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Allegheny County's top homicide prosecutor passionate about 'dream job'

| Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, 11:41 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Lisa Pellegrini, acting head of the District Attorney’s homicide unit, stands in the DA's office at the Allegheny County Courthouse on Tuesday, August 13, 2013. Pellegrini is the first woman to head the unit since District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. created it about 12 years ago.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Lisa Pellegrini, acting head of the District Attorney’s homicide unit, stands in a courtroom at the Allegheny County Courthouse on Tuesday, August 13, 2013. Pellegrini is the first woman to head the unit since District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. created it about 12 years ago.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini.

The televised trial of a bodybuilder in the slaying of a young teen propelled Lisa Pellegrini toward the place she stands 24 years later: top prosecutor in a sensational Pittsburgh homicide.

“I was just mesmerized and intrigued,” said Pellegrini, an assistant Allegheny County district attorney who was 27 and just out of graduate school when Robert Golub's trial began in the 1989 strangulation of Kelly Ann Tinyes, 13, on Long Island. “I knew that's what I wanted to do.”

Pellegrini earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Washington & Jefferson College and a master's in business from Pace University in New York, then enrolled in law school. She graduated from Touro College Law Center in New York in 1995.

“I didn't go to law school to be a lawyer. I went to be a prosecutor,” she said.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. selected Pellegrini, 50, of Downtown to be interim head of his homicide unit in March, when Mark V. Tranquilli took unpaid leave to run for judge.

In the position, as the first woman to hold it, she's responsible for approving arrest and search warrants for homicides, and assigning and trying homicide cases. She earns $83,910 a year.

“This is my dream job,” Pellegrini said.

She found herself in the spotlight last month when her office filed a homicide charge against Robert Ferrante, 64, of Schenley Farms. The University of Pittsburgh researcher is accused of using cyanide to fatally poison his wife, Autumn Marie Klein, 41, a UPMC neurologist who died April 20.

Ferrante, who pleaded not guilty, is jailed awaiting a preliminary hearing scheduled for Oct. 22.

“It's a one-of-a-kind-case,” Pellegrini said. She said she could not say more because of a gag order in the case.

Other cases on Pellegrini's resume include the February 2009 conviction of Bryan Sedlak of Greenfield for a homicide in which parts of the victim's dismembered body were never found, and the April conviction of Anthony Bush of Knoxville for beating his girlfriend's son to death.

Her biggest case was in June 2011, when a jury found Richard Poplawski guilty of gunning down three Pittsburgh police officers responding to his Stanton Heights home on April 4, 2009.

Tranquilli, who worked the case with Pellegrini, said she is “passionate about her job, very intense, diligent and extremely capable.”

Their work earned them the Special Award for Exemplary Homicide Prosecution from Amen Corner at the organization's 11th annual Sen. John Heinz Law Enforcement Awards Luncheon.

“Lisa was a lifesaver some days,” said Pittsburgh homicide Detective Dale Canofari, one of two lead investigators who shared the award. “She had outstanding preparation.”

The daughter of Jan Pellegrini Hartsough and Ronald Pellegrini, a cardiothoracic surgeon, she grew up in Whitehall and graduated from Baldwin High School, where she was a cheerleader, her father said.

“Somewhere along the line, she developed this attitude that societal wrongs should not go without punishment. That's a passion of hers,” he said.

She has a younger brother who is a surgeon in California and two half siblings.

After law school, Pellegrini worked for the Suffolk County, N.Y., district attorney's office for two years, then returned to Pittsburgh. She was nominated as the 2000 prosecutor of the year by the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators for convictions in an international check fraud scheme.

“Anyone that knows her knows how dedicated she is to her profession,” said Ross police Detective Brian Kohlhepp. “There's something to be said for someone who dedicates themselves to life as a public servant.”

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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