Jury decides Bongiorni’s fate in homicide case: ‘Innocent’

July 15, 2017
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Mackenzie Randall/Observer-Reporter
James Bongiorni was found not guilty in the fatal shooting of his daughter’s ex-boyfriend Saturday. Order a Print
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Barbara S. Miller/Observer-Reporter
James Bongiorni gives a thumbs-up as he leaves the Washington County Courthouse Saturday afternoon, when a jury found him not guilty of criminal homicide. Order a Print

The name of boxer Paul Spadafora, “the Pittsburgh Kid,” was dropped fairly often during a weeklong homicide trial in Washington County Court, but the prosecution, in the end, failed to deliver a knock-out punch in its quest to convict the admitted shooter.

After a deliberation that lasted only about two hours Saturday, the jury foreman announced the verdict – going beyond its option of “not guilty” – and initially pronounced James Bongiorni “innocent” of either murder or manslaughter in the April 27, 2016, death of Brian Wilbert, 38, of Imperial, Allegheny County.

Bongiorni, 69, facing the jury, nodded as he learned of the outcome and shook slightly. His daughter, Darlo Bongiorni, wept. Her phone call to her father for help when the intoxicated Wilbert arrived at her door prompted a confrontation between the two men in the middle of a street in the Bongiornis’ Burgettstown neighborhood.

A crowd of his supporters applauded James Bongiorni as he exited the courtroom, still escorted by sheriff’s deputies. Bongiorni had to briefly return to the county jail, where he has been an inmate during a yearlong stay.

Bongiorni, in testimony Friday, claimed he was justified in firing a single, fatal shot into Wilbert’s stomach during an episode that transpired in a Burgettstown street because Wilbert moved toward him with a Bowie knife, contradicting the assertions of other witnesses that Wilbert had no knife.

Wilbert was the ex-boyfriend of Darlo Bongiorni, and the father of her son, Furio. Evidence introduced at the trial showed Wilbert threatened Darlo Bongiorni and her family.

Darlo Bongiorni reported to 911 emergency dispatch the night of the slaying that Wilbert would bring with him former lightweight boxing champion Paul Spadafora. Charles Marsico, Spadafora’s sibling who has since died, actually accompanied Wilbert.

Darlo Bongiorni called her father, who lived a few doors away, for aid when Wilbert arrived. James Bongiorni, with a two-shot derringer in the pocket of his shorts, argued with Wilbert in the street and claimed the younger man lunged at him with a knife. Wilbert died shortly after midnight.

In a one-hour closing argument, James Bongiorni’s attorney, Robert DelGreco, brought up the testimony of Stacy Lennon of Hillcrest Avenue, Burgettstown, who, on the night of the slaying, heard a male voice – not Bongiorni’s – say “I’ll slit your throat.”

“Who is going to slit someone’s throat?” DelGreco asked the jury. “The guy with the gun or the guy with the knife?”

Deputy District Attorney Jason Walsh countered by showing jurors a brief cellphone video recording of the shooting made by another neighbor, Emily Wysocki, then 16, from her bedroom window.

“The evidence showed an unarmed man was shot in the street,” Walsh said after the trial. “I thought the videotape was clear.”

Another of Bongiorni’s attorneys, Albert Veverka, called the video “unclear at best. Several people reviewed it and really couldn’t determine what was going on in that video.... We felt pretty good about our case.”

Bongiorni is a former Burgettstown police officer and retired Weirton Steel employee.

Wilbert’s mother, according to First Assistant District Attorney Dennis Paluso, came to the prosecutor’s office each day of the trial but was “too upset” to enter the courtroom and witness the proceedings.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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