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YOUNGSTOWN Suspect pleads to lesser charges



Published: Tue, September 11, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The city man avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty to reduced charges.

By BOB JACKSON

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Frank Sinkovich won a race to the Mahoning County Courthouse wearing handcuffs and leg irons.

He was the first of four suspects in the May 2000 slaying of 24-year-old Steve Skinner Jr. to accept a plea agreement from prosecutors. By taking the deal, he avoided the death penalty and promised to testify against the others when their cases go to trial. Sinkovich was scheduled for trial Oct. 2.

"The offer was out there for a year," said Timothy Franken, assistant prosecutor. "No one else took it."

Sinkovich, 22, of Bennington Avenue, pleaded guilty Monday to involuntary manslaughter, kidnapping, aggravated arson and aggravated robbery. The manslaughter charge was amended from aggravated murder, which could have led to the death penalty if he'd been convicted.

Judge James C. Evans won't sentence Sinkovich until after the other cases are completed. Prosecutors recommended that he receive a 23-year prison sentence.

Victim's father: That didn't sit well with Skinner's father, Steve Skinner Sr. of Warren. As deputies led Sinkovich out of the courtroom, Skinner glared at him. Sinkovich, bound at the hands and feet, did not look up.

"My son was burned alive," Skinner said after the plea hearing. "We have the greatest criminal justice system in the world. Unfortunately, we are protecting the rights of criminals. No one protected my son."

Skinner said he doesn't fault Franken for making the deal. Prosecutors needed a witness to testify against the other suspects and had to make a deal to get it. Still, he doesn't hold out much hope that the others will receive a harsher penalty.

Other suspects: Sinkovich was apparently the ringleader of a group that beat up Skinner Jr., robbed him, put him in the trunk of his own car and burned him, Franken said.

The other suspects are Kateo Patterson, 19, of Arch Street; Bobbie Beal, 23, of Hilton Avenue; and Clemons Higgins, 16, of Arch Street. Higgins is being tried as an adult. They all face the death penalty if convicted as charged.

Franken said the group plotted to rob Skinner and lured him to Beal's house by having Sinkovich's sister, whom Skinner once dated, page him.

According to court documents, Skinner was knocked to the ground, punched and kicked by Patterson and Higgins, while Sinkovich pointed a gun at him. They stripped Skinner's car of its stereo equipment and stole personal items from him, then locked him in the trunk.

After several hours had passed, Beal and Higgins took Skinner's car to an area behind Sacred Heart Church on the city's East Side. Sinkovich and Patterson followed in another car.

All four suspects poured gasoline on the car, then Sinkovich put a match to it, setting it ablaze with Skinner inside, Franken said. The burned-out car was found the next day, although Skinner's body was not discovered inside until a week later.

Sinkovich rejected a similar plea agreement more than a year ago. Defense attorney John B. Juhasz declined to comment on what made him change his mind and accept the plea now.

bjackson@vindy.com




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