Defense suggests motive in brutal murder

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After prosecution witnesses established the brutality of the crimes Jacob LaRosa committed against his elderly neighbor three years ago, defense testimony suggested reasons for his actions.

Victim Statement in LaRosa Case

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Karen Kirk, daughter of Marie Belcastro, gives a victim statement to Judge W. Wyatt McKay in the case against Jacob LaRosa. Video by Ed Runyan - The Vindicator

The hearing, which began Thursday and continues today with additional testimony and remarks from LaRosa and the victim’s daughters, is being held to determine what sentence LaRosa, 18, of Niles should get for killing Marie Belcastro, 94, his neighbor.

LaRosa pleaded no contest in February and was found guilty of killing Belcastro on March 31, 2015, in her home on Cherry Street.

He is also guilty of robbing and attempting to rape her.

LaRosa was 15.

He could get life in prison without parole eligibility or one of several other life-prison sentences.

Judge W. Wyatt McKay of Trumbull County Common Pleas Court will decide the sentence sometime after a May 11 deadline for the attorneys to file legal briefs.

The Thursday testimony and autopsy photos from Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk, county coroner, provided ample evidence of the brutality of LaRosa’s crime.

Dr. Germaniuk said Belcastro died from head trauma, including multiple skull fractures – on the top and side of her head and even on her face.

“Basically her face is crushed,” Dr. Germaniuk said as photos were projected on a video monitor.

A Mag flashlight – a long, metal flashlight containing large, heavy batteries – found in one of four locations in the house where the woman was assaulted is believed to have been the murder weapon.

The photos the coroner took at the murder scene, and the ones from the autopsy would have been difficult for most people to see, but the video monitor was pointed away from the gallery in the courtroom.

LaRosa looked away from the screen through most of the images. He likewise looked away when police photos of the crime scenes were shown during the testimony of Niles Police Detective Craig Aurilio.

Aurilio testified Belcastro’s murder was “absolutely brutal” and “one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Deborah O’Leary, one of Belcastro’s daughters, testified she took her mother to the bank the morning she died, then took her back home.

Belcastro, who was about 4 feet 8 inches tall and weighed about 85 pounds, had lived alone since her husband died in the late 1980s, O’Leary said. The couple had lived in the home since at least the 1950s.

O’Leary talked to her on the phone a couple times that day and returned that evening at 5:25 p.m. to take her shopping.

When O’Leary arrived on Cherry Street at 5:25 p.m., an ambulance was one street over.

She saw the door to her mother’s house had been broken. She went inside and saw an alcohol bottle on the landing and another one on a step going down the stairs.

She briefly looked for her mother in the basement but didn’t find her so she ran to where the ambulance was.

“I said there’s blood all over my mother’s house, and I can’t find her,” she said. O’Leary was told police were being notified, and she returned to her mother’s house, finding her mother in O’Leary’s old bedroom as a kid and calling 911.

Another witness was Jacob Brady, 20, who said LaRosa confessed to the killing while they were in the Trumbull County Juvenile Justice Center together.

Brady said LaRosa told him he was drinking with friends that day and they “ran out,” so LaRosa went in Belcastro’s house to get more. Brady said LaRosa told him he “beat [Belcastro] with a flashlight.”

Forensic psychologist Daniel L. Davis was on the witness stand for about two hours speaking about his two evaluations of LaRosa – one in 2015 and one last month.

Davis provided a lengthy recitation of LaRosa’s medical and behavioral issues, starting with hyperactivity when he was 3, followed by learning issues in school, conflict between his parents, who separated when Jacob was 2, and mental-health counseling by age 8.

LaRosa set a fire in his bedroom at age 8 and was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons at 11, Davis said. He started smoking marijuana at 12 and abused Valium at 14.

He lived with his mother and stepfather in Mecca and Fowler townships until moving to Niles when he was in middle school, his mother, Megan Lucariello, testified later.

Davis said he thinks LaRosa has bipolar disorder, “one of the most terrible illnesses we see.”

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