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Former St. Marys City Police Sergeant John Lovett and Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Dave Ray recollected the details of the Irene Challingsworth homicide on Thursday during the trial of Lawrence Earl Donachy, 36, of St. Marys. Donachy is charged in the April 5- 6, 1999 rape and murder of the 57-year-old St. Marys beautician.
A jury of Butler County residents listened to the officers' testimony during the fourth day of the 10-day trial being held at the Elk County Courthouse in Ridgway.
Lovett began his testimony with a brief account of his work history with the SMPD, stating he worked for the department since 1986, was promoted to sergeant in 2004 and retired from the force in February 2010. Shortly thereafter, he accepted his current position as Emporium's chief of police in March 2010.
In 1999, Lovett was working the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift on April 6 when he was called from a State Street scene in order to respond to a cardiac arrest at Challingsworth's home, located at 213 Walnut St. in downtown St. Marys. Throughout the SMPD's investigation of the crime, Lovett acted as team leader on the case. Also on the team were former St. Marys City Police Sergeant Phil Hoh, current Officer Brad Harshbarger, former Officer Julie Day and Patrolman Todd Caltagarone, now SMPD chief.
Lovett testified that upon his arrival at the Challingsworth home at 8:20 a.m. on April 6, he accessed the beauty shop door on the east side of the residence, where he spoke with medical technician VanHorn, who advised him that Challingsworth was deceased. During this time, Elk County Deputy Coroner Bert Sorg arrived at the scene.
Lovett witnessed Judith Wendel, a longtime client of Challingsworth, sitting in the beauty shop area. Wendel said she discovered Challingsworth's body shortly after her arrival at the beauty shop while awaiting her 8 a.m. appointment.
Wendel informed Lovett that her body was located in an upstairs bedroom, where he discovered a white female between 50-60 years of age lying on a bed. Sorg took Challingsworth's pulse, then both departed the bedroom.
Hoh then arrived and was briefed on the situation by Lovett.
Lovett then established security at the door of the residence and proceeded to interview Wendel. Hoh began contacting additional police officers, as well as the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) forensic unit based in Punxsutawney. Prior to PSP's arrival, Lovett assigned SMPD Officer Caruso to door security and sent other officers canvassing the nearby neighborhoods to take photos and notes. He also directed Caltagarone to remain with PSP. At the time, Caltagarone took a photo of Challingworth's left thigh, which had a burn mark on it.
Lovett said he consulted with Larry Anthony of Guardian Safe and Lock and asked him to inspect the exterior locks to see if they had been picked or tampered with. Anthony determined they had not based on his observations. As part of the police's initial security check, Lovett said officers checked windows but did not find any signs of forced entry.
Lovett said upon arrival at the crime scene that morning, April 6, he observed that the beauty shop outside lights were on, as were the shop's inside ceiling light and the upstairs bathroom and bedroom light. The screen and rear door were open, along with the shop's door, as it was accessed earlier that morning by Wendel.
During his testimony, Lovett said he personally checked the basement three times, around 9:20 a.m., 9:46 a.m. and 11 a.m. to ensure no one was hiding in the residence. He observed nothing significant.
Upon his initial inspection of the scene, Lovett said he studied the upstairs bathroom. He testified the bathtub was filled with water and Challingsworth's purse was submerged, along with some of its contents. Other purse items were found floating, including a Bingo lottery ticket and an eyeglass case. He noted the lottery ticket was endorsed by Challingsworth with her signature and address written on it.
SMPD Officer Kellogg transferred any evidence collected at the scene back to the police station. Lovett said the SMPD intended to send crime scene samples to the PSP Crime Lab in Erie and were advised by the lab to air-dry any wet materials. This process was undertaken at approximately 8 p.m. on April 6. Lovett explained that he, Kellogg and SMPD Officer Chris Smith carefully unpacked evidence and placed it in a secure area consisting of an evidence closet, to which Lovett possessed the only key. They hung five pieces of bedding from the scene to dry: a bedspread, blanket, two sheets and a mattress pad to dry. These items were repackaged the evening of April 8 and delivered by Hoh on April 9 to the Erie crime lab.
Lovett also explained how police searched the home of Challingsworth's boyfriend, Tom Feldbauer, who resided on Wehler Road, on April 13. They collected items from his garbage, including a pair of pantyhose taken from Challingsworth's garbage when he cleaned her home following the police investigation. In Feldbauer's testimony in the trial Wednesday, he said he did not recall the exact day he went to clean her home to assist the family.
As part of their investigation, Lovett said Caltagarone utilized a UV light on the bedding at the scene to determine the presence of bodily fluids, some of which were detected on Challingsworth's blue nightshirt she was found wearing. Defense Attorney Shawn McMahon said the use of the UV light was only documented 10 months later and questioned why, to which Lovett replied there may have been a miscommunication as to who was going to document it.
Lovett said Challingsworth's home was no longer considered a crime scene as of 7:30 p.m. on April 6, 1999. Lovett said he went back to her home on April 7 for a meeting with Challingsworth's family. He explained the general practice is to obtain consent from the family to enter the house in case of any legalities as to ownership of the property.
He stated that at one time the family offered a $10,000 reward for any tips on the case. According to Lovett, the police obtained a few Crimestoppers reports, but found no conclusive leads.
Lovett testified the SMPD reluctantly turned the case over to the Pennsylvania State Police on July 19, 2002, with evidence released to PSP on Aug. 6, 2002. PSP Troopers Robert Cogley and Charles Gross then took over the case. No explanation was given during Thursday's testimony as to why the SMPD ultimately turned over the case.
Daghir asked Lovett about how many hours the team spent working on the case, as well as how many he put in himself. Lovett replied that he couldn't begin to estimate that figure, further stating he worked on the case outside his general eight-hour shift.
Pick up a copy of the Friday, Oct. 14, 2011 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.