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Man sentenced in murder case

April 23, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Family members of Delbert Rodgers said Friday that they have no doubt the man they looked to for wisdom would be celebrating his 96th birthday today had he not been murdered more than two years ago.

Three of Rodgers' family members spoke in Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes' courtroom Friday morning before Wilkes formally sentenced one of the men charged in Rodgers' death.

Adhering to the terms of a plea bargain, Wilkes sentenced John Michael Dignazio, 31, to serve life in prison.

Mercy was attached to the sentence, meaning that Dignazio will be eligible for a parole hearing after serving 15 years of the life sentence.

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In January, Dignazio pleaded guilty to felony murder.

Wilkes also ordered the sentence to run consecutively to a sentence Dignazio now is serving in Virginia.

There, Dignazio has served around two years of a 12-year sentence on charges of abduction and robbery, Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely said.

Dignazio chose not to make a statement in court.

Peggy Fishpaw-Harpine, one of Rodgers' grandchildren, said that her grandfather still lived independently and drove on his own. He was a kind, gentle man whom she had never seen angry, she said.

"You took away a big part of our life," she told Dignazio.

Rodgers survived World War II and asbestos exposure during his career, only to be beaten and bound by three men who came to his house uninvited, she said.

"I just can't imagine how you can live with yourself," she said.

A day or two after Rodgers' body was found by a caretaker, Fishpaw-Harpine said she walked into his house and saw blood that still remained.

"How long did he lay and suffer?" she said.

John Grissinger said he was Rodgers' friend and power of attorney, and had helped him with his investments. He, too, described Rodgers as a good man who supported himself.

"He could outwork me," Grissinger said during the hearing.

During World War II, Rodgers helped to rebuild railroads in Europe, and worked for the railroads after retiring. He contributed his knowledge to restoration efforts at the Roundhouse complex in Martinsburg, Grissinger said.

He called Dignazio's actions "a horrible act of cowardice," adding that if Rodgers had had a fighting chance, the outcome might have been different.

Two others also were charged with murder in connection with Rodgers' death, but the charges against both were dropped after Dignazio refused to testify against them unless he received special treatment from the state, Games-Neely has said.

No physical evidence connected any of the men to the murder. West Virginia State Police Trooper J.C. Weaver, the lead investigator, said that Dignazio and the others went to the home to try to rob Rodgers, but found no money.

He died of blunt force traumatic injuries, police have said.

Rodgers' body was found on Jan. 5, 2003, inside his house at 1214 Airport Road, outside of Martinsburg. He was 93 years old.

Games-Neely acknowledged that Dignazio was not the main perpetrator and did not know beforehand that Rodgers was going to die. However, he went along with the others and did nothing to stop them, she said.

Dignazio's attorney, Mark Sutton, said during the hearing that Dignazio tried to help the state build its case and is remorseful for his actions - a statement that drew murmurs from Rodgers' family.

If Dignazio is released from prison, he must pay for Rodgers' funeral expenses, estimated to be around $6,000, within one year, Wilkes ordered.

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