Key Charge in Fatal Fall Dismissed
By Jonathan D. Silver
September 9, 2003
An involuntary manslaughter charge was dismissed yesterday against a Catholic priest accused of furnishing alcohol to a University of Pittsburgh football player who fell to his death in June inside a Homestead church.
In dismissing the charge against the Rev. Henry Krawczyk, Deputy Coroner Timothy Uhrich said prosecutors did not show that the priest could have foreseen the dangerous actions Billy Gaines took leading to his death.
Gaines, 19, of Ijamsville, Md., fell through a darkened crawl space about 25 feet above the sanctuary of St. Anne Church at 2:30 a.m. June 18 after a cookout and a night of drinking with several of his Pitt teammates and Krawczyk.
"We're obviously very happy with the result today," David Cercone, Krawczyk's attorney, said after the decision. "We hope it will bring an end to this matter."
The prosecutor, First Assistant District Attorney Edward Borkowski, said he would consult with his colleagues to determine a course of action. The district attorney's office can re-file the involuntary manslaughter charge.
Gaines, a Pitt wide receiver, and teammate David Abdul, a place-kicker, were living in the church's former convent after a fire forced them from their Oakland apartment.
Abdul testified yesterday that Krawczyk, 50, routinely served him, Gaines and several of their friends alcohol, even though none of them were of legal drinking age.
Borkowski argued that Krawczyk set a chain of dangerous events in motion by giving Gaines alcohol and then failed to act when he learned the Pitt student was heading upstairs to the roof area. That was enough to warrant an involuntary manslaughter charge, Borkowski said.
"He had actual knowledge that they went into an inherently dangerous area," Borkowski said. "Whether it was the roof, whether it was a bell tower, whether it was a flagpole off a different part of the roof, whether it was the gutters, there is foreseeability, in that intoxicated condition after four hours of drinking, that something horrible could happen."
Krawczyk was held for trial by Munhall District Justice Thomas Torkowsky on reckless endangerment and six counts of furnishing alcohol to minors.
"Of course this is disappointing. The decision [dismissing the involuntary manslaughter charge] appeared to be a bit hasty," said attorney Christopher W. Hellmich, who represents the Gaines family. Gaines' parents, sister and girlfriend sat through the inquest but declined comment afterward.
Even if Krawczyk plied Gaines with rum, Uhrich said prosecutors did not show that the priest could have predicted that the teenager would enter the crawl space. However, Uhrich warned Krawczyk that it was possible the district attorney's office could revive the charge.
"This does not put you out of jeopardy, Father Hank," Uhrich said. "This most likely is not over."
Homestead police Officer Brian Meals, who was first to respond to the church after Gaines fell, testified that Krawczyk was aware that Gaines had gone upstairs in the church. But whether the priest knew Gaines was in the crawl space was another matter.
"He could hear the boys upstairs ... He assumed they were up there goofing around," Meals said.
However, Meals acknowledged that Krawczyk never explicitly mentioned the crawl space.
Authorities said the wide receiver was drunk when he and a teammate entered a utility duct suspended above the church sanctuary.
Gaines, followed by Abdul, crawled in pitch darkness more than 50 feet along two wooden planks before the two turned around to go back. Gaines fell through the floor of the crawl space.
Toxicologists determined that Gaines had a blood alcohol level of 0.166. A person is considered too drunk to drive in Pennsylvania with a blood alcohol content of 0.10.
Abdul and two other Pitt players, Neal Tracey and Steve Buches, testified that Krawczyk provided them with alcohol on several occasions in June. Krawczyk maintained a bar in the rectory, and in July county homicide detectives confiscated more than 100 bottles of alcohol from there.
Abdul testified that on June 16, the night before Gaines fell, Krawczyk unlocked an upstairs door near the crawl space and guided the two of them through a window onto the roof. Abdul said the priest showed him and Gaines an area where he hoped to one day put a hot tub.
A day later, Gaines, Abdul, Buches, Pitt player John Simonitis and Tracey met at the church for an evening cookout. Abdul said Krawczyk furnished the alcohol, and he estimated that he and Gaines each had eight rum-and-cokes.
Everyone had a shot of liqueur in a group toast.
After fooling around in the sanctuary by rapping on microphones hooked up to the sound system, Gaines and Abdul went to the roof with Simonitis to show him the spot for the hot tub. Suddenly, Gaines wasn't there anymore.
Abdul went back inside the church to find his friend.
"I saw him climbing up the ladder [to the crawl space] so I just followed up after him," Abdul testified.
"We just crawled out about 20, 25 yards or so, and then I said, 'We should turn around. We can't see anything.' He said, 'OK.' I turned around and then I heard a noise," Abdul said. "I saw a light coming up through the hole."
Under cross-examination, Abdul said he had no idea where the crawl space led. He also testified that Gaines was not so impaired from alcohol that he was staggering or tripping.
Buches testified that Krawczyk was present when Gaines, Abdul and Simonitis discussed going up to the roof to look down on Homestead. No mention was made of the crawl space.
As a result of the incident and a past history of improper conduct complaints, Krawczyk was put on administrative leave from St. Maximilian Kolbe parish. That has not changed as a result of yesterday's decision.
"We are relieved and pleased by the decision by the coroner's office, but we say that within the context that this still remains a terrible tragedy," said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. Krawczyk "remains on administrative leave and is without a diocesan assignment."
Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
CORRECTION-DATE: September 10, 2003
2003.< A story Tuesday about a hearing for the Rev. Henry Krawczyk, who is accused of furnishing University of Pittsburgh football player Billy Gaines with alcohol before Gaines died from a fall in a Homestead church, misidentified one of the people in the courtroom as Gaines' sister. Gaines did not have a sister.
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