Beatty held in triple murder
Murder charges stemming from the June 1 slayings of three members of a northern Indiana County family will go to trial in the county court, and the case appears to be far less of a "whodunit" than a matter of "what was he thinking?"
Lewis Beatty, 40, was ordered Friday to stand trial following a preliminary hearing that lasted slightly more than one hour -- a relatively brief proceeding with homicide charges at issue.
[Shown here, Lewis Beatty, accused of killing his estranged wife and two daughters, was led into the county courthouse Friday by deputies Tom Campisano, left, and Steve McCully for a preliminary hearing, where he was held for trial.]
Beatty faces three general counts of criminal homicide for the killings of his estranged wife and two young daughters.
He also is charged with two counts of arson and three counts of animal cruelty.
The hearing was anchored by a state trooper's testimony concerning a confession that Beatty reportedly offered just hours after Christine Beatty, 33; Amanda Beatty, 11; and Sara Beatty, 6; were found dead in two burning homes in the Home and Marion Center areas.
Based on that recorded admission at the state police station in Indiana, Beatty has been held in the Indiana County Jail without bond. And District Judge Guy Haberl on Friday upheld all the charges, ordering Beatty back to the lockup to await his next court appearance.
He could join dozens of other defendants who already are scheduled to appear or to be represented by lawyers in court on Sept. 6.
That's the monthly date for formal arraignments, usually a routine matter of placing defendants' names and charges in the legal pipeline to be scheduled for trial or a plea bargain.
But Sept. 6 would be anything but routine for Beatty.
The arraignment date is District Attorney Patrick Dougherty's deadline to declare whether he would seek the death penalty if Beatty is convicted of first-degree murder.
"We will make the decision in the next couple of weeks," Dougherty said. "But we could have it before then."
A first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic sentence of life in prison, but Pennsylvania law allows prosecutors to ask juries to further decide whether a convicted killer should be executed by lethal injection. Capital punishment is reserved for cases in which certain proven aggravating circumstances outweigh any proven mitigating circumstances.
Of the 18 aggravating circumstances recognized in the state's crime code, a death sentence for Beatty could be considered under very few of them.
A jury may consider execution when a killing is committed by means of torture, or when a victim is less than 12 years old. And although the killings took place virtually at the same time, a murder or voluntary manslaughter verdict for one may be held as an aggravating circumstance to consider the death sentence for a murder conviction in one of the other slayings.
State police charged that Beatty choked each of the victims, then cut their necks.
Family members said in June that Lewis Beatty was sometimes emotionally abusive of his wife and daughters, and was "very possessive" but not physically abusive.
The couple married May 7, 2005, but had been separated for about a month. Christine moved from the family's home along Morrow Road, South Mahoning Township, and rented a mobile home for herself and her daughters about 10 miles away, along Pfeiffer Road in East Mahoning Township.
At a news conference following the killings, state police said they learned the couple reached verbal agreements about sharing custody of the children. On the weekend of the slayings, the girls were supposed to stay with their father.
Christine Beatty's father, Ronald Smail, told the Gazette that Lewis Beatty wanted the family to go out to dinner together on June 1, but that Christine had declined. Smail said that incident may have sparked the outbreak of violence.
But according to testimony Friday at the preliminary hearing, something else may have been the trigger.
Beatty explained the sequence of events of June 1 in an interview with troopers at the state police station in Indiana, said Trooper Timothy Lipniskis, the lead investigator.
"He said he picked up Sara following her kindergarten graduation ceremony at about a quarter to three, and they went home," Lipniskis said. "He said Sara played with her Barbie dolls and talked to him. His daughter brought up that her mother had been talking to another man.
"Then he said he reached over and he killed his daughter."
Some relatives of the victims quietly cried and consoled one another in the courtroom.
Lipniskis went on.
"Mr. Beatty told us, 'I choked her, then I slit her throat' with his hunting knife. He told us he used both hands to choke her," Lipniskis testified.
Authorities said Sara was found on the bottom level of a bunk bed set in the girls' bedroom.
Beatty told police that Amanda arrived home on the school bus at 4:10 p.m. and immediately wanted to see Sara.
"When she went down the hall, he grabbed her and choked her with both hands," Lipniskis said. "He advised us that he slit her throat."
Amanda's body was found on the living room floor.
Beatty traveled to Christine Beatty's home a little after 5 p.m., had a short conversation with her, and when she got up to leave, "he said he choked her ... he grabbed a (kitchen) knife and slit her throat," Lipniskis testified.
Beatty admitted that he set a fire in Christine's home, then drove back to his house, where "he advised us that he killed, by shooting, the girls' pets -- a pony, a dog and a goat."
Police asked Beatty why, Lipniskis said.
"He said it was because there would be no one left to take care of the animals," Lipniskis said.
Beatty told investigators he went to visit a neighbor, Beryl Lydic, to give him a key to a building at the Ox Hill Fairgrounds. Lydic asked about hearing gunshots, and Beatty said that he had been shooting groundhogs near his home.
"He lied?" Dougherty asked.
"Yes," Lipniskis said. "And then he set his house on fire."
Beatty was trapped in his burning house and was rescued by his neighbor, the Rev. Joe Boomhower. Beatty suffered cuts on his arms, but state police would not speculate whether he was injured while climbing through a broken window or intentionally cut himself.
Beatty showed no emotion during the hearing. He remained seated at a table with court-appointed public defenders Fred Hummel Jr. to his right and Bradley Ophaug to his left. Occasionally, he jotted notes during the testimony.
Haberl arranged to conduct the hearing in the larger and more secure Courtroom No. 1 in the Indiana County Court House, instead of the small district court hearing room in the Indiana County Courthouse Annex.
An exchange of objections during Lipniskis' testimony hinted that the attorneys may be positioning to debate Lewis Beatty's state of mind when the case goes to trial.
Beatty told investigators that between the time he killed his daughters and when he killed Christine Beatty, he drove to Plumville and visited a First Commonwealth Bank branch office and Nelson's Mini Mart.
Hummel objected to the relevance of the details.
"This is to show a pattern of conduct," Dougherty said.
Haberl overruled Hummel and let Lipniskis continue.
At the bank, Lipniskis said, "he was going to put his mother's name on his account, but he was not successful. At Nelson's he purchased a soda."
Dougherty asked what kind. Hummel objected. Haberl overruled.
"It was a Code Red, which would be a Mountain Dew," Lipniskis continued.
Beatty told police that he drove on Ambrose Road to Marion Center to wait for Christine to leave work at 5 p.m., and that he parked in a cemetery for some of the time he waited.
In cross-examination, Hummel asked Lipniskis to read from the transcript of the confession certain passages showing Beatty was less certain of the details of his story.
Several times, Beatty answered "I don't know" or "I don't recall," Lipniskis said.
Dougherty objected, saying the answers were being quoted out of context.
Haberl let Hummel continue but directed him to ask Lipniskis to explain what questions Beatty couldn't answer.
Some examples: Police asked Beatty, "Did you go to the bedroom to get the knife or did you have it with you?" and he answered, "I don't recall," Lipniskis said.
Reading from the transcript, Lipniskis said Beatty was asked, "Where did you go?" and again responded, "I don't recall."
Hummel also asked Lipniskis during cross-examination for details about Beatty's statement at the state police station.
The recorded interview began about 1:30 a.m., more than five hours after police first found Beatty being treated by paramedics in an ambulance outside his burning home, Lipniskis said.
And although he didn't have medical records with exact details of the care Beatty received at Indiana Regional Medical Center, Lipniskis testified that Beatty had been treated "for smoke, as far as I know." He also said that at least one of Beatty's wrists had been bandaged, but he didn't know whether doctors used stitches to close Beatty's wound.
In earlier testimony, Indiana County Coroner Michael Baker said he had the victims' bodies sent to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office, where forensic pathologists performed autopsies on June 2. The autopsies showed each died of exsanguination, or blood loss, from incised wounds of the neck, and Baker said he ruled each death a homicide.
State Trooper Timothy Frew, a fire marshal at the Indiana station, testified that he found evidence of four separate fires in Lewis Beatty's home and two fires in Christine Beatty's rented mobile home. He said all were intentionally set.
In the trailer, a blanket or quilt had been set on fire on a couch in the living room, but the fire burned out before it spread, Frew said. The other fire had been set to the sheets on the end of a bed in a rear bedroom, and the flames spread to the exterior of the trailer and caused the most damage.
In Lewis Beatty's house, Frew testified, some clothes and papers had been set on fire below a window in a corner bedroom, but caused little damage.
Another fire set in the bedding of the lower bunk bed in his daughter's bedroom also "put itself out," Frew said.
A fire set to a piece of newspaper next to a couch in the living room "was the smallest of the four," he said. It left a burn mark about 3 or 4 inches in diameter and the flame almost immediately went out by itself.
The fourth fire was set to a book bag with books and some clothing on the floor next to the clothes dryer in the laundry room, according to Frew.
Frew said he found no evidence of accelerants and ruled out all possible accidental causes of the fires, and ruled each was arson,
In cross-examination, Hummel asked Frew how he could conclude that the fires were deliberately started, when he was not there and didn't see anyone set them.
"I would say it is not possible to have four accidental fires at the same scene," Frew told Hummel.
This story edited at 2 p.m. to correct the attribution of all statements related to the fire investigation to Trooper Timothy Frew.