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Degree of guilt ruled in Pa. case

September 20, 2000|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Michael Brandon Singley reacted with profanities Tuesday after Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Douglas W. Herman ruled he was guilty of first-degree murder in the 1998 shooting of James Gilliam.

"You can stick it up your..." Singley said after Herman announced his decision.

Singley, 24, now faces a possible death penalty for the murder of Gilliam, as well as that of his other victim on Nov. 3, 1998, Christine Rohrer, of 391 Elder St., Chambersburg.

Singley pleaded guilty Aug. 16 to first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Rohrer, the wife of his cousin Travis Rohrer. He also pleaded guilty to raping her and attempting to murder Travis Rohrer and the Rohrer's next-door neighbor Deb Hock, as well as related charges of criminal trespass and theft.

The Chambersburg man also pleaded guilty Aug. 16 to murder generally in the death of Gilliam, 39, of 395 Elder St., leaving the degree of guilt to be determined at Tuesday's hearing.

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The judge said he determined the killing of Gilliam "was motivated by his effort to continue to conceal his crimes" and not a reflexive action.

It has been at least a decade since a degree of guilt hearing has been held in the county and much of Tuesday's testimony dealt with events leading up to Gilliam's death.

"I heard something upstairs" and assumed it was his wife, Travis Rohrer testified Tuesday. He noticed when he arrived home, however, most of the lights were off and the kitchen phone was missing.

When Rohrer got to the top of the stairs he testified Singley stepped out of the bedroom. "He had a gun in one hand and a knife in the other," he testified.

"His eyes were black, solid black," Rohrer testified in describing the look on his cousin's face.

Singley put the gun to Rohrer's head and ordered him into the bedroom, Rohrer testified.

Singley struck him on the back of the head with the gun, forced him face down on the floor and slashed him from the neck down through the middle of his back, Rohrer said.

Rohrer testified he fought back, wresting the folding hunting knife from Singley. The Smith & Wesson .44-magnum revolver was on the floor and "We both reached for the gun at the same time," Rohrer testified.

"He pulled the gun out of my hand and shot me in the arm," Rohrer said. Singley shot him a second time in his side before leaving the bedroom, he said.

Rohrer said he went to the nightstand to call 911, but that phone was also missing.

"I sat down on the edge of the bed and realized Christine was there," he testified.

Rohrer said he could not see her body because it was covered with a comforter and the room was dark.

Chambersburg Police Detective Scott Mummert testified Christine Rohrer had a "severe laceration" from her upper chest to abdomen and another stab wound in her side. Her hands were duct-taped to the headboard and her face and legs were also bound with tape, Mummert said.

Hock and Gilliam lived in the other half of the Elder Street duplex. They arrived home at about 8 p.m. and heard sounds like gunshots. "Then we heard somebody yell," Hock testified.

As they stepped onto the porch "the door on Travis' side flew open," Hock testified. "It was pretty dark. I thought it was Travis."

The man raised a handgun and fired twice, Hock testified. Thinking she was hit, Hock said she fell face down. She testified she held her breath, pretending to be dead.

Hock said she could hear Gilliam moaning and the breathing of the shooter. She then heard the man drive away in Christine Rohrer's Jeep, she testified.

Mummert testified Gilliam died of a gunshot that passed through his chest and out his back, hitting his right lung, aorta and spinal column.

Singley left behind a lot of evidence, Mummert testified. Fingerprints and palm prints, some of them bloody, were found on the duct tape on Christine Rohrer, rolls of tape in a spare bedroom, walls and lightbulbs removed from the master bedroom ceiling light.

Singley left his car a block from the Rohrers' house. Inside police found receipts for camouflage gloves, duct tape, the knife and ammunition purchased at two stores on Nov. 3, Detective Sgt. Dianne Kelso testified.

Rohrer's Jeep was found near Singley's home. Inside his house police found the gloves, clothes stained with Travis Rohrer's blood and the gun, which belonged to Travis Rohrer, had been reloaded, Kelso testified.

"I didn't even think. I turned and fired two shots, one at each person, and they both fell," Kelso said, reading from a statement Singley made to police when he was taken into custody the next day

"This was action without thought," Public Defender Robert J. Trambley said about the shooting of Gilliam. "He ran into two people he never expected to be there," he told Herman.

He said Singley probably fired from the hip at Gilliam and missed Hock even though she was lying within feet of him.

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