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Original gun owner sentenced in Kotecki case

| Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

A New Kensington man was sentenced to at least six months in jail for failing to register a gun that was used a year later to kill Lower Burrell Police Officer Derek Kotecki.

Robert G. Zentner, 57, told Westmoreland County Judge John Blahovec on Tuesday that he just made a mistake.

But Assistant District Attorney Leo Ciaramitaro said that mistake warranted jail time because it launched a series of events that led to Kotecki's slaying on Oct. 12, 2011.

“I understand it was a mistake that unfortunately started a chain of events. The start of that chain is right here,” Ciaramitaro said.

Kotecki, 40, was on patrol and looking for Charles Post, 32, who was wanted on charges that he shot at another man several days earlier in the parking lot of the Clarion Hotel in New Kensington. The officer found Post in a sport utility vehicle in the Dairy Queen parking lot on Greensburg Road.

As Kotecki approached the SUV, Post fired numerous times through a closed window, killing Kotecki. Post got out of the vehicle and ran to the rear of the parking lot, squatted near a trash bin and killed himself.

The gun Post used was the same .40-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol that Meryl E. Smith III won at the Richland Township Volunteer Firemen's gun bash in 2010.

Police said Zentner took possession of the gun at the bash because Smith did not have the proper paperwork with him. Zentner never officially transferred ownership to Smith.

“I wish I would have, but we never got to it. It was a mistake,” Zentner said in court on Tuesday.

Both Zentner and Smith, 33, of New Kensington, pleaded guilty to firearms offenses in September.

Blahovec sentenced Zentner to serve six to 23 months in jail. He is to begin serving his sentence on Jan. 14.

Kotecki's parents were in the courtroom Tuesday but declined to comment.

Lower Burrell Police Chief Tim Weitzel said he was satisfied with the sentence.

“I don't know if we'll ever be back to normal,” Weitzel said. “We've got to go on for him (Kotecki). For his memory.”

Smith was in court Tuesday but his sentencing was delayed because he did not have a lawyer.

Blahovec ordered Smith to be jailed immediately, but he was released later after family members posted $20,000 bail.

Police said Smith eventually gave the gun to a third man, Nevin Lawson, who initially claimed he threw it into the river.

Police believe James A. Ameris, 43, of New Kensington, either purchased or stole the gun from Lawson. Ameris told police he drove Post to the Dairy Queen just before the shooting.

Charges are still pending against Ameris and Lawson.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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