Douglas Berry confided to other inmates at the Allegheny County Jail that he killed Elizabeth Wiesenfeld and needed to get out of jail so he could dispose of her body using sulfuric acid, according to a criminal complaint charging him with homicide in the case.
Berry, 48, was charged Thursday with homicide, burglary, access device fraud, receiving stolen property and two counts of theft, for entering the 67-year-old Whitehall widow’s home April 30 and presumably killing her, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said. Berry lived in Liberty Borough, near McKeesport.
Berry is also accused of using one of Wiesenfeld’s bank cards to make a $500 withdrawal, according to the criminal complaint.
Berry presumably hid her body somewhere. Wiesenfeld’s remains haven’t been found, despite an intensive search by authorities, Zappala said.
Berry was a handyman who operated Berry General Contracting. Between September 2015 and October 2018, Berry did some work for Wiesenfeld, who owned several properties. According to the 14-page criminal complaint, Wiesenfeld stopped employing Berry because he made her feel uncomfortable, an unnamed witness told police.
Allegheny County police developed what Zappala described as “very precise timeline” tracking Berry’s pickup truck and his whereabouts throughout the course of April 30. They used cellphone records, license plate readers and surveillance video from Wiesenfeld’s home and at other locations. The evidence places Berry at the home that morning and provides clues about where he was throughout the day, police say. “Substantial evidence was developed in this matter,” Zappala said.
Daughter: Wiesenfeld had no unusual plans April 30
Wiesenfeld lived alone in the well-kept home on East Barlind Drive in Whitehall. Her husband William, who died in 2013, worked for more than two decades as a Pittsburgh police officer, retiring from the force in 1991, according to his obituary.
“She was constantly accompanied by her daughter. They had something that was characterized as a routine that they would follow every morning,” Zappala said.
Wiesenfeld would normally get up around 7 a.m., read the Bible, write in her journal and drink a cup of tea at her dining room table, her daughter told police.
She’d put on her makeup there, then put the cosmetics away before going to work, her daughter said.
On April 30, Wiesenfeld sent her daughter a “good morning” text at 8:18 a.m. At 9:07 a.m., her daughter replied, according to the criminal complaint.
At 11:11 a.m., her daughter received a text from her mother’s phone that said: “I met someone were leaving now for about a week look after everything at the house please I’m going to have a good time for once,” according to the criminal complaint, which quoted the text verbatim.
Her mother hadn’t mentioned a trip when they spoke at 7:47 p.m. the night before. Wiesenfeld was supposed to be at work at 9:30 a.m.
When she didn’t show up for work, co-workers texted her and called four times. Each of the calls went to voicemail, according to the complaint.
Wiesenfeld’s daughter requested that police perform a welfare check on her mother at 12:04 p.m. She left work and met police at the home.Wiesenfeld’s dog was loose inside the house — something her mother normally didn’t let happen when she wasn’t there.
There were no signs of forced entry, but the storm door was unlocked — again, something her mother generally didn’t let happen.
Inside, Wiesenfeld’s daughter noticed a number of things amiss in the home.
The area rug was askew in Wiesenfeld’s bedroom and there was a red-brown stain in three places on the bedding. Her purple eyeglasses were found behind the door. Prescription medicines, which her daughter said she wouldn’t leave behind, were on the nightstand.
Wiesenfeld’s designer purse, wallet and white iPhone weren’t found. There were also cigarette ashes in the bedroom. Wiesenfeld didn’t smoke.
Police found in the kitchen Wiesenfeld’s journal with an April 30 entry. In the dining room, they found a cup with a small amount of tea in it, along with her makeup bag and mirror. Based on how those items were located, it appeared as if she was getting ready to go to work, according to the complaint.
Berry tied to case using cameras, cell records
Allegheny County police obtained security footage from Wiesenfeld’s home and that of neighbors that is motion-sensitive. It shows a pickup truck entering the camera view at 8:39 a.m. The vehicle matches Berry’s truck, according to the complaint.
Wiesenfeld’s front door opens at 8:40 a.m. The garage door, located at the rear of the house, opens at 8:55 a.m.
Police were able to track the whereabouts of Berry or his wife, who hasn’t been charged, throughout the day, according to the complaint and the timeline released Thursday.
There is no visible record of Wiesenfeld’s body in what’s been publicly released. Zappala said it’s unclear if her remains will ever be located.
The search by authorities has been intensive, Zappala said, and includes areas near Berry’s home and another area near Latrobe, where Berry has ties.
Four witnesses provide clues that led to Berry
Police also talked to four witnesses, whom they haven’t named, who provided details that helped the case.
One of the witnesses stayed with Wiesenfeld. She told the witness about a handyman who’d been in prison who was working for her, according to the complaint.
Wiesenfeld told the witness she stopped using him to do work because she was afraid of him, according to the complaint.
Another witness also heard about the work Berry did for Weisenfeld, and identified the person as Berry, who lives in Liberty.
Using that information, police checked the vehicle registered to Berry, a dark gray 2015 Ford, and used its license plate number to put Berry at Wiesenfeld’s home on April 30.
Police used cellphone records from both Berry’s and Wiesenfeld’s phones to further track him, along with surveillance camera footage from a South Side gas station and a restaurant.
The text message that Wiesenfeld’s daughter received about her mother taking an unplanned trip was sent from East Carson Street, according to the complaint.
Wiesenfeld’s phone was found May 2 at East Carson and Fifth Street by a Pittsburgh Public Works employee.
On May 1, police interviewed Berry at his home and obtained a warrant to search it and his truck.
Berry confirmed he knew Wiesenfeld, but had not seen her for six or seven months.
During the search, police said they found a hooded sweatshirt that matched one that a person was wearing when an ATM withdrawal was made using Wiesenfeld’s bank card.
In a trashcan at Berry’s house, police also found a melted ATM card with a partial name, signature and number on it that matches Wiesenfeld’s, according to the complaint. They also matched a fingerprint on the card to Berry.
Police said they also found four bottles of drain opener that is 93 percent sulfuric acid.
Berry’s truck had bloodstains in it. Police noted that Berry smokes Pall Mall and L&M cigarettes, which were the brands found at Wiesenfeld’s house.
Police also found a Glock handgun during the search. Because Berry has a prior criminal record, police took him into custody on the violation and he has been in jail on that charge since May 1.
Inmates detail what Berry told them
Two inmates of the Allegheny County Jail also provided information to police.
One of them said Berry asked for legal advice as Berry needed to get out of jail to move a body, according to the complaint.
The witness told police that Berry told him he “would need just one hour to get rid of the body because it was a half an hour away,” according to the complaint.
Berry told the witness he wasn’t worried about DNA evidence because he “put her in bags at her house,” the witness told police. Berry also told the witness how he melted the ATM card.
Another witness was recorded having a conversation with a visitor at the jail and told the visitor about his new cell mate, Berry. The witness called Berry a “murderer” to the visitor and explained he was involved in the case that was “all over the news,” according to the complaint.
The witness told the visitor that Berry had a case of sulfuric acid in his truck and that Berry told him “it is very easy to get rid of a body with a Rubbermaid container and sulfuric acid.”
Prosecutions rare in cases without a body
This will be the second homicide case where the victim’s body hasn’t been found at the time of the trial, according to Zappala’s spokesman, Mike Manko.
The last case in Allegheny County to be tried without a body was the homicide of Patrick Kenney, who was last seen Feb. 2, 2005. Bryan Sedlak of Greenfield was convicted in February 2009 of Kenney’s murder.
Lettrich initially confessed to the crime and her life sentence was upheld by the state Supreme Court.