How A Friend Of Zettlemoyer's Became His Murder Victim First Was The Burglary. Then Zettlemoyer Told Charles Devetsco, Who Told Police. Then Devetsco Was Shot To Death.

Posted: May 03, 1995

SELINSGROVE, Pa. — They met at the Susquehanna Valley Mall in 1980 when they were co-workers on the maintenance staff. They became casual friends.

Charles "Chuck" DeVetsco, 30 at the time, was a former radio newsman who had decided he would rather be inside the ambulance, helping victims, than outside, reporting on them. He was working part time at the mall while awaiting admission into a paramedic program.

Keith Zettlemoyer, 25 at the time, was a loner with a lifelong personality disorder, according to testimony during his trial by his parents and a psychologist. He, too, was making a transition - from menial jobs to crime and, his family said, mental breakdown.

Charged with breaking in to the mall and burglarizing a Radio Shack in May 1980, Zettlemoyer asked DeVetsco for advice on how to fool a lie-detector test. That conversation led to the murder of DeVetsco by his onetime friend.

According to interviews with people who knew them, the two young men had some qualities in common. Both came from middle-class families. Both worked regularly but had not settled into lives of marriage, children or steady careers.

DeVetsco grew up in suburban Cleveland. He studied communications at Kent State University for several years, but left before graduation to go to work for a local radio station, said his mother, Aldona DeVetsco, in a recent telephone interview from her home in Ohio.

In 1978, he took a job as news director of WKOK-AM in the Sunbury area about 50 miles north of Harrisburg.

Joseph McGranaghan, the station's general manager, said DeVetsco did all the news gathering on meetings, crimes and accidents for hourly reports.

"Chuck was an inveterate ambulance chaser, very gung ho," McGranaghan said.

Later, DeVetsco left radio and worked briefly as the Williamsport correspondent for a Scranton TV station. But, according to McGranaghan, his skills didn't translate well to television and he lost that job. He decided to become a paramedic.

"Chuck liked to rescue people," his mother said. "Anybody with a problem, he'd rush over to help them." While awaiting admission to the paramedic program, he worked as a maintenance man at the mall and as a nursing home orderly.

Zettlemoyer, whose father worked for Western Union, attended grade school in Wilkes-Barre and high school in Harrisburg. He made barely passing grades and dropped out in the 11th grade.

Zettlemoyer's parents, Richard and Donna, who live in the Harrisburg area, have declined to speak with reporters since Gov. Ridge signed their son's death warrant in February. His grandfather, William Zettlemoyer, who lives in a small rowhouse in Sunbury, spoke with a reporter and said he saw his grandson only occasionally.

"He was sort of a high-strung lad but not really bad," he said. The family, he went on, does not doubt that Zettlemoyer committed the slaying. To this day he does not really understand why, because "Keith has never talked about it," he said.

"He has always said he doesn't remember."

At Zettlemoyer's murder trial in 1981, his parents presented a portrait of a disturbed young man who didn't get along with his siblings, retreated to his bedroom whenever problems arose, and chose janitorial jobs that enabled him to work by himself.

With their testimony and a psychologist's, Zettlemoyer's attorney, Robert Tarman, hoped to convince the jury that Zettlemoyer was too mentally disturbed to form the intent necessary for first-degree murder and should be found guilty of a lesser murder charge.

During the trial, Donna Zettlemoyer described the growing pressures that seemed to push her son into withdrawal and depression in the months before the murder.

He was several thousand dollars in debt for his photography equipment and motorcycle, she said. "If someone would call the house about a late payment . . . it depressed him unbelievably."

In June 1980, he learned that his former girlfriend, with whom he'd been hoping for a reconciliation, had married another man. A month later came the indictment for burglarizing the Radio Shack.

John Robinson, the Snyder County district attorney who prosecuted the burglary case, said he didn't know why Zettlemoyer, who had no criminal record at that point, turned to crime. "I think it was mainly a thing of excitement and nihilism. We know he had become obsessed with guns."

Apparently because DeVetsco had covered police stories, Zettlemoyer thought he might know how to fool a lie-detector test. Robinson said that when DeVetsco asked why he wanted to know, Zettlemoyer told him about his role in the burglary, and DeVetsco told authorities.

Robinson said that DeVetsco said, " 'Look, I know the guy personally. If it can be resolved in another way, I'd like to keep this off the record.' " He said they did keep this information secret for a while, hoping that Zettlemoyer would plead guilty. When he hadn't by early October and Robinson was selecting juries, the prosecutor had to present a list of witnesses for the trials.

"The last name I gave was DeVetsco," Robinson said. Zettlemoyer "had a visible reaction," Robinson said.

Donna Zettlemoyer testified that her son became so upset about the coming burglary trial that he wouldn't leave the house.

"He seemed to undergo a complete personality change," she said. He became so nervous that he couldn't sit still for more than five minutes at a time, she said. A few days before the murder, he packed up his possessions, made out a list of his debts and when they were due, and told his mother not to cry for him if anything happened.

She said she knew he had a gun and she feared he would kill himself. She testified that she probably should have gotten help for her son but that she didn't trust psychiatrists.

Just before the murder, Zettlemoyer holed up in his room, his mother said. When he came out, she saw that he had put cardboard over the windowpanes and had pulled down the shades and taped them so that the bedroom was in darkness.

Stanley Schneider, at the time director of the psychology department at Harrisburg State Hospital who tested Zettlemoyer for the defense, testified that Zettlemoyer was not psychotic but had a lifelong personality disorder.

"He is in contact with reality. However, he, under stress, will begin to

break down," Schneider said. "Mr. Zettlemoyer is . . . unable to deal with the normal pressures, demands and responsibilities of daily living. He has never completed anything to my knowledge successfully. . . . He has failed, and I believe that his reaction to the stresses over this period of time resulted in . . . pressure mounting up. If you don't have a release valve it will blow."

The murder of DeVetsco was not a whodunit. Zettlemoyer was literally caught with a smoking gun. According to trial testimony, he kidnapped DeVetsco from his apartment in Sunbury in October 1980 and drove him in a van to the outskirts of Harrisburg, shooting him twice in the neck with a .22-caliber gun while they were still in the vehicle.

He then dragged the bleeding, handcuffed DeVetsco into the bushes and shot him twice in the back with a .357 magnum. Two Conrail police officers patrolling nearby heard the shots. They called out, and Zettlemoyer emerged

from the bushes, holding a pistol and a flashlight.

"What's the matter, boys? I was only shooting rats," Zettlemoyer said, according to the officers' testimony.

"At 4 o'clock in the morning?" an officer asked. They ordered him to drop the gun and one officer went into the field, where he found DeVetsco's still- trembling body.

At his jury trial, Dauphin County District Attorney Richard Lewis, now a Common Pleas Court judge, argued that the murder was not a sudden or crazy act but was a premeditated killing intended to wipe out a witness. The jury agreed.

Zettlemoyer's case was the first affirmed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court - by a split 4-3 vote in 1982 - after the Pennsylvania legislature passed a new death penalty statute in 1978.

Chief Justice Robert N.C. Nix, writing for the dissenting justices, agreed with the first-degree murder verdict but not with the sentence of death. He argued that it was not entirely clear that the motive was to silence a witness, the only aggravating factor, and that the judge's charge to the jury had been contradictory.

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