2 accused of Connellsville woman's murder faced serious charges before

| Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Two Fayette County men accused of brutally attacking and killing a Connellsville woman previously faced criminal charges that should have put them behind bars for years — if not for the imperfect science of prosecuting accused criminals.

Paul Jerome Bannasch of Uniontown and Craig Allen Rugg, both 24, are accused of homicide in the Saturday death of Margaret “Peggy Sue” Kriek, 52, who was strangled before her body was dumped in the Youghiogheny River.

It is not the first time the two men have faced serious criminal charges, according to court records.

Bannasch in 2012 beat a pregnant woman and two other people in two separate incidents within a six-month period.

Rugg was accused of rape in 2011 for having sex with an unconscious woman and is a registered Megan's Law offender.

As those cases made their way through the courts, the most serious charges against the men were withdrawn, including rape and aggravated assault. The men ultimately were sentenced on less-serious charges that netted prison time of only a few months each, according to court records.

District Attorney Jack Heneks declined comment on the prior cases.

In general, he said, plea bargains are necessary because witnesses and victims won't testify.

“A lot of times, the witnesses are unavailable, missing or refuse to follow through on the prosecution,” Heneks said. “So we have to drop the charges completely or arrive at a plea bargain on the charges we can prove with the witnesses we have. We can only go to trial with the witnesses we have, not the witnesses we wish we have.”

Bannasch had charges of aggravated and simple assault dismissed when the victim failed to show up for a pretrial hearing that challenged the charges, according to court records.

In that case, police said Bannasch on Aug. 18 choked an 18-year-old pregnant woman at her North Union apartment, bashed her head on a kitchen floor and tried to push her out a second-story apartment window as she held onto a 1-year-old child.

The woman later obtained a final protection from abuse order against Bannasch, but she failed to appear for the pretrial hearing. Bannasch pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of resisting arrest and was sentenced to 6 to 23 months in jail.

Six months before that attack, Bannasch was charged with simple assault for punching and kicking a man and woman outside a South Union bar. As part of a plea bargain in that case, Bannasch was sentenced to two years' probation and was ordered to undergo anger-management counseling.

In September, Rugg pleaded guilty to indecent assault for having sex with an unconscious 22-year-old woman at a Menallen residence, according to records. More-serious charges of rape, sexual assault and aggravated indecent assault were dropped with the victim's consent, records show. Rugg was sentenced on Nov. 6 to six to 23 months in jail.

For various reasons, prosecutors sometimes have no choice but to strike plea bargains with defendants, according to Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at St. Vincent College in Unity.

Victims, particularly of sexual assaults, might not want to testify, Antkowiak said. Other times, circumstances may arise that lessen the chances of a conviction. When that occurs, a prosecutor might resort to a plea bargain to avoid dropping the case in its entirety.

“As a prosecutor, you have to make an informed judgement about, do I push this case to trial, where it can all be lost, or accept a fallback position where at least the individual will be incarcerated for some period of time and there will be some record?” Antkowiak said.

It's unrealistic to expect prosecutors to know which defendants will go on to commit more crimes once they are released from prison, he said.

Bannasch and Rugg were released on parole from jail earlier this year. Bannasch was placed on early parole on May 7, two weeks before serving his minimum sentence, and Rugg was paroled on April 1, according to court records.

Police said the two men and Kriek were drinking at Sidewinders bar on North Water Street in Connellsville at 11:30 p.m. Friday. At 12:19 a.m. on Saturday, witnesses saw the three walking toward the nearby Amtrak train station.

Boy Scouts found Kriek's nude body 9:44 a.m. on Saturday, floating in the Youghiogheny River in Dunbar Township, police said.

In a gravel lot next to the train station, police found some of Kriek's clothing, drag marks and blood splatter. More clothing was found on a riverbank, according to the complaint.

An autopsy report lists Kriek's cause of death as strangulation. Kriek had multiple, “massive” injuries to her face and body, a rib fracture and cuts on her legs, torso, heels and arms, it said.

Trooper Nathaniel Lieberum has charged the two men with homicide, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, unlawful restraint and abuse of a corpse. They are being held in the Fayette County jail without bond.

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media.

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