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Indiana man guilty of shotgun murder

Saturday, January 11, 2003

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

INDIANA, Pa -- For people in Indiana County, the slaying alone was wrenching -- a 32-year-old mother of two little boys gunned down outside her bedroom by an intruder.

But what followed made the case numbing.

The gunman walked into her 18-month-old son's bedroom, aimed his shotgun from a foot or two away, and fired a single blast that ripped into the toddler's arm.

Last night, after 6 1/2 hours of deliberation, an Indiana County jury found 51-year-old Randy Whitacre guilty of first-degree murder for the death of Theresa Dalessio and attempted homicide for wounding her child. If he cannot reverse the conviction on appeal, Whitacre will go to prison for life.

In the courtroom last night, Dalessio's husband, Douglas Dalessio, 34, cried uncontrollably. Behind him, his mother-in-law heaved sobs so heavy that she bounced in her seat. In the hallway where she waited, Whitacre's mother got word of the verdict and wailed.

Nancy Whitacre, Whitacre's wife and defender of his innocence, told KDKA-TV, "I've just lost my life. I've lost my husband."

"What would possess him to do the brutal acts that he did is beyond me," District Attorney Robert Bell said after the verdict.

Bell said the motive for the murder was that Whitacre thought Douglas Dalessio and a partner had sold him a home with a faulty sewage system. So early in the morning of Oct. 6, 2001, Whitacre, fresh from two bars and toting a pistol-grip 12-guage shotgun from home, burst into the Dalessios' Plumville home and opened fire, Bell said.

Theresa Dalessio, rousted from sleep, was hit first. She is heard on a 911 tape whimpering as she lay dying while her husband hid under the bed nearby begging an emergency dispatcher for help.

Next shot was toddler Dylan Dalessio, hit at close range as he lay in bed. The child, largely healed now, was found maybe 15 minutes from bleeding to death, a trauma doctor testified.

The gunman passed up another bedroom where the Dalessios' 4-year-old son slept through the tumult.

In closing arguments after three days of testimony, defense lawyer Thomas Ceraso of Greensburg argued yesterday that investigators didn't cobble enough evidence for conviction.

Police could not find Whitacre's fingerprints or bootprints in the house. And two shotgun shells discovered in the home and matched to Whitacre's shotgun could have been retrieved from the defendant's backyard trap-shooting blind, a quarter-mile away, Ceraso said.

"It's the evidence to nowhere," Ceraso told jurors.

As he did in opening statements, Ceraso implicated Douglas Dalessio, initially the beneficiary of $356,000 in death benefits from his wife's life insurance policies, one of them signed weeks before her death.

Court papers show that Dalessio renounced his claim to the money, turning it over to his sons six months after his wife's death.

Dalessio testified this week that he took the step to keep the money out of the hands of his estranged mother. Dalessio's parents have waged a bitter 13-year divorce battle in which his mother maintains that Dalessio is sheltering his father's assets.

Bell countered Ceraso's closing arguments by dismissing the defense as "a big cloud of smoke."

The shotgun shells matched the gun at the Whitacre house and local firefighters said they saw Whitacre's pickup truck pass their fire hall, on the route between the Dalessio and Whitacre homes, three times in the 90 minutes before the shooting, Bell said.

"Don't believe for a minute this is a big conspiracy. It's not," Bell told jurors. "It's the case of a man in a lawsuit with the Dalessios, and he's had enough."

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

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