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Husband tearfully denies 1981 slaying

Paul Peirce
| Friday, April 8, 2011

A Florida man occasionally dabbed tears from his cheeks with a handkerchief Thursday as he repeatedly denied that he bludgeoned his wife with a blackjack, stuffed her body into her car and set it on fire 30 years ago in Somerset County.

John David Dawson, now 61, testified for almost five hours in his own defense during the ninth day of his trial for murdering his wife, Kathleen, 30, along a remote road in Conemaugh Township.

District Attorney Jerry Spangler is attempting to prove the furloughed Bethlehem Steel Co. worker killed his wife of nine years on Nov. 9, 1981, to collect $25,968 in insurance money and to move to Florida with his mistress.

Yesterday, Dawson denied any involvement with Kathleen's murder and claimed he still loved her. Both Dawson's attorney, Joseph Policicchio, and Spangler questioned Dawson at length about his mistress, Rose Saylor, a Jennerstown-area bartender. Saylor and Dawson moved to Florida three months after his wife's death.

"Did you love Rose?" Policicchio asked Dawson.

"No," Dawson replied.

"Did you love Kathy?" his attorney then asked.

"Yes," Dawson replied.

Policicchio asked Dawson why he carried on an affair with Saylor, a married mother of seven who was then 44 -- 10 years older than Dawson.

Dawson said the relationship was sexual.

"I don't know why. ... I cannot answer that. I did a lot of things I shouldn't have then," Dawson said.

Dawson said he met Saylor, who tended bar at Herb's Tavern, about six weeks before his wife's murder. He testified he often met Saylor at the bar.

"Kathy would come home from work. ... I'd have dinner ready. We'd eat dinner and talk, she'd go to bed and then I'd disappear (to meet Saylor)," Dawson said.

The jury of seven women and five men will hear closing arguments this morning and then begin deliberations. On Tuesday, presiding Judge John Cascio ruled there was insufficient evidence presented by prosecutors for jurors to consider two charges of arson and another charge of criminal conspiracy that state police had filed against Dawson.

Cascio's decision means that jurors will decide whether Dawson is guilty of first- or third-degree murder or whether he should be acquitted of all charges. If he is convicted of first-degree murder, he will serve a mandatory life term.

During his testimony, Dawson downplayed burn marks that several witnesses have said they noticed on his cheeks the morning his wife was murdered and later in the week at her funeral. The prosecution says Dawson suffered the burns when a half-full gasoline can Dawson left in his wife's car exploded the night she was murdered.

Yesterday, Dawson told jurors he burned himself when he threw kerosene into a coal furnace he was trying to ignite at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 9 while his wife was working the 3 to 11 p.m. shift. Dawson said he was burned by "flashback" when he tossed a match into the furnace.

During cross-examination, Dawson was questioned about statements he had made to several witnesses, including his nephew, Duane Schmidt, that he burned himself the morning after his wife was killed. Schmidt, who was from Jacksonville, died after the preliminary hearing. But the judge permitted his previous testimony, which implicates Dawson in her killing, to be read to jurors.

Dawson denied he had repeatedly changed his story about the source of the burns. "Duane made a lot of statements at the preliminary hearing that weren't true," Dawson said.

The district attorney pressed Dawson about a deal he allegedly proposed to two friends at a Windber bar: telling William Stiffler, who was having marital problems, that he would kill Stiffler's wife and her boyfriend, if he would, in turn, kill Dawson's wife.

"Did you not say to Bill Stiffler and Doug Bowser you'd pull a two-for-one ... about killing your old lady, Kathy?" Spangler asked.

Dawson said he was drunk and made the comment in jest.

"If Doug didn't take the statement out of context, no one would have made anything of it," Dawson said.

When Spangler asked Dawson whether he killed his wife or whether he was at the scene when she was murdered, Dawson denied any involvement.

"No, I did not do it. I had nothing to do with that," he said.

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