Tale of teen's betrayal: Music, murder, hugs Four youths plotting to lure Jason Sweeney to his death in a Fishtown lot used "Helter Skelter" as a theme, a court was told.

Posted: June 18, 2003

Four teenagers planned the killing for weeks, listened repeatedly on the day to the song linked to mass murderer Charles Manson, and then came together for a "group hug" after they beat 16-year-old Jason Sweeney to death in a vacant Fishtown lot, according to alleged confessions from two of them.

Yesterday, all four were ordered to stand trial for the killing that the judge described as "something out of the Dark Ages."

Fifteen-year-old Justina Morley lured Sweeney to his death with the promise of sex, while the three boys donned latex gloves and lay in wait, according to the confessions.

"We just kept hitting and hitting him," 18-year-old Dominic Coia told detectives. "We took Sweeney's wallet and split up the money, and we partied beyond redemption."

Coia and 16-year-old Edward Batzig Jr. told investigators that Sweeney was beaten with a hammer, a hatchet and a rock. The four then divided the $500 take among them - $125 apiece - and purchased marijuana, heroin and the depressant Xanax.

Both confessions were videotaped, detectives testified yesterday. However, those tapes were not played in court.

Sweeney suffered multiple, powerful blows to the skull, testified Philadelphia Deputy Medical Examiner Ian Hood.

"The head was literally crushed. The only bone intact in his face was the left cheekbone," Hood testified as Sweeney's mother wept openly.

Municipal Court Judge Seamus P. McCaffery, who viewed eight graphic photographs of Sweeney's injuries, called the violence barbaric.

"This is something out of the Dark Ages . . . I'm not so sure we can call ourselves a civilized society when stuff like this happens," McCaffery said before ordering the four teenagers to stand trial for murder, conspiracy and related charges in the May 30 slaying.

Morley, Batzig, Dominic Coia and his 16-year-old brother Nicholas are to be arraigned July 9.

Assistant District Attorney Jude Conroy said District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham had not yet decided whether the Coias and Batzig would face death-penalty trials. Because she is under 16 years of age, Morley is not eligible for the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

Detectives testified that Dominic Coia told investigators that in the hours before the slaying, the four teens "must have listened to 'Helter Skelter' about 42 times" - referring to the Beatles song that Manson said inspired him during his followers' 1969 California killing spree.

Morley was "the bait to get Sweeney there," Dominic Coia told investigators.

Eighteen-year-old friend Joshua Staab - who testified that he listened to much of their planning and later washed the boys' bloody clothes - said Morley was to seduce Sweeney and lead him to the vacant lot where the others attacked him.

"They were going to take him up there and kill him," Staab testified.

At first, the Coias and Batzig were not able to find Morley and returned to Staab's house to call her cellular phone. Then, the three left a second time.

When the four returned, the boys had bloody clothing.

"They're all shaking. They said they did it and they couldn't believe that they killed him," Staab testified.

"She [Morley] said she was happy she had a lot of money . . . she said it was a rush," Staab testified.

Batzig - once Sweeney's best friend - told investigators: "We just walked up and started hitting him. . . . Soon after that, Jason started begging for his life."

Batzig told detectives he struck the first blow, and hit Sweeney with a hatchet "four or five times . . . as hard as I could."

After Sweeney stopped breathing, Dominic Coia told detectives, the four teens engaged in "a group hug. It was like we were all happy with what we did."

Was he high at the time?, detectives asked Dominic Coia.

"No. I was as sober as I am now. It is sick, isn't it?" he responded.

But defense attorneys for the four teens attacked Staab's testimony and argued that he should face criminal charges as well.

Morley's attorney, William Brennan, called Staab a "lying junkie" who was in on the planning stages, destroyed evidence when he washed the bloody clothes, and then used drugs purchased with Sweeney's money.

Although all four teens are charged as adults, Brennan has said he wanted Morley to be tried as a juvenile. He said yesterday that the girl remained jailed under a suicide watch and has a history of depression.

Nicholas Coia's court-appointed attorney, Charles P. Mirarchi 3d, said after yesterday's hearing that he would like to resolve the case against his client without going to trial - cutting a deal that might include testifying against his older brother.

"I concede that he was there, and he in fact threw the rock," Mirarchi said. But his client did not wield the hammer or hatchet like the other two allegedly did, Mirarchi said.

Prosecutor Conroy said it was premature to discuss plea deals.

"This was a team effort and we intend to proceed that way. All are as culpable as the others," Conroy said.

Conroy said the brutality of the crime and the youth of the defendants was shocking.

"Even the most experienced of homicide investigators are completely speechless after reviewing the facts of this case," Conroy said. "I guess what astonished me is their will - their persistence - to kill him."

The Sweeney family and their supporters wore large buttons with Jason Sweeney's photograph in the courtroom, but they did not speak to reporters.

Dawn Sweeney, 38, seemed nearly overcome with emotion when the three teens accused of killing her son were led into the courtroom under close guard.

After the hearing, Conroy called the slaying a "horrible, brutal, up-close and personal murder," made even more stunning by the close friendship Sweeney and Batzig once shared.

"Shocking beyond words," said the veteran homicide prosecutor.

Hours after the hearing ended, Dawn Sweeney sat on the front steps of her home in Fishtown and talked about her son. Jason was a good son and individual who did not hang out with a bad crowd, she said.

"He didn't hang on corners. He had a life. He had dreams. He had hopes. He wanted to be a Navy Seal," she said. "He was a good boy. He was always a good boy. Always. From the time he was a baby. . . .

"He was growing up to be a beautiful man and this is the kind of person they stole from the world."

Sweeney said she felt the killing was about thrills, rather than money.

"They didn't have to kill him and they knew that," she said. "He would have given them the money."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline Soteropoulos at 215-854-4497 or jsoteropoulos@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Frederick Cusick contributed to this article.

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