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Jurors hear testimony in fatal shooting

by on May 21, 2014 11:00 AM

Gregory “Sam” Patterson will be going to a state prison when his trial is over.

Patterson, of Glen Campbell, is facing an Indiana County Court jury this week on charges stemming from the shooting death of James Alexander, of Ernest, last summer in Clymer.

His involvement is undisputed, but his role in the slaying is the only question.

Both defense and prosecuting attorneys told jurors before testimony began Tuesday that Patterson, 34, has admitted that he and a companion, Christopher Salsgiver, had met up with Alexander on the night of June 24 on a walking trail flanking Two Lick Creek, between Route 403 and Sage Street.

Alexander went there along with Jeffrey Swigart expecting to sell heroin to Patterson, police say. But Patterson and Salsgiver’s plan was to kill Alexander and steal money and drugs from him, the jury was told.

Judge Thomas Bianco said Patterson’s participation is not contested.

“The defendant, Gregory Patterson, admits to being in a conspiracy with Christopher Salsgiver to kill James Alexander,” Bianco told the jury, reading from a list of more than a dozen stipulations agreed upon by lawyers in the case. Stipulations are issues that the jury is being told to regard as facts without having to hear testimony and evidence to prove them.

But it will be up to the jury to decide this week which of the men pulled the trigger.

District Attorney Patrick Dougherty said the evidence will bear out a consistent story pointing to Patterson as the mastermind behind the conspiracy and the one who fired the single shot that killed Alexander.

He said the jury should convict Patterson of first-degree murder.

“James Alexander was killed because he could be robbed of his money and drugs. The plan was hatched by the defendant,” Dougherty told the jury in his introduction to the trial.

Modern technology — cellphones and text messages — tell exactly what happened, Dougherty said.

Patterson and Swigart texted each other to arrange the drug deal in the hours before the shooting, he said. And evidence will show Patterson texted his girlfriend, Denise Williams, to say he planned to kill Alexander before the men met on the trail, and then told her following the shooting that he had killed him, Dougherty said.

“The stories are consistent,” he said.

But defense attorney Thomas Kauffman urged the jury to sort through a variety of stories that they will hear in the trial.

“You have a lot of people doing bad things — dealing in drugs, and not being upfront with police officers,” he said. “There are inconsistencies but you will find nuggets of truth. By the end, you’ll figure out what the true story is.”

Kauffman said evidence would show Patterson was intoxicated that night, that there would be evidence in the text messages sent by Salsgiver, and that investigators used pressure tactics on Patterson when he was arrested.

“The question is, what degree of murder is appropriate,” Kauffman said in his opening statement to the jury. “You’ll be able to assess who you think was the real shooter in the case. When you consider the total circumstances, you’ll find this is a case of third-degree murder.”

Swigart, 35, of Homer City, testified that he and Alexander had been staying in Clymer at the residence of Chuck Krouse.

On a routine basis, he said, he and Alexander would travel to Murrysville to buy supplies of heroin that they would sell to users in Indiana County and keep for their own use.

On the night before the shooting, Swigart testified, he and Alexander were approached by Patterson in the parking lot at Sandy’s convenience store in Dixonville, where they exchanged cellphone numbers so they could arrange for Patterson to buy heroin from Alexander.

The following morning, Swigart said, he and Alexander drove with Krouse to pick up several bricks of heroin — 50 bags each — in Murrysville, sold some to people in Coral and Plumville, then visited Denise Clark and Floyd “Pooch” Fishel at their homes in Clymer.

While they traveled, Patterson texted Swigart and asked if he was interested in a 9 mm pistol.

“I told him I don’t mess around with guns,” Swigart said.

In later messages, Swigart said, they arranged for a heroin deal. Patterson wanted Swigart and Alexander to go to Twenty Four Road in Cherryhill Township, but Swigart told him they had no ride, and Patterson agreed to meet them in Clymer, in a secluded area of the trail.

Patterson first asked to buy one bundle — 10 bags of heroin — for $150 but later asked for three bags, Swigart testified.

Swigart testified he and Alexander walked from Fishel’s home near Route 403 and followed Patterson’s instruction to the meeting point.

In the courtroom, Swigart pointed out the locations on a large poster showing an aerial photograph of the Clymer area.

“We found Sam and another guy I didn’t know,” Swigart said. “I walked past the guy to talk to Sam and had three bundles of heroin in my hand. I showed him one and asked where the money is at.

“Then he lunged at me and put me in a headlock, and we wrestled around standing up,” he said. “The guy he was with pulled a gun and said, ‘get on the ground, (expletives).’”

Swigart said he pulled himself free of Patterson’s grasp and ran back toward Fishel’s house. Thirty seconds to one minute later he said, he heard a shot fired.

Swigart said he didn’t see Alexander being shot and didn’t know who fired the gun.

“I ran faster,” when he heard the shot, he said.

Swigart said he phoned Krouse to pick him up, told Krouse to call 911, and had Krouse drop him off at Fishel’s house.

“Pooch went back to the trail to check,” Swigart said. “Pooch got back and said (Alexander) was dead.”

Swigart said Krouse drove him to Creekside to meet his girlfriend, and was picked up and questioned by state police. Swigart said police haven’t filed any charges against him in connection with the incident.

Indiana County Coroner Jerry Overman, who investigated the death last summer while he was the chief deputy coroner, identified crime scene photos in his testimony Tuesday. Several photos showed Alexander’s body on the trail, and one was a close-up of Alexander’s face showing a bullet wound above his left eye.

An autopsy showed the bullet entered from above, and traveled through Alexander’s head and neck into his chest, Overman said.

State Trooper Richard Nuttall, of the forensic services division at Troop A headquarters in Greensburg, testified of collecting evidence at the scene and of serving search warrants at the residences of Melissa Salsgiver, Richard McCausland, Deborah Patterson and a fourth home along Grand Avenue, in the Glen Campbell area.

Nuttall said he also tested Swigart’s hands and clothing for gunshot residue but didn’t say if anything was found.

In addition to offering crime scene photos and showing Alexander’s baseball cap, with a bullet hole in the brim, Dougherty played a video showing state police troopers Doug Snyder and Scott Mackanick questioning Patterson about his activity on the day of the shooting.

The interview went on about one hour and 15 minutes on the evening of June 25, the day following Alexander’s death.

Patterson denied having a role in the shooting but began conceding his involvement as police confronted him with evidence they had collected.

He said he had stayed the night of June 23 at Rick McCausland’s home and spent the day with his girlfriend, Denise Williams, shopped at Walmart in Punxsutawney, then went with Salsgiver to the American Legion in Glen Campbell, where they drank three or four pitchers of beer and planned to go to Clymer.

They walked the Clymer trail and encountered two people, but “I just kept right on going,” Patterson said. “I didn’t see anybody shoot nobody. I went across the creek and went to the Sheetz store.”

Police quizzed Patterson about a gun reported missing from McCausland’s home.

Patterson said McCausland had been playing with the gun in a dangerous way — looking down the barrel — and said he took it away and hid it to keep McCausland from hurting himself.

The troopers asked why he texted Swigart to offer him a gun.

Patterson insisted that he returned the gun to McCausland’s kitchen and left it under a pile of clothes, and told troopers that Salsgiver and Williams had followed him into the kitchen and that he didn’t see it again.

Questioning him about meeting Alexander and Swigart at Sandy’s store the night before the killing, Patterson acknowledged that he “saw a white guy and a black guy there, but I didn’t know either of them,” he said.

“The black guy asked if I wanted to buy drugs, but I said no, I don’t need drugs.”

The troopers confronted him on meeting the men again the next night on the trail.

“You’ve put yourself at a place where a pistol was stolen and at the scene of a homicide,” Mackanick told Patterson on the video. “We have your call records. We can tell you what messages you sent.

“Who took the gun to the shooting?”

“It had to be Chris,” Patterson said.

“You need to come clean,” Mackanick told him.

“We went to buy heroin. We discussed getting two or three bundles, for $150 for each bundle,” Patterson said. “I swear I had no idea that gun was going to be shot.”

“You have to come forward. We know the answers. You have to help yourself,” the police told him.

Patterson started giving more details.

“The white kid showed me the bundles. He put his hand out, it was a white bag,” he said.

Then Salsgiver pulled the gun and “the white guy took off,” Patterson said.

“Where’s the gun?” police asked.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “I’m trying to be straight with you. I’m scared. I don’t want a life sentence.”

“When we go pick up Chris, what’s the chance that he’ll say you did it?” troopers asked Patterson.

“I don’t know.”

Mackanick showed Patterson a copy of telephone records showing the text message he sent to Williams, reading “I killed him.”

“I swear on everything I love. I’m not trying to (expletive) you. I did not pull that trigger,” Patterson insisted. “I told her that because of the simple fact that he had ripped her off before, so she would think I …”

Patterson then conceded that there was a plan to lure Alexander to the trail.

“I was getting sick and tired of it. But that does not give me the right to take someone’s life. I never have and never will, unless I’m being threatened. And my life was not being threatened.

“I thought it was going to be a fistfight.”

Minutes later on the video recording, Patterson, who acknowledged his Miranda rights at the outset of the interview, stopped and asked to have a lawyer.

Police ended the interview.

In the court Tuesday, Dougherty also played recordings of the telephone calls to the Indiana County 911 center.

Krouse is heard in a calm voice telling police he heard a gunshot being fired on the trail.

Fishel, who phoned after finding Alexander on the trail, is heard out of breath, in an excited voice, directing authorities where to find the wounded man.

The trial is expected to end before the weekend. To save time in the proceedings, Dougherty and Kauffman agreed to a list of stipulated facts that Bianco read for the jury Tuesday, including:

• Salsgiver and Patterson each drank six to eight pints of Budweiser beer between 4:20 and 6 p.m. the day of the shooting at the Glen Campbell American Legion.

• Surveillance video recordings showed Alexander, Swigart and Patterson at Sandy’s store on June 23.

• A pathologist could not determine if Alexander was standing, sitting or kneeling when he was shot.

• Patterson assisted police in a search of Two Lick Creek on Sept. 10 in an attempt to locate the murder weapon.

• Alexander was 5-feet-8, Patterson is 6-feet, one-half-inch tall, and Salsgiver is 6-feet-4.

• Toxicology tests showed Alexander had heroin in his bloodstream when he died.

• Salsgiver would have been called as a witness by both the prosecution and defense, but he has elected to exercise his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself.

The trial resumed this morning in Bianco’s courtroom.

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.
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