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Judge to decide whether brutal killing of dogs will sway jurors in Pa. murder-for-hire case

WILLIAMSPORT — A Lycoming County judge will decide whether the brutal killing of two dogs is likely to sway jurors in a 2018 murder-for-hire scheme.

Defense attorney E.J. Rymsza wants Senior Judge Kenneth D. Brown to sever two animal cruelty counts from the homicide and related charges against Edward Heck, 52.

Rymsza voiced concern Wednesday that jurors might be influenced to find his client guilty after they learn the horrific way Heck’s two pugs were killed with a hammer.

Heck is accused of paying Kenneth Wayne Smith $10,000 to kill his wife, Sonja Rowe Heck.

Smith pleaded guilty in January 2020 to first-degree murder and other charges, admitting he hit the sleeping woman twice on the head with a hammer and then slashed her throat.

He was sentenced to life in prison and died there last May from cancer.

First Assistant District Attorney Martin Wade argued against severance claiming killing the dogs was part of the conspiracy that supports the prosecution theory the murder was premediated.

He cited text messages in which Heck told Smith, “You have to strangle my dogs.”

The messages contradict what Heck told police in Lebanon, Indiana, where Smith and he were arrested, Wade said. In that interview he claimed to be shocked his wife and dogs had been killed, he said.

This was the second time the dog-killing issue has been before a judge. Former Judge Marc F. Lovecchio heard arguments in January 2020 but failed to issue a decision before leaving the bench in October.

He did rule statements Heck voluntarily made to police in Indiana and evidence of a cheating wife with whom he had not been sexually intimate for years would be admissible at trial.

The other pretrial issue Brown has to decide is whether to suppress the contents of telephone calls Heck made from the county prison where he is being held without bail.

Rymsza argued that while inmates are informed telephone calls are monitored and the contents divulged, they are not told they can be provided to the district attorney’s office and used in court.

Warden Brad Shoemaker testified the district attorney’s office uses a subpoena to obtain call information.

The trial is tentatively scheduled to begin May 2. In August, District Attorney Ryan C. Gardner dropped plans to seek the death penalty if Heck was found guilty of first-degree murder.

According to evidence presented at previous court proceedings:

Smith indicated on a pornographic website he had a desire to kill someone. Heck remarked, “How about my wife?”

Heck transported Smith, who lived in Nanty Glow, Cambria County, to his home in the west end of Williamsport where he stayed in the cellar.

About 1:50 a.m. on Aug. 16, 2018, Heck texted Smith saying, “time has come.” The woman’s body was found the following day.

Heck is being held without bail on homicide, conspiracy to commit homicide, aggravated assault and the animal cruelty charges.

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