The victim of last week’s alleged attempted murder in Mount Union has provided information about the events leading up to the incident, according to testimony delivered by the arresting officer during a hearing Friday.
Talen Trice, 25, of 218 W. Shirley St., Mount Union, is facing multiple felony charges for the July 23 assault on Samuel Watson, resident of the Washington, D.C., area, who remains hospitalized and is awaiting surgery in a Pittsburgh hospital.
Arresting officer Trooper Christopher Bourne with state police at Huntingdon said Trice and Watson are cousins and, by all accounts, were “good friends.”
Trice appeared for his preliminary hearing Friday afternoon by video conference from the Centre County correctional facility. He’s being held without bail as a matter of public safety per order of Magisterial District Judge Lisa Covert who also presided during Friday’s hearing.
Covert ultimately decided all charges should be bound over to the higher court. Trice is currently scheduled for formal arraignment Sept. 10.
Charges filed against Trice include attempted criminal homicide and attempted murder in the first degree, aggravated assault, arson endangering persons and two counts of aggravated arson, all of which are felony 1 offenses.
He is also charged with felony 2 aggravated assault, two counts of felony 3 criminal mischief, misdemeanor 2 simple assault and misdemeanor 2 recklessly endangering another person.
Bourne testified at the preliminary hearing that he interviewed Watson July 28 in the burn unit at UPMC Mercy and, at the request of District Attorney David Smith, the trooper relayed Watson’s version of events.
Trice’s attorney Timothy Burns of Ebensburg objected to the inclusion of Bourne’s interview with Watson, arguing such testimony is hearsay. Covert said she would allow Bourne to continue since the victim was not available to testify himself.
According to Bourne’s testimony, Watson said he arrived in Mount Union July 22 for a visit to show his new car to family members. The morning of July 23, he was driving around the borough, saw Trice and offered him a ride.
Watson told Bourne that Trice asked to be dropped off at the boat launch situated at the northern most end of Division Street next to the Juniata River. Watson, according to Bourne, noted that Trice had a bottle of lighter fluid with him and that the boat launch wasn’t one of Trice’s usual hangouts.
Watson told Bourne that, as they approached the boat launch, Trice said he wanted to light up a cigarette. Watson said he was then splashed with something wet, then realized he was on fire.
Bourne said Watson told him how he exited the vehicle and rolled onto the ground to put out the fire. Watson alleges Trice also exited the vehicle and began stabbing him.
Bourne said Watson’s injuries include “severe burns” to his upper torso and face and a total of four stab wounds in his neck, armpit, shoulder and between his shoulder blades. During his visit July 28, Bourne said Watson’s hands, arms and chest were wrapped in gauze. The trooper said he observed the burns to Watson’s face and noted the burns had altered his hairline.
Bourne said Watson is scheduled for surgery Monday and expected to remain in the hospital for some time.
Covert heard testimony from several other state troopers, an eye-witness who arrived at the boat launch as the scene was unfolding and a Mount Union Area School District employee who observed the aftermath from the rooftop of the nearby high school.
Kenneth Scott Schaeffer, the first witness to take the stand, said he was driving along Division Street the morning of July 23 when he saw two males near the boat launch.
“They were facing each other and there was some kind of contention between them,” Schaeffer said, adding they were in very close proximity to one another and fighting with their hands.
Schaeffer said he observed that one of the males was shirtless and covered in blood. As he drove past, the shirtless man called to him for help while the other ran from the scene.
Schaeffer told the court he dialed 911 while the injured man staggered around the cul-de-sac adjacent to the boat launch.
“I told him help was on the way,” Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer said he did observe a vehicle at the scene and said smoke was coming from the vehicle. At that point, he said he didn’t see flames.
While cleaning out AC units on the high school roof with his supervisor, Cody Frehn said he saw a man run past the school’s North Shaver Street entrance. Frehn testified that he noticed blood on the man’s face and saw him deposit a shirt into a nearby bush. Frehn said he noticed smoke in the distance, then saw the police vehicles.
Frehn said he left the high school and approached police with information about the potential suspect and the shirt which was dropped into a bush.
Smith presented Frehn with stills taken from the high school’s surveillance system. Frehn said the images, showing a shirtless man running past the school, are representative of what he witnessed with his own eyes.
Trooper Cody Booher with state police at Huntingdon said he was in Mount Union the morning of July 23 to assist state parole officers with an unrelated matter.
As he made his way into town, Booher said a black male with dreadlocks, wearing green shorts, white shirt and black and white sneakers crossed the street in front of him. Later, while assisting the parole officers, he saw a silver two-door Toyota drive past and noted the passenger, a black male with dreadlocks staring back at him.
When the parole officers wrapped up their work, Booher said he started to head out of town when he noticed smoke rising in the air. Booher testified that he first believed the smoke was coming from the other side of the river. He investigated and through the trees from his position on Route 22, could see a vehicle on fire.
Booher said he made his way to the scene of the car fire and when he arrived, recognized the car as the silver two-door Toyota he’d seen earlier. Further, Booher testified that after comparing photos from his vehicle’s video recording system and those captured by the high school’s surveillance system, the man fleeing the scene appeared to be the same man in the green shorts he saw crossing the street earlier that morning.
Trooper Scott Sweasing, a state police fire marshal, and Trooper Adam Pufka, a member of a state police forensics unit — both stationed with the barracks in Hollidaysburg — provided details about the crime scene which encompassed the area of the boat launch, the neighborhood adjacent to the high school, the basketball court next to Hartman Village and Trice’s apartment on West Shirley Street.
Sweasing said based on his examination of the vehicle, he believes there is no mechanical or electrical issue that accounts for the fire, leading him to believe it was caused by an open flame.
Sweasing testified the fire started inside the passenger compartment and worked its way toward the engine compartment and trunk.
“It was an intense fire” he said, noting the heat melted the steering wheel down to the floor.
As the preliminary hearing was held just one week and one day after the incident, Sweasing said he is still testing samples and working on his final report. He testified that, at this early stage, he doesn’t have an exact determination of what caused the fire.
“I have ruled out all the accidentals,” he said.
Pufka described the scene, in particular the blood trails near the boat launch which led to a nearby driveway where the victim ended up and the trail that started just past the high school and ended at the basketball courts adjacent to Hartman Village. Pufka also testified regarding evidence found at the apartment Trice shares with his grandmother.
Pufka said additional blood evidence was found outside and inside the residence. In addition, a pair of sneakers matching those depicted in surveillance video were found in the bathroom, covered with blood and soot, and a bottle of lighter fluid was found in Trice’s bedroom, Pufka said.
After all witnesses had testified, Burns asked the court to consider dropping charges, arguing not one witness saw the suspect’s face and so could not specifically ID the suspect as Trice. He also continued to object to the inclusion of Watson’s interview as hearsay.
“The state showed something very horrible happened to the victim,” Burns said, but noted he believes the state fell short in pin-pointing Trice as the perpetrator.
Smith told Covert that much of the evidence is circumstantial but, pieced together, the collective details point to Trice.
“We have the blood, we have the clothing,” Smith said. “We have testimony that rules out any accident.”
According to the affidavit of probable cause, Trice was arrested the same day by Altoona police. The affidavit states Trice’s grandmother, after collecting him from the basketball court, drove Trice back to the apartment then to his father’s house in Altoona and from there, the family contacted police.
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