Police praise public's help in making arrests in fatal Kittanning beating

| Friday, March 22, 2013, 12:56 a.m.

During his 25 years with the Kittanning Police Department and 10 years as chief, Ed Cassesse has never seen anything quite like what happened Sunday.

In the early hours of St. Patrick's Day, behind a popular borough bar, at least three people allegedly kicked and stomped the life out of 39-year-old James Sullivan of Chicora as he lay bleeding and unconscious in the street.

“We've had homicides here in Kittanning in the past,” Cassesse said. “But we've never had one as senseless as this.”

Wednesday night, the evening before Sullivan was buried in St. Mary's Cemetery in Herman, Butler County, and after an exhaustive investigation involving countless interviews with witnesses, District Judge James Owen arraigned Otilio Cosme, 43, and Anthony Michael Bove, 18, both of Ford City, and Keith Allen Brison, 32, of Kittanning, on homicide charges. All three were committed to Armstrong County Jail on Thursday without bond.

Another man, Dennis Andrew Rosenberger, 27, of Kittanning, was arrested earlier for allegedly running up to Sullivan, “sucker punching” him in the face and knocking him unconscious.

However, Cassesse said the incident first began to develop inside Wick City Saloon along Orr Avenue at Montieth.

“Evidently, there was a disagreement in the bar between some women,” Cassesse said. “(Sullivan) was escorting one of them to her vehicle. Once outside (on Montieth Street), an argument took place between the victim and Mr. Cosme, when Mr. Rosenberger knocked (Sullivan) unconscious. The other three individuals then ran over and began jumping on him and kicking him in the ribs until a good Samaritan came out of the crowd and chased them away. There were other fights going on in the area at the time, but the whole thing only took a few seconds.”

Although Kittanning police arrived on the scene within two minutes of a bystander's 911 call around 1:30 a.m., Cassesse said it was too late. Within an hour, Sullivan was declared dead in ACMH Hospital. An autopsy performed by Dr. Cyril Wecht revealed that Sullivan had suffered a fractured skull when he fell to the ground after Rosenberger's punch, but an investigation by state and Kittanning police determined it was the injuries inflicted by Cosme, Brison and Bove that proved fatal.

The fact that as many as 30 or 40 people may have witnessed the assault turned out to be a blessing and a curse for investigators, who spent much of the week sifting through rumors, second-hand accounts and social media posts to piece together the truth from people who were there.

Lt. Steve Ignatz with the state police in Butler said the outpouring of potential leads from the public was vital in identifying the suspects.

“It was amazing to me to see how many people came forward with information and how much we were able to glean from the Internet,” Ignatz said. “It wasn't always accurate, but people were doing their best to provide us with whatever they had.”

Ignatz said efforts by Sullivan's friends, who have offered a $5,000 reward for anyone with video footage of the incident, also played an important part in the case.

“It's obvious Mr. Sullivan had a lot of friends in the Kittanning and Chicora areas,” Ignatz said. “They were actively looking for information, too, and providing it to us.”

Ignatz said investigators still are asking for anyone with good-quality video of the assault to share it with authorities.

“This is still an active investigation,” he said. “We're confident we've arrested the people who are responsible, although there's a possibility there could be more.”

There are also rumors that another man may have been seriously injured in an unrelated fight outside the bar that night, but Ignatz said he wasn't aware of any other specific incidents.

Cassesse said although the scene outside Wick City Saloon on Sunday was a tragic one, it shouldn't reflect poorly on the bar or Kittanning in general.

“(Bar fights) and incidents like this in Kittanning aren't a problem,” he said. “They're not a daily occurrence. Occasionally you get one, but it's never to this extent.”

On Thursday, a makeshift memorial — an angel made out of poster board — tenuously clung to a utility pole near the spot Sullivan was beaten. Cosme, Brison and Bove sit in jail facing charges of homicide, aggravated assault, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person and harassment. Preliminary hearings for all three are set for 9 a.m. Wednesday. Cassesse said it's unclear whether further charges will be brought against Rosenberger or anyone else but information continues to pour in. Rosenberger is charged with simple assault and aggravated assault.

“Everyone really stepped up,” Cassesse said. “And I can't say enough about the state police major crimes unit and the troopers that assisted. This was a great joint effort between their department, our department and the district attorney's office.”

Cassesse, who had planned to retire on April 1, says that although this isn't exactly the way he expected to spend his final weeks as chief, he takes solace in knowing that justice will be served.

“This is obviously one of the worst things I'll have to remember about my time here,” he said. “But at least I can go out knowing the case has been solved.”

Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303 or tkaran@tribweb.com.

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