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Charges dismissed in beating death

Thursday, June 05, 2003

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

BEDFORD, Pa. -- A judge yesterday threw out charges against a man accused of the savage beating death of a Bedford County woman he once pursued and an attack that nearly killed the woman's fiance.

Three months after a district justice cleared the case for trial, Bedford County President Judge Daniel Howsare said yesterday that there wasn't enough evidence to support the charges against Cordell Ebersole, 26, in the slaying of Dana Gates, 31.

County District Attorney Dwight Diehl could appeal to state Superior Court, or gather more evidence and refile charges -- something he could do years from now since homicide carries no statute of limitations.

Diehl, who wanted to ask for the death penalty for Ebersole, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Defense lawyer Caroline Roberto, of Pittsburgh, said that "packets of evidence" offered by Diehl's office had nothing worthwhile beyond the findings that Howsare deemed too flimsy.

"It would be extremely unlikely that they'd appeal," said defense co-counsel Robert Lape, of Roaring Spring, Blair County.

Police portrayed Ebersole, of Martinsburg, Blair County, as a man obsessed after Gates rebuffed his advances.

In the middle of a November night in 2001, police said, he showed up at a farmhouse that Gates and Loren Burket, 31, shared in the tiny village of Queen.

Investigators charged that Ebersole battered them both, attacking Gates in her bedroom.

The assault ended with the woman lying on her lawn, unclothed, dying of a brain injury, with a band of duct tape around her neck that she may have tugged down from around her face. Burket was inside the house, semiconscious and bloody, pummeled so hard that his eyes were swollen nearly shut.

When Ebersole, now married, was charged 15 months later, the only physical evidence linking him to the crime was one of his hairs, found in a living room carpet. Defense lawyers said it could have been left when Ebersole visited the home weeks before.

The remainder of the evidence, defense lawyers said, was hearsay -- friends' accounts of Gates complaining that Ebersole was calling and visiting, over her objections.

"They investigated the case for [15 months] and this is the best they could come up with," Roberto said.

While police have ruled out the angle, Lape and Roberto offered the theory yesterday that the killing was linked to Altoona-area couple Erika and Benjamin Sifrit, who have been charged with the murders and dismemberment of a suburban Washington, D.C., couple last year at an Ocean City, Md. condominium.

Benjamin Sifrit was convicted two months ago of one of those killings. His wife is on trial in Maryland this week.

Investigators showed that the Sifrits were in the same Blair County bar that Gates and possibly Burket were in, Roberto said.

"This crime is so creepy," she said of the Gates homicide. "It reeks of a kind of kill-for-thrill."

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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