When a college mentor brought Thomas W. Minett to law school, he never dreamed of becoming Lawrence County’s top murder prosecutor.
Since starting his career as assistant district attorney in Lawrence County 39 years ago, Minett has successfully sent more than 100 murderers to prison, many for life and most through trial.
69-year-old Minett retired from his near-career prosecution on December 31, leaving a legacy of successful law enforcement for notable, heinous criminals, but murderers were his forte.
“I can safely say that Tom Minett has attempted more homicide cases than any other assistant district attorney in Lawrence County’s history,” said Lawrence County Judge J. Craig Cox of his former associate.
Cox and Minett teamed up as assistant district attorneys for 16 years on murders in the 1980s before Cox became a judge.
Minett was respected in the courtroom for his calm and collected demeanor, attention to detail, careful case preparation, and solid submission of evidence. His final arguments convinced many juries to return convictions and concluded thousands of family members and friends of deceased victims.
“It’s been a great run for me,” said Minett. “I never expected to work in this industry.”
A milestone case
Minett selected one of his most important cases to be that of Salvador Carlos Santiago, which he and Cox were jointly pursuing. A Lawrence County jury found Santiago guilty of third degree murder on January 15, 1985, and killed 20-year-old Dean O’Hara on Route 422 near the New Castle School of Trades in Pulaski Township.
Santiago went on a three-day rampage, shot and wounded a woman at a Sharon bus station during an armed robbery the next day, and shot and killed an employee in a Pittsburgh printing company on January 17.
At first, no one knew the three shootings were related, Minett recalled. But New Castle State Police Trooper Wayne Disque was watching the news of the shootings and suggested that there was a connection between them.
“That has been proven true,” said Minett. “It was a good job by the state police. When the Pittsburgh police interviewed Santiago, we were ahead of them.”
So much publicity was the notice of the cases that the courts approved a change of jurisdiction for the Lawrence County trial of Santiago and brought in a Dauphin County jury. It marked the first murder trial for Lawrence County Judge Francis X Caiazza, who later became a federal judge.
When the verdict was pronounced, the jury was questioned and one wavered and said, “Not guilty,” which almost caused a mistrial, Minett recalled. But Cox realized that the law allowed the jury to return to deliberate further, and they returned with a guilty verdict, Minett said.
When Santiago was on trial in Allegheny County for the murder at the printer, he was convicted and sentenced to death. His death sentence was overturned in 2004, and at the age of 57, he is serving a life sentence in the Greene County Correctional Facility.
THE EARLY YEARS
Minett served as the Assistant District Attorney in Beaver County from 1977 until he was recruited in February 1982 by former Lawrence County Attorney William Panella.
“He turned out to be one of the best lawyers I’ve ever seen,” said Panella. “He was always well prepared.”
Minett and Cox have jointly committed 32 homicide cases during Panella’s 16-year tenure, “and we won 31,” he said.
State Police Cpl. Randy Guy, a homicide investigator, sat next to Minett on some occasions.
“He’s always been very professional and a pleasure to work with,” said Guy. “I’ve worked with him dozens of cases.”
Guy recalled that the most significant of the murder of Frederick DeAngelo Swillings in North Beaver Township was by a conspiracy of four suspects. Swillings, formerly from Detroit, was shot dead and abandoned by a roadside the day before his 25th birthday on May 1, 2015. All four defendants – Ryan Avery, shooter Ricardo Aponte and Melissa Sue Aponte – pleaded guilty and are serving the state’s prison terms
One murder case that rocked Minett was that of Donelle DeSellem, who was accused in 1989 of killing her young son through shaking and physical abuse. Minett’s own son was about the same age and he remembered seeing a photo of her son wearing a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt and that bothered him. DeSellem was convicted of third degree murder.
Minett recalls going to the scene with Cox when Bonnie Lou Dryfuse, her young daughters Jacqueline Mae Dryfuse and Heather Sue Dryfuse, and her cousin Stephanie Herko were found stabbed to death in an RV on Ambrosia Road, Pulaski Township. The case made national news, and Thomas “Hank” Kimbell was convicted, later acquitted, and released from death row. He has since passed away.
“I was walking through the house and the deceased was still there,” said Minett, remembering seeing a wedding ring on the floor. “It was such a cruel scene.”
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Matthew T. Mangino, the District Attorney at the time, had a professional conflict with his private practice on the case, which the Attorney General’s Office took over after the preliminary hearing.
The last murder trial Minett successfully pursued during his career was that of Leon Platt, who was convicted by a jury of third degree murder on November 16, 2013. Ellwood City shot the death of 28-year-old Richard Hogue from Enon Valley. The 33-year-old Platt is serving a prison sentence of 22 to 53 years in Albion. Cox directed this process as a judge.
Since Cox became a judge, Minett has preceded him as a lawyer many times.
“He always said I was too tough on him,” said Cox, adding that he felt he had to be fair to both sides. He recalled that now-retired President Judge Glenn McCracken had heard many murders before, “and he always told us the key to being a good trial attorney was preparation. Tom was always very well prepared.”
Minett gained national recognition two years ago in a television interview on the Oxygen Network “Snapped” about a passionate crime he pursued in Ellwood City. The program told the story of Lisa Marie Jones-Orock and her son Zachary Christian Jones, who were arrested and found guilty of killing Jones-Orock’s husband by pulling him over in a parking lot in Ellwood City on December 7, 2014 Hit his head. Jones, who admitted hitting Orock with a piece of wood, was sentenced to six to twelve years in prison in May 2017. His mother was sentenced to four and a half to six years.
“The mother claimed she was molested to the extreme by her ex-husband,” said Minett. He agreed to be interviewed for the show so that he could provide facts about the case. It is still broadcast on television and can be seen upon request.
While there are no criteria for a bizarre murder, Minett commented, “I think Lawrence County had its part in it.”
Minett, who had worked part-time for the Dallas W. Hartman law firm since the early 1990s, said he was fortunate to have had the freedom to prepare and attempt so many murders for the county.
“By 2018, I had so many homicides that I felt I needed help and I was running out of day,” he said.
A career movement
Minett has a bachelor’s degree from Slippery Rock State College, where he was on the swim team and spent summers as a lifeguard at Moraine State Park. He had held two high school swimming records at Riverside High and aspired to teach history and train as a swimmer. That was until his swim coach and mentor Wilma Cavill encouraged him to consider law school. He enrolled at Ohio Northern University and graduated in 1976.
When Minett passed the Pennsylvania bar exam, he was sworn in by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and sworn oath in the Western Pennsylvania District Court enabling him to argue on federal appeal cases.
When Panella hired him, he was one of four assistant prosecutors along with Cox and attorneys Howard Klebe and Norman Barilla. Later, Annette Hutchison joined the team and handled the sexual assault cases.
Cox said when he first teamed up with Minett on Morden, “We got along and built a friendship. We complimented each other on our skills and weaknesses, and worked very well together.”
“By then there had been more than 30 (murder cases),” Cox mused. “I once kept a list of all the names.”
“He’s the most well-prepared lawyer you’d ever want to meet,” he said of Minett. “I always thought they should train young lawyers in the prosecutor’s office by letting them sit with him. He would organize everything and keep sample notes with everything in them.”
Even though they were part-time, Cox remembers working on cases at night and on weekends.
Minett continues his legal practice as a part-time attorney for Hartman’s law firm, suing personal injury cases. He also loves tracking down and photographing eagle nests in multiple counties and the occasional fishing trip to Canada.
He and his wife, Donna, a retired home economics teacher on Riverside, live in Ellwood City. They have two sons, Ben of Canonsburg and William of South Hills, a daughter, Elizabeth of Philadelphia, and six grandchildren.
Cox said he hated seeing Minett leave the courthouse.
“It’s a real loss,” he said. “Lawrence County lost a real officer.”
District Attorney Joshua Lamancusa has now taken on the murder prosecution, and the appeal work is shared among his other assistants.
“He is an exceptional prosecutor who has committed the worst crimes in Lawrence County. He is a accomplished professional and a true gentleman,” said Lamancusa. “We can never repay the debt of his service to our community.”