Man guilty in slaying of neighbor Jurors rejected the Upper Gwynedd resident's claim of self-defense in the backyard shooting.

Posted: March 22, 2002

Paul Bellina lost his gamble on a jury yesterday.

The Upper Gwynedd homeowner, who pumped eight bullets into a drunken, naked neighbor he mistook for a burglar, now faces up to 20 years in prison after the jurors took just 90 minutes to convict him of voluntary manslaughter in Montgomery County Court.

Had he not withdrawn a guilty plea in October, he would have faced a sentence of no more than six years.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED MARCH 23, 2002, FOLLOWS: A story in yesterday's Inquirer incorrectly stated the maximum sentence Paul Bellina could have received had he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the slaying of his neighbor Craig Holtzman rather than request a jury trial. Bellina, who was convicted by a jury on Thursday, would have faced a maximum of 20 years in prison in either case.

The jury, brought in from Lancaster County because of pretrial publicity, found Bellina, 53, guilty in the slaying of Craig Holtzman, 31, on Sept. 13, 2000.

After delivering their verdict, the jurors walked over to Holtzman's parents, Neil and Marion. Some hugged them. Others shook their hands, and still others wished them luck.

"It was pretty much all cut and dried," said one juror, who declined to give his name. He said that Bellina hurt himself on the witness stand by wavering on such details as when he first noticed that Holtzman was naked.

The Holtzmans, who are pursuing a civil suit against Bellina for wrongful death and negligence, said they were gratified by the verdict.

"We waited a long time for this," Neil Holtzman said. "The system has begun to speak, and it will speak again. [But] it's not going to bring Craig back."

"This was not a way you had to treat your neighbor," Marion Holtzman told reporters.

Bellina, a former Navy corpsman, shot Craig Holtzman eight times: once in the chest, once in each arm, twice in the back, and three times in the head, according to autopsy reports.

Holtzman, who was living in his parents' basement, had apparently gone outside to urinate in the predawn hours, prosecutors said. On his way back, he stumbled next door into the wrong backyard.

The men lived in Gwynedale, a planned community of nearly identical townhouses, and Holtzman mistook the sliding glass door to Bellina's basement for his own. That set off a burglar alarm that awakened Bellina, who went downstairs carrying a 9mm handgun.

Yesterday, as Bellina was being led away by sheriff's deputies, his girlfriend, Suzanne Powell, bolted from the courtroom, avoiding reporters, and left the building.

"I'm too upset. I can't talk," she said.

The couple sat side by side on the courtroom pews as the jury deliberated. Bellina, wearing a white, short-sleeved golf shirt, read Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul and Powell read Chicken Soup for the Couple's Soul.

During the four-day trial, Bellina's attorney, Patrick J. McMenamin, cited Bellina's military record - he was wounded twice during the Vietnam War.

The lawyer also argued that Bellina acted as he did only to defend himself, his girlfriend and her daughter, who were in the house at the time.

"Why else own a gun?" McMenamin asked the jury, made up largely of gun owners, on Wednesday. "That's why you have it. For protection [when] somebody's in the house at 4:30 in the morning."

After the jury's verdict, McMenamin said his client had no regrets about withdrawing his guilty plea last fall. Under state sentencing guidelines, that plea would have made the maximum sentence 72 months.

"We had some hope, but the jury has spoken," McMenamin said.

Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Wendy Demchick-Alloy said that Bellina "wanted the opportunity to tell his story, and he had his trial." She had portrayed Bellina during the trial as a bully who took the law into his own hands.

"We don't disagree that he has an impressive war record," she said after the verdict. "That was 30 years ago. This is a very different man . . . . The evidence showed that he is a confrontational individual, that he is volatile."

During the trial, Demchick-Alloy emphasized that Holtzman never entered Bellina's house and was walking away when Bellina unlocked his door and pursued Holtzman into the yard.

Contact Gaiutra Bahadur at 610-272-7184 or bahadug@phillynews.com.

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