Victim died from violent assault
UNIONTOWN - The night Thomas Elliott died, the Fayette County man was beaten to the point he sustained four skull fractures, 10 stab wounds and seven broken ribs before succumbing to his injuries, according to a forensic pathologist.
Geoffrey Trent Harper, 26, of 132 Nagy St., Washington Township, Fayette County, is on trial on charges of criminal homicide and arson in the March 9 death of Elliott, 55. State police at Belle Vernon allege Harper hit Elliott in the head with a box wrench and stabbed him repeatedly with a knife in the face and back. Harper allegedly then set a fire inside Elliott's side of a duplex on Brownsville Road, Jefferson Township, before fleeing.
Dr. Leon Rozin, a forensic pathologist for Washington and Butler counties, testified Tuesday that Elliott suffered 30 injuries in the beating and died of severe sharp- and blunt-force trauma to the head, face, neck and chest. Elliott was pronounced dead at a Washington County hospital, where he had been taken for treatment of injuries so severe he lost nearly all of his blood, Rozin said.
"The heart was almost empty," Rozin said, adding that Elliott's veins and arteries collapsed from massive blood loss. A paramedic testified earlier the blood loss was so severe he had to insert a medical device into a bone in Elliott's leg to administer medication.
Rozin, who conducted an autopsy on Elliott, said the victim was struck several times in the head in a matter of a few seconds. He was stabbed seven times in the back and had three stab wounds on his face. Other injuries included facial cuts and bruising to his forehead and back.
Blood and hair found on a box wrench discovered inside a tool box in Harper's vehicle matched Elliott's DNA, according to District Attorney Nancy Vernon. Blood found on a knife police recovered while processing Harper at the state police barracks also matched Elliott's DNA, said Vernon, citing a state police crime lab report.
Police took Harper into custody after he returned to the scene of the fire. State Trooper Louis Serafini, a criminal investigator from the Belle Vernon barracks, said Harper went to the ambulance where Elliott was undergoing treatment and asked paramedics to help the man.
Harper also tried to enter the burning house, according to earlier testimony from firefighter John Kelly Parshall. Parshall said Harper told him he wanted to try to save Elliott, but Parshall stopped him from going into the house.
Trooper William Large, a state police fire investigator, said the fire began on two beds in an upstairs bedroom. Large said an open flame was used to start the fire, but found no lighters, matches or torches at the scene. No accelerants were detected.
Harper's attorneys, Jeffrey Whiteko and Mary Campbell Spegar, contend the fire might have been started by a dropped cigarette.
Prior to the beating and fire, Harper and Elliott had spent the afternoon drinking together, according to testimony. Rozin said Elliott had a blood-alcohol level of 0.284 percent. Whiteko told jurors on Monday that although Harper's blood-alcohol content was not tested, Harper had consumed numerous beers during the hours leading up to the fatal altercation.
Vernon and Peter Hook, assistant district attorney, are seeking a first-degree murder conviction. Testimony will resume this morning before Judge Gerald R. Solomon.