Police try to fill in gaps before fatal Washington & Jefferson College beating

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When Washington & Jefferson College seniors Tim McNerney and Zachary DeCicco left the Main Street Brew House at closing time, they'd had a low-key night sipping Blue Moon beer and chatting quietly with one of the bartenders, an alumna.

Just after 2 a.m. Thursday, the bartenders scooted them out the door with their usual wish of "be careful going home," and then manager Vicki Simoens looked out at the sidewalk and street before locking up.

Not a soul was out there but Mr. McNerney and Mr. DeCicco, walking back to campus, she said Friday. And although the bar had been packed -- Wednesday is the night many W&J students go out -- it had been a peaceful evening.

"There was nothing that started here," said Ms. Simoens, 55, who said she cards every one, every time and often sees her college customers bringing in their parents after football games.

"There were no words here, there were no unusual groups of people, there was no argument -- it was a good night at the Brew House on Wednesday night," she said.

Anyone who witnessed the crime or who has more information about the case can call 724-223-1386

That peace shattered as the men walked back to campus, however.

Just minutes after Mr. McNerney, 21, and Mr. DeCicco, 22, left the Brew House, Mr. DeCicco said a group of about six men attacked and robbed them on a sidewalk behind Lombardi's Auto Service just across the street from campus. Mr. DeCicco told police he grabbed his phone, broke free and ran back to his dormitory.

But Mr. McNerney wasn't with him. Mr. DeCicco called campus security officers, who contacted city police at 2:54 a.m. Investigators combed the area around the auto shop but couldn't find Mr. McNerney, according to Washington police.

By the time friends found him lying unconscious in the auto shop's parking lot just before 4 a.m., it was too late. Medics performed CPR and rushed Mr. McNerney to the Washington Hospital emergency room, but he was pronounced dead at 4:42 a.m. The Washington County coroner later ruled his death a homicide from blunt force trauma to the head.

And for now, Mr. DeCicco -- the only witness to the assault, robbery and homicide -- hasn't been able to offer the police much information about his attackers.

"We don't have a very detailed description other than that there were several males, and that the majority of them if not all of them are black males," according to Detective Dan Staneck of the Washington police. Mr. DeCicco told police the men were all about 20 or 21 years old, and that they wore dark clothing.

Anyone who witnessed the crime or who has more information about the case can call 724-223-1386.

Mr. McNerney and Mr. DeCicco had visited another bar, VIP Dance Club, before arriving at the Brew House Wednesday night, according to Detective Staneck. The club is known among local residents for drawing a rougher crowd than some other off-campus bars; patrons must be "wanded" by a security guard's handheld metal detector before entering.

But police do not have any evidence of an altercation earlier in the evening between Mr. McNerney and Mr. DeCicco and the men who later attacked them, he said.

"There's no reason to believe they had any issues with anybody prior and that this was a continuation," he said.

In May, Mr. DeCicco, of Jefferson Hills, pleaded guilty to public drunkenness after he was charged in December 2011 by South Strabane police.

Mr. McNerney pleaded guilty in July 2010 and again in February to disorderly conduct in Shaler and Pittsburgh, respectively; he was sentenced to 30 hours of community service after the second conviction. In January, he also pleaded guilty to charges of speeding and failing to use a seat belt after state police pulled him over in Harmar.

On Friday, the campus community and the greater Washington community alike struggled to cope with a killing many described as shocking and sad, and made all the more troubling by its proximity to campus -- just across the street from the psychology department in Dieter-Porter Hall and a few blocks from many other main campus buildings.

College administrators made grief counseling available through the student health and counseling center. They also sent an email safety reminder to students: Travel in groups at night, make sure to go home with all the people they came with, and feel free to ask for a campus escort to get home or to campus from anywhere in downtown Washington.

"We really want to encourage students to take advantage of that if they're feeling insecure about something, or uncomfortable in their surroundings," said college spokeswoman Karen Oosterhous.

The college also reserved two buses for up to 100 students to travel to Washington & Jefferson's football game against Thomas More College in northern Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, along with free admission. The football team left campus Friday morning after a send-off in memory of Mr. McNerney, a business major from Butler who wore No. 5 as a running back for the team.

And even students who didn't know Mr. McNerney well said they felt the loss and something else, too: a new concern for their personal safety.

Lauren Horning, a sophomore double major in Spanish and environmental studies, is an avid runner whose regular route takes her through the historic part of campus. She thought of going for a run before Thursday evening's candlelight vigil for Mr. McNerney but then thought better of it, she said. "It was getting dark and I thought, 'I don't really want to do that,' " she said as she sat on the lawn in front of Old Main hall. "It's a conscious thought now."


Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com. Jonathan D. Silver contributed.


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