Le Chrysalis Remembers Raienhana & Jacob Bechtel, Kristen L. Tragus & David D. Barkus
Judges refuse to allow quadruple murderer another appeal
BY PETER E. BORTNER (STAFF WRITER PBORTNER@REPUBLICANHERALD.COM) / PUBLISHED: JULY 28, 2010
Michael H. Bechtel, who murdered his wife, son and two other people in 2002 in Morea, does not deserve another chance to seek a new trial, a three-judge state Superior Court panel has ruled.
In an 18-page opinion filed Tuesday in Pottsville, the panel ruled Bechtel, 34, of Morea, waited more than two years too long to file his petition to withdraw his guilty plea and offered no evidence justifying the delay. The panel affirmed the Sept. 4 ruling by county Judge D, Michael Stine dismissing Bechtel's petition.
"(Bechtel) failed to prove that he was incompetent at the relevant times," the panel wrote.
As a result, Bechtel will remain behind state prison bars for the rest of his life.
Bechtel pleaded guilty on Jan. 21, 2004, to four counts each of first-degree murder, aggravated assault and simple assault and one of endangering the welfare of children. Stine accepted the plea and immediately sentenced Bechtel to four consecutive terms of life imprisonment; Bechtel is serving his sentence at State Correctional Institution/Greene.
State police at Frackville charged Bechtel with fatally shooting Raienhna Bechtel, 22; Jacob Bechtel, 3; Kristen L. Tragus, 34, of Lost Creek; and David D. Barkus, 30, of Delano, on Aug. 15, 2002 at Raienhna Bechtel's home at 19 Lower St., Morea. Tragus and Barkus were friends of Raienhna Bechtel.
Any petition filed under the state Post Conviction Relief Act must be filed within one year of the defendant's sentence becoming final unless it falls under a specific limited exception, the panel ruled. Since Bechtel's sentence became final on Feb. 21, 2004, he had until Feb. 21, 2005, to file a petition, but he did not do so until Sept. 7, 2007, according to the panel.
Bechtel claimed that he was incompetent when he pleaded guilty and, therefore, he could not determine that his lawyers were ineffective until about a month before he filed his petition. He alleged that he pleaded guilty only because his lawyers insisted he do so and that he now claims he is innocent.
However, Stine concluded that Bechtel did not show he was incompetent when he could have filed a timely petition, and the panel ruled the evidence supported that determination.
Each of Bechtel's lawyers, Lynn Erickson, Leesport, and Kent D. Watkins, Saint Clair, testified that Bechtel never appeared incompetent, the panel wrote. State police Trooper Jeffrey Dunkel, who interviewed Bechtel, also said he appeared competent, as did Deputy Attorney General Patrick Cawley and Devon Jacob, two lawyers who interviewed Bechtel a month after his plea in connection with a civil lawsuit, according to the panel.
"We agree with the trial court that this evidence clearly suggested that (Bechtel) was competent long before he filed the ... petition," the panel wrote.
The panel also wrote that Stine did not act incorrectly in refusing to appoint an expert to examine Bechtel, noting that there was no evidence that such an examination could show whether he was competent in either 2004 or 2007.
Judges Mary Jane Bowes and Sallie Updyke Mundy and Senior Judge James J. Fitzgerald III comprised the panel that decided Bechtel's appeal. The opinion does not indicate which judge wrote it.Defendant: Michael H. Bechtel
Crimes committed: Four counts each of first-degree murder, aggravated assault and simple assault and one of endangering the welfare of children
Prison sentences: Four consecutive life sentences, being served at State Correctional Institution/Greene
Schuylkill man charged in 4 deaths
Michael Bechtel, 26, is recovering from self-inflicted wound.
August 22, 2002|By Chris Parker Of The Morning Call
Police on Wednesday charged a Schuylkill County man, who remains hospitalized with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, with killing his estranged wife, their 3-year-old son and two of her friends a week ago.
Michael Harley Bechtel, 26, of Morea, a village near Mahanoy City, was charged with four counts of homicide and related crimes. Bechtel allegedly shot the victims in the head before turning the gun on himself.
Bechtel remains in the trauma unit at Lehigh Valley Hospital, Salisbury Township. He won't be arrested until he leaves the unit, said Schuylkill County District Attorney Frank Cori.
"I understand he's improved slightly," Cori said. "He's able to respond to some commands. We'll have to wait until he's able to leave the hospital and then we'll serve him with the papers."
A hospital employee on Wednesday said he could not find Bechtel's name in the hospital's computer.
Police believe Bechtel shot his wife, Raienhna P. Bechtel, 22, and their son, Jacob Bechtel, 3, both of Morea; Kristen L. Tragus, 34, of Lost Creek; and David D. Barkus, 30, of Delano at his wife's home about 1:15 a.m last Thursday.
In arrest papers filed with District Justice William Slezosky of Mahanoy City, police outlined their investigation. The papers reveal:
Shannon Ashfield, who lives in the other half of the double home where the killings took place, heard loud music late Wednesday night into Thursday morning. She said she heard Raienhna arguing with a man and saying, "Stop it. I don't know why you get this way when you're drinking."
Ashfield said she then heard "several loud popping sounds" about 1:25 a.m. The music stopped around the same time, she said, so she went to bed.
Dennis Cooney of Shenandoah said Tragus called him about 12:40 a.m., when Raienhna Bechtel and Barkus went out for a six-pack of beer. Cooney said Tragus was calling to tell him she was baby-sitting Jacob Bechtel.
Cooney said that, after Raienhna Bechtel returned, he spoke with her until Michael Bechtel arrived. He said Michael Bechtel then got on the phone and demanded to know who was on the line. Cooney said he hung up.
Police also interviewed Michael Bechtel's cousin, James Palestis of Girardville, with whom Bechtel lived. Palestis said his cousin's demeanor had changed in the 10 days before the killings because Raienhna Bechtel had started dating.
The bodies were discovered 7 p.m. last Thursday when Raienhna Bechtel's mother, Joan Michelle Starr, went to the home. Police said Starr became concerned when her daughter failed to answer repeated telephone calls.
Starr looked through a window, saw the bodies, and called 911, police said.
State troopers from the Frackville barracks found Raienhna Bechtel, Tragus, and Barkus at the kitchen table. Jacob Bechtel was in a bed upstairs.
Autopsies have confirmed all four died of gunshot wounds to the head.
Michael Bechtel, seriously injured by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, was found on the floor near his son's bed, a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol under him.
Police said in the arrest affidavit that Bechtel owned the pistol, but Palestis said he kept it locked in his house until Bechtel asked him for it to go target shooting a few weeks before the killing. Michael Bechtel had moved in after he and his wife separated in the spring.