Girl Testifies Her Father Tried To Kill Her The 13-year-old Talked To The Court In Sign Language. Her Father Had A $200,000 Insurance Policy On Her.

Posted: November 17, 1996

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Deaf and mute since birth, Diane Marie Crist, 13, sat red-faced on the witness stand last week, her hands and fingers gesturing furiously as she struggled to unload her tale.

With the help of two sign-language interpreters, the blond, cherub-faced girl told jurors that she and her father, David, were standing beside a lonely country road in 1993 when he suddenly tossed her into the path of an oncoming pickup truck.

As she lay on the berm, she said, she watched the truck make a wide sweep, then come wheeling back toward her.

``Dad picked me up and threw me on the road, and the truck hit me again,'' she testified. ``He wanted to kill me.''

Crist's motive, police say, was money, $200,000 in life insurance that he stood to collect if his daughter was killed.

According to authorities, the same motive was behind two other crimes that Crist is charged with committing - the contract killing of his younger brother, Scott, and the attempted slaying of his daughter Miranda.

Prosecutors describe Crist, 39, as a drug addict in deep debt and trying to maintain his grip on the good life.

Along with the attempted murder of Diane, he is awaiting trial for allegedly trying in 1990 to electrocute Miranda, then 4, by having her hold the bared ends of a 220-volt electric wire in the family kitchen while he went into the basement and switched on the circuit.

Miranda suffered severe burns on one hand. Her life had been insured for $142,000.

When the cases involving his daughters are finished, Crist is to stand trial on first-degree murder charges in Baltimore County, where he faces the death penalty for his brother's killing.

According to Maryland prosecutors, Crist promised two men drugs and $2,000 each to kill his brother, who was gunned down in 1982. Crist wanted his brother dead, authorities say, so that he would not have to share the $300,000 that his mother left her sons when she died a year earlier.

The two hired killers pleaded guilty to their roles in Scott Crist's death and are expected to testify against David Crist.

Crist's attorney, Lycoming County public defender William Miele, said his client was being railroaded by an overzealous prosecution that was playing loose with the facts.

``It's a question of credibility,'' Miele said. ``Who do you believe? A lot of people don't go around killing their relatives just because they are in debt.''

He charged that police have been all too willing to discuss their suspicions about Crist publicly.

``They no doubt will investigate any death that occurred within a dozen blocks of this guy,'' he said.

* Except for his four years in the Navy, David Crist has spent his life here, living in the same two-story house where he was born. Friends and police say he lived well, hanging out and partying with a close circle of acquaintances. For a time, he worked in a picture-framing shop that he started with his wife, Maryalice, and at a company that made industrial cables.

His troubles with the law began last year when Tryon Eiswerth, a longtime friend of his, was arrested in Williamsport on bad-check charges. In custody, Eiswerth told authorities that he needed to get something off his chest. He then confessed to having helped kill Scott Crist in Cockeysville, Md., a suburb of Baltimore.

Eiswerth served three years in prison in the early 1980s for setting fire to a record store David Crist had been preparing to open. Crist received $80,000 in insurance money after the fire, which Eiswerth now says Crist paid him to set.

Since Eiswerth's accusations, police have intensified their scrutiny of Crist, a tall, quiet father of four with a hawklike nose, bottle-thick, rimless eyeglasses, and a hunched gait. He had no criminal record before 1995, when he was charged with his brother's killing.

``We're not overlooking any statements made about the defendant by anyone,'' said Lycoming County District Attorney Thomas A. Marino.

Last week, Marino said police were reexamining the death of Crist's mother, Catherine, in 1981 at age 58. Crist, 23 at the time, reported the death, telling authorities that he found his mother dead in bed. Catherine Crist left $300,000 in a trust fund to be split between David and Scott.

Marino said police also were investigating the death of Alexander Gruenberg, a local manufacturer who was engaged to Catherine Crist when he died in the Crist home in 1976. The cause of death was ruled a heart attack, and he left part of his estate to Catherine Crist.

And, Marino said, police were reevaluating the death of Crist's father, Mellard, who tumbled down a flight of stairs at home in 1968, fatally fracturing his skull. David Crist was just 10 then.

Patricia Gross, Crist's cousin, said the Crist brothers were nothing alike.

``Scott was a bookworm, pleasant, polite and friendly,'' Gross said. ``David was different. For years, it was hard to put your finger on it, but now I realize what it was: He always seemed to be without any emotions.''

Mary Lou Baker, who was engaged to marry Scott, said in a recent interview that he graduated from Lehigh University in 1981 and landed an engineering job with Bendix Corp. near Baltimore. He would return each weekend to the Williamsport house he shared with David, she said.

``He really grew tired of David's lifestyle and his friends,'' Baker added.

According to Baker, both brothers knew that they would share equally in the $300,000 trust fund left by their mother but that the first to marry would have greater control over the fund.

Eiswerth and Daniel Pepperman confessed to following Scott Crist from Williamsport to his apartment in Cockeysville late on a Sunday afternoon in February 1982. As Scott lifted a garment bag from his car, they said, Pepperman fired five times with a .25-caliber handgun.

Eiswerth was sentenced to 20 years in prison in a deal that requires him to testify against David Crist. Pepperman faced the death penalty but received a life sentence in exchange for his testimony. Both said Crist never paid the full amount promised for the contract killing.

Baker, meanwhile, said there was another piece of unfinished business involving her fiance's death:

``David refused to turn over Scott's ashes to me. They're still in his house. But when this is over, I am going to go in there and get them and bury Scott properly.''

In the Lycoming County courtroom last week, Assistant Prosecutor Kenneth Osokow presented evidence showing that in 1993 Crist owed $56,000 to 18 credit-card and finance companies. It was the need for money to pay those debts that drove Crist to concoct a plot to kill his daughter Diane, Osokow said.

The prosecution charged that Crist first wanted to shoot his daughter, then say she had been hit by a hunter's bullet. Eventually, he asked Lisa Cohick, Eiswerth's former girlfriend, to run Diane down, the prosecution said.

Cohick told authorities that, as she drove the pickup truck toward Diane, she saw Crist struggling with the girl, lost her nerve and swerved to avoid hitting her.

Prosecutors said the truck sideswiped Diane once, throwing her violently to the ground. It was not clear whether she was hit a second time, as she testified. She suffered a broken ankle and multiple bruises.

Her father took her to Williamsport Hospital that night and told the attending doctor that Diane was injured when his vehicle fell off a jack.

Diane testified that she tried frantically to tell what really happened but that the doctor did not understand.

``Dad started talking to the doctor and took over the conversation,'' she said. ``I couldn't get anyone to understand what happened.''

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