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Arrest in 1986 killing brings relief to rabbi

Saturday, February 19, 2000

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

At every Passover seder in Squirrel Hill in April 1986, indeed in most conversations in the city's Jewish community at that time, one subject was paramount -- the killing of Toronto rabbinical student Neal S. Rosenblum during a visit with in-laws here.

"All of us immediately assumed ... that he was singled out simply for being Jewish," recalled Rabbi Alvin Berkun of the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill. "When something like this happens, something that defies any kind of logic and reason, it shakes a community to its core."

In the wake of an arrest Thursday in the 14-year-old case, the sadness of Rosenblum's homicide again has become a conversation staple. But this time, Berkun said, the talk is soothed by a sense of justice being served.

"The fact it was unsolved for so long was worrisome because you never knew if that stranger in the sports car next to you was the perpetrator. The arrest and, hopefully, the conviction to me spells relief," Berkun said.

The suspect, Steven M. Tielsch, 37, of Penn Hills, a convicted drug dealer, was apprehended Thursday while driving in Penn Hills. He was arraigned early yesterday morning and jailed without bond pending a March 2 coroner's hearing.

A search of Tielsch's home turned up two pounds of marijuana and $6,000, police said. Besides pending drug-related charges, Tielsch could have more legal problems because he is on federal parole and supervised release for drug convictions in 1987 and 1993.

The community's surprise at an arrest coming so long after the April 17, 1986, shooting has been supplanted by gratitude for the work of police investigators, Berkun said. Assisting the city homicide squad in the probe, which is continuing, were the district attorney's office, the FBI and Allegheny County, Penn Hills and state police.

"The police did an extraordinary job of tracking the [suspect] down and, hopefully, bringing him to justice. We're amazed and pleased with their work because as time goes by, it's more difficult to solve a case like this," Berkun said.

Rosenblum, 24, his wife and the couple's month-old daughter had been in town for only seven hours when he was shot five times about 9:15 p.m. on Pittock Street near Phillips Avenue in Squirrel Hill. He had been walking alone back to his in-law's Shady Avenue home following prayers at Kollel Bais Yitzchok Torah Institute Study Center on Bartlett Street.

Before being taken to UPMC Presbyterian, where he died four hours later, Rosenblum told police a white male passenger in a dark sports car with pop-up headlights, possibly a Corvette, asked him for directions and then opened fire as he approached the car. A white man was driving, he added.

An informant told detectives in April 1988, two years after the slaying, that Tielsch admitted that he was the gunman, riding as a passenger in his own black Corvette, and that another Penn Hills man, Kevin Ohm, was at the wheel.

Ohm, 26, was killed in a traffic accident in Penn Hills in August 1991. Tielsch was driving that car -- a vehicle other than his Corvette -- and was convicted of vehicular homicide.

Detectives weren't successful in finding corroboration for the first informant's story until last spring when another man told them Tielsch had confessed the same information to him.

Also significant, police said, was that shortly after the killing, Tielsch's Corvette seemingly disappeared. There was no record of Tielsch renewing his registration or selling or junking the car. Detectives speculated that he had had it "chopped" -- taken apart and sold for parts -- or destroyed.

Members of Rosenblum's family and his widow, Manya, who has since remarried and had more children -- her child with Rosenblum, Baila, will turn 14 next month -- told police they were surprised the case was still being investigated. While pleased with the arrest, they said, it reopened healed wounds of pain and sorrow.

Family members yesterday declined comment.

Even with the arrest, detectives still aren't certain of a motive. There was no robbery attempt or altercation. Rosenblum knew few people here and was involved in no criminal activity anywhere.

Lacking any other motive, there has been speculation that Rosenblum, dressed in the black suit and fedora favored by Orthodox Jews, had been gunned down solely because of his religion.

On Thursday, Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Ronald Freeman said it was detectives' gut feeling that Rosenblum was the victim of a hate crime. However, no evidence supporting that assumption has been uncovered.

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