her husband, Bill Johnson, of Marianna, have been married 54 years. Daughter Norma and her husband, Brad Baker, of Perryopolis, just celebrated their 50th anniversary last month.

Barb and her husband, Chuck Moore, of Charleroi, have passed their 40th wedding anniversary; so did her two brothers, Oliver West Jr. and his wife, Vicki, of Dawson, and Gregg and Sharon West, of Monongahela.

“We’re all pushing for that 50 mark that mom and dad wanted,” Barb said. “I think we’ve all stayed together because we believe love’s a commitment and marriage is forever.”

Every Christmas, they all gather at Barb’s Charleroi home – the house in which their parents raised them, which sits along the Monongahela River.

“We feel their love and presence here,” Barb said.

Oliver and Gale’s love lives on with their granddaughter, Lauren Pass, who is Barb’s daughter. Just like her grandfather cared for her sick grandmother for 10 years, Lauren has been caring for her husband, Justin Pass, who’s very ill with a kidney disease.

Their story will be published later this month as part of the “29 Days of Love” series.

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No love lost between Dems, GOP over 'Love is Love Day'

A proposal to recognize “Love is Love Day” next Saturday in Pennsylvania died in the state Senate this week because the feeling apparently isn’t mutual among Democrats and Republicans.

Bucks County Democrat Sen. Steve Santarsiero promoted recognizing love and acceptance of and among youth who are not heterosexual on a “Love is Love Day.”

In a video broadcast on his official website, Santarsiero noted Feb. 15, the day after Valentine’s Day, coincides with an event called “the rainbow room prom” in Doylestown, part of his district.

Santarsiero sought what is known as “unanimous consent” for a measure in support of “Love is Love,” but it was shot down, not by cupid’s arrow, but because no one knew what they were voting on, according to Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll Township.

Her 46th District represents the bulk of Washington County, part of Beaver County and all of Greene County, and she won praise, nonetheless, during this dust-up from both Santarsiero and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.

“As president of the PA Senate, I am disappointed by the lack of unanimous consent for Love is Love Day,” Fetterman tweeted Thursday.

“However, I am heartened this is a minority view within the majority. (With) leaders like @senbartolotta, we are closer to giving the LGBTQ community what they deserve in PA.”

Bartolotta, however, didn’t express unanimity with either Fetterman or Santarsiero.

“There never was a vote at all,” Bartolotta said late Friday afternoon on a train trip from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. “No one knows how many Republicans were for it.”

She took Santarsiero to task for waiting until after the legislative session wrapped up for the day – during a segment known as “proclamations and remonstrances” – to present his proclamation.

Bartolotta said she had already left the chamber and was still, on Friday, trying to piece together what Santarsiero had delineated.

“It was much more than love is love, let’s get along,” she said. “Most of our unanimous consent resolutions are not controversial by their very nature. There may’ve been some things included that didn’t fit well with everyone. This does not mean the entire caucus was homophobic.”

On Monday, the Harrisburg Capital-Star featured a photo of Bartolotta rallying “with LGBTQ advocates at the state Capitol in Harrisburg who seek protection from discrimination.”

The headline quoted her saying, “It’s about damn time” that changes in the state’s human rights law make “it illegal for landlords, employers and businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ citizens.” The news account cites 1976 as the year such protections were introduced in the General Assembly.

Bartolotta twice retweeted the Capital-Star story and photo.

Santarsiero, after “Love is Love Day” went by the wayside, acknowledged and thanked Bartolotta for her support of the anti-discrimination measure known as Senate Bill 614.

Bartolotta said she was “disappointed that a unanimous consent that I feel very passionate about was weaponized. There were many Republican senators in favor of this topic.”

Many, but not all, unanimous consent resolutions may instead be sent to the Rules Committee, of which Bartolotta is also a member, and not, she said, because of “Love is Love.”

Social media also sparked a controversy when a Democrat dissented on a condolence message in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s recent death, along with that of his daughter, Gianna, in a helicopter crash.

Bartolotta pointed to Democratic state Sen. Katie Muth, a sexual assault survivor, who brought up a sexual assault allegation against Bryant on Twitter.

Bryant, who played basketball at Lower Merion High School outside of Philadelphia, maintained the 2003 episode was consensual, and the accuser refused to testify against him.

Bartolotta maintains Republican leadership “pulled unanimous consent” not because of “Love is Love Day,” but “mostly because of Kobe Bryant condolence resolution.”