Shirtless, with tattoos across his back, George Hitcho Jr. advanced on the neighbor who had cursed him out for speeding down the gravel alley they shared in
Hitcho carried a piece of wood, and twice pulled down his pants and mooned William Clancy as they exchanged obscenities even as Clancy was on the phone with 911.
It could have been a simple dispute between neighbors that beautiful summer day, but it turned ugly quickly, according to testimony Monday on the first day of Hitcho's death-penalty trial.
Turned ugly, that is, even before Northampton County prosecutors say Hitcho shot a borough patrolman in the back of the head with a 12-gauge shotgun, killing officer Robert A. Lasso before he hit the ground.
"[Hitcho] speeds up and down the road here," Clancy, 28, told a county dispatcher Aug. 11 in a recording played in court. "I called him out on it and he flipped."
That 911 call brought the 31-year-old Lasso to the backyard of Hitcho's New Street house. Attacked by two of Hitcho's
— a German shepherd and a bulldog — Lasso was moving to use his stun gun on them when he was felled from behind by a single shotgun blast.
The jury will decide whether Hitcho, 46, is guilty of first-degree murder and, if he is, whether he should be sent to death row or spend life in prison without parole.
District Attorney John Morganelli said in opening statements that Hitcho knew exactly what he was doing when he aimed the gun at Lasso and fired from feet away. And Morganelli said there could have been a second victim: Police Chief George Bruneio, who was able to arrest Hitcho after his pump-action gun jammed.
"If it hadn't jammed, we might be talking about Chief Bruneio being dead," Morganelli said.
Chief Public Defender Michael Corriere, who elected to delay his opening statements, is expected to argue that while Hitcho pulled the trigger, he was overwhelmed in a pressure-cooker situation and didn't commit premeditated murder.
About 80 pellets of shot were recovered from Lasso's brain, as was the shotgun shell's wadding, said Dr. Barbara Bollinger, a forensic pathologist. An autopsy photo showed a 1- to 11/2 -inch gaping wound in Lasso's neck just below his left ear, marking where the blast primarily hit him.
That Hitcho was upset before Lasso arrived was a point made by several witnesses beyond Clancy.
Daniel Hackman, a neighbor, said he was smoking a cigarette on his porch when he heard Hitcho yelling and cursing. Robert Henninger, a passenger in Hitcho's pickup, said an angry Hitcho walked past him after the argument with Clancy, grunting but saying nothing.
"George, please come out to talk with me," Henninger recalled Lasso asking Hitcho before he was shot.
"Control your dogs," Lasso also told Hitcho, according to Todd Schaedel, a friend of the defendant who was charged with lying to police after the shooting, but took the stand Monday for authorities.
Bruneio, the Freemansburg chief, said Lasso was trying to fend off the two snarling dogs, kicking at them while holding a Taser straight in the air in his left hand.
"Shoot 'em," Bruneio yelled before a shot rang out and Lasso fell to the ground.
Hitcho came out holding a shotgun, one hand on its pump, the other on its trigger, Bruneio said. Three times, Bruneio said, he told Hitcho to drop the weapon before he did so.
"He tried to break into my house," Hitcho told Bruneio.
A video recorded from the chief's parked vehicle underscored how quickly everything unfolded. Within seconds after Bruneio arrived, Hitcho's dogs can be seen running away from the house, scared by the gunshot. Moments later, Bruneio walks back with a handcuffed Hitcho, whose bare chest and long hair and beard give him a wild look.
Bruneio testified that he returned to Lasso, finding him motionless and without a pulse. As Bruneio spoke, he paused at length, nervously twirling a tissue in his hands.
In front of him was a courtroom full of friends and family of both Lasso and Hitcho, some of Lasso's wearing memorial pins fashioned with a cross and blue and black ribbon.
"I was dazed. I was in shock. Everything was like a blur to me," said Bruneio, 72, who ended up at the hospital that night for observation for fear he'd had a
Bethlehem police officer Richard Hoffman, who responded to the borough after an officer-down call was broadcast, remembered Bruneio standing by the bleeding and lifeless Lasso as futile CPR began.
"Wake up! Wake up!" Bruneio yelled.