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Defense: What did you learn from prosecution’s case?

January 25, 2012

BROOKVILLE — During his closing arguments in the seventh day of Steven P. Rebert’s double homicide trial, defense attorney and public defender John Ingros told the jury that it has seen more than 300 exhibits and heard testimony about the victims’ kitchen, knickknacks on the counter, the locations of “every door and window,” the yard, where the vehicles were parked and even an incomplete bedroom on the second floor of their home.

But, Ingros asked, “Are you any closer to helping you decide” Rebert’s innocence or guilt. “What did you really learn?

Rebert, 46, formerly of Emporium, was charged with criminal homicide; aggravated assault; burglary and robbery in the deaths of Victoria and Wayne Shugar, both 61, who were found dead April 12, 2010, in their Coal Tipple Road home, Brockway.

Yes, the Shugars — owners of Flowers & More in Brockway — were loving parents and respected people in Brockway, Ingros said, but added, “How much of that guides you to your decisions? How much of that tells what happened?”

In his opening statement Jan. 16, Ingros told the jury, “Pay attention as we go through it all. Sometimes, there’s not going to be flashing lights.”

Tuesday, he told the jury, “The Commonwealth can’t prove Steven Rebert pulled the trigger, or burglarized or stole anything.”

But the jury thought otherwise, and found Rebert — also defended by Jacqueline Mizerock — guilty of all counts after just under two hours of deliberation late Tuesday afternoon.

Ingros also pointed out the following to the jury:

• He asked the jury to consider the role, if any, of Michelle Bright — whom he referred to as “the red herring” — and former friend of Rebert.

She said she had not seen Steve since May 2009,” Ingros said. “In what way would Steven Rebert win back Michelle Bright by killing her employers? It just doesn’t make any sense. If he had a thing for Michelle, how could any of that be addresses by killing the Shugars?”

• While it is admirable that neighbors keep an eye on each other, “everyone knew what was going on with everything” March 3, 2010, on Coal Tipple Road,” Ingros said, including “a guy with four cameras recording everything to video. Interesting.”

If the neighbors were correct, however, why was Rebert allegedly on Coal Tipple Road — especially in broad daylight?

“In broad daylight, he was strolling down the road with a rifle,” Ingros said. “He even spoke with one of the residents. He said he was just enjoying the nice spring weather.

“Criminal shy away from the public; they do whatever they do in darkness,” he added.

He later said, March 3, 2010, several neighbors testified to seeing the unfamiliar vehicle along Coal Tipple Road, but the night of April 10, 2010, “The community watch must have been shut down, because no one saw anything.”

• Ingros said his theory was that Rebert — whom witnesses described as one who used marijuana — was scoping out spaces in the rural area near Coal Tipple Road to grow marijuana.

Bright told PSP Cpl. Jeff Lee that Rebert had many sites at which to grow marijuana, and even another female friend of Rebert, Arwyn Eckenroad Strahl, said he grew marijuana, and she sold it for him.

But by the same token, Ingros said, Strahl also testified that Rebert, when they were looking for one of his marijuana sites, threatened to “send her baby to the Mexicans” if she watched where he was walking into the woods.

“Do you really believe that?” Ingros asked the jury.

“Could the reason be that Steven Rebert was on Cola Tipple Road as he was scoping out areas to grow marijuana?” he said. “It is an entirely reasonable explanation” if the jury considers other evidence.

• Ingros said while police found clothes and boots in the trunk of Rebert’s car, they also found a small shovel and a light, which Ingros said could have been used during evening hours to dig and transplant marijuana. He also suggested that the evening of April 10, 2010, Rebert could have been traveling from Emporium to Brockway to cultivate a marijuana growth site, about which Justin Modeas, an independent contractor who work with Rebert in March 2010 along Coal Tipple Road, testified last Tuesday.

He also said it would be unreasonable to think that when Rebert spoke with police in late April 2010, he would put marijuana growth operation in jeopardy.

• While forensic pathologist Dr. Eric Vey testified as an expert witness last Tuesday, Ingros said he believed there was no scientific way to determine the hours of the Shugars’ deaths, suggesting that they couple was killed a few hours after eating breakfast, not dinner, as Vey suggested.

• Ingros said police, after examining the crime scene, said there were no signs of forced entry into the Shugars’ home, and that family members told Trooper David Ray that their parents generally locked their doors.

He also said despite Vey testifying that there were five bullet wounds found on the Shugars’ bodies, only two bullets were recovered, except a spent casing and an unspent casing on a dresser upstairs.

“There were no fragments,” he said. “Where did it go? Did it not hit a well? But there were no holes in the walls, the ceiling ... there was no evidence a third bullet ever existed.”

Ingros also said while two trails of blood were found on the floor, police found no blood evidence in Rebert’s car after it was seized by police via a search warrant. That means, there was no blood found on the clothes in the truck, nothing on the vehicle’s headrest or arm rests, and not on the pedals of the vehicle, despite blood being found on the bottom of Rebert’s boots.

• Again pertaining to Vey’s testimony about abrasions and dislocation on Vicky Shugar’s left ring finger, Ingros theorized that her finger could have been injured in a fall, but that cannot be concluded scientifically.

He also suggested that three broken ribs in Wayne Shugar’s body could have resulted from a fall to the basement stairs.

• Discussing items found out of place in the Shugars’ home — a necklace on the basement floor, a purse in the kitchen containing money and Wayne wallet in a kitchen drawer, Ingros said, “There’s was no proof that anything was missing; there was no inventory of anything.”

He said if “that was a motive, why not take all of it?”

• Ingros said just because police found old currency in Rebert’s house does not mean it came from the Shugar residence, because there was no inventory.

He also said while video from Sheetz stores in Emporium, St. Marys and Brockway showed where Rebert was going, there was no indication when Rebert returned home.

“We don’t know when he got back,” Ingros said. “Why not?”

• Ingros also criticized state police’s work investigations on Rebert’s computer, which indicated that before April 11, 2010, Rebert’s online searched were for around the Buffalo, N.Y., area and include many searches for sports news.

“The Commonwealth wants you to believe after April 11, Steven Rebert was fixated on Brockway,” he said. But if Ingros said had he looked up information about the Brockway homicides, would that have made him a suspect?

• Ingros also discounted the testimony of Joel Eagleson, who said that Rebert, coming down from withdrawal from Oxycontin, confessed to the murders while they shared a cell in a Genesee County, N.Y., jail.
He said Tuesday, Eagleson testified that he admitted to police that he had told the story police, and that he received a lesser sentence for his cooperation.

“Michelle Bright described Rebert as a loner, and Arwyn Strahl described him as paranoid,” Ingros said. “Do you expect that a paranoid guy would just fess up and tell tell all these things to someone in a 20-minute conversation, a guy who just got a deal?”

• Ingros also said three sets of finger[prints did not match those of Rebert or the Shugars, and that a DNA stain found on Wayne Shugar’s closed “specifically excluded Steven Rebert.”

He also asked why only Wayne Shugar’s blood was found on Rebert’s boots, and not his own, and that there was someone else’s DNA on the boot.

“Someone else’s DNA? How you account for that, I really don’t know,” Ingros said.

• He reminded that jury that it must decide beyond a reasonable doubt that Rebert is responsible for the Shugars’ death, describing reasonable doubt as when one feels as if “something’s missing; it doesn’t feel right.”

“This is a person’s life we’re potentially talking about,” he said.

(Editor’s note: This piece is one in a series of “Familiar Faces Friday” features to be written by Spirit reporter...
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