Jun. 10—Tensions were high and tempers flared in the courtroom Wednesday as accused killer Victor Steban of North Huntingdon was ordered to stand trial on charges that he shot at three occupied homes as part of what investigators say was a retaliation crime spree culminating in a double murder last month.
Investigators say the shootings in Hempfield and Sewickley townships during the early morning hours of May 16 preceded the killings of a Penn Township couple. Steban, 53, is accused of gunning down Jacob R. Erdeljac, 40, and Erdeljac's girlfriend, Mara Casale, 27, in the couple's driveway.
On Wednesday, Steban was ordered to stand trial on multiple charges including attempted homicide, shooting into occupied structures and firearms violations filed by state police following preliminary hearings before Hempfield District Judge Mark Mansour.
A handcuffed and shackled Steban was moved to the rear of the courtroom by deputies as a security precaution as Keith Mihalchik, whose home was shot at, entered Mansour's court to testify.
Mihalchik glared at Steban as he walked through the courtroom to the witness stand.
"I'm ready!" Steban shouted, prompting four deputies to surround him.
Mihalchik testified that he had just gone to bed in a camping trailer parked next to his home when he heard a truck pull into the driveway and heard "12 or 13 shots." He said he was sleeping in the trailer because his home is being renovated.
"I grabbed my fiance and threw her on the floor for safety," Mihalchik said.
Mihalchik said he also grabbed his Glock .45-caliber handgun and went outside and saw what he believed to be Steban's 2002 Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck being driven away.
"It was Victor. ... The pickup truck was green and rotted," Mihalchik said.
Steban became visibly angry upon hearing Mihalchik's reply to a question from District Attorney John Peck.
"It was Victor. ... He shot and ran," Mihalchik said.
Trooper James McKenzie said Steban admitted shooting Mihalchik's home during an interview after his arrest May 18. McKenzie said Steban claimed he didn't want to kill Mihalchik, "but wanted to send a message to him" over an alleged drug debt.
Steban's attorney, Chris Huffman, repeatedly asked Mihalchik whether he was a member of the Pagans or any other motorcycle gang. Mihalchik denied he was a member of any gang just as Peck objected to the line of questioning.
Mansour sustained Peck's objection and Huffman was not allowed to continue the line of questioning. During his arguments, Huffman said he intends to claim Steban was acting in "self-defense" during his upcoming trials.
Steban also was ordered to stand trial on charges related to the shooting of a Sewickley Township woman's home and also the home of Dennis "Rooster" Katona in Hempfield.
McKenzie testified that Steban told investigators he was angry at the Sewickley woman and accused her of breaking up a relationship with a woman.
The woman, who lives with her father, said she had just finished a midnight feeding of her 9-month-old baby and was sitting down to eat a bowl of cereal when her home was targeted by gunfire.
She became emotional while testifying, saying she initially thought someone was setting off fireworks, but looked outside and saw Steban as he fired an automatic rifle.
"My dad just got home from work two minutes before the shooting. Honestly, I never had anything bad to say about (Steban)," the woman said.
Katona's wife, Sherri, also briefly testified that her two teenage grandchildren and two of their friends were at her home alone when it was shot at multiple times.
Sherri Katona stared at Steban during the hearing as she described getting a phone call from her daughter that "a man in a truck had just pulled up and started shooting at the house with my grandchildren in it."
Katona, 54, is the former national leader of the Pagans motorcycle gang. His home was hit by at least 16 shots, police said.
McKenzie testified that Steban told investigators in an interview that "Rooster and his crew were threatening to harm him and his family."
McKenzie said that Steban told investigators that he wanted to kill Dennis Katona and aimed toward his bedroom.
"Steban said he was going to take it to them before he took it to me," McKenzie testified.
Sherri Katona said in a prior interview with the Tribune-Review that neither she nor her husband know Steban.
Earlier this month, Harrison City District Judge Helen Kistler ordered Steban to stand trial for the shooting deaths of Erdeljac and Casale on May 16. According to testimony by county Detective Randall Gardner, Steban went to the Claridge section of Penn Township and gunned down Erdeljac and Casale as they returned home from a motorcycle ride.
Testimony indicated Steban told investigators he was angry at Erdeljac, who he also blamed for his recent breakup with a girlfriend.
According to court documents, Steban's crime spree began about 11 p.m. May 15 when he is accused by North Huntingdon police of arson for setting fire to his own home.
Police also charged him with multiple weapons violations because firearms were found in his home. Steban is a convicted felon and it is illegal for him to have a gun.
Also last week, he waived his right to a hearing on charges of attempted vehicle theft and illegal possession of firearms in connection with his arrest May 18 along Route 30.
Steban is being held in the county jail without bond.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-850-2860, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .