Trial to begin in teacher's death

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The trial for a Westmoreland County man accused of strangling his wife and dumping her body in a patch of shrubs near Arnold Palmer Regional Airport more than two years ago is set to begin today.

An all-female jury will hear the case of David Stahl, 44, of Hempfield, charged with first-degree murder in the death of Rebecca Irene Stahl, 37, a sixth-grade math teacher at Derry Area Middle School.

Assistant public defender Matthew R. Schimizzi said Mr. Stahl does not deny he played a role in his wife's death. The defense is seeking a conviction to a lesser charge. In Pennsylvania, first-degree murder carries a mandatory penalty of life in prison without parole.

"We believe the evidence is going to show and we will be arguing [for] something less than first-degree murder," Mr. Schimizzi said.

The morning of Feb. 18, 2012, a Saturday, Mr. Stahl had "a bit of a disagreement" with his wife, then drank from noon to 7 p.m. before returning home, state police wrote in a criminal complaint.

He told police the couple then had a "light argument" and he left to go to a bar until 12:30 a.m. Cell phone records showed a "contentious text conversation" between them, the complaint said.

Mrs. Stahl's family said they last heard from her in the early afternoon of Feb. 18 when her sister, Kelly Beltz, called to ask if she wanted to have a girls' night out. Mrs. Stahl said she wanted to check with her husband first, but she never called back.

Police believe Mrs. Stahl was killed that day in a physical altercation with her husband in their home.

Mr. Stahl told police he saw his wife at their Seton View Drive home the following Monday morning; he said when he returned later that day, the complaint continued, she wasn't home, and she had left the car and the medication she needed to recover from a recent hysterectomy.

Mrs. Stahl's family reported her missing the next day.

Police said they linked Mr. Stahl to the crime when they found his muddy boots with arborvitae leaves on them and men's clothing in a bag in the basement freezer of the Stahl home after executing a search warrant. Inside that bag they found a smaller bag containing his wife's driver's license, school district ID card and a checkbook -- all burned or charred. Family photos also were inside.

The criminal complaint also said he had injuries to both hands and scratches on his face.

Investigators sought help from the Pennsylvania Game Commission to learn more about possible locations of the arborvitae shrub, commonly planted as privacy hedges.

The former King Nursery on Bell Memorial Church Road in Unity was the first outdoor area they searched -- and where they spotted Mrs. Stahl's body in the low-lying shrubs 25 feet from the road. She was naked and wrapped in a gray U-Haul moving blanket and a red blanket with a piece of plastic around her waist.

State police have said that Mr. Stahl had a history of acting violently toward his wife when he was drinking.

In 2007, she filed a protection-from-abuse order against Mr. Stahl, then her fiance, after he came home drunk on his 37th birthday, demanded sexual acts, ripped hair from her head and threw her down a flight of stairs. Her sister said he once pulled out so much of her hair, she had to wear a wig, the complaint said.

He pleaded guilty to simple assault and was sentenced to jail. In the restraining order, Mrs. Stahl said he had pushed her around before and "has a history of violent behavior about once a month."


Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.

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