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Judge denies Thomas Stanko’s appeal from Unity cemetery assault case

Rich Cholodofsky
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Thomas G. Stanko

A Unity man who has been identified as a potential suspect in the disappearance of his former girlfriend, who a judge legally declared dead last week, was questioned in court Wednesday amid warnings that his testimony could eventually be used against him.

Thomas Stanko, 48, was in court to appeal his two-to-four-year prison sentence imposed last year for the simple assaults against cemetery mourners who gathered next to his home in 2015. He took the witness stand to claim he was never told he faced a potential jail sentence in return for his guilty plea.

Despite warnings from both Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher Feliciani and an assistant district attorney, Stanko agreed to testify but was never asked about his knowledge about what may have happened to Cassandra Gross, the woman he previously dated and who has been missing since April.

“I was constrained to ask relevant questions about the issues at the proceeding and that wasn’t relevant,” said Assistant District Attorney Pete Flanigan.

Stanko has been incarcerated since late April after he was charged with several crimes that arose after Gross went missing. He has denied any knowledge of her whereabouts even as Gross’ family suggested that he is responsible for her death. Police searched Stanko’s property several times looking for clues into her disappearance.

Judge Chris Scherer last week, at the request of the Gross family, ruled she was dead. As part of that hearing, a state police investigator gave testimony in a closed-door hearing about the status of the search for her body.

In court on Wednesday, Flanigan described a meeting with Gross in early 2017 when she attempted to file a private criminal complaint that could have exonerated Stanko for his role in a bar fight that resulted in still-pending assault charges against him.

Gross, in her statement, claimed the would-be fight victim initiated the brawl with Stanko, who initially told police he was not involved in the fight, Flanigan said.

“I became immediately suspicious … knowing she was Mr. Stanko’s girlfriend. When I saw Mr. Stanko disavowed any physical tussle, I confronted her with that and Ms. Gross was shocked and physically put aback,” Flanigan said.

Stanko was on probation for the cemetery assaults at the time of the bar fight. In July, after hearing evidence of the bar fight Feliciani revoked Stanko’s probation in the cemetery case and ordered him to serve the new prison term.

Bertani, who served as Stanko’s first lawyer before he withdrew from the case, now contends the original assault charges should have gone to trial. He claimed his successor, attorney Mike Ferguson, failed to properly question witnesses and provided inadequate advice during the weeks that led up to the guilty plea.

Ferguson testified Wednesday that Stanko knew a jail sentence was the possible outcome of a guilty plea, defended his legal analysis and said Bertani was the lawyer who actually botched the defense, having lost his case file and did not take any action in the months prior to being removed from the case.

Following more than three hours of testimony and legal arguments, Feliciani denied Stanko’s appeal, saying there was no evidence that Ferguson provided an inadequate defense. The judge also dismissed a similar defense request seeking to overturn the new sentence, saying the appeal was filed too late.

“You didn’t present evidence in a timely fashion,” Feliciani told Bertani.

Meanwhile, Stanko is still awaiting trial on four separate charges based on allegations he had possession of a stolen all terrain vehicle, violated terms of a drunken-driving sentence, conspired with his mother to steal government benefits and the assault allegations from the Youngwood bar fight in 2017.

He is also facing federal gun charges.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293 or [email protected]