Judge won't suppress Hempfield man's confession in wife's death

Renatta Signorini
| Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A Westmoreland County judge has denied a Hempfield man's bid to suppress a statement he gave to police implicating himself in his wife's death.

Judge Debra Pezze ruled that statements David Frank Stahl, 43, made to state police were legally obtained and that nine search warrants troopers used to gather evidence in the case were justified.

“It was two days after his last contact with police that Mr. Stahl affirmatively took steps by asking a corrections officer to contact police for him,” while Stahl was at the county prison, Pezze wrote in an opinion issued on Monday. “It was this voluntary decision to re-initiate contact that led to his interrogation on February 29.”

Stahl is charged with homicide in the February 2012 death of Rebecca Stahl, 37.

David Stahl drank for several hours at a Whitney bar between Feb. 18 and 19, 2012, according to police. Police believe he killed his wife by choking her sometime that weekend and then hid her body at their Seton View Drive home before dumping it at a former nursery in Unity Township on Feb. 20.

Rebecca Stahl's family reported her missing on Feb. 21, 2012, and police found her body three days later.

Defense attorneys wanted to bar as trial evidence Stahl's statement to police on Feb. 29, 2012, and evidence obtained through search warrants. A pretrial hearing was held in April.

Search warrants were obtained by police on Feb. 22, 23 and 24, 2012, for the Stahl residence, two vehicles, electronic devices at the home and cellphone records. Pezze ruled the warrants “contained sufficient probable cause to justify the searches.”

“Given the suspicious circumstances of Mrs. Stahl's disappearance, it was not unreasonable for police to believe that her husband had some involvement in a crime,” Pezze wrote.

Police spoke with Stahl on Feb. 21, and the suspect denied knowing the whereabouts of his wife, who was on medical leave from her Derry Area teaching job after undergoing surgery. The next day, during an interview at the state police station, Stahl requested an attorney, according to testimony from the April hearing.

Trooper Robert Burford testified that he told Stahl to contact the trooper if Stahl wanted to discuss his wife's disappearance.

On Feb. 24, 2012, Rebecca Stahl's body was found and David Stahl was taken to Excela Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg, where he spent the weekend. He was arrested upon his release on Feb. 27, 2012, when he refused to speak to investigators.

Two days later, Stahl asked a jail guard to contact police and then admitted to killing his wife during a tape-recorded interview.

Pezze said that because Stahl's statement occurred during a meeting he initiated, it was a “voluntary and uncoerced choice.”

“Mr. Stahl waited two days before contacting police, acknowledged he had not sought or obtained counsel, but agreed to waive his rights and make a statement,” Pezze ruled. “Nothing police did compelled these actions and no further contact with police would have occurred but for Mr. Stahl's own actions.”

Defense attorneys had been asking Pezze to recuse herself from deciding the pretrial motions because she issued the search warrants in the case. Pezze declined to do so.

A March trial is scheduled.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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