Bethel Park man gets life for conviction in 1999 stabbing death of his ex-wife
February 14, 2014 8:19 AM
By Jonathan D. Silver / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Seated on the witness stand to the left of the judge, her daughter's killer in shackles below, Mary Michael looked at the five handwritten pages she had drafted in her neat print and let fly nearly 15 years of anger, pain and sorrow in a voice that was strong and true.
"He is violent and can't control his murderous temper. It's only a matter of time before he explodes again and someone else will be hurt. He's like a snake," Mrs. Michael read aloud Thursday, shortly before convicted murderer John Minch was sentenced to life in prison without parole. "When he's coiled up, he looks harmless. But eventually he will strike."
Minch, her former son-in-law, struck on May 6, 1999. He stabbed his ex-wife, Melissa Groot, to death in her Bethel Park home, slitting her throat and leaving her body in a bathtub. The case grew cold for years -- partly because of key evidence being overlooked -- before Minch, long the prime suspect, was arrested in 2009 on the basis of a DNA match.
Addressing the court -- and Minch, 46, who sat impassively in dark dress clothes and sneakers -- she and other family members read impact statements to Common Pleas Judge Philip A. Ignelzi of Allegheny County, detailing years of torment, fear and turmoil since the slaying.
Groot's family said they never felt safe with him on the loose.
After the murder, Mrs. Michael carried a knife in her purse. Groot's husband, David Groot, used sleeping pills. Her younger sister, Shannon Hennon, slept with a loaded shotgun in reach and wouldn't be alone in her house while bathing.
"We had to watch our backs, change our habits," Mrs. Michael said. "We had to live with the knowledge that a revengeful, evil person who blamed us for everything bad in his life was out there on the streets and would be for a long time."
David Groot, a suspect early on, alluded in his statement to the difficulties he endured being the onetime target of police suspicion.
"I've lived for almost 15 years with everyone I know having to wonder if I was capable of committing this crime," Mr. Groot, 46, said. "I lost friends and my church family in Pittsburgh as a result of the investigation into Missy's murder."
After Minch's arrest, disturbing allegations surfaced that he was plotting the murder of Mrs. Michael and her husband, Frank. Other stories emerging from the jail suggested that he was trafficking in Groot's autopsy photos in exchange for treats -- something Minch denied.
Minch's own daughter, Katy Michael, 18, the subject of a prolonged and bitter custody dispute between him and Mrs. Michael, did not attend the sentencing. But she wrote a letter, read by prosecutor Lisa Pellegrini and addressed to "My Mother's Killer."
"You are nothing more than a stranger who committed a crime," she wrote. "I don't hate you or anyone else, but I am disappointed in your choices. I honestly feel bad for you."
Because he represented himself, Minch was able to cross-examine his former mother- and sister-in-law.
As was the case during his trial, which ended in November with convictions on first-degree murder and burglary, Minch got hung up on trivial details. He sparred with his onetime relatives, often over trivial points.
In an interview after the sentencing, Mrs. Michael, 66, acknowledged that it was difficult to weather verbal parries and ripostes with her daughter's murderer. But she said she found the strength to tolerate it.
"I did it for my daughter. I had to do that for her. I promised her that I would find out who killed her and that we would get to the bottom of it. My daughter gave me the strength to do it. And plus, her daughter. I want her daughter to know that her grandmother had some guts and wasn't afraid to stand up to somebody. And I think when you're right you should stand up."
There was little drama to Minch's actual sentence. First-degree murder carries a mandatory term of life in prison without parole.
"You allowed your rage and you allowed your emotion to get out of control that day, which resulted in an unbelievably heinous act," Judge Ignelzi told Minch.
The judge also said he did not think the defendant was stupid.
"I find that interesting that you acknowledge that I'm not stupid, but you seem perfectly willing to believe that I am so stupid I would confess to people in jail to a crime I didn't commit," Minch said.
"It's not what I believe," the judge replied, "It's what the jury believes."
Minch said he was innocent.
Matt Dugan, an assistant public defender who assisted Minch, said there would be an appeal.
"I think justice has been done," said Terry Hediger, a retired county detective who was the lead investigator on the case and attended the sentencing.
After the sentencing, Mrs. Michael appeared relaxed and was jovial, even cracking a joke. But there was no mistaking her sentiments about John Minch.
"I hope that he rots, if you want to know the truth. I know this is the time when I'm supposed to act forgiving and say, OK, you know, I forgive him," Mrs. Michael said.
"I don't forgive him. What he did to my daughter was cruel and horrendous, and he deserves to rot ... He told me once that he was an atheist, and I hope to God he's right. Because where he's going, he's gonna burn."