Daughter to be charged with killing Salem mother New Year's Eve
By Paul Peirce and Richard Gazarik
Published: Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, 10:36 a.m.
The 25-year-old daughter of a Salem woman beat her mother to death on New Year's Eve by hitting her 18 times with a hammer and strangling her because the mother wouldn't let the daughter use the car, state police at Greenburg said on Friday.
Sarah Dawn Vercauteren, who was arrested on Tuesday for a bank robbery in Versailles, allegedly confessed Friday afternoon to state police at Greensburg that she killed her mother, Dawn Marie Wagner, 51, in the mobile home they shared.
Investigators said the argument over Vercauteren's request to use her mother's car and the assault took place about 7:30 p.m. New Year's Eve.
“Sarah became irate with her mother and removed a hammer from a kitchen drawer and struck her mother in the head. As her mother tried to flee, Sarah continually struck her mother with the hammer,” Trooper Steve Limani said in a statement.
Vercauteren dragged her mother to the bathroom, where she bound her with duct tape so the victim could not escape, police said.
“Sarah, realizing her mother was still alive, bent down over her mother, and she tried (to) strangle her with her bare hands. Sarah Vercauteren left her mother, Dawn Marie Wagner, on the bathroom floor,” Limani said.
Coroner Ken Bacha said he believes, with the severity of Wagner's injuries, she could not have lived long after the initial assault.
Limani said investigators learned that the mother and daughter did not have a good relationship before the slaying, but Wagner loved her grandson, Skyler.
“There was nothing (wrong) that would have led her (Wagner) to believe she would be killed,” Limani said.
Vercauteren acted alone in the assault, which occurred while the suspect's 2-year-old son was in the mobile home, Limani said. Investigators determined there was no forcible entry into the mobile home.
After the killing, Vercauteren sometimes stayed in the mobile home with her child while her mother's body remained in the bathroom, police said.
To cover up the crime, the daughter allegedly used the victim's phone to send text messages to make it appear as if her mother were still alive, according to police. Limani said Vercauteren claimed in the communications that her mother had fallen and hurt her back and could not go to work.
Police said they did not know whether Vercauteren was under the influence of any drugs during the homicide, but Lt. James Shaw said Vercauteren had been involved in illegal drug use before the slaying. After the homicide, the suspect went to a North Huntingdon motel, where she allegedly used heroin while in the company of her child, Shaw said.
Vercauteren was arraigned on a charge of criminal homicide on Friday night before Washington Township District Judge Jason Buczak and remanded to Allegheny County Jail, where she had been held after being arrested in connection with the bank robbery. Buczak did not set bail on the homicide charges and scheduled her preliminary hearing for Jan. 17.
Vercauteren, who said nothing as reporters shouted questions to her as she was led from the state police barracks near Greensburg, answered Buczak's questions in a low voice and was shaking slightly during the proceedings that lasted less than five minutes.
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said during a news conference that he would review the circumstances surrounding the case in deciding whether to seek the death penalty against Vercauteren.
She was brought to the Greensburg barracks about 3 p.m. Friday from the Allegheny County Jail, where she was held since the bank robbery.
Wagner confided to her Salem Township neighbors and co-workers that she had tired of her daughter's erratic behavior and planned to ask her and her 2-year-old grandson to move out.
Her body was discovered about 4:45 p.m. Thursday at her home in the Forbes Trail Park on Hawk Drive. The victim's estranged husband, Larry Wagner, went to check on her welfare when he could not reach her, Limani said.
The victim's last known contact was a text on Jan. 6 sent to Larry Wagner, Limani said.
“Dawn Marie dearly loved her grandson, Skyler, and her daughter, Sarah, but she told me she couldn't take Sarah's behavior anymore, and planned to tell her they had to move. All of this is so hard to believe it is happening,” said Donna Meyer, a neighbor who worked with Wagner at Advanced Manufacturing Technologies Inc. in Penn Township.
Neighbor Jan Rager said the community was stunned on learning that Wagner was killed inside her home.
Vercauteren was pulled over by McKeesport police as she drove her mother's red Chevrolet, with Skyler inside, shortly after the robbery on Tuesday, neighbors said.
“This is all still sinking in. It's such a shock. Dawn was very quiet, kind and caring. She kept to herself, but I know she was a real hard worker,” Rager said. “You just don't think stuff like that can happen to someone on your own street, to people you know.
“Dawn had some concerns about Sarah's personal activities. Sarah used to live in Florida and Illinois before moving in here a few weeks ago with Skyler. Dawn had been through a rough patch herself, moving here about six months ago after splitting with her husband.”
Larry Wagner became concerned when he received a telephone call from Advanced Manufacturing Technologies telling him Wagner had not shown up for work for four days.
“He got hold of a maintenance man at (the mobile home park) and they discovered her body,” Limani said.
A co-worker at AMT text-messaged Wagner on Monday about her absence from work and received a text-message reply from Wagner's phone, Meyer said.
“She said she missed work because of a problem with her back ... but I wonder if it was Dawn replying,” Meyer said as she wiped her eyes with a tissue.
Investigators said Vercauteren admitted that she had been replying to her mother's cellphone messages via text messages to avoid detection.
“I invited her, Sarah and Skyler over for Christmas dinner at my son's home, and they said they would come, but they didn't. I just keep beating myself up that maybe if I had gone over there and checked on her earlier ...,” Meyer said.
Advanced Manufacturing Technologies did not return messages seeking comment.
Vercauteren's fiance, Jarison Pastories, declined to comment.
His mother, Jackie Pastories, who lives in McKeesport with her son, said she is caring for Skyler and another child fathered by her son.
“They need every bit of stability they can,” she said. “Our primary goal is the children. We're learning everything from TV.”
Staff writer Joe Napsha contibuted to this story. Paul Peirce and Richard Gazarik are staff writers for Trib Total Media.
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