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Salem woman to stand trial in mother's killing

Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Sarah Dawn Vercauteren is escorted away from the office of Magisterial District Judge Jason Buczak on February 19, 2014. Vercauteren allegedly confessed Friday afternoon to state police at Greensburg that she killed her mother, Dawn Marie Wagner, 51, in the mobile home they shared.

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Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 4:00 p.m.

Sarah Dawn Vercauteren told police she wanted to get high.

But her mother, Dawn Marie Wagner, would not give her car to Vercauteren, 25, so she could get out of their Salem Township home and go buy drugs on New Year's Eve.

“I got really ... upset and my body got really hot, and I seen the hammer and I picked up the hammer, and I stood on top of the counter and I hit her in the head with the hammer,” Vercauteren reportedly told investigators during a Jan. 10 interview that was played at her preliminary hearing on Wednesday.

Vercauteren claimed to be “dope sick” when she allegedly beat and strangled Wagner, 51, at their Hawk Drive mobile home. District Judge Jason Buczak ordered her to stand trial on a homicide charge.

Vercauteren appeared to cry and breathe rapidly at times during the 94-minute hearing. She clutched a tissue and wiped away tears as she listened to testimony from Trooper Owen Leonard and her mother's estranged husband, Larry Wagner.

Vercauteren was arrested Jan. 10 in connection with Dawn Wagner's death, three days after police allege she robbed a bank in Versailles then binged for days on heroin.

Wagner's body was found by Larry Wagner at 4:45 p.m. Jan. 9. He was checking on Wagner after receiving a call from her employer, Advanced Manufacturing Technologies in Penn Township.

“(The caller) informed me that Dawn had been missing from her job and (was) no longer responding to calls or texts,” Wagner testified.

He saw dog feces on the floor, but nothing else was amiss in the home. He “felt a bit of a reprieve” when he called out and got no reply, until he found the body on a bathroom floor.

An autopsy concluded that Wagner died of blunt-force trauma to the head and strangulation. Police said she was struck 18 times with a hammer.

Vercauteren appeared calm on most of the videotaped, 50-minute interview with Leonard and Trooper Ray Andrekanic. After Wagner had denied Vercauteren use of the car, Vercauteren said, she was in the kitchen making a pizza when she noticed the hammer and allegedly struck her mother with it repeatedly. Vercauteren told police she also struck her mother's dog in the head with the hammer.

“There was blood everywhere,” she said in the interview. “She was just laying there motionless and so I thought she was dead so I dragged her to the bathroom... .” She struck her mother again with the hammer, police said.

As Wagner was lying on the bathroom floor, she said, “Sarah, you can use my car, I'm sorry, you can use my car,” Vercauteren told police. “I told her, ‘I'm sorry and that I loved her,'” Vercauteren said in the interview.

Wagner began gurgling, Vercauteren told police. “(I) didn't want her to be suffering so I tried to choke her and I couldn't because it was so slippery” from the blood “and then I just left her there.”

Vercauteren retrieved duct tape from the kitchen and bound her mother's legs together, she said in the interview.

“I didn't want her to get up,” Vercauteren told police. “I thought that she was going to get up and go outside and tell somebody ... and I didn't want to get in trouble.”

Vercauteren's 2-year-old son then woke up and watched television while his mother attempted to clean up some of the blood, she said. Later, she took Wagner's bank cards, phone, checkbook and car, withdrew $600 and purchased a brick of heroin in McKeesport with her son in tow, she told police.

For the next few days, she stayed at a North Huntingdon motel with her son and used heroin, injecting it for the first time with the help of a friend, she told police. She would respond to text messages on Wagner's phone in an attempt to make it appear that her mother was still alive, police said.

On the night of Jan. 4, Vercauteren went to a Wal-Mart store and got cleaning supplies and a large blue bin she intended to put her mother in.

“I cleaned up the mess” and took down Christmas decorations, Vercauteren told police, but she didn't go near the bathroom and continued to use drugs. Vercauteren told police that she would relieve herself in a bucket and throw it outside.

On Jan. 7, she went to a court hearing for her son's father that was rescheduled and later robbed a bank because she was “fiending for dope,” Vercauteren told police. She was arrested shortly after by McKeesport police, driving her mother's car with her son inside.

“I was so sick. I didn't want to feel that way anymore,” she told police. “I didn't mean to do it. I didn't want to kill my mom. I didn't plan it. I was just really dope sick.”

Leonard testified that police did not drug test Vercauteren or determine when she last used drugs under cross-examination by public defender Greg Cecchetti. Vercauteren is being held without bond in the Westmoreland County Prison. She is scheduled for formal arraignment on March 6 in Allegheny County court on robbery and related charges.

Her son is in the care of relatives.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or




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