Four to face charges in beating death of Chicora man
KITTANNING — All four men charged in connection with the death of a Chicora man outside a borough bar early St. Patrick's Day will face homicide charges in criminal court, after a preliminary hearing before District Judge James Owen at the Armstrong County Courthouse on Wednesday afternoon.
“It is a very troubling case for everybody involved: the families of the defendants and the families of the victim. But as troubling as this case may be, I don't think it diminishes the seriousness of the offense,” said Owen.
“Based on my review of the evidence, it is my intention to find the Commonwealth has met its burden of proof on all charges and all charges will be held for court.”
The decision came after a two-hour hearing that saw Armstrong County District Attorney Scott Andreassi call two witnesses: Zane Hassa of Ford City, an acquaintance of some of the defendants who reportedly witnessed the attack and testified that each played a role in the beating of Sullivan; and state police Trooper Chris Birkbichler, who interviewed defendant Dennis Rosenberger the day after the incident.
Otilio Cosme, 43, and Anthony Michael Bove, 18, both of Ford City, and Keith Allen Brison, 32, of Kittanning, already faced charges of criminal homicide, aggravated assault, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person and harassment for allegedly stomping and kicking an unconscious James Sullivan, 39, after Rosenberger, 27, of Kittanning, allegedly “sucker-punched” or tackled him to the ground. Rosenberger was initially only charged with aggravated and simple assault for his alleged role in the incident that occurred outside the Wick City Saloon around 1:30 a.m. on March 17, but Andreassi said the prosecution filed a new complaint against him on Wednesday adding more serious charges including criminal homicide after autopsy results could not rule out that Rosenberger's actions could have directly led to Sullivan's death.
Sullivan was pronounced dead at ACMH Hospital about an hour after the incident.
Andreassi first called to the stand Hassa, a security guard at ACMH Hospital who allegedly parked his vehicle in the Wick City Saloon lot between 1:15 and 1:20 a.m. that night, just before the incident occurred.
Hassa testified that about 10 minutes before that, he met with Rosenberger and Bove along with several other people at his fiancee's house before taking two separate vehicles to the bar.
Hassa said he had been receiving text messages from another man there who allegedly had some involvement with his fiancée and was going to confront him about it.
50 to 70 people
Hassa said when he arrived, about 50 to 70 people from inside the bar had moved outside onto Montieth Street.
He said he saw Sullivan — whom he did not know — escort a woman to her vehicle and said he witnessed an argument between Cosme's wife and another woman.
Hassa testified that Sullivan allegedly began following Cosme — who Hassa knew — as the two men argued and “jawed at each other” while Cosme walked away from the bar, possibly toward his parked truck. That's when Rosenberger allegedly assaulted Sullivan in the presence of about 30 or 40 people who remained.
“I saw (Rosenberger) go between two cars and tackle (Sullivan),” said Hassa.
“Sullivan went to the ground — straight down. Then Rosenberger got up and kicked (Sullivan) in the side. Then I saw (Cosme) get on (Sullivan's) chest and start stomping.”
Hassa described Cosme as facing Sullivan as he stood on his chest and alternated stomping his feet four to five times.
“Then I saw Keith Brison and Tony Bove come to (Sullivan),” said Hassa. “Bove came down a little bank and soccer-kicked (Sullivan) in the right side. Keith Brison was on his left side, kicking Sullivan.”
Hassa said a bystander then intervened and tackled Cosme and that Rosenberger, Bove and Brison then left Sullivan to aid Cosme. He said Cosme then got in his truck and drove away.
Under cross-examination, defense attorneys aggressively attempted to discredit Hassa, accusing him of packing a sledgehammer in his vehicle in preparation for his own potential fight and repeatedly noting that although he serves as a security guard, he did nothing to intervene.
Hassa said, “It felt like time stopped,” and claimed he had already planned to take the sledgehammer from his fiancee's porch so nobody would steal it. During extensive questioning by all four defense attorneys, Bove's attorney Michael J. DeRiso pointed out a few inconsistent details in Hassa's story.
“Are you making this up as you go?”
Cosme's lawyer, Phillip Pane DiLucente, said, “It was like watching five different movies and hearing five different stories.” To which Andreassi later replied, “With all due respect, I'm not sure which movie (the defense) was watching.”
The defense attorneys were nearly as combative with Trooper Birkbichler, who testified that Rosenberger admitted during an interview that he sucker-punched Sullivan but denied kicking him. The lawyers had questions about how Rosenberger came into custody and specifics about his arrest, but Andreassi objected, stating that such line of questioning is irrelevant during a preliminary hearing.
After Birkbichler stepped down, each defense attorney argued that all of the charges against their client should be dropped. DiLucente said, “This is at best a voluntary manslaughter case.”
Andreassi argued that regardless of each individual's alleged role, the four defendants contributed to beating the life out of an unconscious man.
“The bottom line is James Sullivan was punched by Dennis Rosenberger by his own admission. (Sullivan) was punched. He went down. He was completely defenseless,” said Andreassi. “After that, Brison, Bove and Cosme commenced to kicking, hitting and punching him in various forms. There is no dispute of that before you today.”
Andreassi addressed Owen directly, saying, “The two questions you have to answer is: ‘Was a crime committed?' And by the stipulations that were made earlier, a crime was committed and that was the homicide of James Sullivan. And, ‘Is it more likely than not that these individuals caused that death?' The answer to that is also yes.”
Owen kept all charges intact and subsequently denied defense requests for non-monetary bonds.
“I believe at this point in time it would be proper to deny all requests for bail,” said Owen.
Despite several gasps and sobs from the audience, the defendants were then ushered out of the courtroom and returned to Armstrong County Jail. A formal arraignment is scheduled for May.
Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303 or firstname.lastname@example.org.