Trial continues for former Bridgewater councilman in 1979 strangulation death

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The alibi Gregory Scott Hopkins gave to police after Catherine Janet Walsh was found killed in her Monaca home was this: he was at the model home his company owned in nearby Center, where he and three friends spent the night to prepare for a pig roast later that day.

But when investigators then went to confirm his alibi, they only interviewed one of the friends, Larry Musgrave, who also worked with Mr. Hopkins. The two women he said were with them that night – Mr. Musgrave’s wife and Mr. Hopkins’ girlfriend, Diane St. George – were not questioned.

“Some of the older investigators indicated that this is the way it’s done. That we wouldn’t talk to the women,” said Andrew Gall, now a detective with the Beaver County district attorney’s office but then the Monaca patrolman who was first to respond to the scene of Walsh’s death.

It was yet another reminder that the case being tried in the Beaver County Courthouse this week is more than 30 years old, and that with the passage of time memories have faded and practices have changed.

The trial, which completed its third day Thursday, is before a jury of five men and seven women, with Judge Harry E. Knafelc presiding. 

The case started on Sept. 1, 1979, when her parents discovered Walsh, a 23-year-old Monaca woman who was getting divorced and lived alone, in her bed. She was lying facedown, with her hands tied behind her back and a sheet covering her. She had been strangled. 

No charges were filed in the case until January 2012, when police charged Mr. Hopkins, 67 and then a Bridgewater councilman, with criminal homicide. Police said that DNA from seminal fluid matching Mr. Hopkins had been recovered from the sheet that covered Walsh, the rope that bound her hands and on the back of the nightgown.

Mr. Hopkins, through attorney James Ross of Ambridge, has maintained his innocence, and Mr. Ross has argued repeatedly that Mr. Hopkins’ DNA should be there, since the two were having an affair.

During the trial, Mr. Ross has suggested two other men should be considered as suspects: Walsh’s estranged husband and a man Walsh met the night before she was found dead.

Scott Walsh, the estranged husband of the deceased, testified Wednesday that he did not kill his wife.

And on Thursday, Robert McGrail, now 64 and living in Massachusetts, also testified that he did not go to Walsh’s house that night 34 years ago. Mr. McGrail, who lived in Beaver County in the 1970s, met Walsh the night before she died at a bar, where they danced and talked, he testified. When the bar closed, they went with her friend to a nearby Perkins restaurant for a bite to eat.

Mr. McGrail didn’t have a car then, and that night he hoped Walsh might give him a ride home. But Walsh soon asked him to sit at another table. He said she told him: “I’m going through a divorce and my husband is a very jealous man.”

Detective Gall, who has testified multiple times during the trial, said both Mr. Walsh and Mr. McGrail were considered suspects for decades, but were cleared by the DNA evidence.

Mr. Ross, however, challenged Detective Gall on the elimination of the other two men as suspects. He asked about the discovery of Mr. McGrail’s checkbook in a gutter not far from Walsh’s house six days after her death. Mr. McGrail said he did not know how it got there.

Mr. Ross said he also plans to introduce a DNA expert who prepared a report paid for by the defense that shows Mr. Walsh’s DNA on the fitted bed sheet in Walsh’s room. Mr. Hopkins DNA was not found on that sheet.

Other testimony Thursday focused on storage of the evidence since 1979, and on the DNA testing that finally led to charges being filed in the case last year.

Rocco DeMaiolo, now a retired trooper with the state police, said renewed efforts to crack cold cases during the last decade prompted investigators to send materials, including the night shirt and the rope that bound Walsh’s hands, to the state police crime lab in Greensburg in late 2010.

The call, saying that semen had been found on those items, “was the only time in my life that my knees buckled,” Mr. DeMaiolo said. That call eventually led to the discovery of a match with Mr. Hopkins, and additional testimony Thursday from two Bridgewater borough employees described their role in helping investigators discover the match.

Bridgewater’s police chief and borough secretary both described to jurors how they helped investigators obtain a DNA sample from Mr. Hopkins, by collecting a discarded cup of water he drank at the borough building.

The case will resume Friday and is expected to continue into next week.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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