EBENSBURG - Standing in a red jail-issue sweatsuit with his gray hair pulled back in a ponytail at the nape of his neck, Gregory Russell Conzo, 51, of Summerhill Township entered a guilty plea Wednesday afternoon for the November 2012 killing of his girlfriend's son.
Public Defender John Lovette said a third-degree murder plea deal was reached with the Cambria County District Attorney's office in exchange for prosecutors dropping 11 other charges related to the case, including multiple counts of simple assault, aggravated assault and stalking.
Because of Conzo's prior criminal record, the conviction carries a standard sentence of between 10 and 40 years imprisonment, and/or a $25,000 fine.
According to police, on Nov. 5 Conzo arrived at the home he shared for 22 years with longtime girlfriend, Lois Pcola, at 118 Sierra Street in Summerhill Township, and began arguing with her.
Conzo told Cambria County Judge Patrick T. Kiniry the two were fighting over a simple assault conviction against him from May 2012, for which he was scheduled to be sentenced the next day.
Lovette said because the assault involved her, Conzo hoped she would attend the sentencing and speak on his behalf.
Conzo told Kiniry he had been drinking heavily for several hours at an Italian club in Nanty Glo before the incident, and that the couple had been arguing in the home for a few moments when Lois' son, Michael Pcola, 37, came downstairs yelling that he was going to kill Conzo.
"This was not the first time I feared for my life" around Pcola, Conzo said.
Police said Conzo then picked up an aluminum bat and swung it twice, first hitting his 18-year-old daughter, Maria Conzo, in the arm, before striking Pcola in the head.
Pcola was transported to Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, where he died two days later of blunt force trauma.
Kiniry asked Conzo why he had the bat to begin with, to which Conzo replied that he always had a bat and a knife around to protect himself from Pcola.
Conzo said he thought he could intimidate Pcola with the bat and "settle him down," but Pcola wouldn't back down. He also said he thought he only swung the bat once, and that it ricocheted to cause the head injury.
Lovette said with prosecutors seeking a first-degree murder conviction, and the unpredictable nature of juries, he was pleased with the plea deal.
"It fits the definition of third-degree murder," he said.
Given the nature of the case and what many believe was an accidental death, Lovette said, he will seek the minimum 10-year sentence.
Conzo and his girlfriend had a volatile 20-plus year relationship, he said, and they would often drink and fight. It was unfortunate that it escalated the way it did, he added.
Assistant District Attorney Forest Fordham told Kiniry the prosecution will determine whether they are seeking restitution prior to sentencing.
Conzo's sentencing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Jan. 21, at which time Kiniry will sentence Conzo for both the murder conviction and the original simple assault conviction, which had been postponed for over a year because of the killing.