Residents of Johnstown suburb left terrified by cruel homicide

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JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- Norton Road sits tucked away on a steep hillside in the Johnstown suburb of Lower Yoder, where homes run the gamut from deep disrepair to sparkling new, housing a mix of retirees and young families.

It was there that 38-year-old Vincent Bloom settled with his girlfriend and their two children about three years ago, converting a former slaughterhouse adjacent to their home into a sprawling temple to his love of fixing cars. He ran a ragtag shop with a steady stream of customers, many of them friends, and he also operated a small excavating business for odd jobs.

In that garage, mere yards from his home, he was robbed and then lit on fire, suffering burns that were ultimately fatal. The attack has shattered any illusions of safety on the street and has stunned police, who had not investigated a homicide in the community since the early 1990s.

On July 19, Mr. Bloom had family over to celebrate his mother's birthday. After his guests left in the evening, Mr. Bloom retreated to the garage, as he often did, while his longtime girlfriend and the mother of his two children, Lori Marek, snoozed in an easy chair in the living room.

That night, two men wearing masks came into the garage with a gun, Mr. Bloom told authorities immediately after the incident. They robbed him of an undisclosed amount of cash, struck him on the head with the gun then tied him up with an electrical cord.

They doused him with gasoline and lit him on fire. Unbelievably, he was able to break free and extinguish himself with a garden hose. He called 911 from his cell phone, then stumbled to his home, yelling at his girlfriend for help. His clothes were still smoldering.

He was taken to Conemaugh Hospital with burns on his head, chest, arms and back. He was later taken to West Penn Burn Center, where he died Saturday. The Cambria County coroner ruled his death a homicide and said he perished from third-degree burns.

Earlier this week, Ms. Marek's brother, Jim, worked to level the drive in front of the large garage with a back hoe, where an assortment of vehicles sat. He shook his head in disbelief over the crime.

"The kids seen him, smoke billowing off of him," he said. "Why would somebody do this to him?"

The West Hills Regional police have the same question. Detective Sgt. George Musulin is the sole investigator in the tiny department, which covers four quiet, suburban Johnstown communities.

Sgt. Musulin has been working late, sorting out every tip and lead that comes into the department. He declined to provide many details about what he has learned but said state police investigators, who are assisting, had pulled evidence from the garage for testing.

"The case is being pursued very tenaciously," he said.

The case, too, has left a family shaken and frightened that the as-yet-unknown attackers could return to harm them.

The identity of the attackers and the motive behind the attack has eluded police. The detective said police do not know if the men arrived on foot or in a car, or if he knew them.

Neighbors said Mr. Bloom's garage, which sits at the appendage of Norton Road and D Street, was a popular gathering spot for his friends. People could often be seen congregating outside, working on cars. A popular man, he hosted a handful of parties that drew a crowd, said one neighbor.

Mr. Marek, whose sister has been with Mr. Bloom for about 18 years, has never known him to have a beef with anybody. And there was little of value in the garage to steal beyond tools, which were left behind.

"He had so many friends," he said. "I never seen him have words with anybody."

Mr. Bloom had two children with Ms. Marek, Zachary, 16, and Blaydin, 9. He had just taught Zachary how to drive and was teaching him his way around a car, said Mr. Marek. He and Blaydin tended a vegetable garden together, and the 9-year-old was beginning to show an interest in his cars.

Neighbors have been left "terrified," said Mr. Marek.

"People up here have been very upset about that," said Joe Forish, whose 97-year-old mother, Sophie, lives up the road. He stays with her two days a week. "That's unheard of."

The road is regularly patrolled by West Hills Regional police officers, said Kathy Legat, a retired school secretary. She could not recall a single break-in or robbery on the street prior to this one.

"You always take it for granted that it's not going to happen to you. You always think it's someone else," she said. "And now it's not. It's here."

West Hills Regional police asked anyone with information to call them at 1-814-255-4145. Cambria County Crime Stoppers is offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

state

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.


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