Howe suspects to face trial
By ERIN SHAY
Photos by Jerry Sowden - James O'Brien, Eldred Walker and Timothy O'Brien (from left) were escorted to the courthouse by Sheriff Gene Price (visible with Walker).
What began as three Oil City men planning a Halloween "prank" ended in the brutal death of Shauna Howe almost 12 years ago, according to a police interview with one of the suspects charged in connection with the murder.
Several witnesses testified Tuesday about events linked to the disappearance and death of Shauna, 11, who was kidnapped Oct. 27, 1992, from the corner of West First and Reed streets in Oil City. Her body was found three days later.
District Justice William G. Martin determined after Tuesday's joint preliminary hearing that the three men will face trial on all the charges against them.
Timothy Michael O'Brien, 37, and his younger brother, James Eric O'Brien, 32, were held for court on charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, kidnapping, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and rape. The brothers could face the death penalty or life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.
The third co-defendant, Eldred "Ted" Walker, 45, was held on charges of kidnapping and second-degree murder.
A state trooper who interviewed Walker on July 5 of this year, just two days after his arrest, said Walker admitted to grabbing Shauna as she walked along West First Street on her way home from a Girl Scout Halloween party.
"He indicated to me there was a plan," said Trooper Vernon Brown of the Franklin barracks.
Brown said Walker told him the initial plan was to be seen grabbing someone on Halloween night, have the police called, keep the child for 10 to 15 minutes, then drop the child off at home.
"The plan started as a prank or a joke to upset the Oil City Police Department," Brown said. "She was just an opportune person."
Originally, the trio was going to abduct the son of one of Walker's friends, but as Halloween drew closer, plans changed, and it was decided a female victim would be taken, Brown said, recalling the interview with Walker.
Walker then told Brown that as discussions about the abduction became more frequent, the O'Brien brothers appeared more "serious," Brown said.
In the videotaped interview, Walker told police the brothers were in his red Chevette without his consent during the evening of Oct. 27. He said he followed them in another vehicle to Reed Street, where he got out of his Monte Carlo, and Timothy O'Brien told him "we've bumped up the plan," according to the trooper.
It was then that the men saw Shauna walking down the darkened street, in pink shorts and a leotard, according to testimony.
"He just approached her, walked up to her and grabbed her," Brown said of Walker. "He said he turned with her and handed her to Tim."
Brown said that during the interview, Walker told him Timothy O'Brien was standing between the open door of the two-door Chevette with one foot propped on the floorboard and one on the street and that the front seat had been pulled forward when he took Shauna from him.
Once the brothers had her in the car, Walker said he left in the Monte Carlo, circled the block and noticed the Chevette had left, the trooper said.
Walker said he was home when the brothers arrived at his Laurel Avenue residence with Shauna under their arms - Timothy holding the upper portion of her body and James holding her legs, Brown recalled. Walker said the brothers took her upstairs.
"Once they were upstairs, he (Walker) heard yelling and screaming," Brown said. "He heard Shauna say, 'Let me up, get off me, leave me alone.'"
Walker said the screaming lasted about 10 minutes and that he left the residence for a short time. When he returned, the brothers and Shauna were no longer at the home, Walker told Brown.
Walker was furious the O'Brien brothers took Shauna to his home, and he later kicked them out when they returned without the girl between the late evening hours of Oct. 27 or the early morning hours of Oct. 28, Brown said.
During the incident, the brothers threatened Walker, telling him they would kill his son, according to testimony.
Walker told police he didn't see the brothers again until Oct. 28, when they came back to his house and made statements to him about going to Coulter's Hole to search for the then missing girl, Brown said.
Shauna's body was found the morning of Oct. 30 in the Coulter's Hole area.
FORMER CELLMATE TESTIFIES
A former Venango County jail cellmate of Timothy O'Brien also took the stand for the prosecution Tuesday, revealing statements Timothy O'Brien allegedly made during a card game on Sept. 11, 2001.
Ryan Heath, who is now serving five to 10 years at the State Correctional Institution in Cresson, said he and the older O'Brien brother were cellmates for about eight months while he was awaiting trial for his own assault charges.
On Sept. 11, all the county inmates were under lockdown after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
He said he and Timothy O'Brien were playing cards and talking about previous crimes they had committed when Shauna's murder came up.
Heath said Timothy O'Brien revealed he and his brother had driven to Coulter's Hole, removed Shauna from the trunk and threw her from a bridge there. But Heath said Timothy O'Brien never indicated he kidnapped the girl, if he put her in the trunk, or who killed her.
In cross-examination by James Goodwin, Timothy O'Brien's counsel, Heath said he didn't tell anyone immediately because at first he "thought it was just a joke" but as "time went on, he saw a different side of (Timothy)."
"One minute he could be your best friend," Heath said. "The next minute he could be your enemy."
In his closing statements, Goodwin called Heath a "jailhouse snitch" and said the only evidence of his client's involvement came from the former cellmate.
DANIEL PADEN TESTIFIES
Daniel Paden, who was identified as a key witness to the girl's abduction, told the court he was walking the opposite way as Shauna around 8 p.m. Oct. 27. He said he also noticed a tall, thin man, around 6-feet-tall and kind of "shabby" dressed crossing the street toward the girl.
"I really didn't pay too much attention until I heard that muffled scream," he said. "... at 8:04 I remember hearing a scream ... a muffled scream."
District Attorney Marie Veon asked Paden if he could identify the man he saw that evening. Paden then looked around briefly and pointed to Walker.
"I recognize him as the person I saw," he said.
Paden said he was unable to identify Walker as the abductor until he saw the man on a television news station a couple of years ago.
Paden said he was 90 percent sure Walker was the one who snatched Shauna, but that he became 100 percent sure after seeing a news clip of Walker being escorted into Martin's office for his arraignment in July.
Among those to briefly testify Tuesday were Shauna's mother, Lucy Brown; her uncle, Keith Sibble; and state police troopers involved in the case.
DNA evidence linking James O'Brien to the case was also admitted, showing that James O'Brien's DNA and that found on Shauna's body and clothing were a match.
COUNSELS' CLOSING STATEMENTS
Despite arguments from defense attorneys Neil Rothschild, Wayne Hundertmark and Goodwin, Martin found enough evidence was presented to hold all the men's cases over to the Common Pleas Court.
Martin made the decision after reviewing testimony and evidence, including an autopsy report done on Shauna by the Allegheny County Coroner's Office.
Martin said the girl died of "extensive blunt force trauma" to various parts of her body, including her neck. She also suffered from fractured ribs, a dislocated shoulder and facial lacerations, among other injuries, Martin said.
In his closing statements, Hundertmark, who is representing James O'Brien, argued that the prosecution failed to provide information about the time or place of Shauna's slaying in regard to the charge of first-degree murder against his client.
Hundertmark said nothing was provided to indicate who killed the girl and that he was unsure if she had received broken ribs from being thrown from the trestle or if she was even thrown from the trestle. Hundertmark also said he wasn't sure if she was alive or dead before being thrown over the bridge.
Rothschild, Walker's attorney, argued that his client was in "conspiracy to committing a prank" and that Walker was only aware of a plan to commit false imprisonment.
Veon called Shauna's slaying a "malicious killing, a killing with intent."
"She never returned home. She died before the kidnapping ended," Veon said in her closing argument. "(Walker) was the one who physically grabbed her. He was the one who took her off of the street."
The three men are being held at the Venango County jail in lieu of $250,000 bond.