Bethel Park cold-case killing trial begins

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John Minch killed his ex-wife, a prosecutor said Wednesday, because he hated her.

The entire case against the West Virginia man hinges on that animus -- over a contentious divorce and nasty custody battle -- along with a single hair found on the victim's hand and a surveillance video of a vehicle similar to Mr. Minch's near the crime scene.

Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini told the jury in her opening statement that investigators quickly turned to Mr. Minch as a possible suspect in the May 6, 1999, stabbing death of Melissa Groot.

They found some evidence against him -- a two-tone, older model Chevy Blazer similar to his was seen on bank video near Groot's Bethel Park home that morning, and a route he claimed to have driven to the T station did not make sense.

But, Ms. Pellegrini said, there was not enough to file charges, and the case grew cold until investigators realized years later a hair found on the victim was never tested.

When it finally was, the prosecutor said, mitochondrial DNA matched it to Mr. Minch.

The killer, Ms. Pellegrini said, was "someone who hated her, who he couldn't have anymore, who had taken away his daughter.

"The science doesn't lie. It's his hair. The person who hated her most."

But in his opening, Mr. Minch -- who is representing himself -- told the jury that the prosecution is attempting to frame him.

"I'm going to show you a 14-year effort to hide evidence, to manipulate evidence, to destroy evidence, so I cannot get a fair trial here today," he said. "That is their goal here, after all.

"At the end of this trial, you will know who killed Melissa Groot, and it was not me."

Early on in the investigation, the victim's husband at the time of her death, David Groot, also was considered a suspect.

During her opening, Ms. Pellegrini warned the jury of seven women and five men that they would hear things throughout the trial -- about the victim and Mr. Groot -- that they will not like.

"These are real people with real lives and real mistakes," Ms. Pellegrini said.

But, she continued, it would have been impossible for Mr. Groot to have committed the crime based on the timing of it.

Investigators believe Melissa Groot was killed some time between 8:30 a.m. when she received a hang-up telephone call, and lunch time, when she failed to answer the door for her father for a lunch date.

"David Groot could not have gotten back and forth from work, killed her and cleaned up," Ms. Pellegrini said.

The first witness called by the prosecution was a lab manager at the Allegheny County medical examiner's office who described the crime scene and evidence collected there.

Janine Yelenovsky said investigators recovered a 13-inch knife in the bathroom sink, as well as hairs that were in Melissa Groot's hands.

Ms. Yelenovsky told the jury that at the time of the slaying her lab did not do hair analysis, but that she believed one of the hairs that was recovered to have belonged to an animal.

When Mr. Minch asked her to differentiate the characteristics of both, Ms. Yelenovsky could not.

"It's been a long time since I used any knowledge gained in that discipline," she answered.

Because he is not permitted to move around the courtroom, during cross-examination, Mr. Minch asked his stand-by counsel, Matt Dugan, to help him perform an experiment.

He asked Mr. Dugan to hold up his hands in front of Ms. Yelenovsky to see how much detail she could observe on them. Mr. Minch then asked Mr. Dugan to move farther from her, to see when the level of detail decreased.

It took until the end of the jury box. "Good eyes," Mr. Minch said.

Also Wednesday, Allegheny County police inspector Chris Kearns told the jury that he went to speak with Mr. Minch after 9 p.m. the night of the slaying.

Mr. Minch told the investigator that he didn't know where the Groots lived at the time and explained that he had been Downtown much of the day awaiting a family court hearing.

Inspector Kearns asked Mr. Minch what clothing he had been wearing that day, and Mr. Minch showed him a black T-shirt and jeans. He also gave investigators permission to search his apartment, as well as his vehicle.

The officer said there was no evidence of blood staining found.

Mr. Minch also asked Inspector Kearns if any investigators attempted to contact the Port Authority or any other witnesses to verify his alibi at the time. The officer said he was unaware if that occurred.


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published November 6, 2013 1:12 PM


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