In the early morning hours of December 2, 1977, 24-year-old Peter Alford and 28-year-old Raymond Gierke, both drug dealers, were found shot to death in a remote cabin in Bear Rocks, Pennsylvania. An autopsy showed both victims had been anally raped.
Another drug dealer, 25-old David Munchinski, soon became a suspect when a woman told police that Munchinski had told her that he intended to meet with the victims the night before. But no arrests were made and the investigation stalled. There was no physical evidence tying Munchinski to the murders.
More than three years later, in 1981, Richard Bowen, a convicted forger and burglar, reached out to authorities from a jail cell and said that the murder had been committed by Leon Scaglione. Ultimately, Bowen gave two more statements in which he elaborated and said that he drove Munchinski and Scaglione to the cabin and was in the car when they killed Alford and Gierke over a drug debt.
Munchinski and Scaglione were charged with first degree murder in October 1982 and went on trial in Fayette County Court of Common Pleas in 1983. When the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, a mistrial was declared and the men were retried separately in 1986. Scaglione went on trial first and testified that Munchinski was not involved. Scaglione was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Munchinski went on trial in November 1986. The prosecution relied upon the testimony of Bowen, who now said that he was inside the cabin when Munchinski and Scaglione sodomized Alford and Gierke and then shot them to death. Bowen said that he left for Oklahoma on the morning of December 2, 1977.
Two women, Lori Lexa and Deborah Sue Dahlmann, testified that about two months after the murders, Scaglione and Munchinski forced them at knife-point to sit with them at a table in a bar where both admitted they killed Alford and Gierke. Bernard Furr testified that on that same night, Munchinski confessed the murders to him as well. Harold Eugene Thomas testified that while he was in a jail cell with Munchinski prior to trial, Munchinski admitted the killings.
Munchinski attempted to introduce Scaglione’s trial testimony that Munchinski was not involved, but the testimony was barred by the trial judge as hearsay.
Munchinski was convicted in November 1986 and sentenced to life in prison. His convictions were upheld on appeal.
In the mid-1990’s, Munchinski’s daughter, Raina, began digging into the case and discovered evidence that had been concealed by the prosecution and police. The evidence included a statement by Bowen in 1992 that he had lied about Munchinski’s involvement at the urging of police. In the recantation, Bowen said that he was not present at the murders and that Munchinski was not involved. Bowen insisted that Scaglione, who died in prison in 1996, had admitted to taking part in the murders. Bowen, in the statement, said he was coached by police and that he said what he did because he was seeking leniency on his own cases.
Raina Munchinski also discovered evidence suggesting that Bowen went to Oklahoma before the murders, not after, and that police had concealed reports of statements from witnesses who said other suspects had admitted killing Alford and Gierke. Meanwhile, the Innocence Institute at Park Point University in Pennsylvania began investigating the case and turned up evidence that numerous people had given statements to police after the murders that implicated several other suspects, some of whom allegedly admitted their involvement.
In 2004, a Common Pleas Court judge held a hearing on a post-conviction motion for a new trial filed by Munchinski’s attorneys. By then Bowen had recanted his recantation, saying his trial testimony was the truth, and hanged himself in prison.
Munchinski’s attorneys claimed that prosecutors had withheld evidence by altering a police report. In reponse, the judge privately reviewed all of the prosecution's evidence. The judge found that the documents included nothing of value to Munchinski, but that the state had improperly failed to disclose a tape of one of Bowen’s statements. The judge ruled that concealing this tape was egregious and prejudicial; he set aside Munchinski’s convictions and ordered a new trial.
In 2005 the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the ruling and reinstated Munchinski’s convictions. The Superior Court ruled that Munchinski’s petition had been filed too late.
In 2007, Munchinski’s attorneys filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In 2011, a federal judge set aside Munchinski’s convictions and he was released on bond. The judge ruled that the prosecutors, both of whom had since become judges, had withheld exculpatory evidence. The evidence included Bowen’s contradictory statements as well as an agreement the prosecution had made with Bowen for leniency in his own cases. The withheld evidence also included an autopsy report that indicated Alford and Gierke had anal sex as much as 24 hours before they were murdered—not immediately prior to their deaths—and that blood analysis of rectal swabs failed to find Munchinski’s blood type. The court also found that the prosecution had withheld numerous other police reports pointing to other suspects. One of those reports was of an interview with a woman who said that Mike Urdzik had confessed to committing the murders with Ed Wiltrout - who had been married Deborah Sue Dahlmann, one of the women who claimed that Munchinski had confessed.
In September 2012, the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling and on September 20, 2012, Munchinski was released from prison on bail. The prosecution was ordered to retry Munchinski within four months or dismiss the case. When the prosecution did not move to retry Munchinski, his attorney, Noah Geary, filed a motion to dismiss the case. On June 14, 2013, the motion was granted and the case was dismissed.
Munchinski filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against Fayette County and the prosecutors in September 2013.
– Maurice Possley