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On 4th try, Tielsch guilty of murder

Jury convicts him in 1986 shooting of Orthodox Jew

Saturday, September 14, 2002

By Jim McKinnon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It took 16 years and four trials, but Steven M. Tielsch was convicted yesterday of third-degree murder for the 1986 slaying of Neal S. Rosenblum, an Orthodox Jew from Canada who was gunned down in Squirrel Hill.

After deliberating for more than 21 hours over 2 1/2 days, a jury of six men and six women opted not to find Tielsch guilty of the more serious count of first-degree murder.

"I'm relieved. It's been a long haul," Rosenblum's mother, Penina, said in a telephone interview yesterday from her Toronto home.

Three previous juries were unable to reach unanimous verdicts and mistrials were declared in each proceeding.

"You'd think it would get easier," Penina Rosenblum said. "But each time it got harder. Especially this time with the technology."

Among the tools used by Deputy District Attorney Daniel E. Fitzsimmons was a PowerPoint presentation that enabled him to project crime scene photographs on a large screen for the jury and spectators to see.

"It's more alive and you're faced with it," Penina Rosenblum said. "You see [Neal's] hat and the belt and all the details on the ground."

So graphic were parts of the presentation that the Rosenblums had to leave the courtroom at times.

Penina said that her husband, Arthur Rosenblum, and their other four children were as relieved as she is.

"We're grateful that it's over. We're just happy that justice was done," she said.

Neal Rosenblum was the third of five Rosenblum children.

Rosenblum had been in town April 17, 1986, with his wife and daughter to visit his in-laws when the shooting occurred. The 25-year-old had been to a service at a local synagogue and was walking to their home when two white men in a black sports car called him over pretending to ask for directions.

Tielsch, 40, who had been the passenger in his own car,fired at least nine shots with a .40-caliber pistol. Five of the bullets struck Rosenblum.

As he lay bleeding on the ground, Rosenblum told police and emergency personnel what happened.

He died at UPMC Presbyterian before police could interview him further.

For two years after the shooting, there were no suspects. Then in 1988, Sanford Gordon, who was being held in the Allegheny County Jail on drug possession charges, told his lawyer and investigators that his cellmate, Tielsch, had been bragging about having killed a Jew.

Tielsch was being held in the county jail on federal drug trafficking charges. He faces prosecution in U.S. District Court on a separate case with similar charges now that the homicide trial has been concluded.

Gordon, who is Jewish and was the star witness in each of the four trials, reported that Tielsch had made numerous anti-Semitic remarks and had sometimes scrawled swastikas on his forehead.

The authorities did not act on Gordon's information and the case lay dormant for another 12 years until the multi-jurisdictional Cold Case Squad took it over.

But the time lapse, the credibility of the star witness and a plethora of unsavory characters as witnesses made it difficult for prosecutors to persuade juries to convict Tielsch.

But District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., facing criticism for continuing his pursuit of conviction after three mistrials, ordered a fourth trial. They streamlined their tactics, used fewer witnesses and ended the trial in six days, less than half the time of any of the three previous trials.

Yesterday Zappala extended his sympathies to the Rosenblum family.

"I hope that with this jury's determination on this matter today, that they can finally bring closure on the loss of their son.

"I'd also like to remind the community the theory upon which we proceed in this case was that the motive in this murder was hate," Zappala continued. "Neil Rosenblum died because of his religion. I felt strongly based upon prior prosecutions -- Baumhammers, Taylor -- that this community was prepared to deal with persons who take other persons lives because of color of skin or religion or some other basis of being different."

Zappala was referring to Richard Baumhammers and Ronald Taylor. Baumhammers was convicted last year of killing five people in a shooting rampage motivated by racial and ethnic hatred on April 28, 2000. Taylor was convicted of killing three men and wounding two in a shooting rampage on March 1, 2000, in Wilkinsburg. Both men were sentenced to death.

Bettysue Feuer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, yesterday applauded the verdict.

"It is difficult for us to imagine the pain of this young man's family," Feuer said in a statement. "It has taken quite some time for the American judicial process to work, but it has. As the Jewish New Year begins [Yom Kippur is Monday], we hope that Neal Rosenblum's family will be able to finally feel some small measure of relief and closure from this verdict."

The jury, in its deliberations, considered whether to convict on charges of first- or third-degree murder.

First-degree murder is a killing done with premeditation. If convicted, a person would receive a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Third-degree is a killing done with malice and recklessness. The penalty for such a conviction has been amended in recent years to 20 to 40 years in prison. Because Rosenblum was killed years before the amendment, Tielsch faces a sentence of 10 to 20 years.

Defense attorney William H. Difenderfer said yesterday that Tielsch would be eligible for parole in about seven years.

Difenderfer said he plans to appeal.

"At best it's a shallow victory for the commonwealth," Difenderfer said. "I really think he's going to get a new trial. And this case is going to go on forever."

Tielsch will be sentenced Nov. 13.

Staff writer Michael A. Fuoco contributed to this report.

Jim McKinnon can be reached at jmckinnon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1939.

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