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Salem woman to spend life in prison for bludgeoning mother with hammer

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Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Sarah Dawn Vercauteren sits in the front seat of a state police vehicle before departing from the state police barracks in Greensburg on Friday, January 10, 2014.
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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
The home of Dawn Marie Wagner, 51, who was murdered at the Forbes Trail Park in Salem Township.
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This Facebook photo shows Sarah Vercauteren (left), her son, Skyler, and her mother, Dawn Marie Wagner, 51, who was found murdered in her Salem home on Thursday.
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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Jan Rager, friend and neighbor of Dawn Marie Wagner, 51, who was murdered at her home at the Forbes Trail Park in Salem Township, talks about her friend who moved into the mobile home park 6 month ago.
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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Donna Meyer, who worked with Dawn Marie Wagner, 51, talks about learning of Wagner's death. Wagner was murdered at her home at the Forbes Trail Park in Salem Township.
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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Sarah Vercauteren is escorted away from the Westmoreland County Courthouse on April 19, 2016.
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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Sarah Vercauteren is escorted away from the Westmoreland County Courthouse on April 19, 2016.

Larry Wagner has not visited his stepdaughter in the nearly 2 12 years since the Salem woman used a hammer to bludgeon her mother to death while stealing her car and money for drugs.

But the Monroeville man said he still loves Sarah Dawn Vercauteren, even as she stood before a Westmoreland County judge Tuesday to ask to be imprisoned for life for killing Dawn Marie Wagner, 51.

“I’m sorry I haven’t seen you, but I’m still working on forgiving you,” Larry Wagner said in a victim impact statement at Vercauteren’s sentencing hearing. “But I love you.”

“I love you, too,” said a tearful Vercauteren, who buried her head in her hands and quietly sobbed as Wagner spoke. “I’m sorry.”

On Tuesday, Vercauteren, 27, entered a guilty plea to first-degree murder in her mother’s death on Dec. 31, 2013. Police said she hit Dawn Wagner 18 times with a hammer and strangled her when the Salem woman refused to let her daughter take her car.

Vercauteren told Westmoreland Judge Christopher Feliciani that she deserves a life sentence.

“I feel I should take responsibility for my actions,” she said.

“That was my mother,” Vercauteren said. “I feel like I should spend the rest of my life in prison because of what I did to her, and I should not get out.”

Feliciani immediately imposed a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“… The statement you made … speaks volumes of the responsibility you take in this case,” Feliciani said. “I can only hope you can make some positive out of your life, even though it will be served in prison.”

Larry Wagner said he prays for his stepdaughter.

“I hate her actions and what she did … but I love her,” Wagner said.

Wagner described Dawn Wagner as “a great woman” who “passed away in a way she did not deserve.”

“Today I think that I just didn’t want Dawn to be forgotten,” Larry Wagner said. “Dawn was a great woman. So many people loved her. It’s devastated a lot of people.”

Vercauteren confessed to killing her mother when she was taken into custody 10 days after the murder in connection with the Jan. 7, 2014, bank robbery in Versailles, Allegheny County.

In a taped confession, she told police that she needed her mother’s car to buy drugs.

She confessed to binding her mother’s legs with duct tape and attempting to sanitize the murder scene while her 2-year-old son watched television.

Vercauteren took cash and credit cards from her mother, withdrew $600 from a bank and then bought heroin with her son present, prosecutors said.

In exchange for the guilty plea, District Attorney John Peck agreed to drop a separate case in which Vercauteren was accused in the Dec. 8, 2013, theft of $130 worth of items from a Delmont store. He also dropped charges of second- and third-degree murder in Wagner’s death.

Peck said the plea to first-degree homicide was appropriate because Vercauteren’s “conduct with striking her mother numerous times with a hammer … was evidence of her intent to kill her.”

Vercauteren entered guilty pleas in December to the Versailles bank robbery and was sentenced to 3 12 to seven years in prison.

Liz Zemba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-601-2166 or [email protected].

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