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A Question of Innocence: Witness recanted testimony in another case

Monday, June 24, 2002

By Bill Moushey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Less than two years before Richard Bowen became the star witness in the Bear Rocks murder cases, he played a key role in a trial involving the murder of a drug dealer.

As with the testimony that led to convictions against David Munchinski and Leon Scaglione for killing two men in Fayette County, Bowen's sworn statements in this case -- which also included Scaglione as a defendant -- were pocked with inconsistencies.

And, as he did in the Fayette County case, Bowen received favorable treatment for his testimony, and later, recanted his story.

Bowen, his nephew and two associates claimed that Scaglione, who has since died in prison, and Steven Szarewicz, formerly of Greensburg, told them that they had killed Billy Merriwether, 25, of New Kensington.

Merriwether, a drug dealer and robber, was found in February 1981 with gunshot wounds in the back of the head and chest, lying along a remote road in Harrison, just inside the northeastern Allegheny County line.

There were several suspects in Merriwether's slaying, but no charges were filed until Bowen and the other three men contacted Allegheny County police.

Bowen, who was in jail, called police on June 26, 1981, just two days after he told state troopers that Scaglione made a jailhouse confession to him in the Fayette County slayings. He told police Scaglione had confessed to the Merriwether killing as well, but he did not mention Szarewicz's name until months later, when he claimed Szarewicz had confessed to him.

At the time he was charged in the Merriwether killing, Szarewicz was doing time for a robbery. He not only denied involvement in the killing, but passed a polygraph administered by Allegheny County police on his role in it.

Police said Szarewicz failed the test on questions about his knowledge of Scaglione's involvement. Szarewicz and Scaglione were friends, and Szarewicz said the reason he failed questions on Scaglione was that police told him Scaglione was involved in the killing before he took the test.

Officers filed charges against Szarewicz, Scaglione and a former New Kensington police officer named Peter Mercurio based on the testimony of Bowen and the other men. Charges against Mercurio were later dropped.

The witnesses contended that Szarewicz and Scaglione told them that they killed Merriwether under contract for a New Kensington organized crime figure.

They said the mobster, a longtime associate of Pittsburgh's LaRocca Cosa Nostra family, was upset that Merriwether, a black man who used drugs, was dating his daughter, and suspected Merriwether was also breaking into vending machines owned by a mob-controlled company.

The story resonated with jury members, but had several inconsistencies.

Szarewicz, who claimed he was sleeping in his sister's trailer in Greensburg at the time of the slaying, argued that records show Bowen had no contact with him in the jail where Bowen said Szarewicz had confessed to him.

Neither Bowen nor the others could correctly describe the make of the car used to abduct Merriwether and dispose of his body.

Bowen and the others also denied getting favorable deals with legal problems in return for their testimony, but that proved to be a lie.

Despite the problems with the witnesses, Scaglione and Szarewicz were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for Merriwether's killing.

Since then, with the help of his own jailhouse research, Szarewicz has found evidence that Bowen and the others recanted their sworn testimony more than once. An affidavit filed in court by well-known defense attorney Patrick Thomassey, Szarewicz's original lawyer, said Bowen confronted him at the Westmoreland County Courthouse and admitted lying in the case.

Thomassey told a judge that David Cannon, another witness against Szarewicz, also told him he lied on the witness stand.

Over time, in fact, all four witnesses retracted their stories, and then later, said they had been telling the truth the first time. Bowen, the key witness, hanged himself in an Oklahoma jail four years ago.

So far, Szarewicz has not been able to find a judge who thinks the shifting stories by Bowen and other witnesses are reason enough to reopen his case.

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