Man convicted of strangling, robbing pharmacist, girlfriend

AP News
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Posted: Feb 12, 2015 12:30 AM
Man convicted of strangling, robbing pharmacist, girlfriend

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) — A jury on Wednesday convicted a man of strangling a pharmacist and the pharmacist's girlfriend, whose bodies were found in his yard, as part of a plot to rob the pharmacist of the proceeds of an illegal drug ring.

The verdict was a victory for prosecutors who had failed to put Hugo Selenski away on two earlier homicide charges.

Selenski, who showed no emotion as the verdict was read, faces a potential death sentence after the jury concluded he killed Michael Kerkowski and Tammy Fassett in 2002 and buried their bodies behind his house. He had little to say as he was led out of the courthouse.

"No questions right now," he told reporters. "I will talk to you when this is done."

Prosecutors said Selenski, 41, and a co-conspirator brutally beat Kerkowski to compel him to reveal the location of tens of thousands of dollars he kept in his house then used flex ties to strangle him and Fassett.

Authorities found their decomposing bodies about a year later, along with at least three other sets of human remains on Selenski's property.

Selenski, who is already serving decades in prison for an unrelated robbery, escaped from prison months after his 2003 arrest using a rope fashioned from bed sheets, and he spent three days on the run before turning himself in.

The jury reached its verdict after deliberating more than 11 hours over two days. It convicted Selenski of eight of 10 counts, including first-degree murder and robbery, and must now decide whether to send him to death row or give him life in prison without parole. The penalty phase will start Feb. 17.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers, under a gag order, were unable to comment on the verdict.

One of Selenski's sisters cried quietly and left the courtroom after hearing the verdict.

The victims' relatives remained stoic, hugging prosecutors after the jury exited.

"Thirteen years," murmured Kerkowski's mother, Geraldine Kerkowski.

Later, Selenski's brother Ronald Selenski Jr. rushed toward an elevator holding the victims' relatives and prosecutors, and pointed a finger at them. Sheriff's deputies walked him away from the elevator and put him in handcuffs. It wasn't immediately clear whether he would be charged.

Hugo Selenski has been a familiar face in northeastern Pennsylvania since his 2003 arrest on charges he killed a pair of drug dealers whose charred remains also were found on the property north of Wilkes-Barre.

In 2006, a jury acquitted him of one homicide and deadlocked on another but convicted him of abusing the men's corpses. After the verdict, authorities immediately charged him with killing Kerkowski and Fassett.

Kerkowski, from Hunlock Creek, had pleaded guilty to running a prescription drug ring that netted at least $800,000 and was about to be sentenced when he and Fassett were reported missing in May 2002. They were both 37 years old.

Selenski saw an opportunity to scam Kerkowski, getting the pharmacist to give him tens of thousands of dollars for legal work he never performed, prosecutors alleged.

But Selenski quickly burned through all the money and needed another $10,000 to cover a check that his girlfriend, Christina Strom, had written to purchase a house, giving him a motive to rob and kill Kerkowski before the pharmacist headed to prison on the drug charges, prosecutors said.

The defense contended Selenski was framed by another man, Paul Weakley, who led police to Selenski's yard in June 2003. Weakley later pleaded guilty in federal court, testified against Selenski to avoid the death penalty and could ask for a reduction of his life prison sentence because of his cooperation.

Weakley, who met Selenski in prison in the 1990s, told jurors how he plotted with Selenski to kill Kerkowski and then helped him carry out the crimes and bury the bodies. He described how he and Selenski bound the victims and covered their eyes with duct tape.

Weakley said Kerkowski, who was beaten with a rolling pin, told them where to find his hidden bags of cash. He said Fassett was killed simply because she was with Kerkowski when they showed up at the pharmacist's house.

After the killings, Selenski stole tens of thousands more dollars that Kerkowski had given to his father for safekeeping, pointing a gun at the father and threatening him, other witnesses said.

The fifth body discovered on his property was never publicly identified.