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Murder suspect changes mind, admits role in homicides

| Friday, Sept. 11, 2009

The alleged gunman in the shooting deaths of former Carroll Township police Chief Howard Springer and his wife, Nancy, will stand trial alone after the last of his accused accomplices has agreed to testify in the case.

Justin Welch, 911 Crest Ave., Apt. 3, Charleroi, entered an open plea Thursday before Washington County Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca to two counts of criminal conspiracy to homicide.

One count each of robbery, theft by unlawful taking and receiving stolen property along with two DUI charges unrelated to the homicide were withdrawn.

An open plea means there is no specific offer from prosecution., so the judge will determine sentencing after observing Welch's cooperation with the prosecution

Last month, Welch had rejected a deal with the prosecution that would have included a 15-to-30 year sentence in exchange for his testimony against Gerald Szakal, of Fifth Street, Webster.

Szakal was charged with two counts of criminal homicide and one count each of robbery, receiving stolen property and tampering with or fabricating physical evidence.

Police believe Szakal shot and killed the Springers March 4, 2008 inside their home at 1241 Highland Road, Carroll Township.

According to court records, Szakal stole jewelry and rare coins from his mother's Rostraver Township home, selling them to the Springers before returning to the Carroll Township couple's home to rob and kill them, police allege.

According to the court documents, Szakal admitted to killing the Springers and stealing $6,500, giving $1,500 to Gregory Monya Carpenter, of 911 Crest Ave., Apt. 3, Charleroi and $1,000 to Welch.

After killing the couple, Szakal went to the 911 Crest Ave. apartment where he took off his blood-splattered clothing, showered and placed the clothing in a plastic bag, according to court records. The bag was later thrown in the river.

He placed the .25-caliber handgun allegedly used in the homicides under a mattresses on one of the beds, according to court records.

The Springers were precious metals dealers who operated out of their home. Former customers told police that the only way to gain access to the Springers home business was to first set up an appointment by telephone. Records indicate Szakal called the Springers three times the day of the homicides.

On Sept. 1, O'Dell Seneca Szakal denied a request by Welch's attorney, Joseph Francis, to delay start of the trial. Francis had sought the extra time to familiarize himself with the case against his client, Justin Welch.

At the time, Francis had taken over the case from attorney Jim Ecker, who withdrew as Welch's counsel after his client backed out of a plea agreement that would have included his testimony against Szakal.

On Thursday, Francis contacted the district attorney's office, indicating Welch had a change of heart.

"It will certainly streamline the trial and it gives us an opportunity to provide additional evidence about the scheme," Washington County District Attorney Steve Toprani said. "He will testify to those matters."

Thus, jury selection is expected to begin Monday for Welch's trial. From a pool of approximately 200, 12 jurors and two alternates will be chosen. Jury selection is expected to take up to a week.

"The commonwealth is certainly hopeful Mr. Welch will testify and will provide insight into the events as we believe they occurred in and around March 4," Toprani said.

All three of Szakal's alleged conspirators are expected to testify against the suspected shooter.

Hours before Welsh backed out of a plea bargain Aug 5, Carpenter pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property and tampering with evidence. He is expected to testify for the prosecution.

A fourth suspect, Tecko Dwayne Tartt, 22, pleaded guilty in April to robbery and criminal conspiracy to commit robbery. A charge of criminal conspiracy to commit homicide was withdrawn in exchange for his testimony.

"It doesn't change our position, but allows the commonwealth to put on more evidence," Topranis said of Welch's decision to cooperate with prosecutors. "I'm pleased with decision and ready to move forward."

Toprani, however, has recused himself from the case. The district attorney was close to the Springers, who were his neighbors while he was growing up in Carroll Township.

First Assistant District Attorney Craig McKay will prosecute the case. He will be joined by attorney Chad Schneider from Toprani's office.

Toprani said if Szakal is convicted, his office will seek the death penalty.

Springer's role as a retired police chief was not a mitigating circumstance in that decision, which was based on various circumstances laid out in the state statute for determining sentencing in homicide cases. Those circumstances include a double homicide committed in the course of a robbery.

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