Man accused of killing brother to face court action

Crime, Law and JusticeCrimeDeathHomicideJustice SystemMount BethelAssault

After clubbing his younger brother to death and chopping up the body, Stephen Austin told police he left the dismembered body in trash bags in a Jeep outside his Birdsboro home, then went shopping at Wal-Mart, a state trooper testified Thursday.

Austin later told his wife he had ''things to do,'' and drove around looking for places in Berks County to bury parts of his 22-year-old brother, Jonathan Austin, state Trooper Michael Sadusky of the Reading barracks testified at a preliminary hearing in Upper Mount Bethel Township.

Stephen Austin, 26, is charged with homicide, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence in his brother's May 25 death. Senior District Judge Sherwood Grigg sent all charges to Northampton County Court.

District Attorney John Morganelli, who believes it is a first-degree murder case, said he will not be seeking the death penalty.

Sadusky said that during a 21/2-hour interview, Stephen Austin confessed to hitting his brother several times in the head with a crowbar during a 3 a.m. argument over their ailing mother in a garage behind her house on Institute Road in Upper Mount Bethel Township.

Austin, the trooper said, told him he left the body in nearby woods and drove back to Birdsboro, arriving home about 6:30 a.m.

After getting a bow saw and pruning shears from his house and buying some trash bags, Austin went back to Northampton County. There, Austin told police, he severed the body's head, legs, arms and hands and drove back to Birdsboro with the body parts stashed in the back of his Jeep in black garbage bags, Sadusky said.

Austin parked the Jeep at his home at 504 E. Second Street. He later went shopping with his wife and children, stopping in Wal-Mart, a home renovation chain and a video store, Sadusky said. Later in the day, Austin told his wife Jennifer ''he had things to do'' and left in the Jeep.

Austin told police he drove around for a while in Maxatawany Township, thinking about places to get rid of the body parts, Sadusky testified.

Austin's wife later told police she thought her husband had been acting strangely that day, according to documents.

While her husband was scouting potential burial sites, Jennifer Austin went to the Exeter Township police station about 11:30 p.m. and told Officer Darrin S. Gartner she thought her husband had killed his brother and might be getting rid of the body, according to court records.

A description of Austin's Jeep was broadcast and township police spotted it along Route 345 near French Creek State Park. Police said he was caught after burying a leg.

''He showed us roughly where the leg was buried,'' Sadusky said.

The head and hands were found in the Jeep and the other body parts were found with Austin's help, Sadusky said.

Austin, who was a member of the Malvern Ambulance Service in Chester County, kept a downward gaze at the defense table while the grisly details were laid out in court.

Austin was returned to Northampton County Prison without bail.

State police at Belfast were involved early in the investigation. Austin's wife first called the 911 Center in Berks County, and the call was eventually transferred to the Belfast barracks, said Trooper Adam Frankelli. He answered the call from a ''woman who wanted to report a murder.''

Frankelli said he was familiar with the address the woman gave, 535 Institute Road, because he ''dealt with several instances in the past'' and dispatched a patrol car to see if anyone was injured. He said he knew ''Jonathan was back home from the Army.''

Frankelli then called Stephen Austin on his cell phone after getting the number from his wife. The line went dead in mid-sentence when Frankelli started to say the police wanted to speak to him, he said.

Minutes later, the police who had the Jeep under surveillance near the park took Austin into custody.

Austin's lawyer, Henry Hilles III of Norristown, a former Montgomery County prosecutor, said after the hearing he did not believe the facts support a first-degree murder conviction, which would carry a life sentence.

''I am confident that after all the evidence has been considered, it will be clear that this was not a premeditated first-degree murder,'' Hilles said. ''It goes without saying this is an unbelievably difficult time for the entire Austin family.''

Jennifer Austin attended the hearing.

Morganelli, who is prosecuting the case, said he will not seek the death penalty because there are no aggravating circumstances, such as torture, because the body was dismembered after death.

Although Austin told police he not only clubbed his brother, but also choked him until the body went limp, which could constitute a form of torture, Dr. Samuel Land testified the decapitation destroyed the neck structures needed to determine if there had been a strangulation. Land, a forensic pathologist, said he had to reassemble the body before the autopsy.

Regardless of whether Austin choked his brother, Land said two blows to the head, one in the forehead, the other on top of the head, were fatal and would have caused death in ''seconds to minutes.''

Austin told police he was upset with his brother, who had moved back home a week earlier, because he believed he was taking advantage of their mother and getting her to spend money on him.

He said his younger brother accused him of trying to put their mother, Katherine, in a nursing home, which he claimed was untrue, Sadusky said.

Austin said his brother tried to punch him, and he picked up a crowbar and started hitting Jonathan Austin until his knees buckled, Sadusky said. When his brother started cursing him for hitting him with the crowbar, Stephen Austin said, he grabbed his brother by the neck and started choking him until his body went limp, the trooper said.

Austin said he chopped up his brother to ''facilitate movement'' of the body, the trooper said.

joe.mcdonald@mcall.com

610-559-2152

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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