Slain West Mifflin tot's parents fight early release for killer
Lee Ann Valetti never met Ryan Hacke, but she thinks about him often.
Valetti, 55, of Bethel Park was pregnant with her second son in early 1997 when she heard that a stray bullet struck the 14-month-old boy outside a Homestead gas station near where she grew up.
“I was at the Benedum Center with my oldest son, and I remember sitting there thinking about Ryan, who was just a few miles away in the hospital,” Valetti said. “No one should have to go through that.”
Valetti is among hundreds of people who wrote letters, posted Facebook messages and signed a petition urging the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole to keep Vaughn Mathis, 39, the man responsible for the baby's death, in prison.
“Ryan's with God now and his journey is over, but there's still a lot of baggage here on Earth,” said Valetti, who doesn't know the Hacke family but took up their cause in response to the Facebook campaign.
Ryan's parents, Mary Beth and Tom Hacke of West Mifflin, will present the letters to the probation board on Feb. 18.
“We are asking for justice and for Ryan's murderer to serve his full sentence,” Mary Beth Hacke, who became an activist for the gun- control group Ceasefire PA, wrote in her plea for letters. “He has taken the life of an innocent child and permanently altered the lives of each heartbroken member of Ryan's surviving family.
“We feel that the only remaining justice would be to deny parole.”
Mathis has served 17 years of the 17½- to 43-year term a judge imposed for the charges related to Ryan's death and several other convictions, including rape, aggravated assault and burglary. He is eligible for parole in July.
Peter Mathis, 67, of Wilkinsburg said his son has paid his debt to society and should be released.
“I understand as a parent what they're trying to do, but his obligation to what happened has been fulfilled,” Mathis said. “The time he spent in prison he'll never get back. He's done his time. When does society leave him alone?”
The parole board takes into account the nature and circumstances of the crime, the inmate's criminal history and emotional stability and input from the victim or victim's family.
Police and prosecutors said Mathis, 22 at the time of the shooting on Jan. 11, 1997, fired nine shots from a semiautomatic handgun into the gas station at Hays Street and West Eighth Avenue, striking Ryan in the left eye as he sat in the back of his father's car. He died two days later. The family had stopped at the station about 8:30 p.m., shortly after visiting Ryan's paternal grandparents.
A jury convicted Mathis of involuntary manslaughter in an emotional trial before now-retired Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Raymond A. Novak, drawing outrage from the Hacke family and others who sought a harsher penalty.
Peter Mathis said he visits his son at the state prison in Somerset County about once a month. He said his son has had no disciplinary problems.
Common Pleas Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, a former deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case, said she understands why the Hacke family wants Mathis to remain in prison. Clark argued that Mathis should have been convicted of first-degree murder because he was targeting someone else when he hit Ryan.
“I didn't agree with the verdict the jury rendered, but that was their verdict. The jury made their decision and so we have to accept that,” Clark said. “I think we all understand that he's going to be released one day.”
Attorney Bill Difenderfer, who represented Mathis at trial, did not return calls.
The elder Mathis, a former Wilkinsburg councilman, said he thinks jurors rendered a fair verdict. They spent 16 hours deliberating the case over two days.
“Because your son is convicted of a crime, society convicts the whole family,” Mathis said. “We certainly did not raise our son to do anything like this, but that's not the way society thinks.”
Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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