On a quiet June morning last year, two night shift nurses from New Kensington who didn't know each other stopped off at the local Kmart after work to buy Father's Day cards and gifts.
Within seconds, all hell broke loose.
As Virginia Daly, 51, climbed into her Jeep Cherokee, a man who had been milling around the parking lot accosted her with a gun and threatened to shoot her if she didn't give him her keys.
The other nurse, Mary Ulizio, 45, was getting into her Ford Explorer a few feet away and immediately took action. She quickly backed up and swung her vehicle behind the Cherokee, blocking in the carjacker.
She unlocked her doors so Daly could get in and escape, but instead, Daly ran into the Kmart for help. As the man threw the Cherokee into reverse, Ulizio pulled out of his way but quickly jotted down the license number on her forearm.
A short time later, the man sped across the Tarentum Bridge and crashed the Cherokee into a utility pole in Tarentum, flipping the vehicle over several times. He bailed out and ran before police caught him.
Yesterday a federal jury convicted Craig William Brownlee, 32, of Harrison, on one count of carjacking and two counts of carrying an illegal gun.
Federal prosecutors couldn't positively link the pistol found at the crash scene to Brownlee, but four witnesses, including Daly and Ulizio, identified Brownlee as the carjacker.
Brownlee's federal public defender, Crystina Kowalczyk, argued that the witnesses had the wrong man.
Contacted yesterday, Ulizio said Brownlee walked within a few feet of her before the carjacking and she knows it was him.
"I absolutely, positively identified him," she said. "There were no doubts in my mind. When I walked into court and I looked at him, I knew right away. I'm really happy with the way things turned out."
Because he has three prior felony convictions, Brownlee was prosecuted as a career criminal and could receive life in prison.
The incident began at 8:30 a.m. on June 13. Ulizio said in court that she saw Brownlee walking near Daly's Cherokee and a Ford Mustang parked next to it while patting his pocket.
She was suspicious. Kowalczyk suggested she felt uneasy because Brownlee is black, but Ulizio denied race played any role.
"He crossed right in front of me," she said. "The first thing I thought -- I know the defense tried to make it a black-white issue -- was [that] this was a young guy, why isn't he home in bed like all the other kids? I got a sick feeling. This wasn't right."
When Brownlee accosted Daly and threatened to shoot her, Ulizio said she didn't really have time to think.
"She started screaming," she said. "I didn't know what to do other than the fact that I was near my car so I got in and I swung in to block his path. I started laying on my horn to attract attention."
When she saw Brownlee start to pull out after Daly had fled, she continued backing up and let him go. She wrote the Cherokee's license number down, thinking that Daly might be too shaken up to remember it. A short time later, Scott M. Thompson of Brackenridge, who was on his way to work, was sitting at a traffic light when he saw the Cherokee speed over the bridge and smash into a pole.
Thompson, now serving in the Air Force in Texas, said he watched the driver climb out of the wreck, run down Sixth Avenue, fall, get up and keep running.
He later identified the man as Brownlee.
U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab did not set a sentencing date.
Torsten Ove can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2620.