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Sister details West Deer murder suspect’s paranoid behavior

WEST DEER — The oldest child of a slain West Deer couple testified on Friday about the bizarre behavior of her younger brother, which she indicated had been going on for about 20 years.

Deborah Rees said her parents already had decided to order her brother, James Yeckel Jr., 53, out of their house on the last day she spoke with her mother by phone.

That conversation at 11 a.m. on Sept. 8 is a key piece of evidence in the prosecution of Yeckel for the shotgun murders of his mother, Carol, and father, James Sr., both 74, in their West Starz Road home.

When Rees talked with her mother, she testified that she could hear her brother and father talking in the background.

When police visited the home two days later and found her parents dead, they also found the meal they planned to eat that afternoon still on the stove, allowing them to narrow the time of the shooting to within a few hours of the phone call, said Deputy District Attorney Mark Tranquilli.

Rees testified yesterday morning at her brother’s preliminary hearing on the murder charges. District Judge Anthony W. Saveikis ordered Yeckel held for trial and returned him to the Allegheny County Jail without bond.

Shackled and wearing red prison clothes and blue boat shoes, the grey bearded Yeckel occasionally shook his head during the testimony but remained silent except for a whispered conversation with his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Chris Patarini.

DNA on one of the spent shotgun shells found at the scene couldn’t be matched to Yeckel with conventional analysis because at least three people’s DNA was mixed on the shell. Dr. Mark Perlin, who operates a Pittsburgh-based business called Cybergenetics, used a statistical analysis to show that one of the people who handled the shell was Yeckel.

Patarini argued that Perlin’s analysis is relatively untested and can’t show when Yeckel might have handled the shotgun shell. He said the state also can’t show that the shell found near the father’s body was the source of the bird shot that killed him.

“I don’t think they established a prima facie case,” he said after the hearing.

Saveikis disagreed and ordered Yeckel held for trial.

Rees testified that her brother started becoming paranoid in his mid-30s.

“He thought that everybody was keeping an eye on him,” she said. “He though people were bugging his desk (at work).”

He lost his job, his residence, his marriage and disappeared for five years before the state police in New York picked him up wandering and “talking crazy” at night, she testified. Since then he frequently has disappeared for extended periods of time, and apparently spent most of that time wandering up and down the Appalachian Trail, she said.

“He would spend most of his time in the woods,” she said. “He loved the woods.”

While living at his parent’s house, Yeckel would put food out for the animals and then later trap and kill them, Rees said.

Her parents, who spent part of each year in Florida, returned April 15 to find their son living in their West Deer home, she said. She testified that he had trashed the place, damaging much of their cookware and some of their appliances.

When his mother told him he had to clean the bathroom before he could use it again, Yeckel started using a bathroom in the woods and taking showers under a hose outside their house, Rees said.

From April to September, Rees talked with her mother daily on the phone. She could tell when her brother was in the house because her mother would whisper.

“My brother would hide and listen to her conversations to hear what she was talking about,” Rees said.

Her brother then disappeared for several weeks between June and August and, when he came back, his behavior toward his mother became stranger, she said.

His bizarre behavior had made her mother increasingly nervous, Rees said.

“He stared at her constantly,” Rees said. “He didn’t sleep at all at night.”

Instead, Yeckel spent the nights walking up and down the stairs. When he did sleep, he would sleep on the concrete in the basement instead of a bed that was also in the basement, she said.

When his mother fixed him a plate of food, he would dump all the food in a bowl, slather it with ketchup and then “eat it like an animal,” she testified.

Her parents planned to tell him that he had to leave the house when they made their annual migration to Florida, Rees said.


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