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Letter sent to inmate could be key evidence in Pa. teacher's slaying

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 7/11/2018 By Shelly Bradbury / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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A letter sent to an inmate in the Beaver County Jail in Pennsylvania days after the May 13 slaying of Aliquippa teacher Rachael DelTondo is under forensic evaluation to determine its authenticity and could prove to be important evidence in the case, District Attorney David Lozier said Tuesday.

The letter, which was sent to inmate Wayne A. Cordes, 21, purports to be written by Lauren Watkins, the 17-year-old daughter of Aliquippa police Sgt. Kenneth Watkins, three people with direct knowledge of the situation told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Lauren was one of the last people to see Ms. DelTondo alive before the 33-year-old was gunned down in the driveway of her home on Buchanan Street.

The letter purports to outline what Lauren saw that night, the three sources confirmed, and differs from the account she initially gave police.

Mr. Lozier declined to discuss the details of the letter, which had been ripped in two, but said that authorities seized half of it from a Bible in Mr. Cordes’ jail cell while executing a search warrant on May 29, and have since obtained the rest.

a person with collar shirt © Provided by PG Publishing Co., Inc. “If the letter turns out to be authentic, then it would be important evidence,” Mr. Lozier said. “If it turns out to be fraud, then it’s not important evidence.”

He added it would be premature to say authorities have a suspect in the high-profile killing.

Mr. Cordes was jailed in October on 12 felony and eight misdemeanor charges in connection to an armed robbery. On Monday, he accepted a plea deal under the conditions that he cooperate in the investigation into Ms. DelTondo’s killing, pay restitution and avoid contact with the victim of the robbery.

The plea agreement requires that Mr. Cordes provide “truthful testimony as to the Rachael DelTondo homicide investigation” and provide a “truthful statement,” according to sentencing paperwork.

Mr. Cordes pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of simple assault and theft. Prosecutors either withdrew or opted not to prosecute the remaining charges.

Mr. Cordes was sentenced to no more than 16 months in prison and was made eligible for parole immediately, court records show.

Attorney Gerald Benyo, who represents Mr. Cordes, argued in court filings that the May 29 search of his client’s cell was illegal, in part because investigators seized documents and property not covered by the search warrant. Mr. Benyo said Tuesday he does not think the DelTondo homicide investigation was the driving force behind the plea agreement.

“It’s my opinion that the violations of the rules of civil and criminal procedure and constitutional violations were the impetus in the district attorney’s office making the plea offer, rather than any substantive assistance Mr. Cordes could offer in the DelTondo investigation,” he said.

Mr. Benyo said he could not comment on the property seized from Mr. Cordes’ cell because of a gag order granted by Beaver County Common Pleas Judge Richard Mancini on June 11.

But Mr. Cordes himself shed light on the matter in a series of letters he sent from jail to the mother of his child. The signatures on the letters, reviewed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, appear to match Mr. Cordes’ signature on court documents.

In a May 27 letter to the woman, Mr. Cordes wrote that he ripped in half the letter with details on the DelTondo homicide and gave part of it to his attorney for safekeeping.

That letter goes on to quote sections of the letter purportedly from Lauren Watkins and paraphrases the sections that Mr. Cordes had given to his attorney.

“If the other half dissapears [sic] and/or something happens to me, this is proof it [the letter] existed and what its contents said,” reads the May 27 letter, which is signed “Wayne A. Cordes.”

The letter’s description of events differs from the account Lauren gave police, which was outlined in search warrants filed in the case.

According to the search warrants, Lauren told investigators she’d gotten ice cream with Ms. DelTondo the night of the homicide, then dropped Ms. DelTondo off at her home while Lauren drove another friend home. Lauren said she’d planned to return for Ms. DelTondo, but the woman was shot to death before she could.

Mr. Cordes wrote that the letter he received claimed that Lauren actually witnessed the homicide and said she heard the gunshots and saw Ms. DelTondo fall. 

Mr. Cordes and Lauren had a previous relationship of some sort before the killing, two sources said.

Lauren did not return a request for comment, nor did her father, who was placed on paid administrative leave from the police department shortly after Ms. DelTondo’s death. At the time, Chief Donald Couch said the sergeant was placed on leave because he and his family were close friends of Ms. DelTondo. The sergeant needed time to grieve and the department wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety, he said.

Chief Couch has himself since been placed on paid administrative leave for an undisclosed reason that Aliquippa Solicitor Myron Sainovich has said is not related to the DelTondo case.

Chief Couch was eventually replaced by acting Chief Robert Sealock, who recused the department from the DelTondo investigation. Acting Chief Sealock said Tuesday that Sgt. Watkins was still on paid leave because the investigation into Ms. DelTondo’s slaying is ongoing. He added that the leave was not disciplinary.

Shelly Bradbury: 412-263-1999, sbradbury@post-gazette.com or follow @ShellyBradbury on Twitter. 

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