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Commonwealth v. Wade

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

January 13, 2020

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
v.
ALLEN WADE Appellant

          Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence May 26, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-02-CR-0004799-2014

          BEFORE: BOWES, J., NICHOLS, J., and MUSMANNO, J.

          OPINION

          BOWES, J.

         Allen Wade appeals from the judgment of sentence of two consecutive life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentences imposed following his conviction of two counts of murder in the first degree and related charges. We affirm.

         The trial court provided a thorough summary of the facts underlying this appeal:

In February 2014, sisters Sarah and Susan Wolfe resided together at 701 Chislett Street in the East Liberty section of the City of Pittsburgh. Appellant resided next door at 703 Chislett Street with his girlfriend, LaShawn Rue.
On February 7, 2014, at approximately 1:00 P.M., Matthew Buchholz, Sarah's boyfriend, received a Facebook message from Garrett Sparks, a physician who worked with Sarah at UPMC. Sparks asked Buchholz to check on Sarah because she was late for work that morning and nobody had heard from her. At approximately the same time, Pittsburgh Police Officer Frank Walker received a "well check" request for Susan from her co-worker because Susan also had not yet arrived at work that morning.
Buchholz immediately drove to the Wolfe residence, and knocked on the door but did not receive a response. Officer Walker arrived shortly thereafter and spoke with Buchholz. Buchholz and Officer Walker surveyed the perimeter of the home and noticed that Sarah's vehicle, a lime green Ford Fiesta, was not parked on the street. Buchholz left to retrieve a spare key to the Wolfe residence from his nearby residence and returned within ten minutes to open the door for Officer Walker.
Officer Walker and Buchholz entered the residence together. The alarm had been disarmed, and the two proceeded further into the residence to look for Sarah and Susan. Buchholz called out for Sarah, but there was no response. He noticed that the basement door, which was usually only cracked open, was wide open. He looked through the doorway and observed a pair of bare legs on the floor of the basement. He immediately pulled back and called for Officer Walker. Buchholz then noticed that the entryway table was broken, and that blood, which was later matched to Susan, was spattered on the walls in the entryway. He ran outside onto the porch and collapsed. He remained seated on the porch until he was taken to police headquarters for questioning.
Officer Walker proceeded to the basement door. He looked down into the basement and observed Susan face down, nude, with an apparent gunshot wound to the back of her head. A short distance away, he observed Sarah with a blanket over her face and blood coming out from underneath the blanket and her left arm was "up in the air." Officer Walker called for a medic, backup officers, supervisors, and ordered Buchholz to remain on the porch. Backup officers arrived and secured the scene. Several homicide detectives, the mobile crime unit, and the medical examiner arrived shortly thereafter and began processing the scene.
Susan was lying face-down in the basement, nude, on top of a pile of clothing, and was pronounced dead on scene. Upon autopsy the cause of death was determined to be a penetrating gunshot wound to the head. Susan suffered skull fractures and hemorrhages as a result of the gunshot wound. Susan also suffered blunt force trauma to the head, multiple lacerations of the skull, and seven full thickness lacerations (a laceration where the bone is exposed) to the back hemisphere of her head. The full thickness lacerations indicated that she was struck with a hard blunt instrument. She additionally suffered blunt force trauma to the trunk, and abrasive injuries and faint contusions on her back and chest, as well as abraded contusions on her face. There was vomit on the ground beneath her face, and feces exiting her rectum. Toilet paper was attached to the feces. The presence of vomit indicated that she was alive at some point while she was in the basement. A spent .38/.357 bullet was recovered from between the two cerebral hemispheres near the front of the brain during her autopsy. The bullet was damaged, but the crime lab was able to identify its rifling characteristics as six lands and grooves and a right hand twist.
Sarah also was lying on the floor of the basement, with a comforter over her head, and she was also pronounced dead on scene. Upon autopsy the cause of death was determined to be a penetrating gunshot wound to the head. Sarah suffered multiple contusions and abrasions on the face and neck due to some form of blunt force trauma. She also suffered numerous contusions and abrasion on all four extremities, consistent with being dragged down the basement steps. Sarah's clothes exhibited bleach marks and a purple sticky, slippery liquid was found on her purse and her pants. The basement smelled of bleach, and there was fabric softener/detergent, consistent with the liquid on the purse, on the steps heading to the basement. During autopsy, a spent .38/.357 caliber bullet was recovered from inside her right eye socket. The bullet was heavily damaged, but had a rifling classification of six lands and grooves with a right hand twist, and could have been discharged from the same firearm that discharged the bullet recovered during Susan's autopsy.
No car keys, cell phones, or bank cards were found near the sisters or in Susan's purse which was found near the bodies. A search warrant was obtained for the bank records of the two sisters. The search revealed that an individual attempted to use both of their debit cards at the East Liberty Citizens' Bank branch ATM early that morning. Specifically, the following transactions were attempted or completed: (1) at 12:44 A.M. a withdrawal was denied using Sarah's card; (2) at 12:45 A.M. a withdrawal was denied using Sarah's card; (3) at 12:46 A.M. a withdrawal was successfully made using Sarah's card; (4) at 12:52 A.M., a withdrawal was denied using Sarah's card; and (5) at 12:53 A.M. a withdrawal was denied using Susan's card.
A "BOLO" was issued for Sarah's Ford Fiesta, and in the early morning hours of February 8th the vehicle was located in the business district of East Liberty on South Witfield Street. This location was approximately three blocks from the ATM machine where the withdrawals were attempted or completed. The vehicle was secured and subsequently towed for processing.
Uniformed Police Officer Gregory McGee started his shift on February 8, 2014, at 7:00 a.m. Officer McGee, after finishing up some initial calls, went to Whitfield Street where the Wolfe vehicle was found. Officer McGee walked on Whitfield Street away from that area toward Station Street and soon discovered what he described as a "pattern" of discarded clothing, including a winter black knit hat and a pair of grey sweatpants. The black knit hat was laying just off the sidewalk on top of snow and leaves in a pile of mulch. The sweatpants were discovered approximately sixty feet ahead and were "arranged" on the sidewalk, as if the person who had worn them had been standing up and just pulled their pants down and stepped out of them like a "fireman's pants." The sweatpants looked as though they had not been disturbed and had been there for only a short period of time. Officer McGee also observed a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) business card approximately one foot away from the sweatpants. The card was that of Cameron Mager, who was a social worker at UPMC. The number "4991" was handwritten on the back. Officer McGee advised his supervisor as to what he had found and was directed to call the homicide detectives who met him at the scene shortly thereafter. After the detectives arrived, Officer McGee continued to canvass the area and observed some black knit items, later identified as a balled up pair of socks, in a garbage can in the rear of the Midas Muffler Shop further on Whitfield Street.
The mobile crime unit arrived, documented and collected the items discovered on Whitfield Street: the sweatpants, the business card, the knit hat, and the socks found in the garbage can outside the Midas Muffler Shop. All items were submitted to the crime lab for testing. Additionally, the vehicle was inventoried after being towed, and several items were tested for DNA and/or fingerprints. In total, over 100 items of evidence were collected form the Wolfe residence, Sarah's vehicle, Whitfield Street, and the bodies of Susan and Sarah Wolfe. All of the items were submitted for forensic testing.
The items from Whitfield Street were submitted for DNA testing.9 The crime lab found that: (1) the waistband of the sweatpants contained a mixture of at least three persons, of which Appellant and Rue, Appellant's girlfriend, could not be excluded as possible contributors; (2) a possible bloodstain on the sweatpants contained a mixture of two individuals, with Appellant as the major contributor; and, (3) the sock contained a mixture of at least three persons, from which Appellant could not be excluded. The probability of selecting another person in the African-American population with the same DNA profile as Appellant is 1 in 3.95 quintillion.
9 Appellant had provided a DNA sample at an earlier date, on an unrelated case, and his DNA profile was stored in the CODIS System.
During the autopsy, red/brown staining was found on the leading edge of three of Susan's right hand fingernails. These were clipped and submitted to the Allegheny County Crime Lab. The crime lab determined that the fingernails contained a mixture of at least three individuals, and that Appellant, Rue, and Susan could not be excluded. Due to restrictions in the county crime lab math models regarding determining major and minor contributors in mixtures of this small size, the crime lab sent the data to Dr. Mark Perlin of Cybergenetics for additional testing using probabilistic genotyping (TrueAllele). Using TrueAllele, it was determined that the DNA found on Susan's fingernails matched Appellant, and that it was 6.06 trillion times more probable than a coincidental match to an unrelated African American individual.
The UPMC business card found on Whitfield Street next to the sweatpants was identified by Cameron Mager as a business card that he gave to his clients in his capacity as a social worker at UPMC. He provided one such card to Susan Wolfe on an initial meeting in September 2013. He never met with Appellant. The number "4991" found on the back of the business card was not written by Mager or the crime lab. The number "4991" was the last four digits of the Wolfes' childhood family telephone number in the state of Iowa where the sisters grew up and their parents still lived.
Police canvassed the East Liberty area for surveillance videos to tract the whereabouts of the individual who had abandoned Sarah's vehicle and the person who had attempted to use the sisters' debit cards. They sought videos from several area businesses, and recovered videos from Citizen Bank, Target, Carnegie Library, Monet Capital at Walnut and Highland, Midas Muffler Shop, and the Sunoco Gas/Convenience Store at East Liberty Boulevard and Highland Avenue.
A compilation of the videos was played at trial, which spanned the timeframe of February 7, 2014 at 12:32 a.m. to approximately 1:12 a.m., [and] showed Appellant dressed in a red jacket, grey sweatpants, and white shoes. The videos further established that Appellant drove Sarah's Lime Green Ford Fiesta past the Carnegie Library around 12:32 a.m. and parked the vehicle on Whitfield Street. He exited Sarah's vehicle and walked toward Centre Avenue. Appellant then walked through the East Liberty area, made a left onto Penn Avenue, and walked past a Citizen's Bank ATM and Target Store. Appellant then crossed Penn Avenue toward Centre Avenue and made a left onto Kirkwood Street. Minutes later he crossed back over Penn Avenue and walked toward the area he had originally come from eventually stopping at the Citizens' Bank where he attempted to make a withdrawal from the ATM there. While at the ATM, he held two PNC Bank ATM cards in front of the ATM camera and attempted to cover his face with the light-colored shirt he was wearing. At the ATM he used the sisters' PNC Bank ATM cards ultimately getting $600 from the machine using Sarah's ATM card. After successfully making the ATM withdrawal, Appellant walked across Penn Circle toward Whitfield Street near where he had parked Sarah's vehicle earlier. Appellant thereafter discarded the grey sweatpants he was wearing outside of the Midas Muffler Shop on Whitefield Street and continued walking toward Highland Avenue.
Additionally, Appellant was observed in one of the videos emptying his pockets and throwing something into the trash can at the front entrance of the Sunoco store on Highland Avenue before entering. The police conducted a garbage pull on the dumpsters at the Sunoco store on February 13, 2014, and located six bags there were from the outside of the Sunoco store. In one of the bags, they found an "Iowa Prison Industries" pen. Iowa Prison Industries does not conduct business in Pittsburgh. Susan and Sarah's sister, Mary Wolfe, who was an elected member of the Iowa General Assembly, worked with Iowa Prison Industries. As part of this relationship, Mary received pens from Iowa Prison Industries during facility tours that she would keep at her home office in Iowa. Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, Susan worked in the reception area of her sister's home office and often used those pens.
Still photographs of Appellant were created from the Sunoco video and distributed to uniform and patrol officers. On February 19, 2014, Pittsburgh Police Officer Wade Sarver was on patrol in the area, attempting to locate the individual from the Sunoco store video. He observed fellow Officer John Svitek talking to Appellant on his porch at 703 Chislett Street, and immediately recognized Appellant as the individual in the Sunoco video. Officer Svitek concluded his brief conversation with Appellant, left Appellant's porch, and spoke with Sarver in the street. Officer Svitek had been in the area talking to the Appellant because he believed he fit the description of the actor based upon a picture he had been given earlier in the investigation by Zone Five command staff. The two officers conferred about their perception that Appellant matched the actor in the Sunoco video, and they returned to 703 Chislett to maintain contact with Appellant as well as contact their superior and homicide detectives. Appellant answered the door and invited the officers inside. Sarver contacted the homicide office to actually conduct an interview with Appellant, and he waited with Appellant until they arrived, approximately fifteen minutes later.
Homicide Detectives interviewed Appellant at his home and showed him the Sunoco still photo. Upon viewing the photo, Appellant replied, "that sure looks like me." Appellant was subsequently transported to the homicide office and formally interviewed there. When asked if he had ever been inside 701 Chislett Street, Appellant told detectives that he had never been in that residence. Without any mention of DNA or semen, Appellant gratuitously remarked that they would never find his DNA or semen inside the ...

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