HOMER CITY - Homicide charges have been dropped against a bear hunter accused in a fight with a Belsano man who later died.
Prosecutors dropped the homicide count at a preliminary hearing Tuesday, where a pathologist's report showed drugs played a role in Erick D. Melius' death and that they weren't in his system a few days earlier when the 28-year-old man received treatment for fight injuries.
Despite his defense attorney's pleas, Stephen Shesko, the Seward man who fought with Melius in Buffington Township, will face trial on aggravated assault, a felony that could mean a prison term.
''The results of blood work [for a drug screen] changed the cause of death,'' Indiana County District Attorney Tom Bianco said. ''But the testimony showed Mr. Shesko started and ended the fight, at least the physical end.''
Witnesses recounted the November altercation, with several saying Melius' vehicle drove by their hunting group and called several Amish boys ''pumpkin heads,'' prompting Shesko to run up to his vehicle and grab him.
Shesko ran to Melius' van and ''grabbed him by the throat,'' said James Yurasek of Johnstown, a fellow hunter and Shesko's friend.
The altercation quickly was broken up the first time, sending Melius back to his van and away from the scene, witnesses said.
Melius decided to turn back, said Tim Gerlesky of Carrolltown, a co-worker who was in Melius' van.
Gerlesky said he didn't want to return to the scene, but Melius ''was mad'' enough that ''I thought he was going to hit me.''
Gerlesky and other witnesses said the pair exchanged blows several times, even after being pulled apart three times.
Eventually, kicks were thrown - several toward Melius' head, witnesses said.
Gerlesky said he and Melius had eight to 10 alcoholic drinks before running across the hunters during a lunch break.
Trooper Brian Bono said Melius was on house arrest and wearing an ankle bracelet that day, an indication that he should not have been at a bar or on the dirt road in the first place.
Other witnesses said several attempts to hold Shesko back were fruitless, saying he lunged at Melius and later kicked him while he was down.
Yurasek and Dwayne P. Solich, a Seward hunter, guessed Shesko kicked the man in the head, neck and shoulders two to four times.
Melius sought treatment for the injuries but left the hospital despite a doctor's warning that night. Tests showed he had head injuries and a blood-alcohol level of 0.20 percent, more than twice the legal limit.
Gerlesky said Melius returned to work the next day, complaining that his neck hurt but otherwise seemed fine. He found the man dead a day later in his home.
An autopsy showed he had head and neck trauma, but a drug screening revealed a toxic amount of several drugs were in his system.
''We don't know what happened,'' defense attorney James Ecker said. ''It may have been an overdose; it may have been something else.''
Michaela Melius said her son ''had his problems."
''This was a vicious attack,'' she said, confident that the aggravated assault charge will stick. ''Now he has to pay for his bad choices.''