Jury returns verdict in Pleasant Gap murder trial

A jury found a Pleasant Gap man guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated assault Friday.

Eight women and four men deliberated for about two-and-a-half hours before convicting 37-year-old Ardell “Matt” Gross of shooting and killing his 60-year-old uncle Richard “Rick” Smalley in October 2017.

President Judge Pamela Ruest sentenced Gross to the mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. Gross did not make a statement before sentencing.

“Christmas is here. The decorations are going up. And the Smalley family misses their dad, their husband, their cousin,” District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said. “It is a tough time of year.”

Spring Township police said Gross and Smalley were arguing about the death of 86-year-old Army corporal veteran Richard “Dick” Smalley — who died the day before the shooting — and the estate he left behind.

Rick Smalley visited Gross at 227 Whitman Ave. in Pleasant Gap to discuss selling the house Gross lived at for about 10 years. After a phone call with Heintzelman Funeral Home on the front porch, Smalley reentered the home.

Gross then went into his bedroom, grabbed a .357 revolver and shot Smalley in the torso and head.

“You can’t represent victims of crimes and terrible things and not have your heart go out to the family. And not understand and feel the loss that they’ve suffered,” Cantorna said. “It is the nature of the job.”

In his closing argument, Cantorna said the shooting was an “intentional and malicious act to a defenseless human being,” while Gross and Chief Public Defender David Crowley said the shooting was in self-defense.

“You don’t get to shoot an uncle when they walk back into the house after they invite you out for a cigarette after an argument,” Cantorna said. “It’s not an accident. It shows, even though Mr. Gross had been drinking, an individual who was in control of what he was doing. Who knows what he is doing.”

Gross is now one of five people to be convicted of murder in Centre County this year. There are no pending murder cases in the county.

Charles McGhee pleaded guilty in February, George Ishler Jr. and Danelle Geier were found guilty in April and Matthew Dreibelbis was found guilty in September.

“In recent history, no one can recall ever having had four murder cases pending in one calendar year,” Cantorna said. “And let’s hope we never see it again.”

He also said domestic violence is the biggest challenge law enforcement has because “you can’t tell which domestic argument is the one where somebody is going to end up dead.”

“Murder cases are often the result of interactions between people that know each other,” Cantorna said. “You could call each and every one of these murders a domestic.”

One of his priorities heading into the new year is to help law enforcement with crime prevention, rather than prosecuting crime.

“We need to review — law enforcement and stakeholders need to review — protocols for all of the different challenges that we’re facing. It includes domestic violence. It includes sexual assault. It includes how to respond to drug deliveries resulting in death,” Cantorna said. “There are some serious issues that law enforcement needs to sit down and look at what we’ve been doing. What works well, what doesn’t and then begin to make plans for the future.”