PITTSBURGH – A northwestern Pennsylvania boy interrupted his jury selection Wednesday to plead guilty to slaying his grandparents when he was just 13, and was immediately sentenced to 35 to 80 years in state prison.
Venango County prosecutors planned to seek first-degree murder convictions against Zachary Proper, who turned 14 in July, which would have carried mandatory life sentences without parole. The death penalty wasn’t on the table because it can’t be imposed against defendants younger than 18 in Pennsylvania law.
The (Oil City) Derrick first reported that Proper agreed to instead plead guilty to two counts of third-degree murder, defined as a killing with malice but without premeditation.
Proper, of Oil City, was given consecutive sentences of 17½ to 40 years for killing George Fross, 69, and Dorothy Fross, 67, Oct. 7, 2012, at their Sandycreek Township home, about 70 miles north of Pittsburgh.
According to a state police criminal complaint, Proper’s parents, Ryan and Karen Kapp, called Oil City police the night of Oct. 8, 2012, because they were concerned their son had gotten drunk and high the night before and stole his grandparents’ car. The Kapps called police because the Frosses didn’t answer the phone and because Proper told them “his friend had shot and killed his grandparents,” the complaint said.
The Oil City police chief went to the Frosses’ home and questioned Proper, who acknowledged shooting his grandparents, authorities said. The state police were eventually called because they have jurisdiction in the township where the grandparents lived.
The boy told state police he was visiting his grandparents when his grandfather went to the store. The boy told investigators he used bolt cutters to remove a lock on his grandfather’s gun safe and took out a handgun.
The boy told police he “walked up behind his grandmother, put his iPod earphones in, pointed the gun at his grandmother about shoulder height, turned his head away and raised the gun slightly and shot her,” the complaint said.
After shooting the woman, Proper called his grandfather and told him he’d help him carry in items from the store when he returned. When that happened about 10 minutes later, the boy took the pizza from his grandfather before shooting him in the shoulder. After the man went down and yelled, Proper told police “he ‘dumped the gun until it jammed’ meaning that he kept shooting his grandpa,” the complaint said.
Asked to explain the shootings, the boy told police “that he was mad at his grandparents because they had called his mother a whore and were speaking poorly about her.” Relatives later said those comments would have been uncharacteristic of the Frosses.
Proper’s parents could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. Their listed home telephone was disconnected. Venango County District Attorney Shawn White and Proper’s attorney Wayne Hundertmark did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Proper’s attorney had tried to get the case moved to juvenile court, which had jurisdiction to incarcerate Proper only until he turns 21. Venango County Judge Oliver Lobaugh rejected that saying the incarceration potential in juvenile court was “wholly inadequate to ensure the public’s safety.”
Proper will get credit for more than 450 days he’s already been jailed, meaning he’ll be eligible for parole in about 33½ years.
Third-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of 20 to 40 years, meaning Proper received five years less than the maximum 40- to 80-year sentence for pleading guilty to both counts.