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Lower Burrell man released on house arrest to await trial

| Monday, May 12, 2014, 12:53 p.m.
James 'Lutzo' Ameris III of Lower Burrell

A Lower Burrell man awaiting trial for allegedly possessing the gun used by the man who shot and killed Lower Burrell police Officer Derek Kotecki will be released from jail.

After a brief hearing on Monday, Westmoreland County Judge Richard E. McCormick Jr. ordered that James “Lutzo” Ameris III be placed on house arrest while he awaits trial.

Ameris, who will live with his brother in New Kensington, will be released from jail as soon as county probation officials approve the residence as suitable for house arrest, McCormick said.

Ameris, 54, was charged with a weapons offense involving the gun Charlie Post used during a shootout with Lower Burrell police in front of the Dairy Queen on Greensburg Road on Oct. 2, 2011.

Kotecki was killed by Post as police attempted to take him into custody. Post, 33, of Lower Burrell died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound moments before he was shot by police.

McCormick gave no reason for his decision to release Ameris just three weeks before his scheduled trial date.

In January, Judge John Blahovec ruled that Ameris' alleged admission to federal agents about obtaining illegal guns could not be used as trial evidence after the defense argued that a federal attorney assured Ameris he would not face federal gun charges.

Ameris is scheduled for four trials in June, including the gun case and a related case in which he is accused of intimidating a witness.

Ameris has been in jail since his arrest on May 1, 2012.

“There is absolutely no reason he should be in jail for two years. God forbid if he is found not guilty. No one can give him those two years back,” defense attorney Duke George argued before McCormick on Monday.

Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Calisti said Blahovec, who is now retired, denied the same request in December.

“He is a danger to the community,” Calisti said.

Lower Burrell police Chief Tim Weitzel did not return a call seeking comment.

Ameris is one of four men charged with possessing the weapon Post used in the Kotecki slaying.

According to prosecutors, Meryl E. Smith III, 33, of New Kensington initially won the weapon at a gun show in 2010. Police contend that when Smith did not have identification with him at that time, he gave the ticket to another man, Robert Zentner, 58, of New Kensington.

Zentner claimed the gun and gave it to Smith but did not formally transfer ownership of the weapon, according to prosecutors.

Police said Smith eventually gave the gun to Nevin Lawson, 43, of Allegheny Township. Police believe Ameris either bought or stole the gun from Lawson as the men were in his workshop snorting cocaine.

Smith pleaded guilty to gun charges and was ordered to serve a 15- to 30-month prison sentence. Zentner pleaded guilty to weapons offenses and was sentenced to serve six to 23 months in jail.

Charges are pending against Lawson.

In addition to the gun charge, Ameris is facing trial on charges that he attempted to intimidate Lawson, a witness against him in the firearms case.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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