Westmoreland DA to seek death penalty in Penn Township double murder

·3 min read

Aug. 4—Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck says he will seek the death penalty against a North Huntingdon man accused of gunning down a Penn Township couple.

The county's top prosecutor said the May 16 fatal shootings of Jacob R. Erdeljac, 40, and his girlfriend, Mara Casale, 27, came amid a four-day crime spree by Victor Frederick Steban that police said started May 14 and included accusations that he shot into homes in Hempfield and Sewickley townships, set his own North Huntingdon home on fire, robbed and stole from his alleged murder victims, possessed illegal weapons and threatened a motorist.

"It's a case where there are multiple aggravated circumstances and the nature of the killings themselves (warrant the death penalty)," Peck said Wednesday. "It became more and more violent, and he ends up killing two people, which speaks volumes about the person who is being prosecuted."

Steban, 53, was arrested May 18, two days after, police said, he ambushed Erdeljac and Casale as they returned home from a motorcycle ride. According to police, in the afternoon of May 16, Steban drove to the Claridge-Elliott Road home that Erdeljac and Casale shared and waited for hours in a tree line about 150 yards away.

Investigators contend Steban approached Casale as she walked to the house, shot her on the back porch with an AR-15 rifle and then killed Erdeljac as he sat on his motorcycle. Investigators say Steban then returned his attention to the woman and fired again to ensure she was dead. Police said Steban stole Erdeljac's truck and drove away.

He was captured two days later when police spotted him walking near his home in North Huntingdon.

Peck said it appears Steban killed Casale so she couldn't be a witness in Erdeljac's slaying. Evidence contending Steban committed multiple killings that occurred during the course of a robbery and burglary also will be used to support a potential death penalty, Peck said.

Testimony at Steban's preliminary hearing in May suggested Steban confessed to police and said he blamed Erdeljac for a recent breakup with a girlfriend.

Peck declined to discuss specifics about the dispute between the two men.

"There was quite a bit of animosity between Steban and Jacob Erdeljac," Peck said.

One of the homes Steban is accused of shooting at is the Hempfield residence of Dennis "Rooster" Katona, the former national leader of the Pagans Motorcycle Club. Steban told reporters after his preliminary hearing that his violent crime spree was "all about getting Rooster."

Steban's lawyers, Westmoreland County Assistant Public Defenders Chris Huffman and Patrice DiPietro, could not be reached for comment.

In the court filing, prosecutors outlined all six criminal cases filed against Steban in connection with the house shootings and other offenses police said occurred over the four days.

Peck said Steban also is a suspect in the case of a car bomb set in front a North Huntingdon home May 15, which is under investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, rcholodofsky@triblive.com or via Twitter .