Monday, February 16, 2009

Jury Selection for Cuadra Trial Set to Begin Tuesday

The Citizens' Voice reports: The last time Harlow Cuadra shuffled into the Luzerne County Courthouse, for a hearing on Dec. 16, the clouds of judicial corruption preoccupying the court system were still on the periphery.

The county’s president judge at the time, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., and former president judge, Michael T. Conahan, were still on the bench — six weeks from being charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit tax fraud in a scheme to send juveniles to a private prison for profit.

The county’s court administrator, William T. Sharkey Sr., was still on an extended medical leave of absence. He is scheduled to plead guilty Tuesday to a charge of embezzlement for allegedly diverting $70,000 in gambling proceeds for his own personal use.

In the wake of the scandals, the judge presiding over Cuadra’s case, Peter Paul Olszewski Jr., has emerged as a vocal proponent of reform — advocating for increased transparency in the court’s hiring practices and a cost-effective system for paying conflict attorneys.

Olszewski, 49, provided the only challenge to Judge Chester B. Muroski in the Jan. 26 vote for president judge that followed Ciavarella’s resignation from the position and, if successful in his bid for retention in November, could be a leading contender to replace Muroski, 69, who must retire at the end of the year.

Olszewski will be on the bench Tuesday when jury selection is scheduled to begin in Cuadra’s trial for the killing of Bryan Kocis, a rival producer of gay pornographic films, in Dallas Township in January 2007.

Cuadra’s co-defendant, Joseph Kerekes, 34, pleaded guilty Dec. 8 to second-degree murder and other charges and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, the mandatory term for a second-degree murder conviction.

Cuadra refused a plea agreement and faces the death penalty. He has been charged with an open count of homicide. He had been scheduled to stand trial Jan. 5, but Olszewski approved a six-week delay to allow two private attorneys hired by Cuadra, Joseph D’Andrea of Dunmore and Paul J. Walker of Scranton, “a reasonable amount of time to prepare” for the case.

Cuadra and Kerekes were arrested in Virginia Beach in May 2007 and were originally scheduled to stand trial together in March. Days before the start of the trial, Olszewski disqualified attorney Demetrius Fannick from representing Cuadra and delayed the trial until Sept. 2.

Olszewski delayed the start of the trial again in August after ruling Mark Bufalino, an attorney for Kerekes, and Paul Galante, an attorney for Cuadra, could no longer serve on the case because the two attorneys work for the same law firm — the Wilkes-Barre office of Elliott Greenleaf.

Kerekes, 34, of Virginia Beach, Va., entered into a tentative plea agreement with prosecutors the day before his guilty plea, after more than nine hours of negotiations at the state police barracks at Wyoming.

Kerekes said he will not testify against Cuadra.

During the negotiations at the state police barracks, Kerekes gave a statement “to develop a factual basis for the plea,” Assistant District Attorney Michael Melnick said.

Kerekes told prosecutors he and Cuadra viewed Kocis, a rival producer of gay pornographer, as an “impediment to the expansion of their pornography business,” Melnick said.

“They decided to eliminate and kill Bryan Kocis,” Melnick said.

Melnick will lead the same prosecution team, including Assistant District Attorneys Shannon Crake and Allyson Kacmarski, at Cuadra’s trial.

According to Kerekes, Cuadra ordered an online background check of Kocis days before the murder, sent e-mail messages and photographs to Kocis, placed telephone calls to him on a cell phone purchased and used only to call Kocis, and rented a vehicle that was seen by witnesses in Kocis’ driveway around the time of the killing.

Cuadra wrote to Kocis posing as an inexperienced pornographic film actor named “Danny Moilin” and used the character as a ruse to gain a private meeting with Kocis, 46, who led a nearly reclusive life in Dallas Township, Kerekes said.

Cuadra went alone to Kocis’ home on Midland Drive while Kerekes stayed at the Fox Ridge Inn in Plains Township, Kerekes said. Cuadra allegedly slashed Kocis’ neck, nearly decapitating him, and stabbed his torso nearly 30 times and later set fire to his Midland Drive home.

Cuadra returned to the motel in the rented vehicle and the two men fled to Virginia, Kerekes said.

Investigators found links between Cuadra, Kerekes and the killing in a February search of the Virginia Beach, Va., home where the alleged killers lived, including two Sony digital video cameras that had been taken from Kocis’ home.

Cuadra and Kerekes shared vivid details about the killing in conversations recorded by investigators in San Diego in April 2007.

Cuadra and Kerekes met with Grant Roy, a former suspect turned informant, and Sean Lockhart, Roy’s lover and business partner.

Lockhart had acted in gay pornographic films produced by Kocis’ company, Cobra Video. He and Roy had been engaged in a lawsuit over the use of his stage name, Brent Corrigan.

A settlement reached on Jan. 18, 2007, less than a week before the killing, allowed Lockhart to star in movies not involving Cobra Video, in exchange for a payment of 20 percent of the proceeds to Cobra.

Both men are expected to testify at Cuadra’s trial.

Roy asked Cuadra and Kerekes if Kocis felt any pain as he was being killed. After a few moments of silence, Cuadra leaned toward Lockhart and said quietly, “Don’t worry, he went quick.”

Cuadra offered more details the next day, as he walked with Kerekes, Roy and Lockhart along a nude beach in the La Jolla section of San Diego. Roy captured the conversation with a recording device hidden in a car key remote.

“Actually, seeing that (expletive) going down, actually it’s sick, but it made me feel better inside,” Cuadra said, referring to Kocis.

“It almost felt like I got revenge and I know that sounds (expletive) up.”

[PC Notes: Just in case you missed this when I posted it on 11/25/08, here's a copy of the Defendant's Proposed Voir Dire... also, the ages given for Kerekes and Kocis in this story are incorrect, Kerekes is 35 and Kocis was 44.]