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Edinboro teen killer sentenced

The Edinboro boy, 15, who shot a teacher to death last year gets 30 to 60 years after pleading guilty to third-degree murder

Friday, September 10, 1999

By Kristen Hays, The Associated Press

ERIE -- A 15-year-old Edinboro boy accused of killing a teacher at a junior high school dance last year pleaded guilty to third-degree murder yesterday, sparing himself the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.

  Teacher John Gillette

Judge Michael Palmisano sentenced Andrew Wurst to a total of 30 to 60 years in prison on the murder charge and for attempted homicide, assault and weapons charges.

Wurst must serve at least 30 years before becoming eligible for parole.

He would have faced a mandatory life sentence if convicted of first-degree murder for the April 1998 death of teacher John Gillette, 48.

Wurst stood before the judge with closely-cropped hair and wearing green prison overalls, his mother at his side, as District Attorney Joe Conti asked questions to ensure they understood the plea agreement.

Wurst refused to meet the prosecutor's eyes and answered each question with a near-inaudible "yes" or "no." His mother, Cathy, also answered quietly. As in previous court appearances, Wurst displayed no emotion and appeared uninterested in the proceeding.

The teen-ager's attorneys had planned an insanity defense. But they encouraged their client to agree to the guilty plea for fear jurors would not accept that Wurst was mentally ill.

"The only way he would have done better is if the jury would have found him insane, and insanity is a very difficult defense, especially in the tenor of today's times with these shootings around the country," defense attorney Philip Friedman said.

If jurors had rejected the insanity defense, Wurst's attorneys had no other defense to offer, Friedman said.

"There's just a lot of hostility out there. It's very difficult for the average jury to excuse people's behavior for these actions, so we have to take into account that climate when we make a decision like this," Friedman said.

Gillette was killed when Wurst, then 14, opened fire at a dance for his eighth-grade class from James W. Parker Middle School at a banquet hall in Edinboro. He also wounded two students and held a gun to the principal's head.

The shooting -- which occurred within months of those involving students in Jonesboro, Ark., West Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss. -- stunned tiny Edinboro, a town of 7,000 that is home to Edinboro University and serves as a family vacation spot in northwestern Pennsylvania.

After Thursday's hearing, Conti said the victims had approved of the plea agreement, which he said spared them the hardship of a trial.

Gillette's wife, Debbie, and the other victims were in court.

None would comment afterward.

Attorney Charles Longo of Cleveland, who represented Debbie Gillette since shortly after the shooting, said she planned to file a civil lawsuit against the Wurst family and a landscaping business owned by the boy's father, Jerome Wurst.

Longo said the Gillette family was neither happy about nor satisfied by Wurst's guilty plea. "They're able to accept it," he said.

Wurst had been scheduled to go to trial Oct. 25 as an adult on a first-degree murder charge.

Under Pennsylvania law, Wurst could not have been sentenced to death because he was younger than 16 at the time of the shooting. Because of publicity about the case in Erie County, jurors for Wurst's trial were to have been selected in Washington County, about 140 miles south of Erie.

In April, Palmisano ruled that Wurst should be tried as an adult following days of conflicting testimony from psychiatrists about the boy's mental state.

"The evidence suggests the defendant made a conscious decision to arm himself with a deadly weapon and ammunition, after which he selected his victims and executed his plan," the judge wrote at the time.

He added that "the evidence is insufficient to show that if the defendant is truly suffering from mental illness at this stage, he would be ostensibly cured and nondangerous upon his release from a juvenile facility."

A month before the killing in Edinboro, Wurst told classmates he wanted to kill people and commit suicide.

Another classmate noticed that Wurst was becoming curt and unfriendly in the weeks before the shooting.

Palmisano recommended that Wurst begin his sentence in a separate unit at a state prison for inmates younger than 18 who have been convicted as adults. That unit is part of the state prison at Houtzdale, Clearfield County.

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