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 email@example.com.