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Man admits preying on Lower Burrell neighbor, taking more than $100K in money, goods

Paul Peirce
| Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, 10:54 p.m.

A Lower Burrell widow tearfully described to a Westmoreland County judge Wednesday how a neighbor befriended her and her son for almost two decades before learning that he was “preying” on them to feed his gambling habit.

Sarah O'Neill, 52, was in court to hear Mark E. Bellini, 60, plead guilty to charges of burglary, criminal trespass, theft, and receiving stolen property as part of a plea bargain agreement.

O'Neill estimated that Bellini stole jewelry and sports memorabilia worth more than $100,000.

After listening to O'Neill, Judge Christopher Feliciani said he regretted approving the plea bargain and scolded Bellini, repeatedly calling his actions “despicable.”

“Offering to help Miss O'Neill just so you could learn information in order to steal from her and her son, I find that just despicable. I hope you remember the hurt you caused this woman for the rest of your life,” Feliciani said before imposing the sentence.

As a first-time offender, Bellini was sentenced to serve two years on probation with six months of house arrest, pay O'Neill's insurance company $4,495 restitution and pay the victim an additional $9,625 in restitution.

“I approved it, but I'm not happy with it,” O'Neill said outside the courtroom.

Before the sentencing, O'Neill told Feliciani that Bellini knew she was raising her son alone and often stopped by, sometimes offering to do small chores and asking about her son's well-being. She said he would always ask “what we were doing.”

“Little did I know he was only asking so he could come back later and rob me and my son,” O'Neill said.

Bellini is a former television cable repair worker who is now on disability, according to his attorney, Duke George of New Kensington.

“Mark would actually come and break into my house while he was working is what he later told me and the Lower Burrell Police Department when he admitted it,” O'Neill said.

O'Neill said she discovered he had been stealing from her on Aug. 15, 2013, when she went to retrieve her son's savings bonds, kept in a jewelry box that was “well hidden.”

She intended to use the bonds to help pay for a car for her son — she raised him herself, “living paycheck to paycheck” — who is now a senior criminal justice major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, O'Neill told Feliciani.

“But everything was gone, including the jewelry,” she said.

O'Neill said she immediately thought of Bellini because a remote-control Harley-Davidson motorcycle she owned disappeared shortly after Bellini had asked her about it, saying he knew someone who would buy it. She said Bellini denied the theft.

After O'Neill reported the burglary to police a few days later, Bellini's wife told her he had fled to Ohio on his motorcycle and was threatening suicide, “and she wanted me to help.”

“I talked to him on the telephone and he was crying, and kept telling me how sorry he was and that he would make it up to me,” O'Neill said. “He told me that I could take his motorcycle.”

“Mark told me it was all sold to gamble at the casino,” O'Neill said.

“Then, he asked me to tell the police that the reason his fingerprints were on the jewelry box was because he helped me move it. ... He was already thinking then of only getting out of it,” she said.

O'Neill estimated the worth of the items stolen — jewelry, sports memorabilia including footballs signed by Steelers players, and autographed sports trading cards — at more than $100,000.

“My mother gave me this beautiful tennis bracelet that was handmade and had specially cut diamonds on it when she was on her deathbed. ... That can never be replaced.

“I can say the items, particularly the family heirlooms, had a lot more sentimental value than cash value. But now I have nothing to pass on to my son,” she said.

Bellini told Feliciani that he was “sorry” for stealing from O'Neill.

Feliciani asked Bellini how many Gambling Anonymous meetings he attends. About every two weeks, Bellini replied.

“I'm going to order you to attend five meetings a week as a part of the sentence. And I am warning you now that if you fail to comply, I will revoke your probation,” Feliciani said.

On July 30, 2012, Bellini was hailed as a hero for spotting a 55-year-old woman after she slipped along a rocky hillside near Lock and Dam No. 4 on the Allegheny River in Lower Burrell, just a few feet from the water. Bellini saw the woman while working as a lineman for Comcast, according to news reports.

Paul Peirce is a reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at ppeirce@tribweb.com or 724-850-2860.

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