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6 years after Hardwick slaying, suspects await trial

By Kim Ring Telegram & Gazette Staff Posted Oct 29, 2017 at 8:13 PMUpdated Oct 30, 2017 at 12:02 PM

When Jonathan Hart and Jason Lopez were charged with murder and ordered held without bail, Apple was days away from releasing the iPhone 4s and its voice-activated assistant, Siri.

Barack Obama was in his first term as president and the Boston Marathon bombing was more than 18 months away.

Six years later, on a Saturday morning when the topic of the murder comes up in Hardwick at the Whistle Stop where locals eat breakfast, there is frustration and the want of an explanation for how two young men can sit behind bars for so long without a trial.

Diners also ask when there will be justice for Joseph Cernauskas.

Joseph Cernauskas was 84 on Sept. 6, 2011. He lived in the Wheelwright section of Hardwick, at the end of a long cart path of a driveway in a two-story house with an outhouse in the backyard. He and his 10 siblings grew up in that house.

A former selectman and an Army veteran who saw combat in Korea, Mr. Cernauskas surrounded himself with books, a few friends and the quiet of the land near the Ware River where he lived a simple life. The night he died, he had stopped at a friend’s to ask about the weather because he had no television and was wondering how cold it might get.

The next morning his house was ablaze. Bloody bedding was stuffed inside the working outhouse. It appeared something had been dragged across the yard. A vehicle’s bucket seat, smeared with blood, lay a short distance from the house.

Mr. Cernauskas was missing. His 1999 van was gone. The town’s fire chief called police to tell them something was very wrong.

The area quickly became a crime scene and yellow police tape was strung even as firefighters worked to control the flames. Area police departments searched for the missing van, which a Ware police officer had apparently seen earlier that morning. A few days later it was found at a senior housing complex in Ware. There was no one inside.

Eleven days later, Mr. Cernauskas’ body was found 50 feet off Blair Road in Barre. He had been stabbed to death, investigators said. They used dental records to identify him.

The investigation soon revealed that Mr. Lopez and Mr. Hart were also missing. After issuing a nationwide alert, police learned they were in Florida in a car that Helen Hart - Mr. Hart’s grandmother and Mr. Cernauskas’ sister - had told police her grandson borrowed and didn’t return.

The pair were arrested and brought back to Massachusetts, but not before reports that Mr. Lopez might have attempted suicide by jumping into traffic.

The men were indicted and arraigned in January 2012 on charges of murder, home invasion, armed burglary, arson of a building and other charges. Both pleaded not guilty.

Since they were arrested, Mr. Hart and Mr. Lopez have spent 2,206 days in the House of Correction, said David H. Tuttle, Superintendent of the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction in West Boylston. Mr. Hart is being held in Worcester County, while Mr. Lopez was moved to another facility to separate the co-defendants.

“Of all the inmates in our custody, they have been here the longest,” Mr. Tuttle said, adding that while it’s not typical for pretrial inmates to spend so much time at the facility, there have been others who stayed longer.

A search shows that Jose E. Colon, convicted of murder in 2013, spent just over eight years awaiting trial. He was convicted in March 2013 in connection with a 2005 murder in Dudley.

Court records show that between them, Mr. Hart and Mr. Lopez have had a combined total of about 100 court dates, some of those to set trial dates. They aren’t actually brought to court for many of those dates and their case has often been continued. Seven different judges have heard various motions or presided over the continuances.

Several factors contribute to the delay, according to a spokesman for Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., who characterized the matter as “lengthy and complex.”

Mr. Hart’s attorney earned a judgeship in 2013, and his new lawyer needed to be brought up to date on the case, as it has “a voluminous amount of discovery materials,” said Mr. Early’s spokesman Paul Jarvey.

He said the district attorney’s office completed the standard discovery process and has been prepared for trial in spite of a waiver from the court that would have allowed them an exemption from the normal case progression.

Over the years, lawyers for the pair have filed various motions, sometimes seeking funds for forensic testing or private investigators or a medical examiner to help decipher evidence about cause and time of death.

In March, Mr. Hart’s case was set for trial, until, on the eve of that trial, a motion to suppress evidence was filed and the case delayed.

Mr. Hart’s lawyer, Lorenzo Perez, said the delay is “simply as a result of Mr. Hart requesting time to carefully consider his options. Fortunately, the court and commonwealth have complied.”

Mr. Lopez’s lawyer, Peter Ettenberg, said his client’s trial will start after Mr. Hart’s concludes. He wouldn’t comment on the various delays.

If there are any benefits to defendants being held for a lengthy period before trial, one is that their lawyers have a lot of time to prepare.

“We have to give people a fair trial,” explained Derege Demissie, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Sometimes that takes time.”

And if the state, the defendants and the victims aren’t pushing for a trial, they could be at work on a plea agreement, Mr. Demissie said.

There are many reasons a defense attorney could want a trial to be put off. Those include the possibility of an insanity defense, which Mr. Demissie said can take quite a while to prepare, with the gathering of medical records, evaluations of the defendant and perhaps a move to a facility where assessments can be done.

While having a lot of evidence might be thought of as a benefit to either side, that can also mean a delay.

“A lot of evidence may translate to a series of issues,” he said. “In a murder case with a lot of forensics you would need different experts and that can complicate matters.”

While Mr. Demissie hasn’t experienced it, Mr. Tuttle said that sometimes prisoners have an idea in their mind that doing time in the House of Correction is somehow better than doing time in state prison, though he’s not sure where that idea came from. The time they serve can sometimes be considered part of their sentence if they are found guilty, though pretrial inmates don’t earn “good time,” he said.

In the six years since Mr. Cernauskas’ slaying, at least one person on the witness list - the friend he spoke with the night of his death - has died.

Mrs. Hart declined to speak with a reporter about her difficult position as the grandmother of one of the suspects and sister of the victim.

The matter is on the docket for Tuesday in Worcester Superior Court, but Barbara Pierce, another of Mr. Cernauskas’ sisters, has learned not to get her hopes up.

“It’s been difficult,” she said. “A couple of times we thought they had reached a decision (on a plea agreement).”

Initially she found the waiting frustrating, but now she takes it in stride and instead thinks about her brother and the legacy he left in teaching her to love reading and nature.

She is proud of the research he did - hiking and finding facts about the Quabbin Reservoir that few people knew and compiling so many detailed notes about the place that when the family salvaged a box of his handwritten documents from the burned house they donated it to the Swift River Historical Society so others could benefit.

Another brother passed away a short time ago. And the Cernauskas home was torn down and acreage sold to the East Quabbin Land Trust, something his sister Barbara Pierce said he wanted.

“We tried to keep it that way, peaceful, silent, quiet,” she said, adding that her brother had made it clear he never wanted ATVs or snowmobiles breaking the silence. “I remember what he stood for in life.”

Mrs. Pierce has been back to the woods where Mr. Cernauskas lived, but for her the beauty and stillness are tainted by memories of her brother’s violent death.

“It’s a very sad spot now,” she said. “He’s in my thoughts every day. We still miss him.”

Sisters of Joseph Cernauskas talk during arrainment of Jason Lopez on Oct 4, 2011, at the Western Worcester District Court in East Brookfield. [T&G File photo/Tom Rettig]


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