Jury: Murderer’s wife guilty

Coal Center woman could face 37 to 74 years in connection with slaying

March 1, 2013
Diane McClelland leaves a courtroom Tuesday at the end of the day’s testimony in her murder-conspiracy trial. - Andy McNeil / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Slides showing the face of Diane McClelland flashed time after time Friday in a Washington County courtroom as part of a timeline prepared by state police to show how often the woman made bank deposits of cash within weeks of burglaries at the home of the 92-year-old widow, Evelyn Stepko.

When state police Cpl. John Tobin testified about the money trail, McClelland’s pictures were interspersed with logos of area stores and car dealers where members of the McClelland family made purchases.

But First Assistant District Attorney Michael Lucas, in his closing argument, selected only the parts of the timeline depicting Diane McClelland to drive home his contention that the defendant was an integral part of a conspiracy that led to the homicide of the woman for whom David A. McClelland did yard work.

Lucas was trying to counter the defense assertion that the prosecution had not proven that Diane McClelland was part of a conspiracy that was ultimately fatal to Stepko.

After deliberating less than three hours, the jury agreed with Lucas, finding McClelland guilty of conspiracy with four components: homicide, burglary, dealing in the proceeds of unlawful activity and theft; and a separate count of receiving stolen property. Her attorney, Brian Gorman, admitted from the start of the trial that McClelland committed receiving stolen property but tried unsuccessfully to have the conspiracy counts dismissed.

Placed in handcuffs and leg shackles, McClelland laid her head on the defense table for a few moments before sheriff’s deputies escorted her to the Washington County jail to await sentencing.

She could receive a maximum of 37 to 74 years in prison. She turned down a plea bargain of 10 to 20 years, Lucas said.

McClelland did not testify in her own defense, and Gorman called no witnesses. He declined comment after he left the courtroom.

Dolores Sprowls, 64, of Charleroi, Stepko’s niece, said after the jury foreman announced its verdict, “They should have never have done that to Aunt Evelyn. She was a wonderful person, and she would have lived a long time. (Diane McClelland) was greedy just like her husband and (his) son.”

Her great-niece, Mary Zbyl, 43, of Bentleyville, shook as she listened to the verdict. “Two down, one to go,” she said.

The six men and six women on the jury declined to comment as they were leaving the courtroom.

McClelland’s husband, David A. McClelland, 57, of Coal Center, admitted he killed Stepko, and he is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Gorman, placed all blame on David A. McClelland for Stepko’s stabbing death.

“Greed in this case does not amount to conspiracy,” Gorman told the jury, and he asked the jury of six men and six women not to find McClelland guilty simply to punish her.

Lucas told the jury that the case is an unusual one, because, instead of arguing which set of facts to believe, the jury was being asked to decide how to apply the law.

Lucas tried to show escalation in Stepko’s reports to California police Aug. 4, 2009, June 15, 2010, Feb. 2, 2011, March 20, 2011, and May 22, 2011, when Stepko’s phone line was cut which would have made it impossible for her to call for help.

Before she was stabbed to death July 17 or 18, 2012, Stepko fought her attacker, and Lucas noted David A. McClelland, when placed under arrest the next month, had a bite mark on his arm.

“A conspiracy can be unspoken,” Lucas said. “Illegal agreements do not have contracts. Conspiracy, by nature, is done in secret.”

He focused on a pattern of burglaries from Stepko’s home that were followed by cash deposits Diane McClelland made placed in the couple’s joint bank account of hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Lucas allowed that 176 exhibits and more than 30 witnesses resulted in a tedious case as he exposed purchases of real estate, vehicles, firearms, home improvements and equipment by a man who received Social Security disability and a woman who worked as a grocery store clerk.

“This was a tedious case and one that really required them to keep attention,” Lucas said. “It’s a white-collar crime with blue-collar participants and very deadly consequences.”

David A. McClelland’s son, David J. McClelland, 37, also of Coal Center, a former part-time police officer in Washington Township, Fayette County, is scheduled to be tried later this spring.

Among the last witnesses to testify was state police Tpr. Louis Serafini, who said that, in an August 2011 interview, Diane McClelland said she knew of one of the burglaries that occurred at Stepko’s home.

After the woman’s death, police later found more than $82,000 throughout her residence.

Under direct examination by Lucas, Serafini said Diane McClelland waived her right to remain silent or have an attorney present during her two-hour interview with state police Aug. 22, 2011, at the Belle Vernon barracks.

Gorman elicited testimony from Serafini that police have no evidence that Diane McClelland ever stole money from the Stepko residence or acted as a lookout.

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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