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Jurors take tour on opening day of Somerset slaying trial

Paul Peirce
| Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Somerset County jury hit the road on Friday, the first day of the murder trial of a former Jennerstown man accused of murdering his wife 29 years ago.

John D. Dawson, 61, of Jacksonville, Fla., is accused of slaying his wife, Kathleen Dawson, 30, on Nov. 9, 1981.

President Judge John M. Cascio, District Attorney Jerry Spangler and defense attorney Joseph B. Policicchio accompanied 12 jurors, plus four alternates, on a school bus as they drove to various locations that will be mentioned during the weeklong trial.

Dawson, dressed in a gray suit and tie, occasionally whispered in Policicchio's ear as Cascio outlined the bus trip to jurors immediately after they were sworn in. Cascio told jurors they will hear opening statements Monday.

Jurors traveled to Windber Hospital, now Windber Medical Center, where Kathleen Dawson worked as a nurse. They were to travel potential routes through Conemaugh Township to Jennerstown that she usually took on her way home after her shift ended at 11 p.m.

About 75 minutes later, Dawson's 1980 Plymouth Horizon sedan was discovered on fire along what was then known as John Cable Hill Road, less than 8 miles from her Jennerstown home. The bus drove to that location.

Conemaugh Township police found a bloody blackjack, a small club-type weapon, near the car, a 17-foot trail of blood from the vehicle over an embankment, and a damaged rear bumper and broken taillight, according to the affidavit of probable cause filed by state police in Somerset.

An autopsy on the burned body of Dawson showed she died from multiple skull fractures, which authorities believe were caused by blows from a blackjack.

Although long considered a suspect in his wife's death, John Dawson, was not arrested until April 21, 2009, about one month after Dawson's nephew, Duane Schmidt, came forward to state police and told authorities to say he overheard Dawson discussing the murder with a friend.

Schmidt, 56, said that Dawson smelled of smoke and gasoline and had burn marks on his hands the morning after the killing, police said.

Schmidt, who died of natural causes in August, testified against Dawson during a June 2009 preliminary hearing.

In December, Cascio that Schmidt's previous testimony can be read into evidence during the trial.

Spangler is expected to argue that Dawson killed his wife of nine years to collect $25,968 in insurance money and to move to Florida with his mistress. The two went to Florida three months after his wife's murder and opened a bar in Jacksonville.

Dawson denies involvement in his wife's death.

In addition to criminal homicide, Dawson is charged with arson and conspiracy. He has been held without bond in the county jail since his arrest.

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