Ex-councilman's trial starts in 1979 homicide

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More than three decades have passed since 23-year-old Catherine Janet Walsh was discovered strangled in her Monaca home. This week, the case against the former Bridgewater councilman who police allege was responsible for her death will proceed to trial.

Opening statements are scheduled to begin this morning in the Beaver County Courthouse for the trial of Gregory Scott Hopkins, 67, who is charged with criminal homicide.

A jury of five men and seven women, plus two alternates, was selected last week. Jurors were told the trial, which is before Judge Harry E. Knafelc, is expected to last two weeks.

The case will be tried by Frank Martocci and Brittany Smith, assistant district attorneys for Beaver County. Attorney James Ross of Ambridge, along with his legal partner Chad Bowers, will represent Mr. Hopkins, who maintains that he is innocent.

The start of the trial will bring to a courtroom a case that started Sept. 1, 1979.

That morning, Ms. Walsh did not report to work, and her parents went to her Monaca duplex to check on her. Janet, as she was known to her family, was separated from her husband and lived alone. Inside her home, her father, Peter J. Caltury, found her facedown on her bed, without a pulse and with a handkerchief tied around her neck and her wrists bound.

That night, police interviewed Mr. Hopkins. He said that he and Ms. Walsh were involved in a sexual relationship that had ended earlier in the summer and that he had spent the early hours of Sept. 1 with friends, preparing for a pig roast.

There was little additional evidence to pursue, and for three decades, the case languished.

The years passed with Mr. Hopkins running a construction and snow removal business and eventually winning a seat on the Bridgewater Borough Council. Meanwhile, Mr. Caltury, who lived in Monaca, urged police to continue working his daughter's case.

Eventually, technology caught up with the evidence police had collected, Beaver County District Attorney Anthony J. Berosh said at a January 2012 news conference announcing Mr. Hopkins' arrest. DNA testing revealed seminal fluid on Ms. Walsh's bed sheets, nightgown and the white rope that covered her hands.

Police sought a DNA sample from Mr. Hopkins in 2011, and when he refused, investigators used the then-Bridgewater councilman's habit of stopping by the borough building to drink water from a Styrofoam cup to obtain a sample of his DNA.

Testing of the cup sample showed he could not be eliminated as a possible match to the samples found near Ms. Walsh, and in December 2011 a search warrant was granted to obtain a DNA sample from Mr. Hopkins. The match was confirmed in January 2012, and Mr. Hopkins was arrested, charged and lodged in the Beaver County Jail, where he was held for nearly a year without bond.

Then, the same DNA evidence that sped up the case started to slow it down.

Mr. Ross, the attorney for Mr. Hopkins, has argued in court that his client's DNA should be present, since he and Ms. Walsh were having an affair that ended the summer before her death.

The Beaver County district attorney's office intended to submit during the trial a report and testimony arguing that the fact that the DNA was found only on the bed sheet, the back of Ms. Walsh's nightgown and on the rope around her wrists makes it "extremely unlikely" that the DNA was left during earlier sexual encounters. The report by forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht gives the conclusion that Ms. Walsh died due to "strangulation during sexual activity."

Judge Knafelc decided in November 2012 that the report and Dr. Wecht's testimony lacked scientific basis and were "speculative in nature," ruling it inadmissible. The district attorney's office appealed the decision to the state Superior Court.

That meant the trial, originally scheduled to start last November, would be significantly delayed, so Judge Knafelc granted bond to Mr. Hopkins, and he has been under electronic home monitoring since November 2012.

Last month, a panel of Superior Court judges ruled that Dr. Wecht's DNA report and testimony "meets Pennsylvania's liberal standard for expert testimony" and may be used in Mr. Hopkins' trial.

But the Superior Court did affirm the exclusion of one aspect of Dr. Wecht's report -- in which he gave his opinion that the lack of signs of struggle or forced entry into Ms. Walsh's home meant she knew her assailant.

The court's decision meant the case could proceed to trial. Not present when it starts today ,however, will be Ms. Walsh's father, Mr. Caltury. He died in June at age 92.

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

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