The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

November 29, 2012

Seward man admits role in death, gets probation

David Hurst

INDIANA — A Seward resident admitted he violently assaulted a Belsano man in 2008 and was responsible for his death 36 hours later.

Stephen Shesko, 64, received five years of probation for the crime on Wednesday. The case was delayed for years by Shesko’s health issues and a debate regarding their severity.

Wheelchair-bound and wearing braces all over his body, Shesko was determined months ago to be fit for trial.

But after Shesko’s involuntary manslaughter plea in Eric Melius’ death, Indiana Judge William Martin on Wednesday indicated the defendant was perhaps not fit for a term in the county jail.

“Your health issues were greatly exaggerated ... but there’s credible evidence to (show) you have significant medical issues – and that incarceration isn’t appropriate at this time,” Martin said.

The ruling ended a four-year case and drew mixed emotions from the Melius family.

Shesko was bear hunting in Buffington Township, near the Cambria County line, when the fight with Melius took place. It was sparked after Melius, 28, taunted Amish youngsters who were part of Shesko’s hunting party.

“Your behavior that day is totally unacceptable in a civilized society,” Martin told Shesko, reminding the defendant that he had several opportunities to walk away from the fight but instead chose to take another swing.

Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty noted Shesko kicked and punched Melius in the head and neck. And he didn’t stop after the Belsano man fell to the ground wounded.

Melius died 36 hours later after seeking hospital treatment but then leaving against a doctor’s orders.

“You don’t kick a man when he’s down,” Melius’ father, Wyatt, said in court.

He recalled his son sitting on his lap as a boy and shooting his first buck years ago.

Then he lamented that Melius won’t be here to take over the family business he worked to build.

Kayla Warzel, Melius’ girlfriend at the time, said she has kept videos, photos and even an answering machine message to try to keep Melius’ memory alive for their 5-year-old daughter.

The Cambria County woman said she became hooked on painkillers in an attempt to cope with her boyfriend’s death. Warzel said she since has straightened out her life.

“We’re all paying the price for what (occurred) that day,” Melius’ sister, Tracy, said, fighting tears during testimony. She said it was Shesko’s turn to pay.

Shesko did not address the court, aside from responding to Martin’s questions by saying “yes” or “no, your honor.”

He whispered to his attorney, David Weaver, who said Shesko “deeply regretted” his actions.

“If he was in his 20s and healthy ... he’d probably be going to jail now,” Dougherty said, adding he didn’t expect a prison sentence. He called the ruling “fair.”

Behind bars, Shesko – a war veteran who has suffered strokes and other ailments – would be the county’s responsibility. And his care would be taxpayer-funded, Dougherty said.

This way, “He’s still going to be under supervision for five years,” he said.

The district attorney also noted that Shesko’s admission of guilt was important.

Melius’ family agreed, calling it vindication.

“We were never going to have justice. We will never have Eric back,” said Michaela Melius, the victim’s mother. “But at least he’s being held accountable.”