Turbulent history will come to light during Stahl murder trial

| Monday, June 23, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

David and Rebecca Stahl were married in 2009, but police reports dating to four years before their wedding detail a violent, tumultuous relationship.

It ended with 37-year-old Rebecca Stahl's body dumped in a field that once served as a nursery offering a distinctive hedge, a rarity that ultimately led investigators to discover her remains.

This morning, the homicide trial for her husband, David Stahl, 43, of Hempfield, will begin before Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway.

Deciding his fate will be a jury of 12 women and two female alternates.

Police contend David Stahl returned home on Feb. 18, 2012, from a night of drinking and got into a violent argument with his wife that ended in her strangulation.

District Attorney John Peck will ask jurors to find Stahl guilty of premeditated first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

Defense attorneys Donna McClelland and Matt Schimizzi contend Stahl is guilty of a less serious charge, third-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter.

Hathaway has ruled that Peck can introduce evidence of violent encounters between the Stahls dating back to 2005.

Police were summoned to their home and overheard “a heated argument” between David Stahl and his then-girlfriend, Rebecca Murray (her previous name), Peck said at a hearing last week.

In early 2006, Southwest Greensburg police were called to the couple's home and found broken furniture and a broken clock. David Stahl agreed to pay for the damage, according to Peck.

In December 2006, the prosecution contends, Southwest Greensburg police were again called to the house, where Rebecca Murray asked police to remove her boyfriend from the premises, court records show.

Five months later, police charged Stahl with assaulting his fiancee. He later pleaded guilty to simple assault, harassment and disorderly conducted and served a nine- to 23-month jail sentence.

According to police reports, Rebecca Murray suffered a black eye. Clumps of her hair were missing.

“Obviously, there was an altercation,” defense attorney Donna McClelland said at a pretrial hearing last week.

McClelland successfully argued to exclude as evidence a handwritten letter Rebecca Murray wrote to the judge in 2007 in which she suggested she was sexually assaulted by Stahl.

Hathaway, however, will allow testimony from police officers who were allegedly told that the altercation began because she refused to perform a sex act on David Stahl.

Marriage did not end the violence, Peck will argue.

In December 2010, Rebecca Stahl told police that her husband shoved her into a closet and slapped her face. Criminal harassment charges against him were dismissed at the request of his wife, Peck said.

Harassment charges filed against both husband and wife in March 2011 were withdrawn following an incident in which police found Rebecca Stahl at a gas station with a torn sweater.

Eleven months later, she was dead.

According to court records, she was first reported missing by her family on Feb. 20, 2012.

A police search of the Stahl home found arborvitae leaves from a privacy hedge, evidence that investigators linked to a former nursery site in Unity. That led police to search a nearby field, where they found Rebecca Stahl's body on Feb. 24, 2012.

“I don't know what happened. I didn't do it,” David Stahl told reporters following his arraignment on a homicide charge.

Police said he later confessed to the murder and claimed his wife attacked him with a knife.

Rebecca Stahl began a 12-week medical leave from her job as a Derry Area math teacher on Jan. 24 to recover from a hysterectomy, her family said. She was still in pain.

Police contend David Stahl kept his wife's body in a shed, then dumped it.

Police said Stahl put his muddy clothing and boots in a plastic bag and stashed them in a basement freezer in the couple's home. Police seized the bag as evidence, along with the charred remains of Rebecca Stahl's workplace identification card and driver's license.

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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