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Pair held for trial in teen's death

| Tuesday, April 8, 2003

The torture and killing of a Murrysville teenager began after she told of a cell phone call one of her attackers made to another woman, a witness testified Monday.

Leonard Penn, 23, of the Hill District, who is in the Allegheny County Jail after being arrested on unrelated charges the day after the slaying of Dana Pliakas, was the only witness yesterday afternoon in the coroner's inquest for Rodney Burton, 21, of Oak Street in North Braddock, and Brittany Williams, 19, of the 200 block of McCutcheon Lane in Penn Hills.

Coroner's Solicitor Timothy Uhrich ordered Burton and Williams held for trial on a charge of criminal homicide in the death of Pliakas, 17, a Franklin Regional High School junior.

Rankin District Justice Ross Cioppa also ordered Burton held for court on charges of kidnapping, false imprisonment, criminal conspiracy and carrying a firearm without a license. Williams also faces trial on charges of kidnapping, false imprisonment, criminal conspiracy, terroristic threats, criminal conspiracy and simple assault.

Someone on a Port Authority bus saw Pliakas' body, clad only in jewelry and a pair of socks, on March 23 at the bottom of concrete steps leading from Electric Avenue in North Braddock to the Route 30 viaduct. The coroner's office determined that she had been killed by a gunshot to the back of the head. Police said she had been beaten for hours before being taken outside, forced to strip and shot in the back of the head.

In his testimony yesterday, Penn described Burton and Williams as "a couple." The two, clad in red prison jumpsuits, sat expressionless during the hearing.

Penn said his cousin, whom he identified as Antonio, took him to Burton's North Braddock apartment between 8:30 and 9 p.m. March 22 for a party. Penn testified that Burton, Williams, Pliakas and Eileen Catania, Pliakas' friend, all were drinking 151-proof rum.

Penn said that a few hours later, he, Antonio, Burton and Pliakas left in Antonio's father's car to get chips and beverages from the 7-Eleven in Turtle Creek.

Penn said that during the trip Burton was on a cell phone talking to "some girl."

When they returned to the apartment, Burton and Williams "had a little conversation" about Burton's cell phone call, Penn said. Penn testified that a "confrontation" then occurred between Williams and Pliakas about the call. The reason for the confrontation was not clear.

Penn said Williams and Catania began assaulting Pliakas.

"They both hit her, kicked and punched her," Penn said.

Penn said Williams hit Pliakas with a blue detergent bottle and belts.

"(Pliakas) said, 'Why are you doing this• Oh, please stop,'" Penn testified.

Penn said Williams got on top of Pliakas and rode her "like a horse."

Williams also retrieved a "black and silver automatic or semiautomatic" handgun from Burton's room, "waved it around and said (to Pliakas) 'I could kill you now if I wanted to,'" according to Penn.

Penn said Williams then ripped Pliakas' clothing and told her to strip. Pliakas initially refused, but then complied.

Pliakas eventually was permitted to dress, Penn testified.

Penn said Pliakas attempted to leave at one point, but Burton and Williams dragged her back into the apartment.

Penn testified that before leaving with Williams and Pliakas, Burton told him, "we've got to take care of this" because Burton feared he would be implicated in Pliakas' beating.

Penn said the three left about 1:30 a.m., and he remained at the apartment with Catania. About 45 minutes later, Penn said, Burton and Williams returned to the apartment. He said Catania did not ask about Pliakas.

Upon cross-examination by defense attorneys for Burton and Williams, Penn testified that neither he nor Catania attempted to help Pliakas.

First Assistant District Attorney Edward Borkowski said Catania will be available to testify at trial. Borkowski said he doesn't expect any charges will be filed against her.

Attorneys for Burton and Williams said the blame for Pliakas' death should be placed on Penn.

"The only murderer in the room is Mr. Penn," attorney David DeFazio said. "(His testimony) is beyond incredible to the point of fantastic."

"(Penn) got arrested, and he is trying to work his way out of a jam," DeFazio said.

Frank E. Reilly, Burton's attorney, called it a case of "the classic jailhouse snitch without the jailhouse."

Penn was arrested March 24 on a warrant on unrelated charges of forgery, improper use of credit cards, receiving stolen property and violation of his probation.

Borkowski said Penn is a credible witness and physical evidence corroborates his testimony.

Pliakas' father, Stephen, who attended the coroner's hearing, said he believes the justice system will prevail in the case.

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