By Marcia Moore
The Daily Item
— Update, Noon today:
MIDDLEBURG - A defense witness testified Monday an early suspect in the case told him "it was a fight that got out of hand; I never intended for it to go that far."
Troy Delong said he approached his friend Tim Steffen, an early suspect in the case who was later cleared by police, after rumors started swirling regarding Donald Seebold's death. Delong said asked Steffen outright and Steffen told him "it was a fight that got out of hand; I never intended for it to go that far."
Michael Rudinski, the defense attorney for Chris Aucker, put several other people at the party the day Seebold was killed, calling into question whether other people were involved.
Stacey Dorman testified Monday that she was at the party briefly after leaving work and she saw Brian Swartzlander there as well. Swartzlander was also an early suspect in the case and was cleared by police. She also testified that police challenged her recollections of that night, telling her Swartzlander was not at the party.
MIDDLEBURG — Prosecution witnesses in the murder trial of three Snyder County men charged with fatally beating Donald E. Seebold III to death at a birthday party in Port Ann nearly 16 years ago gave conflicting testimony Wednesday about what they observed that night.
One witness said she felt threatened by law enforcement to lie to a grand jury.
District Attorney Michael Piecuch alleges Robert L. Reich, 37, and Chris Aucker, 39, both of Beavertown, and Ryan Sprenkel, 37, of Middleburg, fatally beat Seebold, 21, in front of a crowd of partygoers on July 12, 1997.
An injured and barely conscious Seebold was removed from the party by Reich, his half-brother, Kurt Gotshall, and Brian Heckman, who left him on the side of Troxelville Road, a couple of miles away, where he was later picked up by Sprenkel and loaded into the backseat of a Pontiac Trans Am.
The following morning, Seebold was discovered in the backseat dead from blunt-force trauma to the head, which forensic pathologist Dr. Samuel Land testified was consistent with being beaten.
Aucker’s attorney, Michael Rudinski, told the jury earlier this week in opening statements that a fight never took place at the party.
Dwayne Keister testified Wednesday that he witnessed a “scuffle” at the party, but insisted Seebold was standing and alert afterward.
He said the altercation drew a crowd of 20 to 30 people and that it appeared Reich, a distant cousin, was trying to break it up.
“I would not consider it a knock-down, drag-out fight,” Keister said.
A tearful Beth Gotshall echoed earlier testimony given by her estranged husband, Kurt Gotshall, and Keith Buss that Seebold was assaulted at the party as several people stood around watching.
Responding to Piecuch’s questioning, she testified seeing Seebold being punched and kicked by Sprenkel, Aucker and Reich, but that a crowd of 10 to 12 onlookers obscured her view before she walked away from the scene.
Gotshall kept quiet about what she saw for eight years out of fear of Reich, her brother-in-law, who she claimed had roughed up her husband for speaking with police about Seebold.
She came forward with what she knew about Seebold’s death in 2005 because “I felt bad for the guy. If it was my child, I’d want someone to do the same.”
Under cross-examination by defense attorneys, Gotshall became confused and couldn’t explain previous statements she gave identifying Brian Swartzlander and former boyfriend Tim Steffen as suspects and couldn’t recall telling police that she saw Seebold “staggering” away from the party at the end of the night.
Questioned by Sprenkel’s attorney, Edward “E.J.” Rymsza, about what she saw him do during the fight, Gotshall said she couldn’t recall Sprenkel kicking Seebold.
“It’s been so many years,” she said, denying the attorney’s suggestion that she came forward and identified the defendants only after her husband became a person of interest to police.
Trooper Rob Reeves testified that Beth Gotshall’s information about the defendants changed the direction of the investigation. Kurt Gotshall, Swartzlander and Steffen were early suspects in Seebold’s death, but were eventually ruled out. He said the two latter suspects were cleared when investigators determined they hadn’t attended the party.
Rudinski asked the trooper whether he knew Steffen hung out with a friend who lived less than a mile where Seebold’s body was left along Troxelville Road, and that 50 to 100 people at the party denied a fight took place.
The final witness Wednesday was Jennifer Long, also a distant cousin of Reich, who said she lied to a statewide grand jury in August 2011 when she testified seeing Seebold being beaten by Reich, Aucker and Sprenkel and then nearly dragged into a pickup truck when homeowner Linda Thomas became upset about the fight and ordered the injured man removed from her property.
Long broke down in tears as she described feeling “threatened” and “pressured” by Piecuch and two state police investigators to testify falsely to the grand jury.
She recanted her testimony last year after Reich, Aucker and Sprenkel were arrested.
Repeatedly asked by Piecuch to demonstrate how she was threatened, Long described how one of the officers threw a book on the table and she was told her she could be arrested if she didn’t tell who “did it.”
Added Long who at times was defiant and other times teary-eyed, “I felt I had to cooperate with you guys for you to leave me alone.”
Piecuch asked how Long was able to provide the grand jury with so much detail regarding Reich, Aucker and Sprenkel’s involvement in Seebold’s beating and she replied, “I was told what you thought happened and what I saw.”
The trial is scheduled to resume this morning with more prosecution witnesses.