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Two decades later, doctor goes on trial in friend’s death

September 11, 1997

MONTROSE, Pa. (AP) _ For 21 years, residents of this rural town have sat in living rooms, workplaces and diners and debated the guilt or innocence of Dr. Stephen Scher, accused of killing his friend, Martin Dillon, so he could marry Dillon’s wife.

On Wednesday, the debate moved to a courtroom when jury selection began in Scher’s trial. Scher _ whom Dillon’s children call ``Dad″ _ is accused of killing his friend with a shotgun blast to the chest and trying to make it look like a skeet-shooting accident.

Dillon died on June 2, 1976. Scher married Dillon’s widow two years later.

Scher, now a North Carolina allergist, was alone with Dillon when the 30-year-old attorney died at his family’s northeastern Pennsylvania hunting camp.

Scher says the men had been blasting clay pigeons when Dillon spotted a porcupine. He grabbed Scher’s 16-gauge Winchester pump-action shotgun, inserted a big-game round and took off in pursuit, according to Scher.

Scher told authorities he heard a shot and ran 250 feet, finding Dillon dying from a chest wound, apparently after tripping over an untied shoelace and falling on the gun.

Distraught, Scher said, he vowed the shotgun would never kill again and smashed it against a tree. He got blood on his clothes and boots when he tried to revive Dillon, Scher told police.

County Coroner John Conarton ruled the death an accident and Dillon’s story stood as the official version for almost two decades. But doubts lingered and gossips whispered that Scher had been having an affair with Patricia Dillon, a nurse in his office, before the shooting.

Scher was divorcing his first wife and had hired Dillon as his lawyer. The judge in the divorce later told state police he handed the case to another judge after seeing the doctor visit Mrs. Dillon while her husband was away.

Scher’s former wife, Edna Ann Vitale, also accused Scher and Mrs. Dillon of having an affair. In 1994, she testified that Scher told her shortly before the shooting that he was in love with Mrs. Dillon.

``It just seemed that if he wanted Pat and there was some difficulty in getting Marty out of the way that he would take advantage of an opportunity to arrange the world,″ Mrs. Vitale said.

Justine Jenner, one of Scher’s patients, told police in 1994 that a ``very frustrated″ Scher asked her before the shooting how Dillon’s wife could divorce and remarry within the Roman Catholic Church.

``Dr. Scher told me he loved Pat Dillon and wanted to take her away from Montrose and marry her. Dr. Scher couldn’t understand why Pat Dillon couldn’t and wouldn’t leave the church,″ Ms. Jenner said.

Scher, 56, insists the romance began a year after Dillon’s death.

Lawrence Dillon, then the mayor of Montrose, never believed his son’s death was an accident and pushed authorities to reopen the investigation.

There was evidence that Dillon’s wounds were not from close-range blast: The entry wound was bigger than the gun barrel’s diameter and blood was not sucked into the barrel.

The FBI laboratory in Washington determined Scher’s boots were covered in ``bloodspatter,″ droplets formed when someone is struck with great force. That indicates Scher was standing near Dillon when he was shot. The lab also concluded that Scher’s shotgun was fired from up to 3 feet away.

In 1994, Dillon’s body was exhumed and Dr. Isadore Mihalakis concluded Dillon could not have shot himself. Mihalakis found no powder burns on Dillon’s skin and said the shell had traveled downward, not upward.

The coroner declared Dillon’s death a homicide. Scher was charged in 1996, and Pennsylvania Senior Deputy Attorney General Robert Campolongo was brought in to prosecute the case. He says Scher shot Dillon as the attorney was crouching to launch a clay pigeon.

``I didn’t do anything wrong,″ Scher said after he was charged. ``I went shooting with my best friend and he died.″

Scher has been free on $750,000 bail.

Despite the forensic evidence, the prosecution’s case is not ironclad. Perhaps most damaging, the strip of Dillon’s skin surrounding the wound is missing. And it is always difficult to prosecute such an old case.

As defense attorney John P. Moses said a year ago, ``Witnesses have died, evidence has deteriorated and memories have dimmed.″

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