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Homicide detective sets scene for start of East Liberty double murder trial

| Tuesday, May 3, 2016, 2:06 p.m.

For more than nine hours over two days, detectives documented and collected evidence from the basement where sisters Susan and Sarah Wolfe were found dead Feb. 7, 2014.

How carefully they did their job was a matter of debate Tuesday during the second day of the trial of Allen Wade, 45, who is accused of killing his neighbors at their home in East Liberty. Prosecutors say robbery was the motive.

Detective Harry Lutton described the 23- by 22-foot unfinished basement of the Chislett Street house, using dozens and dozens of photos to show the jury what he saw. Until mobile crime scene detectives finished photographing every piece of evidence and technicians from the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office arrived to move the body, Lutton said, he touched nothing except to hang his coat in the empty corner where he stood, observing.

“I didn't leave that basement for nine hours,” said Lutton, a Pittsburgh homicide detective since 2010. “When I respond to a homicide scene, I touch nothing other than a pen and a notebook.”

But defense attorney Lisa Middleman, whose opening statement accused investigators of mishandling and potentially contaminating evidence, said bags and equipment were placed on the dining room table or on the dryer above Susan Wolfe's body. In addition, she said, a toilet seat was left up and photos showed investigators standing around without any protective coverings on their shoes.

Lutton and other detectives described a grisly scene: Susan Wolfe, 44, was naked and bloodied from multiple head wounds, face-down on a pile of laundry. Sarah Wolfe, 38, was a few feet away at the foot of the basement stairs, her head covered by a comforter with a bullet hole in it.

As Assistant District Attorney Bill Petulla walked him through dozens of photographs, Lutton identified the discolored clothes beneath the sisters and said there was a strong smell indicating bleach had been poured on them. A “sticky, slippery” purple liquid had been poured on the stairs, Sarah Wolfe's pants, and on what appeared to be the contents of a purse dumped onto the basement floor, Lutton said.

Detective John Hamilton said there were empty bottles of laundry detergent, “soft scrub” cleaner and fabric softener in the basement sink and on top of the dryer, and empty bottles of bleach and detergent on the steps in the foyer of the house. Police tested the bottles for fingerprints but could not collect any, Hamilton said.

Police and prosecutors have said Wade, the sisters' neighbor, covered their bodies and the crime scene in bleach and detergent to destroy trace evidence such as DNA, though DNA was found under Susan Wolfe's fingernails.

Blood spatters on a wall in the foyer indicated someone was struck from a height of about 5 feet, said Detective Blase Kraeer, who examined the scene a day later. On Monday, investigators said Susan Wolfe was struck and cut seven times in the head with a blunt object before she was shot in the back of her head.

Hamilton said there were more spots and smears of blood heading down the stairs into the basement.

Before adjourning for the day Tuesday, Common Pleas Judge Edward Borkowski instructed jurors to ignore part of Monday's testimony. Sarah Wolfe's boyfriend, Matthew Buchholz, said police gave him a lie detector test after he discovered the bodies.

The results of those tests are inadmissible in court, and Middleman, who said police too quickly discounted Buchholz as a suspect, worried the jurors would infer that his testimony was true because police released him after the test.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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