4 Centre County murder trials move forward in 2018

Matthew Dreibelbis enters the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte in August for his preliminary hearing on murder charges.
Matthew Dreibelbis enters the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte in August for his preliminary hearing on murder charges. Centre Daily Times file

As Centre County heads into 2018, so do the murder trials continued from the previous year.

While a small number of homicides were reported in 2017, the cases have yet to go before a county judge, and in some instances, continue to carry over from even longer.

“There’s never been four pending murder cases in the history of Centre County,” incoming district attorney Bernie Cantorna said Wednesday.

▪ The most recent murder charges were filed Oct. 28, when Ardell M. Gross, 36, was accused of shooting his uncle, Richard Smalley, in Spring Township. Police noted the very short timeline of the shooting, testifying during the preliminary hearing that Smalley had told his daughter he was on his way to Gross’s house at 3:13 p.m. that day.

Gross called 911 and reported the shooting at 3:32 p.m., police said. Smalley’s intent to sell the house has been cited as a possible motive in the case.

Gross was arraigned on charges of first-degree murder, third-degree murder and aggravated assault at the beginning of December, according to court documents. A motion for discovery by Gross’s defense was filed with the prothonotary’s office Dec. 21 as the case moves toward trial. No trial date has been set.

▪ The trial for a Howard man accused of shooting a Snow Shoe man in August has already been postponed into 2018 after a motion was filed in November pushing Matthew R. Dreibelbis’s trial until the February term.

Dreibelbis, 37, was charged with first-degree murder, third-degree murder, aggravated assault, possession of a weapon and simple assault after the shooting death of Jeremy D. Cantolina, 38. According to police, Dreibelbis had previously been involved with Cantolina’s wife and reportedly took steps to clean a firearm of evidence before the shooting.

Dreibelbis reportedly told troopers that he “killed for love,” police said.

Following the postponement of the trial, Dreibelbis wrote a letter to Centre County Judge Katherine Oliver on Nov. 29, voicing his concern over his defense, court documents said. In the letter, he claimed his attorney, Deborah Lux, had refused to file motions to dismiss evidence and “has inadequately represented me.”

A hearing on Dreibelbis’s request for new counsel has been scheduled for Jan. 9, court documents indicate.

▪ A June homicide was expected to wrap up last week, but was suddenly postponed when a scheduled guilty plea was canceled.

Charles E. McGhee II, 38, of Bellefonte, was expected to enter a guilty plea Dec. 21 on charges related to the killing of his wife, Courtney McGhee. McGhee was charged with first-degree murder, third-degree murder, aggravated arson and flight to avoid apprehension — all felony charges — in June after police discovered his wife’s body in their Bellefonte home. McGhee had allegedly attempted to set fire to the scene to destroy evidence.

However, the Centre County District Attorney’s Office announced the next day that the plea was canceled. Court documents last show the trial was continued until the December term. No trial date has been set.

▪ While the event was reported to have happened in 2016, the trial for a State College man and woman accused of killing a Penn State professor will not happen until next year.

George Ishler, 40, and Danelle Geier, 33, were slated to go to trial for the murder of Ronald Bettig in October, but the trial was postponed after a motion for a mental health evaluation and/or competency to stand trial was filed by Ishler’s attorney, Karen Muir, in September.

Bettig was found at the bottom of a Potter Township quarry in August 2016. Ishler and Geier are accused of having conspired to kill him during a trip to the beach.

During a pretrial conference on Dec. 18, Muir indicated the evaluation had been completed and potential trial dates were discussed by the court. Due to the prosecution’s desire to take the jury to the scene where Bettig was found, it was determined that weather conditions were likely to be most favorable in April, likely pushing what is expected to be a 12-day trial until that time frame.

A continuance has not yet been filed in this case.

▪ One recent case sits just across the county line, and will not result in a trial. The suspect in a reported double murder-suicide in Clearfield County was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound in late November.

Cody Bush, 26, shot and killed Victoria Schultz, 21, and Beth Schultz, 47, in an Osceola Mills home, state police reported. Victoria Schultz’s sister, Jessica, 25, was also shot and taken to UPMC Altoona for treatment.

Police reports indicated Bush had previously faced charges of stalking and harassment, while Victoria Schultz had a protection-from-abuse order against Bush at the time of her death. Victoria Schultz had also reported to police that Bush had placed a GPS tracker on her vehicle earlier, saying she had tried to end her relationship with Bush but that he was being “very obsessive and is making the split very difficult.”

Outgoing District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller spoke briefly last week about the domestic violence relation to several of the area’s homicides, saying instances of domestic violence are not just a Centre County problem and are a “red flag” that must be caught early.

“We have this cluster of cases, but it’s a bigger thing. It’s a very serious issue,” she said. “As outgoing DA of eight years, I have seen a real decline in respect for law enforcement and respect for authority.”

Jeremy Hartley: 814-231-4616, @JJHartleyNews