By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
Arthur McConnell has spent more than half his life in prison and is likely to die there.
He has nothing but time, but time also is his enemy.
McConnell, 82, a convicted murderer and rapist, wants to challenge his conviction but he can’t get around the deadlines set in the Post Conviction Relief Act.
His attorney recently argued that changes in the law over the years should afford McConnell an opportunity to have a new day in court, but he can’t find a judge who agrees.
“The process is just about all deadline driven,” said defense attorney Tedd C. Nesbit.
McConnell was a party what to the Reading Eagle called “one of the most memorable nights of terror in Pennsylvania’s history.”
The casualty list after the night of terror was one man dead of a bullet to the head, two women repeatedly raped and another man kidnapped and helpless to come to his friends’ aid.
On March 28, 1968, McConnell, Gary Lee Batley, Kenneth Eugene Perrine and Donald M. Hosack were together drinking, a pastime McConnell took to after the death of his wife two years earlier, according to media reports at the time.
They left the bar to “have some fun,” as Perrine termed it.
Just what fun he or anyone else had in mind was not clear. They drove around for a while and hatched a plan to hold up the Coat of Arms, a roadhouse between Grove City and Slippery Rock.
The bar was closed but they found a station wagon parked there. The night of fun was about to become a night of terror.
Kenneth Michael Frick, a 21-year from Ford City and student of the Virginia Military Academy, was in the car with a buddy, Richard Dragan, and their dates. They were drinking beer and listening to the radio.
At about 9 p.m., Frick and Dragan were ordered at gunpoint from the station wagon. Their wallets were taken and the men were forced into the trunk of McConnell’s rental car, according to court documents.
The women were told to get in the car between the assailants.
After a beer stop, the car was driven to a railroad siding. The women were raped.
Perrine and McConnell broke into a PennDOT shed and stole two shovels. They drove to a strip mining area near Jackson Center and Perrine and Hosack, with a gun and the shovels, ordered Frick out. They took Frick down a lane and returned without him.
Following a circuitous route – including a stop for a new vehicle after the rental car died – the group ended up at McConnell’s farmhouse outside of Mercer. The girls were raped repeatedly, and Dragan was confined to a bedroom.
Perrine, Batley and McConnell eventually left the farmhouse. Dragan untied himself and, using a knife given to him by Batley, he and the girls overpowered Hosack and escaped at about 10 a.m. March 29, 1968.
Dragan and the women told police what they knew of their story. They only knew their abductors by nicknames and did not know what happened to Frick. They showed police locations as best they could.
Later that day, Batley turned himself in. Acting on his information, police found Frick’s body in a shallow grave.
All four eventually were arrested and pleaded guilty to general charges of murder. At the time, the grading of murder was decided at trial by a three-judge panel. Each man was found guilty of first-degree murder and rape. They were sentenced to life in prison.
The defendants filed various appeals over the years that upheld their convictions.
McConnell filed a PCRA petition Jan. 12, 2012, in which he alleged that his trial attorney scared him into pleading guilty to avoid the death penalty; his attorney was ineffective; the court did not have jurisdiction because there was no savings clause – which preserves prosecutions when laws change – in the state constitution at the time; and the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction.
Mercer County Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher J. St. John denied the petition as untimely without considering the merits of McConnell’s arguments.
PCRA petitions must be filed within one year of the date after which a defendant is sentenced and the window for appeals has elapsed. For McConnell, that window closed 43 years ago.
There are three exceptions to the time bar and McConnell claimed one of them, that new facts have been discovered. Facts usually refer to evidence, but McConnell argued a change in law is a new fact. A three-judge panel of Superior Court didn’t buy it.
“(McConnell) failed to assert the facts and the purported constitutional violation in support of his newly discovered fact claim,” said Judge Christine L. Donohue, writing for the panel.
The Supreme Court has determined that a change in the law is not a new fact as far as a PCRA petition is concerned, she said. The court does not have jurisdiction to consider the merits, she said.
“It is difficult that, if you have new information, to get it heard,” Nesbit said.
District Attorney Robert G. Kochems said he sees no problems with the way the cases against McConnell and the others were handled.
“These cases have already stood the test of time and I did not believe there are any real problems to be resolved,” he said.
Batley, 64, remains in prison. Perrine died in prison. Hosack is not listed on the state Department of Corrections website as a state prisoner; Kochems said he is not aware of Hosack having died or been released.