Guilty plea in killing ends family's 27-year wait

Raymond Yoder Jr., 15, was shot to death in 1986. His killer lodged a guilty plea only after years of psychiatric treatment.
Raymond Yoder Jr., 15, was shot to death in 1986. His killer lodged a guilty plea only after years of psychiatric treatment. (guilty plea only after years of psychiatric treatment.)
Posted: April 03, 2014

For 27 years, Nancy Yoder has lived yards from the spot where a deranged neighbor murdered her brother.

She has seen the man's relatives almost daily, at first uncomfortable with the closeness, then angered by their lack of apology, then accepting - even though the killer was never held accountable.

On Tuesday, she came within feet of that man, Stefan Szczesniuk, in Chester County Court and heard the word she had been waiting on for decades: Guilty.

After hearing it, Yoder said, "I felt more pity than anything."

Few ever disputed who shot 15-year-old Raymond Yoder Jr. in the head as he waited for a school bus in West Caln Township. But since being charged, Szczesniuk had been hospitalized without facing trial, first because he was deemed incompetent, and since because he was a danger to himself or others. After Tuesday's hearing, he was returned to the state hospital that has long been his home.

Still, experts said his re-assessment and prosecution after so long a stretch was rare.

"Our legal process wants timely resolution of charges," said Jeff Janofsky, director of the law and psychiatry program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, when told the details of the case. "And you can imagine if you were allowed to hold charges for 30 years over someone's head, it might be difficult to both prosecute them, and it might be difficult to defend them. Witnesses die. Memories fade."

Within hours of the 1986 killing, state troopers had pulled over Szczesniuk, then 33, in his Monte Carlo.

The families had been friendly, Nancy Yoder said. Each year, hers would get its Christmas tree from the nursery the Szczesniuks operated on their property.

But they also kept their distance, she said, especially from Stefan Szczesniuk. He often talked to himself and claimed his phone was tapped, she said.

Back then, his lawyer said, Szczesniuk had been under treatment for schizophrenia.

After the murder, Yoder's mother told police Szczesniuk had threatened her son before, claiming the boy had tried to seduce him and saying he would kill him if he did it again.

As the troopers at his car window questioned Szczesniuk that November morning, he said he was not feeling well and was taking himself to a psychiatric hospital. He has lived at Norristown State Hospital for almost all of the 27 years since.

On Tuesday, Szczesniuk, now 60, appeared in court in a pressed button down and a hooded sweatshirt, a few white streaks amid his straight brown hair.

He told Common Pleas Court Judge Ann Marie Wheatcraft that he understood the charges against him.

With each of her questions - Was he content with his attorney? Did he know his rights? Did he do what he was accused of? - Szczesniuk rocked onto his heels, then leaned forward to answer, pressing his lips on the microphone so his muffled voice crackled through the speakers.

"Do those medications help you?" Wheatcraft asked.

"I've seen patients come and go for 27 years," Szczesniuk replied, as his attorney gestured for him to step back. "Don't tell me the medications don't work. They do work."

The path that led to Szczesniuk's plea came across in court in pieces, as the case has changed judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys numerous times over the years.

He was first found unfit for trial shortly after being charged. In 1999, a judge said he did not believe Szczesniuk would ever be ruled competent.

But prosecutors did not drop the charges, and Szczesniuk remained at the hospital after annual evaluations under the civil commitment law, his attorney, Nathan Schenker, said Tuesday.

Court documents show that before October, a judge had last considered whether Szczesniuk could stand trial in 2000.

Under Pennsylvania law, the defense or prosecution could have asked the court to revisit the case. Schenker and prosecutor Thomas Ost Prisco - who were both only recently assigned the case - said they could not comment on why that did not happen.

After lying largely dormant for more than a decade, the criminal case was picked up again in 2012, when a lawyer representing Szczesniuk in his civil commitment proceedings, Linda Alperovich, filed a petition for bail and discharge. Court documents show Szczesniuk was not being held on bail or on the criminal charges at the time. Alperovich did not return a telephone call Tuesday.

The judge who denied her petition ordered an evaluation of Szczesniuk's competence, resulting in Tuesday's hearing.

He pleaded guilty but mentally ill to third-degree murder, acknowledging that he understood his crime at the time but could not restrain himself or appreciate the gravity.

But he declined a chance to address the family or the judge before she announced his punishment. Wheatcraft sentenced him to time served, plus 12 years of probation.

Another judge will decide when or if he can ever leave the hospital. That annual evaluation is scheduled for next month.

Nancy Yoder was 21 when her brother was murdered. She said she never expected his killer to plead guilty.

For decades, she and her family members returned to court every few years - just as she said she was finding closure - only to find Szczesniuk again unable to stand trial.

She decided to forgive him so she could free herself and remember without pain the brother whose picture she carries in her wallet.

On Tuesday, sitting in a hallway with her sister Brenda Woodward-Mize and her father, Raymond Yoder Sr., she recalled her brother's gentle manner and the way he doted on his niece, who turned 2 the day he was buried.

The toddler called him "Unka Ray."

"For days after, she just- " Nancy Yoder said.

"She didn't know where he went," her sister said.

"She walked around and kept saying, 'Unka Ray. Unka Ray,' " Nancy Yoder said. "And she couldn't find him."


tnadolny@phillynews.com

610-313-8205

@TriciaNadolny

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