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Coal Center woman found guilty of conspiring with husband to murder 92-year-old neighbor

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A Washington County jury found a Coal Center woman guilty on all counts in a conspiracy to murder her 92-year-old neighbor for her money in 2011.

Diane McClelland, 50, of 16 School St. conspired with her husband, David A. McClelland, 58, to murder Evelyn Stepko. Her stepson, David J., 37, is scheduled to face trial April 1.

“That's two down, one to go,” said Stepko's niece, Delores Sprowls. “We're very happy. She deserves everything she gets. She was there with her husband and stepson. They should never have done that to Aunt Evelyn.

“She was greedy, just like her husband and stepson.”

Washington County Assistant District Attorney Mike Lucas expressed pleasure with the verdict in what he called a “tedious case.”

“It was a first-rate effort by the jury, just as it was a first-rate effort by the Pennsylvania State Police,” Lucas said. “It was a white-collar crime but with blue-collar participants — with deadly consequences.”

Lucas said prosecutors offered a plea bargain to conspiracy and other charges that would have mandated a 10- to 20-year sentence. Now McClelland is facing 37 to 74 years in prison.

In closing arguments, defense attorney Brian Gorman warned against a “Friday afternoon verdict.”

“I know there's an overwhelming desire to get on with your lives,” Gorman said. “But due to the importance of this case and everyone involved in it, in no way can your deliberations or verdict be compromised by your willingness to go home.”

Gorman said the “overwhelming evidence” in the case pointed to a conviction of receiving stolen property, a conviction to which the defense stipulated.

Gorman said his client could have, perhaps should have, taken action to stop her husband from committing the burglaries.

“But no matter how much you do not like Diane for what she did, that's not why you render a verdict,” Gorman said. “You render a verdict because the other elements of the crimes do not exist here. We cannot let our emotions get in the way of our application of the law.”

Gorman said the prosecution got its killer when David A. McClelland pleaded guilty.

Gorman warned the jury against engaging in speculation. He said criminal conspiracy requires an agreement to commit future crimes, adding that element did not exist in this case. Instead, he said Diane McClelland “turned a blind eye” to what her husband was doing.

“Failure to be a good Samaritan is not a crime,” Gorman said.

In his closing arguments, Lucas said the case was unique because the two sides agreed on the facts but argued over application of the law.

Lucas noted Diane McClelland's contradictory statements to troopers.

“When someone lies and tells different stories, that's a window into their mind,” Lucas said.

Lucas said Diane McClelland was “driving the finances” in their household.

“There was a deference he (David A. McClelland) was paying to her because she was in control,” Lucas said.

Lucas said there was no legitimate source of the tens of thousands of dollars Diane McClelland was depositing or spending, just days after the burglaries.

“That's not turning a blind eye — that's rolling in it, enjoying it,” Lucas said.

In closing, he told the jury, “I don't want you to stick it to her. I just want you to hold her accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

Trooper John Turbin displayed a timeline he assembled contrasting bank deposits and luxurious expenditures that Diane and David A. McClelland made in the days after each of the five burglaries that Stepko reported at her house between August 2009 and May 2011.

The sum of that money trail included $33,879.84 in cash purchases, $36,000 in bank deposits, $14,500 in property purchases, and $56,538.75 spent on two vehicles.

Jurors have heard witnesses testify during the four-day trial that the trio went on numerous shopping sprees, spending tens of thousands of dollars for items including a $46,800 sport utility vehicle, expensive firearms, a swimming pool and property, and taking numerous gambling junkets.

Lucas called Cpl. John Tobin, who testified that the McClellands' bank records showed large influxes of cash into the family coffers from August 2009 through July 2011.

Friends of Stepko have described the elderly widow as a very private woman who shied away from banks because she lived through the Great Depression. They said she chose to stash her life savings in envelopes hidden throughout her home.

On Friday, jurors heard from Trooper Louis J. Serafini, who said that one month after Stepko's body was discovered in her basement with two stab wounds in her neck and multiple bruises, Diane McClelland admitted for the first time she knew her husband had burglarized the Stepko home.

Serafini, of the Belle Vernon station, was the lead investigator in the July 18, 2011, murder. He said Diane McClelland confessed that she knew her husband had stolen from the widow “on one occasion.”

Serafini's testimony countered statements from several other witnesses during the four-day trial before Judge John DiSalle that Diane McClelland said she did not know that her husband and stepson had looted thousands of dollars of the elderly woman's life savings.

Serafini testified that he repeatedly pressed Diane McClelland, during a more than two-hour interview on Aug. 22, 2011, for an explanation of how the couple was able to afford such expensive items. She made $22,000 a year as a grocery store clerk and David A. McClelland was unemployed.

On Oct. 15, her husband avoided a potential death sentence by pleading guilty to criminal homicide and related charges, including burglary and robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison without a chance for parole on the murder conviction, plus 21 to 42 years on the other charges. He was ordered to repay $215,800 to Stepko's estate.

David J. McClelland, 37, a part-time Washington Township police officer at the time of the murder, is charged with criminal homicide, dealing in proceeds of unlawful activities, receiving stolen property, aiding in the consummation of a crime and conspiracy.

Chris Buckley and Paul Peirce are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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