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Uniontown district judge dismisses charges in cold-case murder of teen

Mary Pickels
| Tuesday, March 24, 2015, 6:06 p.m.
Joseph Leos, 58, of Mt. Pleasant is greeted by his mother, Alice Betters, and his sister Starr Smitley upon his release Tuesday, March 24, 2015, from Fayette County Prison shortly after District Judge Michael Metros dismissed a homicide charge against him in connection with the 1974 slaying of John David Watson, 14, in Dunbar Township. Metros said evidence offered at the preliminary hearing, including testimony from the victim’s family and state police, along with gunshot residue discovered on a coat Leos owned, left “gaping holes” in the case.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Joseph Leos, 58, of Mt. Pleasant is greeted by his mother, Alice Betters, and his sister Starr Smitley upon his release Tuesday, March 24, 2015, from Fayette County Prison shortly after District Judge Michael Metros dismissed a homicide charge against him in connection with the 1974 slaying of John David Watson, 14, in Dunbar Township. Metros said evidence offered at the preliminary hearing, including testimony from the victim’s family and state police, along with gunshot residue discovered on a coat Leos owned, left “gaping holes” in the case.

Joseph Leos walked out of the Fayette County jail a free man Tuesday night, one hour after a district judge dismissed a charge of criminal homicide against him.

Outside the stone walls of the jail in downtown Uniontown, his mother, Alice Betters, 75, of Connellsville, eagerly waited for her son.

Leos, 58, of Mt. Pleasant was charged last month with the unsolved murder of a 14-year-old Fayette County boy 40 years ago.

After a two-hour hearing, District Judge Michael Metros said the evidence presented, including gunshot residue on a coat Leos owned and testimony with “gaping holes,” was insufficient to proceed with the charge.

Still wearing handcuffs, Leos shook hands with his attorney, R. Blaine Jones, as family members surrounded him in the courtroom.

“Thank you, Jesus. I've been praying,” his mother said.

Family members of the victim, John David Watson, quickly left the courtroom.

Leos was arrested Feb. 18 by state police. A Fayette County grand jury recommended a criminal homicide charge in the May 2, 1974, death of Watson near his Dunbar Township home. Police said Leos fired a .22-caliber bullet into the back of the boy's head as he bicycled home after an errand.

At the time, District Attorney Jack Heneks credited the arrest to advanced forensics techniques used to identify the gunshot residue and witness testimony elicited by the grand jury.

Heneks said that he plans to refile charges and that there was evidence that was not presented.

“We are ecstatic,” Jones said.

“Joe gets his life back. Joe has maintained his innocence for 41 years.”

Watson's brother, Tom Watson, 65, testified at the hearing that he was called home May 2 from his bartending job in Connellsville because his family couldn't find John.

He, his family and friends searched the area and contacted the teen's friends throughout the night.

About dawn, he said, a neighbor spotted something in her yard.

“I went down there and found him, dead,” Watson said, his voice breaking.

It had rained overnight, but his brother's body was dry. It was found in an area he searched the night before, Watson testified.

Leos, nicknamed “Beaver,” was at Watson's mother's home the night his brother went missing, Tom Watson said.

He said friends visiting his mother said Leos was concerned that John hadn't returned home.

Watson told Heneks his brother had recently begun dating a girl.

Heneks questioned Leos' lifestyle. Police said earlier that Leos was known to have relationships with other males.

In its presentment, the grand jury pegged the “interpersonal relationship” between Leos and John Watson as the motive for the murder.

Retired state police Cpl. John Tobin testified that he began investigating the cold case in 2009.

He said he found a dark overcoat that had not been tested for evidence.

During multiple interviews, Tobin said, Leos made statements to another investigator that he was wearing that coat when John Watson disappeared. Testing for gunshot residue on the coat found five particles of gunshot discharge, he said.

Tobin said an autopsy determined that Watson died from a gunshot wound in the back of the head and that the slug was fired from a small-caliber weapon, possibly a .22.

Guns from Watson's mother's home and two other homes, but none from Leos' residence, were tested. Two were ruled out, and the gun from Watson's home was ruled undetermined as the murder weapon, Tobin said.

Tobin said Leos denied killing Watson in at least two interviews.

Leos' aunt, Carol Gandy, 76, testified that she was playing cards at the Watson home May 2.

She said she and Watson's mother, Sarah Watson, and sister, Janet Watson, sent the teen to buy them cigarettes. Leos was upset that he hadn't come home, she said.

“Beaver got very frightened because we weren't going after Johnny. ... He wanted us to go look for him,” she said.

Gandy told the court that John Watson had been afraid of something or someone in the weeks before his death.

“I mentioned one certain person, and I thought that my nephew and Johnny were scared to death of the man. This man is in his grave today,” she said.

In closing, Jones said the only evidence presented was gunshot residue, and no motive was presented.

Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent College in Unity and a former federal prosecutor, said it is rare that a case recommended for prosecution by a state grand jury is dismissed for insufficient evidence.

“It is a rare occurrence, but it can happen because a district judge is still required to perform his or her job and make a determination whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to the next level,” Ankowiak said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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