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A Question of Innocence: Daughter's questions could help free dad

David Munchinski has been jailed 15 1/2 years for killings he says he didn't do

Sunday, June 23, 2002

By Bill Moushey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

First of two articles

Raina Munchinski's only clear memories of her father have come from her infrequent visits to the penitentiary where he is serving a life sentence for the 1977 murders of two drug dealers in Fayette County.

Raina Munchinski with a picture of her father, David, taken shortly before he started serving his life sentence.


Part 2:
Star witness's story full of inconsistencies

Over the 15 1/2 years he has served at the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh, David Munchinski often told his daughter that the people who had testified against him at his two murder trials lied and that prosecutors had withheld crucial information.

As they sat across from each other, the girl couldn't summon the courage to ask her dad the question that plagued her -- Did he do it?

Finally, seven years ago, she overcame her fear and asked her father what had really happened on that wintry night in Bear Rocks when James P. Alford, 24, and Raymond Gierke, 28, were executed.

David Munchinski looked her squarely in the eyes: "You know, Raina, I've made a lot of mistakes in my life. I did a lot of dumb things. But I did not commit these crimes."

From that moment, Raina committed herself to finding the evidence that would free her father. Now, at the age of 26, a year older than her father was at the time of the killings, her years of effort may be close to bearing fruit.

Of course, most lifers claim innocence, and their relatives often believe them because they don't want to abandon hope. But in this case, Raina has collected enough evidence to cast serious doubts on her father's conviction:

dot.gif She found that the star witness against her father told officers he lied.

dot.gif She found evidence that the witness might not have been in Pennsylvania on the day of the killings.

dot.gif And, she found previously unreleased documents suggesting other suspects had admitted killing the two men.

Largely as a result of her work, a Fayette County judge reopened Munchinski's case in the spring of last year. The judge removed himself because two of his fellow judges had served as Munchinski's prosecutors. Last week, Senior Judge Barry Feudale of Northumberland County, who was appointed to the case by the state Supreme Court, began to sort through the issues being raised by Munchinski's new attorney, Noah Geary, who is being paid in installments by Raina Munchinski.

She and Geary hope to win a dismissal of the charges against David Munchinski, or at least a new trial.

"I am not going to rest until my father is out," she said.

 
 
Is this man guilty?

David Munchinski was convicted of killing two drug dealers in a remote mountain cabin in Fayette County in 1977. He has served 15 1/2 years of a double life sentence.

But consider this:

dot.gif The star witness against him, now dead, twice said he lied about what he saw, and said he was coached on his testimony by state police.

dot.gif Prosecutors hid a police report that suggested the star witness wasn't even in Pennsylvania on the day of the killings.

dot.gif Munchinski's co-defendant, who confessed to the killings, said in open court that another man was his partner in the crimes. Both of these men also are dead.

dot.gif The husband of one of the women who testified against him says she now believes that he didn't commit the crime.

dot.gif At least four other men were described as likely suspects in the killings, but police either didn't question them or didn't pursue the questioning.

dot.gif Munchinski's blood type doesn't match the physical evidence found on the victims.

Despite all these problems with the evidence, David Munchinski has lost every appeal he has filed. But now, he has a fresh chance, thanks to a daughter who has worked for years to find the facts that might free him.

Today's story describes the crime, the suspects and Munchinski's arrest. Tomorrow's final part details the star witness and the numerous problems with his testimony.

   
 

How it started

The first call came early Dec. 2, 1977. It was apparently made from the murder scene in the Laurel Highlands, near the boundaries of Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties.

A man told a Bell telephone operator that he had been shot at 837 Alpine Road in a section of Bullskin Township known as Bear Rocks. Police believe the call came from Gierke. About 2:30 a.m., just after the operator referred the call to Mount Pleasant police, another call came in. Bonnie Blackson, whose house was near one owned by Gierke's family, told a dispatcher "a man was on her porch, leaning against [the] double doors and having a hard time breathing."

Within 20 minutes, two state police troopers arrived at the remote scene to find Alford lying dead at the Blacksons' rear door. Troopers traced Alford's movements down a tree-strewn, rocky ravine and up a short hill to a lighted cabin 114 yards away.

No one answered the door, so they went inside. Behind an overturned stuffed chair, they found the lifeless body of Gierke, his face covered in blood. The troopers found drug paraphernalia and small bags of cocaine at the cabin, leading them to believe the homicides were probably drug-related. They also found tire skid marks on Alpine Road and blood trails outside the Gierke house.

Autopsies and other forensic evidence would eventually show that the men died from gunshot blasts from two weapons, one a .357-caliber Magnum revolver, the other a .25-caliber semiautomatic. Alford was shot in the back at close range. Gierke suffered lethal gunshot wounds of his head and chest and also was shot in the hand.

Within 24 hours of the killings, investigators learned that Gierke, a waiter in a Westmoreland County restaurant, had been a major drug dealer. Alford also had bought and sold drugs, but was more of a minor player in what was then a fast-growing drug culture in the Laurel Highlands.

Investigators soon learned Gierke owed money for drugs, and that those he owed included members of the Pagans Motorcycle Club, a notoriously violent sect of outlaw bikers. Witnesses told police he not only had been threatened with death over the debt, but he also believed that someone was stalking him.

One way he had hoped to start paying off what he owed, his friends told police, was by selling a quarter pound of cocaine on the day he died.

There also was another unusual finding in the pathology reports.

Both the victims had engaged in anal sex in the 24 hours before their deaths. It might have been a sign they had sexual relations with each other, but that's not how the evidence was presented at trial several years later, when it would become a key part of the testimony that convicted Munchinski of murdering Gierke and Alford.

A criminal life

At the time of the killings, David Munchinski was on a path to nothing good.

The son of a Latrobe police officer, Munchinski had built a reputation as a tough-guy drug dealer in Westmoreland County. He sold drugs, used drugs and stole drugs. He was involved in numerous skirmishes, many with folks who were in the drug culture with him.

His combativeness sometimes seemed foolhardy. During one of his forays into the drug world, Munchinski so enraged members of the Pagans for muscling in on their business that they sprayed bullets into his rural trailer home. One slug hit within inches of his baby son's head.

Munchinski's reaction: He went unarmed to one of the Pagans' hangouts and challenged them to fight. Several days later, when he was jailed on drug-related assault charges, Munchinski's trailer was burned to the ground.

One of the outgrowths of Munchinski's life of crime was his partnership with a burly, violent man named Leon Scaglione.

Scaglione, then 29, fancied himself a mob-style enforcer, like the frightening Luca Brasi, the cold-blooded hit man in "The Godfather." Munchinski said he was friendly with Scaglione, who also was a drug dealer and abuser, and often used him as a backup when he thought a transaction might lead to trouble.

Even though Scaglione and Munchinski would be charged together in the Bear Rocks killings, Munchinski said he quit associating with Scaglione regularly almost a year before the day of the shootings because he knew Scaglione was mentally ill and was going through long periods where he lost contact with reality.

Scaglione, who is now dead, eventually confessed to the killings, but Munchinski doesn't believe he was involved. Scaglione told police that his partner in the shootings was another man, but because Scaglione refused to testify during Munchinski's final trial, the jury never heard that information.

 
 

The Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania is a new investigative reporting organization that probes allegations of wrongful convictions.

Started in 2001, it is being developed in partnership with the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Point Park College and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Post-Gazette staff writer Bill Moushey, the author of this series, is director of the institute and an assistant professor at Point Park.

The institute's goals are to provide a unique real-world learning environment for aspiring journalists, who learn investigative reporting skills so they can analyze claims by convicts or suspects and can examine allegations of misconduct by prosecutors.

Over the past two years, graduate and undergraduate journalism students have read thousands of pages of court records, interviewed witnesses, visited crime scenes and written extensively about the Bear Rocks murder case in preparation for these reports.

The students involved were Point Park graduate students Mark Bursic, Jaime McLeod, Craig Campbell, Carmela Greco and Chuck Brittain; Point Park undergraduate students Amanda Gillooly, Misty Chybrzynski, Patrick Fulton, Mark Ionadi and Jasmine Gehris; and University of Pittsburgh undergraduate students Matthew Schliesman and Erin Lindeman, who enrolled in the class through a cross-registration program offered through the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education.

Moushey can be reached by e-mail at Bmoushey@ppc.edu . Mail can be sent to the program in care of: The Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania, Point Park College, Room 510, 201 Wood St., Pittsburgh 15222-984.

   
 

Munchinski's link

Munchinski's name came up in the case Dec. 6, 1977, four days after the killings, when police interviewed Lori Lexa, Alford's girlfriend of five years. She said Alford had told her Munchinski was his drug supplier and that they were scheduled to meet the night of the killings.

Eventually, Lexa would testify against Munchinski in his trials.

Whether she would stick by that testimony today is another matter.

While she would not discuss the case for this story, her husband, Daniel Scanlon, told a reporter during a visit to their home, "You know, she doesn't believe [Munchinski] did it, either."

Munchinski himself not only denied doing business with Alford or Gierke, but also said he warned them of possible trouble at the cabin.

He said he met them once, less than a week before they died. Munchinski said he knew where they lived, and he told them that he and another man had been asked to help rob two drug dealers in Bear Rocks.

Munchinski said Gierke and Alford thanked him and said, "Forewarned is forearmed."

On the day of the crimes, Munchinski said, he was at home caring for a dog that had been shot in one of his drug disputes and which he had just brought home from the veterinarian. The only adult witness to that story would have been Munchinski's ex-wife, Vickie, who left him shortly afterward and has since disappeared. The veterinarian could not be located.

David Munchinski is far from the only killing suspect whom Lexa told police about.

There also was Edgar Wiltrout. State police reports suggest he owed Gierke money for cocaine, but was refusing to pay, causing Gierke to welsh on his own debts.

Immediately after the killings, Wiltrout, now 49, a longtime criminal who is serving a 16- to 60-month sentence in state prison as a repeat drunken driving offender, made menacing remarks to Lexa and Deborah Wiltrout Dahlmann, his estranged wife.

"Wiltrout wants to know everyone she talks to and what she tells them," says a Jan. 4, 1978, police interview with Lexa.

Lexa told police she knew Wiltrout usually carried two guns, one in a shoulder holster and another in his boot.

Even more damaging were statements made by Dahlmann about a year later. She called Greensburg police on Feb. 14, 1979, and told them a drunken man had called her after he apparently got stuck in snow near her home. He wanted to talk with her estranged husband, Edgar Wiltrout.

"She told him Ed was in jail, and he stated that is a good place for him and that is what he deserved because he killed Pete Alford," the police report reads. She said she asked him how he knew that, and he said, "Because I was there."

According to Dahlmann's account, when Wiltrout and two others arrived at the remote cottage, Alford and Gierke were in bed. Wiltrout, according to the report, had a .357-caliber Magnum handgun and a .25-caliber semiautomatic, which match the calibers of the guns used in the killings. "Ed shot both of them," the police account of Dahlmann's statement reads.

That report would never be introduced at Munchinski's later trials, because a judge decided it was extraneous to the case.

A defiant 'Prove it'

When troopers attempted to interview Wiltrout and told him they thought he had something to do with the shootings, he told them to "prove it" and ordered them off his property. He was never arrested in the killings, and he has not responded to requests for interviews.

In another police report that would not turn up for 20 years and was unavailable for either of Munchinski's trials, a woman reported a conversation she had had with her boyfriend at the time of the killings, Michael Urdzik. She was then 15 and already addicted to drugs.

During a drive in the country, she said, Urdzik, who was twice her age, confessed to her: "He told me he was up at Bear Rocks with Ed Wiltrout one night and [Wiltrout] shot the two boys over a drug deal," the police report reads.

Urdzik moved to California within a week of the killings. A man told police he had sold Urdzik a .25-caliber weapon about a month before the slayings.

During a telephone interview last year, Urdzik, who initially pretended he was his brother, refused to answer questions about the police reports. Urdzik has never been interviewed by police.

Another man whose name came up repeatedly was Homer Stewart, a drug dealing acquaintance of Munchinski's who was dating Dahlmann, the estranged wife of Wiltrout, at the time of the killings.

It was Stewart who had asked Munchinski to go with him to rob Gierke and Alford. One police report suggests Gierke owed Stewart $22,000 for drugs when Gierke was killed.

Stewart, who has since died of liver failure, told police he wasn't involved in the killings. But a few years later, during Scaglione's second trial, Scaglione testified that Stewart was the man who had helped him commit the killings.

By the time the early stages of the probe were complete, there were almost a dozen potential suspects in the killings, including Munchinski and Scaglione. Aside from some sparse forensic evidence, though, there were few other solid clues among the files and transcripts, which would grow to more than 12,000 pages by the time Munchinski and Scaglione were sent away for life.

A reputed kidnapping

Even though Lexa and Dahlmann had mentioned other suspects to police, they also told a story that led to the arrest of Munchinski and Scaglione long before they were charged in the killings. That would come back to haunt them at their trials.

The women said that on Jan. 28, 1978, less than two months after the killings, Munchinski and Scaglione abducted them from the Five Points Bar near Greensburg. During that episode, the two women said, Scaglione admitted the killings and forced them to go to his apartment, where he and Munchinski tossed knives into a wall near them as they told the women details of the killings.

Munchinski denies abducting Dahlmann or Lexa. He said he spent time with them at the Five Points Bar to find out as much as he could about the case. He also met once alone with Lexa, two days after he purportedly had abducted her.

Eventually, the charges related to the supposed abduction were dropped.

But years later, at Scaglione's and Munchinski's trials, the women would testify that the men had accosted them in the bar itself and then confessed the killings. The women dropped any mention of an abduction.

After the initial flurry of police interviews, the Bear Rocks investigation was dormant for 3 1/2 years. Munchinski and Scaglione were just two on a long list of possible suspects.

That changed on June 24, 1981.

That's when Richard Bowen, then 29, a man whose name had not appeared in a single police report up to that point, summoned state police to the Westmoreland County Detention Center.

Bowen, a heavy alcohol and drug abuser, told police that Scaglione had made a jailhouse confession to him in the Bear Rocks slayings. They didn't seem impressed. It merited only one paragraph in their report.

But 15 months later, Bowen called police again, seeking help on some charges he faced. By the time they were done talking with him, Bowen's story had grown to the point that he said he was with Munchinski and Scaglione on the night of the killings.

Munchinski's nemesis had appeared.

And from that point on, Raina Munchinski believes, her father began to be framed for the murders.


Tomorrow: The star witness

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