Jury convicts two on death by overdose charges
Spencer G. Rudolph
Aaron E. Johnson
By Randy Bartley
A Clarion County jury Aug. 3 convicted two men of all charges for their roles in connection with the drug overdose death of a Clarion man in 2018.
The panel, which consisted of nine women and three men, took less than two and one-half hours to return their verdicts against Spencer Gene Rudolph, 24, of Shippenville, and Aaron Ernest Johnson, 32, of Pittsburgh.
The men were both found guilty of felony counts of drug delivery resulting in death, corrupt organizations, conspiracy and criminal use of a communication facility.
Johnson was also found guilty of eight felony counts of manufacture, delivery or possession with intent to manufacture or deliver, a single felony count of conspiracy to manufacture or deliver and a misdemeanor charge of possession of drug paraphernalia.
The charges stemmed from the November 2018 death of William Stout at his Clarion apartment. Stout died from fentanyl toxicity.
Defense attorneys Rob Taylor and Eric Jobe requested the jury be polled. Each juror affirmed his or her verdict.
"I am very happy with the jury's verdict," said Clarion County District Attorney Drew Welsh. "I think the evidence supported that conviction. The thing that struck me, sitting here with Mr. Stout's father and fiance, is how important it is to them that the people responsible are being held accountable.
"I also think this shows what great collaboration law enforcement can do. There are a lot of agencies involved from Clarion Borough, the D.A.'s office, the state police and the district attorneys in Allegheny, Elk and Jefferson counties and Monroeville. The collaboration in this case shows what is possible."
Much of Welsh's case focused on the operations and workings of a multi-county drug ring that brought drugs into Clarion County.
Several other defendants in addition to Rudolph and Johnson were charged in the case, and most of them testified during the trial.
"I feel this verdict sends a really strong message that if you bring drugs into this county we are not going to stand for it," said Welsh.
Bob Stout, who is William Stout's father, said forgiveness did not come easy.
"At one time I did not have any forgiveness in my heart," Bob Stout said. "Being a Christian you have to be able to forgive. I think it was a good verdict."
"I am pleased with the verdict," said Tanya Brooks, who was William Stout's fiance. "Justice was served today."
Welsh and the defense attorneys presented their closing arguments Monday morning, then Judge Sara Seidle-Patton gave her instructions to the jury.
Sentencing for Rudolph and Johnson is scheduled Aug. 26.
Spencer and Rudolph, who rejected a plea agreement earlier, were co-defendants in the trial.
Day one of the trial
Welsh called Stout's on again, off again fiance, Tanya Brook, as his first witness at the trial on July 29. At the time of his death, Stout was renting a second-floor garage apartment from Brook's family at East 8th Avenue in Clarion.
Brook said she had tried to help Stout with his drug problem, which is why he had moved into the apartment.
She said that on Nov. 19, 2018, she didn't see Stout although she sent him several text messages that went unanswered. She said that as she was taking her son to school the next morning she noticed "Billy" had not left for work.
She said when she returned home she went into the apartment to check on him. After searching the apartment she said she heard water running and went into the bathroom.
"He was laying in the tub just like he was sleeping. I saw blood coming from his mouth and knew he was gone," she said.
Brook said she ran out of the apartment shouting "He's dead." Her mother called the police.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Eric Vey from Erie testified that the cause of death was "fentanyl toxicity" based on blood samples obtained during the autopsy. He said the level of fentanyl was seven times above the lower level of lethality.
Clarion Borough Police Chief and Clarion County Chief Detective William H. Peck IV took the stand and walked the jury through an extensive investigation that extended into Clarion, Jefferson, Elk and Allegheny counties and the City of Pittsburgh.
Peck detailed the investigation into what Welsh called "a criminal organization."
Peck said "runners", which included Rudolph, would be sent to Allegheny County to purchase large amounts of heroin and fentanyl from the supplier, identified as Johnson.
These controlled substances were then transported to Elk County and distributed throughout Elk, Jefferson, and Clarion counties, Peck testified.
Welsh introduced into evidence 80 items, photos and videotapes.
Peck said he obtained the videos from several Sheetz stores where drug buys were staged. About two-thirds of the items were seized when a search warrant was served on Johnson's Monroeville home, and items seized included drug paraphernalia, stamp bags and multiple phones, Peck said.
Johnson was carrying three cell phones when he was arrested, Peck said.
Peck had worked with the Monroeville police department and personally had Johnson under surveillance, including a trip to a Pittsburgh halfway house where Johnson was enrolled for a DUI conviction, Peck said.
Peck detailed how each of the lower level dealers were arrested and then cooperated with law enforcement.
Peck also testified about the two interviews he had with Rudolph, who Peck said not only gave the police information but helped set up a "buy bust" which resulted in another arrest.
In addition to Rudolph and Johnson, the following individuals were also charged in connection with William Stout's death: Joseph David Hoffman, 33, of St. Marys; William A. Fourness Jr., 31, of Weedville; Kasey M. Eidinger, 29, of Ridgway; Ryan Ritchie Gleixner, 34, of St. Marys; and Sadie Rose Eisenman, 31, of Shippenville.
Fourness entered a guilty plea in November 2019 to one felony count of drug delivery resulting in death. He is lodged at the SCI Forest state prison.
Eidinger is scheduled to appear for a plea hearing in Clarion County on Aug. 26.
The cases against Eisenman, Hoffman and Gleixner are making their way through the court system.
On day two of the trial, Welsh outlined a drug ring that spanned four counties and the city of Pittsburgh as the prosecution wrapped up its case.
Welsh called four others who are either facing charges in the case or have already been sentenced.
The first witness was Eisenman, who shared a residence in Shippenville with Rudolph.
She testified she had been present at drug transactions in St. Marys, Ridgway and Monroeville, and she said she "used and sold" drugs.
The second witness, Fourness, admitted to being a drug dealer who operated his ring from his Ridgway home. Fourness said he lived there with his wife, his one-year-old child and a stepchild.
Fourness testified that he obtained his drugs from Johnson, who went by the street name "Smooth."
Fourness said he used several "runners" who would drive to Pittsburgh, buy the drugs from Johnson and return to the Fourness home. Fourness said he would pay the runners and provide them with drugs.
Fourness testified the runners included Rudolph, Hoffman and Gleixner. Fourness said that after Hoffman was arrested he began to use the other runners.
Fourness said he would contact Johnson for a buy and then call one of the runners who would go to Monroeville, meet Johnson and purchase the drugs. He said he didn't give Johnson's phone number to any of the runners because he didn't want them to cut him out.
Fourness said he wasn't using his drugs and his motive was money.
Fourness was arrested at the Country Fair in Shippenville in February 2019 in an undercover sting operation. He had a 7-year-old child in the car with him when he was arrested.
Johnson's defense attorney, Eric Jobe, questioned Fourness about another supplier in Eastern Pennsylvania he used for a short time. Fourness said he stopped buying from that dealer when he was "ripped off."
Jobe asked Fourness if his wife was active in selling drugs, and Fourness answered "yes."
Taylor asked Fourness if he knew his runners were drug users. Fourness said he knew they were users.
"So you supplied them with drugs so you and your wife could have a comfortable winter," said Taylor. "I just wanted to see who you really are."
Hoffman was the third witness, and he told the court he went to Monroeville several times to meet with Johnson. He said the exchange of money for drugs only took a "few seconds."
Hoffman related that he made one run to eastern Pennsylvania but fell asleep at the wheel and was in a crash. He was cited for traffic violations.
He was arrested in St. Marys when he was found incapacitated in his running car. Two stamp bags of fentanyl were found in the car, and Hoffman said he had purchased the drugs from Johnson in Monroeville and sold them to Rudolph at the Sheetz store in Brockway.
Taylor said there are two types of people who sell drugs -- those who to make a profit and those who sell drugs to support their own habit.
"The runners were drug addicts feeding their addiction," Taylor said.
The fourth witness, Gleixner, said he made three trips to Monroeville, including one to Johnson's home. He testified he was led to the basement of the home where he saw tables, chairs, a blender, bags and "stuff."
Gleixner said he later showed the Johnson house to police. Gleixner said when he returned to the Fourness home they would pay him and then they would start to weigh the drugs.
Gleixner said he never sold drugs but used them to battle his severe neuropathy.
The final witness of the day was a Monroeville man who said he picked up Johnson at his house the day Johnson was arrested. The man said Johnson had no sooner gotten into his car when four Monroeville police cars converged on him.
The man said Johnson was "pulled out of the window" by police.
"I didn't know he was dirty until I saw him reach into his pants," the man said.
Defense attorneys for Rudolph and Johnson called just one witness Friday before resting their case.
Jobe called Peck back to the stand Friday. Jobe questioned Peck on the testimony of several prosecution witnesses, highlighting what he alleged were inconsistencies in their testimony.
Jobe questioned the frequency of drug runs that had been attested to in Peck's report and the testimony provided in court.
In each case, Welsh countered with sections of the record that supported the testimony.
Jobe questioned testimony provided by witness Joseph Hoffman, who said he had visited Johnson's Monroeville home. Jobe contended that Hoffman said he had made two trips to Monroeville, neither of which was to Johnson's home.
Once again Welsh pointed to a different section of the report that supported Hoffman's testimony.
Taylor questioned the timeline of the delivery of fentanyl that resulted in Stout's death. Taylor suggested the drugs were delivered a day after Stout's death.
Taylor pressed Peck on the interview with Hoffman, Taylor asked if anything had been promised to Hoffman in exchange for his testimony, and Taylor suggested Peck was trying to force testimony that supported his case.
"The only thing I wanted from him was to tell me the truth," said Peck.
Welsh wrapped up the prosecution's case by calling three officers from the Monroeville Police Department who had been active in a multi-county drug ring investigation.
Detective Steve Maritz said he participated in a "trash pull" at Johnson's Monroeville home. He testified that numerous, ripped baggies were found along with paper commonly used in creating a "brick" or package of stamp bags.
Monroeville detective Sgt. Bill Krut testified that he was present when Monroeville police arrested Johnson.
William Craddock, a state police trooper at the time of the investigation, testified that as a member of the Troop C vice squad he participated in the search of Johnson's Monroeville home and the home of William Fourness in Elk County.
He said the Fourness home was "deplorable" and "not organized" and that a lock box of drugs was found on the sofa.
At the Johnson house a bullet grinder and money counting device were found along with baking soda, used to cut the drugs, and baggies in the basement and the office area. The baggies are used to package drugs and are referred to as stamp bags.
Jobe asked if fingerprints had been taken, and Craddock said fingerprints were taken but proved to be inconclusive.
Welsh asked if "gloves" were found in the Johnson house and Craddock said gloves were found in two places in the house.