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Jury to consider death penalty in 2013 West End shooting

Washington County jurors deliberated for about 90 minutes before convicting a former Washington man of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Matthew Mathias six years ago.

The case against Brandon Wolowski, 24, now enters the penalty phase, when jurors will decide whether or not Wolowski should be executed for the Jan. 8, 2013, death of the 37-year-old victim. Police said Wolowski fatally shot the older man and wounded Michelle Powell, Mathias' girlfriend, during a failed attempt to steal Mathias' gun collection from the victims' house in Washington's West End neighborhood.

Jurors returned the verdict following three days of testimony that started Monday. They heard closing arguments early Thursday afternoon before receiving instructions from Common Pleas Judge John F. DiSalle. The panel of six men and six women also convicted Wolowski on charges of attempted homicide, aggravated assault and robbery filed by city police.

Prosecutors will have the burden of convincing jurors that a death sentence is warranted based on two aggravating factors they claim are present – that Wolowski created a "grave risk" to Powell and that he killed Mathias in the course of a felony.

District Attorney Gene Vittone said his office won't discuss the case until the penalty phase is over.

DiSalle told jurors to return this morning for the start of that proceeding.

Noah Geary, Wolowski's court-appointed lead attorney, similarly declined comment.

As he sat next to his client, he placed his hand on the back of Wolowski, who'd been handcuffed by sheriff's deputies following the verdict on the murder conviction.

Key to the prosecution's case were a taped statement Wolowski gave to city police Lt. Daniel Stanek, the lead investigator, in the hours after police found him at another man's apartment near the main crime scene and testimony from Powell, 45, who said Wolowski had brought crack cocaine to the house for the couple to smoke before he pulled a gun and demanded Mathias' firearms.

Terrance Cohen Jr. testified he was at his father's house next to the building where police found Wolowski. Cohen said Wolowski showed up that night and asked him to hold onto a handgun for him. Police later matched the .38-caliber revolver to a bullet that struck Powell.

Mathias left through the front door. His body was found outside in the yard. Powell fled out the front door and across the street to a neighbor's, where a 911 call was made.

Powell testified that Wolowski was the only other person she saw in the couple's house on the 900 block of Fayette Street during the robbery-shooting.

But Geary argued that police didn't adequately eliminate other possible suspects who could have been present that night. In his taped statement, Wolowski, who was 18 at the time, admitted to repeatedly shooting a gun at the house, but referred to an accomplice who may have also fired one. No one else was charged.

During his closing argument, Geary called his client the "government's sacrificial lamb."

"Don't let him be yours," Geary added. "Don't be a part of it."

He told jurors they'd later have doubts if they convicted his client.

Deputy District Attorney Leslie Ridge said details of Wolowski's account of events were consistent with Powell's testimony and helped show his guilt in a premeditated killing.

"The confession is reliable because it is detailed, it is specific, and it is corroborated by the other evidence that you heard during this trial," she said.

Ridge contended Wolowski fired on the couple as part of a plan to raise at least $1,200 he needed for rent after getting an eviction notice. Geary pointed to testimony from Larry McElhaney, Wolowski's girlfriend's father, to dispute that the money was a motive. McElhaney said he planned to cover the rent.

Among the factors Geary said weighed against conviction was a lack of photos and measurements of shoe prints in the snow outside the house. He said that information would have helped settle the question of who'd been there that night.

He said police didn't seek corroboration of other portions – like when Wolowkski claimed he'd called his younger brother to ask for an alibi – through things like phone records.

Ridge said there was "no evidence of all these guns going off." To address one hypothesis to which Geary alluded, she said Mathias was ruled out as a shooter because all of his firearms were locked in a safe that wasn't opened until investigators obtained a search warrant days later.

She said the defense had failed to advance a convincing alternative version of events.

"I'll be honest with you," Ridge said. "I'm not sure what their theory is."

Wolowski didn't testify. Geary told jurors it was their duty not to hold that against his client.

The prosecution finished presenting its case on Wednesday before court recessed. Wolowski's lawyers said they planned to call "several witnesses" to testify the next day.

But on Thursday morning, nothing happened in open court for about two hours while the sides' respective attorneys conferred with each other and the judge until shortly before noon. At that point, Wolowski was escorted into the courtroom and joined by the various lawyers.

No more witnesses were called. Geary simply told the judge, "The defense rests."

A Washington County jury last recommended a death sentence in 2015. Gov. Tom Wolf has declared what he calls a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania.


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Two state historical markers added in Washington County

One of Washington County’s tragedies and one of its greatest athletes are due to be permanently commemorated thanks to two new state historical markers that have been approved by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

Roadside signs recognizing the 1908 Marianna Mine explosion that killed 154 miners, and Charles Freemont West, an African-American football star who played on Washington & Jefferson College’s team and was the first African-American quarterback in the Rose Bowl, were among 18 new markers announced Thursday by the PHMC. The 18 new markers will join close to 2,300 other markers across the commonwealth, which are familiar to drivers and history buffs for their blue-with-gold lettering.

The new markers were chosen last week at a meeting of the PHMC, according to Howard Pollman, a spokesman for the commission. A person or event is usually marker-worthy if it is “connected to a statewide or national theme.”

The marker honoring West will be on the corner of Beau and College streets, on the W&J campus, and the Marianna mine disaster marker will be at Beeson Street and Mine Access Road. Dates have yet to be set for the unveiling of either marker.

“The local folks drive that process,” Pollman said.

Washington County already has more than 50 state historical markers memorializing everything from the Whiskey Rebellion to the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, songwriter Jay Livingston and 19th-century Republican presidential candidate James Blaine. Greene County has 11, with the sites including Ryerson’s Blockhouse and the old glassworks in Greensboro.

The Marianna mine disaster, on Nov. 29, 1908, still stands as one of the most horrific mine accidents in the country’s history. The extent of the tragedy – there was only one survivor – highlighted the dangers of mining and helped lead to the establishment of the United States Bureau of Mines.

West, who had the nickname “Pruner,” was the quarterback for W&J’s Presidents football squad during its only Rose Bowl appearance, in 1922. A standout in track and field, he was named to the 1924 Olympic team, but did not end up competing due to an injury. He went on to become a physician in Alexandria, Va., and died in 1979.

The new markers were selected from 55 applications. Some of the other new markers announced Thursday include one honoring author John Updike in Berks County, one tipping the hat to singer-songwriter Jim Croce in Chester County, and one noting a 1971 burglary in Delaware County that exposed COINTELPRO, the FBI’s civilian surveillance program.


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Police: Canonsburg man breaks into funeral home, steals American flag stretcher blanket

A Canonsburg man accused of trying to break into a police officer’s home last week is facing additional charges for breaking into a funeral home the same night and stealing bottles of liquor and an American flag stretcher blanket.

David Wayne Maga, 54, of 208 W. College St., was allegedly caught on surveillance cameras breaking into Salandra Funeral Home, at 304 W. Pike St., about 8:40 p.m. March 8.

Canonsburg police said Maga appeared to be intoxicated when he entered the garage portion of the building through a flower delivery door. Police said they found evidence that he may have eaten cookies while in the building, rearranged chairs and possibly opened an unused caskets.

He allegedly stole wheelchairs, about four bottles of liquor that were in storage, cleaning supplies, tools, a battery charger, a flashlight, insurance and registration documents for three business vehicles and “boxes of odds and ends,” according to the criminal complaint. 

Police said it appeared Maga loaded up a couple vehicles in the garage with the items and attempted to take the vehicle as well. Police found the keys in the car, but Maga “did not succeed in driving the vehicle out of the business,” the complaint said. The items were found in the vehicle. 

"It was wrong--he shouldn't have been in there," said Joseph Salandra, owner of the funeral home. "If he has a substance abuse problem, we think it would be good for him to get some help."

Early the following morning, Maga allegedly tried to break into a Canonsburg police officer’s home while the officer was there. He was seen on the porch just after 6 a.m. When the off-duty officer questioned Maga, he allegedly told the officer that he had lost his wallet and was looking for it.

Later that morning, the officer’s family reviewed surveillance footage that showed Maga trying to break into their home by two different doors. When police searched Maga’s home, they found some of the items he had taken from the funeral home, and the clothes he had been wearing in the video footage.

In the first case, Maga was charged with attempted burglary, loitering and prowling at night, criminal trespass and disorderly conduct. In the case involving the funeral home, Maga was charged with burglary, criminal trespass, receiving stolen property, loitering and prowling at night and theft.

Maga was arraigned and is being held on $75,000 bond between both cases.


C.R. Nelson/For the Observer-Reporter 

C.R. Nelson/For the Observer-Reporter

C.R. Nelson/For the Observer-Reporter

Shawn Andrews and Jackson and A.J. Knight are part of a new team of players from Greene and Washington counties who will compete Saturday at the Special Olympics Invitational at Washington & Jefferson College.