Pair held for trial in teen's death
By Karen Zapf
Published: 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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Kovacevic: Bylsma’s moves — yes, moves — pay off
- County still waiting for Versailles bar owner payments
- 2 key Operation Pork Chop defendants delay pleas
- Penguins rally to escape with a victory in Game 1 against Columbus
- Physical Columbus team is a hit in playoff opener against Penguins
- Higher fuel costs help established airlines, hinder startups
- At least three people dead in Armstrong County crash
- New Kensington-Arnold lays groundwork for consolidation
- South Fayette parents express dissatisfaction with handling of bullying
- Legal experts question prosecuting South Fayette boy for recording bullies
- Play of the game: Sutter’s goal completes rally