LaRosa pleads no contest to avert trial

Sentencing set for April 5-6

Tribune Chronicle / Guy Vogrin Jacob LaRosa, 18, is taken into custody Tuesday after pleading no contest before Trumbull County Common Pleas Judge W. Wyatt McKay in the March 31, 2015, beating death of Marie Belcastro, 94, who was LaRosa’s neighbor. At right is Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office deputy Juan Freeman and at center is deputy Mike Nelson.

WARREN — The 18-year-old accused in the March 31, 2015, beating death and attempted rape of a 94-year-old Niles woman averted his jury trial and pleaded no contest Tuesday to four felony charges.

Jacob LaRosa stood with his lawyers before Trumbull County Common Pleas Judge W. Wyatt McKay who accepted the plea and sent an expanded jury pool home before lunch Tuesday.

McKay found LaRosa guilty on charges of aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary and attempted rape and ordered the Adult Probation Department to conduct a background report of the defendant, which will help determine sentencing.

The judge also scheduled a sentencing hearing April 5 and 6 so lawyers can argue facts of the case before the judge, who will decide whether LaRosa will be given the maximum sentence of life without parole. The defendant also could be sentenced to life sentences with chances for parole after 20, 25 or 30 years.

LaRosa also was ordered by the judge to be transferred from the Juvenile Justice Center, where he was housed for almost three years, to a cell at the Trumbull County Jail. McKay also revoked LaRosa’s $3 million bond.

Prior to the plea, McKay had called 15 additional people to join the jury pool after Monday’s jury selection process saw 26 of the about 40 prospective jurors say they had read or heard news reports about the case.

LaRosa is accused of beating Belcastro to death with multiple blows to the head with a mag flashlight, according to Trumbull County Assistant Prosecutor Chrisopher Becker. Belcastro was found just after 5:30 p.m. on March 31, 2015, inside a bedroom of her home at 509 Cherry St. At 5:35 p.m., police were called to LaRosa’s home after he stumbled inside covered with blood, according to a search warrant filed with the court.

Becker credited the quick work of the Niles Police Department for solving within hours one of the “most gruesome cases” he’s ever seen. He also said the state Attorney General’s office and Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation did a goodjob matching the abundance of blood and DNA evidence.

Both Belcastro’s blood and LaRosa’s DNA were found on a whisky bottle that a neighbor’s security video captured the defendant carrying as he walked out of Belcastro’s house. Also, Belcastro’s blood was found on the murder weapon and on LaRosa’s body, shoes and underwear, Becker said.

Both Becker and McKay noted the jury selection process helped resolve the case. LaRosa’s plea was conducted outside the presence of prospective jurors, but after the courtroom cleared, McKay called in the group to thank them for their service.

During Monday’s session, a woman from the pool said she heard about the case in 2015 and thought the defendant should pay the ultimate price.

“Historically, we get law-and-order type jurors in Trumbull County who are no-nonsense,” Becker said. “I think the defendant saw that he was not going to get a not guilty verdict from a jury here, so his lawyers are opting to take their chances at the next phase.”

Lead public defender Matthew Pentz said he would not comment on the case.

LaRosa was 15 when he was charged with the crimes. Efforts by defense attorneys to keep the case in juvenile court, to get the defendant ruled incompetent to stand trial and to suppress some of the evidence all failed.