Cigarette leads to Arkansas arrest in 2003 Peters death

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/December 20, 2006
By Chico Harlan

On the day that a man invaded the home of an elderly Peters couple, he stopped, at some point, to smoke a cigarette outside.

Almost four years after the incident, police now believe they've found that man -- one of the four who entered the residence Jan. 29, 2003, and assaulted 90-year-old Shannon Dale so viciously that it frightened his wife, 89-year-old Freda, to death.

Washington County District Attorney John C. Pettit yesterday announced at the Peters Township Police Department that Mark Matthew Fisher had been arrested in the homicide.

Investigators received their breakthrough by way of a Marlboro butt.

After the home invasion, DNA taken from the cigarette butt was placed into a database, Mr. Pettit explained. Every week, that DNA was analyzed, compared with other samples in a nationwide index.

Only two months ago, though, did police find a match.

They found, more specifically, Mr. Fisher, a Texarkana, Ark., man now charged with homicide, aggravated assault, two counts of robbery and numerous misdemeanors. Additional DNA evidence places him inside the house.

On the day of Mrs. Dale's death, four men posing as gas company workers arrived at the home in a van. One shared a quick conversation with Shannon Dale as the other three sneaked inside.

Once all were inside the home, they bound both Dales with duct tape. Mrs. Dale, in the final moments of her life, watched her husband absorb blows to the head, gouging to the left eye and stabbings in the leg.

The Washington County coroner called Mrs. Dale's death a fright-induced heart attack.

Don Hamilton, son of Mrs. Dale, said yesterday that both he and Shannon Dale hoped Mr. Fisher, 22, would receive the death penalty.

In the meantime, officials hope Mr. Fisher can help them identify his three partners, whose identities remain unknown.

In May 2003, Mr. Pettit's office had issued a warrant for Michael D. Marks, identified as the patriarch of a family that has been implicated in a series of similar break-ins and attacks around Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Mr. Marks is no longer considered a suspect, Mr. Pettit said, and that warrant has now been vacated.

"The investigation has been taking place for a long time," he said. "I do not recall a case where we have had the use of DNA some three, almost four years after the incident."

Once the index system matched the DNA on the cigarette butt to Mr. Fisher, investigators learned more about him. He was in Brickeys, Ark., already serving a 70-year sentence for various robberies and burglaries. Police identified him as part of the English Travelers, a transient group known for its involvement with break-in crime.

In the first days of November, Mr. Pettit -- along with a Peters police sergeant, a state police corporal and the trooper who first investigated the case -- traveled by van to Arkansas.

At that point, only the cigarette butt tied Mr. Fisher to the scene. By way of a court order, though, the foursome obtained a blood sample, fingerprints, palm prints and a hair sample. Those samples matched evidence on duct tape used to bind Mrs. Dale's ankles.

"He was inside [the house]," Mr. Pettit said. "He helped bring Freda Dale to her death."

Mr. Fisher, when interviewed by both Mr. Pettit and Peters police Detective Michael Carso, denied playing any role in the crime. He was, by Mr. Pettit's description, varyingly uncooperative, nasty and silent.

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