A Ford City resident is being charged with murder (homicide) of the first degree after an alleged incident in Burrell Township on Oct. 27.
Police say the suspect, Mitchell John Hepler, 33, is also facing additional charges, including first-degree felony robbery-inflict serious bodily injury; first-degree felony robbery-threat immediate serious injury; first-degree aggravated assault-attempts to cause serious bodily injury or causes injury with extreme indifference; first-degree burglary-overnight accommodations; person present; second-degree felony robbery-inflict threat immediate bodily injury; second-degree felony criminal trespass-breaking into structure. Additional charges include second-degree felony theft by unlawful taking-moveable property; third-degree felony burglary-overnight accommodations; person present, bodily injury crime; first-degree misdemeanor theft by unlawful taking-moveable property; and third-degree misdemeanor defiant trespass actual communication to (disorderly conduct and loitering and prowling at night time).
According to a criminal complaint, filed Nov. 23, in conjunction with an affidavit of probable cause, with Rural Valley Magisterial District Judge Kevin McCausland by Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) Trooper Michael Graham of Troop D — Kittanning — Criminal Investigation Unit, at approximately 2:25 p.m. on Oct. 27, he was assigned the death investigation at Gibson Road in Burrell Township.
It was related by Manor Township Police Dept. Chief Chris Robbins that a male was found by the landlord of the residence, apartment A, lying deceased on the bathroom floor.
It was explained there was possible blunt-force trauma to the victim.
It was also related that a crack pipe and possible other paraphernalia were discovered.
It was also explained the victim’s apartment appeared to be rummaged through and ransacked, with a table, trash and other furniture and belongings littered throughout the residence.
On Oct. 27, at approximately 3:46 p.m., Graham spoke to the landlord because he discovered the body and called 911.
The landlord explained that Hepler had been evicted from apartment B last year, but he had been seen at the residence.
He related the current resident of apartment B is Hepler’s father, Curtis Hepler, who is in jail on unrelated charges.
The landlord stated he saw Hepler with the victim on Oct. 24 leaving together and returning with grocery bags going into the victim’s apartment.
The landlord said he saw Hepler again on Oct. 25 by himself entering the victim’s apartment.
After observing Hepler around the residences, the landlord wanted to inform Hepler that he should not be at either apartment because he was evicted.
Upon going to the residence on Oct. 27 and knocking on the doors to the apartments, with no answer, the landlord entered apartment A using his keys.
The landlord had to push his way through a large amount of debris, which was out of the ordinary because the victim typically kept a “pretty neat apartment.”
Continuing through, the landlord found the victim deceased on the bathroom floor.
After observing the victim, the landlord contacted the authorities.
Chief Robbins advised that he had run the registration of a white minivan with a Pennsylvania registration at the scene.
He saw an air compressor, various tools and sealed grocery bags in the minivan.
He found that it was registered to Hepler and found him to have multiple warrants.
Local police officers observed Hepler walking on the roadway near the scene.
He was then detained and transported to the PSP Troop D, Kittanning Barracks.
Hepler’s person was searched and he had a female’s watch, two necklaces, a $20 bill and a $1 bill, among other items.
Hepler was then questioned, with Hepler relating he sleeps at apartment B.
After Hepler was questioned, a search warrant was executed on his person.
In accordance with the search warrant, Hepler was photographed.
Hepler’s right eye had a gash/laceration with dried blood around it.
Above that, at his hairline, were two scratches/lacerations with dried blood around them.
On his hands, his knuckles were bruised and had small cuts/scratches on his hands and wrists.
A search warrant was executed for the premises and the victim’s apartment.
The victim’s possessions were scattered about his apartment.
Jewelry boxes were observed opened and contents scattered in the apartment.
The jewelry included that made for wear by a female.
A gun cabinet was opened and multiple racks were emptied.
The victim’s wallet was located in the kitchen.
The wallet contained the victim’s identification and PNC Bank receipts.
There was no PNC debit card in the victim’s wallet.
On the exterior of the victim’s residence, multiple firearms were observed stashed in a pile on the porch. The victim had multiple construction tools located throughout his residence, as well as his garage.
While examining the victim’s body at the scene, it was apparent he had been deceased for at least 24 hours, as his body was starting to decompose.
Parts of his skin, including his hands, were showing signs of skin slippage/degloving, which is a process where the skin falls off the underlying tissue after blisters pop, from decomposition exposing superficial skin layers.
In executing a search warrant on apartment B where Hepler was staying, a PNC debit/credit card was located in the toilet belonging to the victim having his name on it.
Continuing the search, a leather western-style gun belt with several .357 rounds in the holder of the belt that was located on a bed. The same tarnished .357 rounds were located in the victim’s emptied-out gun cabinet.
Along with the stashed guns outside the victim’s rear door was a cooler of canned goods and other food. Two cell phones were also located in apartment B inside the microwave. The phones appeared to have been microwaved and damaged.
Inside the victim’s apartment, a cell phone was located inside the microwave and appeared to be damaged, as well.
Through interviews, it was learned the victim had at least two different cell phones.
As described in interviews, the one located in the microwave in the victim’s apartment was described as an old cell phone and the victim had gotten at least one new phone since using the old one. The western-style gun belt that was located in apartment B was described as belonging to the victim, along with at least one piece of jewelry that was found on Hepler’s person (silver necklace).
During the investigation, it was learned a phone call was made by the victim to a friend/relative of Hepler on Oct. 24 and lasted for more than 17 minutes.
During the call, the friend/relative let her boyfriend listen “on speaker.”
Both allegedly heard Hepler yelling at the victim and throwing items about.
Some of the things allegedly heard was Hepler yelling, “I’m going to stab you in the neck! I am hell! You set up my Dad! You disrespected my Mom!”
It was related that, “it sounded like Mitchell was going to kill him.”
After the call ended, the friend/relative tried to call back multiple times, but the calls went straight to voicemail. After not being able to contact the victim by phone, they went to the victim’s apartment and knocked on the door, but there was no answer.
On Nov. 2, a search warrant was performed on the victim’s PNC Bank account at the Vandergrift office, which was the location noted on the receipts from the victim’s wallet.
At that time, it was learned the victim’s last activity was on Oct. 24 for an ATM withdrawal of $300. That amount was more than the victim’s typical withdrawal of $100.
The next recent activity was on Oct. 11.
After learning this, Graham requested bank surveillance from PNC.
The trooper was given surveillance footage of the ATM.
In the footage, it shows the victim using the ATM and at one point in time, approximately one minute in, Hepler is observed coming onto the camera footage in the background and then turning around and going out of range of the camera.
On Oct. 28, an autopsy was held for the victim at the Westmoreland County Forensic Center by a pathologist.
At that time, the pathologist noted multiple traumas to the victim.
A consultation was done between the Armstrong County coroner and the pathologist. The pathologist explained the victim did present heart disease and multiple significant injuries that were consistent with multiple impact points. Some of those injuries were to the face/head, neck and multiple broken ribs. The pathologist related that due to the number of significant injuries, and the victim’s weakened heart due to heart disease, the victim’s heart gave out. She stated the distribution of injuries was not consistent with anything accidental, such as falls.
A preliminary hearing for Hepler before MDJ McCausland has been scheduled for 1 p.m. on Dec. 6. McCausland denied bail and Hepler is confined to the Armstrong County Jail.
Dennis Phillips is the associate editor of the Leader Times. He can be reached by calling 724-543-1303, ext. 1318, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Having more Democrats than Republicans among his co-sponsors, state Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, won unanimous support Monday, 200-0, for his House Bill 1393, which would help prevent deadly overdoses by removing fentanyl test strips from the definition of “drug paraphernalia” which are prohibited and carry serious penalties.
“I’ve worked hard and received a great deal of help in getting a life-saving bill to this point and am truly appreciative of my colleagues vote on House Bill 1393,” Struzzi said. “The January hearing held by the House Judiciary Committee really demonstrated the need for this legislation and was a key to attracting bipartisan support followed by a unanimous vote in committee, which really made me optimistic.”
Struzzi had 27 co-sponsors including Reps. Brian Smith, R-Punxsutawney; Jim Rigby, R-Johnstown; Austin Davis, D-McKeesport (the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor); Tina Davis, D-Bucks County (Democratic caucus secretary); and Michael Schlossburg, D-Lehigh County (Democratic caucus administrator).
“Fentanyl is one of the leading causes of overdose deaths, and nearly half of our states have taken this course of action for individuals who are in the grip of addiction,” Struzzi said. “I’m also glad to see the bill was amended to expand the definition of “testing products,” as we anticipate the next wave of dangerous, controlled substances that could unfortunately impact our society.”
Struzzi said H.B. 1393 was developed in cooperation with the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission.
“We are seeing individuals overdose now on drugs other than heroin and other opiates, as dealers are now adding fentanyl to cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana,” AICDAC Executive Director Kami Anderson said when Struzzi first introduced H.B. 1393 15 months ago. “These very inexpensive strips are a tool for anyone using any illegal drugs, and the Drug and Alcohol Commission applauds Rep. Struzzi for his efforts to get this bill passed in Pennsylvania and save many lives in our area.”
The bill now moves to the state Senate.
When it comes to her efforts toward building a bright future, one could say Olivia Fennell has just the right touch — in the salon, as a student and in life.
Olivia’s professional aspirations in cosmetology, along with her superlative status in the classroom and beyond, made her the selection as the recipient of the fifth Leader Times-Rosebud Mining Co. “Teen of the Week” award.
A senior at Lenape Technical School (LTS), Olivia is the daughter of Brent Fennell (father), Regan Weight (mother) and Steve Weight (step-father). She was nominated by LTS counselor Lauren Reilly.
Olivia is already a license cosmetologist, as she’s met all of the requirements and passed her state boards.
Typically, students don’t take their state boards to try to earn their cosmetology license until spring of their senior year. Olivia also participated in the local skills USA competition last year for nail care where she earned third place.
Ms. Reilly, who has known Olivia for two years, said of the honoree: “It didn’t take long to notice the motivation and focus she has for learning and her genuine and caring personality. Not only is she an outstanding student as demonstrated by her grades, but she is also devoted to serving her school and others.”
Ms. Reilly went on to say: “Olivia carries a 4.035 GPA which places her in the top 10% of her class. In fact, Olivia has made the high honor roll every quarter throughout her high school career as one of our cosmetology students. She consistently demonstrates the passion, hard work and dedication needed to succeed in the classroom, while also devoting her time to numerous extracurricular activities. Her ability to manage the Lenape Tech’s curriculum while serving as the cosmetology class president, and member of the National Honor Society and track and field team is exceptional.”
Ms. Reilly also went on to say: “As a person, one thing that stands out to me about Olivia is her outgoing personality. Olivia is one of those students who is kind and welcoming to everyone that she comes into contact with, and she has a warm personality that makes people feel at ease. In addition, I believe she is honest, dependable, trustworthy and compassionate. Olivia is able to balance school and work, as she has worked at Speedy’s Tasty Treats and currently works at Total Beauty Bar LLC as an assistant/hairstylist assistant/hairstylist. I have the upmost respect for Olivia, as do her fellow classmates and teachers. She is looked up to as a scholar, leader and role model, and I believe she will continue to develop these attributes in the future.”
Some of Olivia’s accomplishments are that she placed third in the local skills competition for nail care and earned status as a High Honors student.
She also was first in the class to pass cosmetology state boards and received her license.
Olivia is the cosmetology class president, and she is OSHA certified, and SP2 certified.
Her key skills are hair styling, hair coloring, hair cutting, acrylic nails, facials, sanitization and anything dealing with salon procedures and clients.
Olivia’s cosmetology instructor Gara Atherton said: “Olivia has proven to be an exceptional student, with regard to her efforts in class, her ability to participate in discussions, her ability to create original and creative work, her knowledge of the technical equipment that we use in class, and her ability to help others reach the class objectives and goals. These past three years, she stood out as a leader in class. She was someone who was always ready and able to present her own work as an example for others. Olivia has always given her full effort on every assignment, and raise the bar for other students due to her willingness to work hard and her drive to be successful.”
Gara added: “Olivia is someone that I could, and still can depend on to help with any task. She is very responsible and mature. She is one of those students that every teacher loves to have in his or her class. She is a pleasure to talk with, and is a great role model for other students. She is career oriented, which is why I believe she strives so hard in her academic and technical programs. She always wants to take advantage of any opportunity to enhance her skills in the Cosmetology Field. In addition to being a licensed cosmetologist (the first to ever take them and pass this early), she was a member of track and field and a member of National Honor Society. She has also led her book club.”
Olivia does bridal hair on the weekend and that shows her enthusiasm to help others, and since her desired career is to become a business salon owner, she has already begun to enhance all the traits that make someone a caring and passionate worker.
Gara went on to say: “As Olivia’s teacher, I have always had the utmost respect for her efforts and work ethic. Because of that, her classmates, my fellow teachers, and I will always hold her in the highest esteem.”
The local SkillsUSA competition was recently held. Olivia won first place in the cosmetology competition and will be moving on to compete at the district level in January.
When asked what Olivia could not live without, her reply was: “My family. Family is the most important thing to me because they will always be there for you. Especially my dogs, Gigi and Ivy”.
She was asked which school tradition she was most proud of and she said: “My favorite school tradition will have to be the school dances. Lenape has a Snowball and Prom each year. I love getting all dressed up and seeing everyone all put together and having fun.”
Olivia was also asked if she had any locations/places in mind where she wants to start her business.
“I definitely want to stay local to start out. Maybe somewhere in Ford City or Kittanning, then eventually venture out into somewhere new,” she said.
Olivia was also asked what it meant to her to win the skillsUSA competition.
“I am so grateful to be able to move on and compete in this competition. Not everyone gets the opportunity to be recognized and awarded for their accomplishments. Hopefully I come out of districts with another win and move on to States,” she said.
And when asked who has given Olivia the best advice?
“My grandma. She said to me one day ‘Don’t let anyone diminish you.’ That stood out to me because it made me realize how much I am worth,” she said.
Editor’s note — The next installment of the Leader Times-Rosebud Mining Co.’s “Teen of the Week” series will appear in the Dec. 2 edition, and every Friday thereafter, through June of 2023. Once all students have been recognized, a Teen of the Year will be selected as the recipient of a $2,500 scholarship, sponsored by Rosebud Mining Co., to use towards the continuation of their education.
At the A.J. Myers and Valley Lines bus companies, owners, secretaries and mechanics with their CDL licenses are driving buses many days to make up for a lack of school bus drivers at those companies.
During a recent interview with the Leader Times, James Myers of A.J. Myers & Sons, Inc., noted the lack of people applying for work has created a desperate situation.
“We can’t get employees ... we can’t get drivers,” he said this week.
Bill Clepper of Valley Lines said it has been a tough thing to recruit school bus drivers for the last 30 to 40 years.
However, since the COVID-19 pandemic, recruitment has become much more difficult, Mr. Myers said, since a lot of the older drivers were afraid of getting COVID and took leaves of absence.
“A lot of them just didn’t come back to work,” he said. “We can’t get anybody new to replace them.”
Inflation is also taking a significant toll on bus companies, the men said.
“Our parts, our tires, our insurance went up — our fuel has doubled,” Mr. Myers said.
Mr. Clepper said the bus company owners haven’t been able to get Ford and Chevy bus chassis for well over a year.
Mr. Myers said they ordered new school buses months ago, and still aren’t sure they will have them by the next school year.
“The loss of our energy independence devastated our country,” he said.
Not only has the cost of diesel fuel doubled, but tires are made with petroleum, and they have been told the cost of school bus tires will go up $200 per tire next year, and that school bus/truck tires will cost between $550 and $600 apiece next year, Mr. Myers said.
A gasoline-powered 72-passenger school bus recently cost $111,500, and there is some pressure for companies to buy $300,000 electric buses.
“How are we going to supply the power to these electric cars and buses if we don’t have power plants?” Mr. Clepper asked, speaking of the simultaneous efforts to get people to drive electric vehicles while government regulations are closing Pennsylvania’s coal-fired electric power plants.
“We did approach the school district a few weeks ago and asked them to help,” Mr. Clepper said. “We have a pre-COVID contract with the school district and it doesn’t accommodate these conditions.”
The men said if the school district would give each bus driver $15 more per day, it would help to attract new drivers and retain current drivers, as it did in the Butler Area School District.
Armstrong School District Director of Finance and Operations Sam Kirk said Wednesday that the district is in the fifth year of a six-year contract with the five bus companies that provide transportation for the district
He said annual increases were embedded in each year of the contract, as agreed upon earlier.
Mr. Kirk said Wednesday that district Superintendent Chris DeVivo met with the bus company owners a couple of weeks ago, and requested additional information from them, which the district has not yet received.
That information, once received, will be given to the school board, and will be discussed with school board members in December, he said.
Progressive Wood Works, a local business operated by the Progressive Workshop of Armstrong County (PWAC) that produces and sells hand-crafted wooden products including cutting boards, charcuterie boards, coasters, trivets, and seasonal decorations, will be running a special discount throughout the month of December.
Progressive Wood Works sells wooden stakes, firewood, and its crafted products to local community members and through online orders that can be shipped anywhere in the continental United States.
During the month of December until Christmas, all online orders through Progressive Wood Works except for e-gift cards are eligible to receive a 10% discount.
To place an order, visit: pwacprogressivewoodworks.com.
Trainees who work for Progressive Wood Works receive vocational rehabilitation training while earning above minimum wage.
Staff members who are employed to work for Progressive Wood Works spend time individually with each trainee in the woodshop to safely show them how to handle raw materials, use tools and equipment, and participate in each phase of the crafting process from start to finish.
All profits made from the sales of these wooden products are used to pay the trainees completing the work and to purchase raw materials.
PWAC Black Friday sale to extend through
PWAC’s Progressive Wood Works will be running a 20% off sale on all orders from Black Friday through Cyber Monday with the code BLACKFRIDAY at: pwacprogressivewoodworks.com/.
Progressive Wood Works e-gift cards loaded with a $50 minimum will also be 20% off with the code CYBERSAVE!
Making a Difference
at a Discount
According to the PWAC release: “Never will there be a more perfect time to purchase a few beautifully hand-crafted wooden charcuterie boards, cutting boards, trivets, coasters, or seasonal decorations for those on your Christmas list (or for yourself!) during this holiday season! Be sure to visit our website to check out our unique products and be sure to use those codes to receive your holiday discount! Progressive Wood Works sells its crafted products, firewood, and wooden stakes to local community members and through online orders that can be shipped anywhere in the continental United States. Some seasonal items are only available for pick up at our 301 Oak Ave. location in Kittanning, Pa. Any time you purchase from Progressive Wood Works, you are supporting our trainees’ vocational rehabilitation training and their paychecks while contributing to our mission to provide them with positive opportunities for employment and community involvement. Our trainees learn valuable skills in the woodshop that make them more employable, independent, and allow them to earn above minimum wage. Your contributions have a great influence on their ability to learn and excel. Happy Thanksgiving and happy shopping from all of us at PWAC!!”
Residents of East Franklin Township will face no real estate tax increase in keeping with the 2023 general fund budget adopted this week by the municipality’s board of supervisors.
Action to approve the spending plan, which carries a millage rate of 5.75 mills, was followed by the board’s move to adopt the township’s sewage operating fund, with no increase in sewage rates for Adrian, Cowansville, Tarrtown and Fox Hollow.
latest plans for making
On the heels of a recent analysis of the safety of the U.S. Route 422 and Glade Run Road intersection in the township, supervisors offered details on official determinations made that were included in a report completed by a third-party entity, as a result of the study.
“Increased signage, not only signage, but a lot bigger signage. They’re going to paint arrows on the road for turning (slowly) one way or the other. (They’re also talking about) using the (Pennsylvania) State Police to site down there to try to catch speeders, LED lights. They suggested putting brighter LED lights there, the lights there now aren’t as bright,” Supervisor Board Vice Chairman Dan Goldinger said.
“They also want to put a tractor sign there for the tractors that cross the highway. Later on, if that doesn’t do any good, they suggested maybe rough surface prior to the intersection, so people would slow down going over that. (A) linking light (is also being considered). Overhead signage from one side all the way over to the other side — this is maybe later down the road. Also, (under consideration is the) increase the blend lanes from when you turn right to give you more area before you merge into the traffic.”
According to the board, enhancements are being planned with the aim of increasing safety at the site, which officials who conducted the analysis conveyed to the board is primarily unsafe due to the fact that the vast majority of drivers passing through are speeding.
During the board’s October meeting, township board of supervisors Chairman Barry Peters affirmed 85% of the motorists are committing that violation.
The focus on the safety of the intersection has been an ongoing concern for 15-year-old township resident Gracie Elosser.
Since a deadly accident on July 3, 2021, at the intersection that led to the death of Kenneth Robert Shaffer, 60, who was killed in a motorcycle accident after hitting a truck along U.S. Route 422, Elosser has been routinely attending township meetings discussing her opinion that the intersection is a danger to drivers.
Goldinger said a final report by the third-party agency, with suggestions to the township, the state department of Transportation (PennDOT) and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC) to make the intersection as safe as possible, is due in roughly six weeks.
“The (SPC) has a certain amount of funding so that’ll help pay for some of (the suggested enhancements),” Supervisor David Stewart said. “(The township) will have to pay for some, and then PennDOT will have to pay for some, and then the SPC will have to pay for some, depending on what they want to do.”
“That project appears to be in its final stages,” he said.
McKelvey also announced he will be leaving his position of approximately six years as township zoning officer, effective Dec. 31.
“I very much have enjoyed my time working with the township. Those of you who have known me better know I’m cutting down to just one job moving forward. Thanks for all of your cooperation over the years,” he said.
Board members praised McKelvey for his work in the post.
“We’d like to thank you for your service,” Supervisor David Stewart said.
“We stuffed multiple cruisers full of toys, a truckload full of bicycles, and anybody that wants to get a toy for anyone in Armstrong County can contact Toys for Tots, and they’ll deliver it to them,” Guelich said. “It was a real nice a event — a really good turnout, even though it got really cold.”
Additional meeting action
In additional meeting action, supervisors unanimously voted to:
“That’s so we can combine that with our $100,000 in our savings account, so we can put it (all) into a CD (certificate of deposit), toward the new building, if possible,” Martin said.
Goldinger said the board could not authorize such a move at this week’s meeting but it can add the item for consideration to an agenda for the board’s next meeting.
The next meeting of East Franklin Township’s board of supervisors will take place at 6 p.m. Dec. 22 at the township municipal building, located at 106 Cherry Orchard Ave., Kittanning, PA 16201.