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Ford City man pleads guilty in beating death

| Friday, July 4, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

A 28-year-old Ford City man, who is one of four men accused in the beating death of a Chicora man last year, wept in an Armstrong County courtroom on Thursday while pleading guilty to crimes stemming from that case.

Dennis Andrew Rosenberger had been on house arrest since April 2013 on charges that included criminal homicide, aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter for his participation in the fatal assault of James Peter Sullivan, 39, outside the Wick City Saloon in March of that year.

According to court documents — read aloud by Assistant District Attorney Chase McClister — Rosenberger had been outside the bar, where a large group of people were assembled — including Sullivan. Rosenberger rushed at Sullivan, struck him in the face, knocked him backward and fractured the victim's skull.

“Which contributed to his ultimate death,” McClister said.

However, Gregory W. Swank, Rosenberger's defense attorney, said that according to forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, an autopsy concluded that Sullivan had died from a ruptured artery in his torso and not from the initial blow to his head, which rendered him unconscious.

“The allegation is that the others kicked him while he was unconscious,” Swank said outside the courtroom after the hearing.

The other men accused in the death of Sullivan are Keith Allen Brison, 34, of Kittanning; Anthony Michael Bove, 20, of Kittanning; and Otilio Cosme, 44, of Ford City. All three men are facing felony charges of criminal homicide and aggravated assault, as well as lesser charges of simple assault and reckless endangerment. Bove and Brison are scheduled to stand trial in September. No trial date has been scheduled for Cosme.

Rosenberger was quiet and composed when he sat before President Judge Kenneth Valasek wearing a blue shirt and tie, appearing ready to plead guilty to one felony charge of aggravated assault and one count of involuntary manslaughter — a misdemeanor.

But proceedings were delayed when he told the judge he didn't fully understand the plea agreement.

Swank told the judge that sometime before the hearing, he had read each question from the plea agreement out loud to Rosenberger.

“He has some difficulty with reading,” Swank said.

Judge Valasek asked Rosenberger: “Did you understand everything in the plea agreement? Is there any part you didn't understand?

“Not any of it,” Rosenberger said.

His hearing was delayed close to two hours before the judge had time to resume the case and ask Rosenberger specific questions from the plea questionnaire.

“These charges arise from an incident in Kittanning Borough on March 17, 2013, in which James Sullivan was killed — do you understand that?”

“Yes,” Rosenberger said, looking intently at the judge.

“Involuntary manslaughter involves kicking, punching, assaulting — beating up someone in a very careless act that causes the death of someone. Do you understand that?”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Sullivan died because he was seriously injured — do you understand that?” Judge Valasek asked Rosenberger.

“Yes.”

His answer was echoed by a member of the victim's family seated near the front of the courtroom.

“You know you don't have to admit anything to me and have the right to a trial,” Valasek said.

“Yes,” Rosenberger said, before he broke down and began to weep.

Valasek accepted Rosenberger's plea and will sentence him in September.

Swank said Rosenberger faces a minimum of 36 to 42 months in jail, but could face a maximum of seven years for the aggravated assault charge, which is a felony.

Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or bbeatty@tribweb.com.

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