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Jury takes less than an hour to convict rapist

BUTLER - Months ago, an expert suggested prosecutors would want to find more evidence than the DNA results --- a link to the victim, perhaps --- that Ralph Skundrich had raped a Cranberry Township woman in 2002.

But a Butler County jury Thursday sent the message that it overwhelmingly disagreed by convicting the 47-year-old career criminal in under an hour of deliberation.

Skundrich, already serving a 75- to 100-year sentence for a different rape in Allegheny County, must be evaluated by a member of the state’s sexual offender assessment board before he is sentenced by Butler County Judge William Shaffer.

Some members of the five woman, seven man jury made eye contact with the victim as they announced the guilty counts to burglary, rape, involuntary deviate sexual assault, terroristic threats, and indecent assault.

“It’s vindicating,” the victim said afterward.

The victim, a petite blond, went through a range of emotions during Skundrich’s four-day trial: anger, sadness, anxiety at having to sit on the witness stand.

“You relive the experience. You really do,” she said. “I was fighting so hard not to cry ... I’d spent the last 12 years of my life trying to forget this.”

The woman testified that she was in her own bed in June 6, 2002, when she was awakened by a masked man who claimed to have a knife. The man raped the woman several times under threat to kill her or her sleeping 11-year-old daughter.

“The physical abuse was horrible, degrading and it hurt,” the victim said. “But the emotional part of him threatening my child was more horrific. My baby was in the house.”

The woman never saw the knife or the face of the man who attacked her. And the case went cold until 2010, when investigators linked Skundrich to the crime through DNA.

The DNA, estimated by an expert to be 81.3 billion times more likely to belong to Skundrich than be a coincidence, was the only physical evidence investigators presented.

Skundrich took the witness stand Wednesday and denied raping the woman.

The defense, led by attorney J.W. Hernandez Cuebas, argued that the case against Skundrich was manipulated by the FBI. Skundrich claims investigators have long had his DNA. But he refused to be an informant on other matter of FBI interest then went on the run to Florida for four years. When he was arrested and brought back to this state, his DNA matched in the Cranberry rape.

Skundrich, who cites landscaping as his profession, has convictions related to drugs, weapons and theft dating back to 1987. He was tied to an alleged murder plot, and at one point appeared on the television show, “America’s Most Wanted.”

“The FBI wanted him in the worst way,” said Hernandez Cuebas.

Further, the defense had argued whoever was in the Cranberry Township woman’s apartment that night was someone who knew her and maybe even an invited guest. A lack of muddy footprints on the beige carpet suggests the person came into the front door, he said. And he said whoever was there knew the apartment well enough to maneuver around knickknacks in the dark and unplug two telephones.

The victim said she never returned to that apartment. She asked a friend to retrieve her important belongings and moved in with her boyfriend, who is now her husband.

“He (Skundrich) stole my sense of freedom. I can’t take a shower if I’m home alone. I won’t get on an empty elevator. I was always looking over my shoulder and wondering,” she said.

The victim’s daughter, who also testified during the case, said she too has become cautious of strangers and strange situations.

“How do you just pick a person out of a crowd and say, ‘That is the person whose life I am going to destroy today?’” the younger woman said. “But the best thing my mom told me was that we don’t have to call ourselves victims if we made it through. We are survivors.”

The mother got a good look at Skundrich, a stranger otherwise, in January. She testified in Allegheny County Court when the defendant was on trial for raping a woman there.

Prosecutors in Allegheny County said they called the Cranberry woman to testify because the two women’s experiences were similar and occurred only weeks apart, demonstrating a pattern of behavior.

In the Allegheny County case, Skundrich broke into the third-floor Shadyside Apartment of an 18-year-old college student while masked in black. During the 2:30 a.m. break-in, Skundrich threatened her with a gun, demanded money from her and then forced her to have sex.

That crime, too, was solved with DNA.

Skundrich was found guilty of five counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, as well as two counts of sexual assault, and one count each of indecent assault, terroristic threats, burglary, simple assault and false imprisonment.

Butler County Assistant District Attorney Patricia McLean, who prosecuted the Cranberry case, said she chose not to ask the courts to allow the Allegheny County woman to be a witness in this case because she had watched the other trial.

“I couldn’t put her threw that again,” McLean said. “It was horrific.”

Because McLean did not put the Allegheny County woman on the witness stand, the jury here was not told Skundrich already had a similar conviction. McLean said she was confident in the DNA evidence.

“It’s good, physical evidence,” she said.

Although it appears the punishment for the Allegheny County case will outlast Skundrich’s likely lifespan, McLean said she never considered aborting prosecution in the Cranberry case.

“He is still responsible for this crime,” McLean said. “He should be held accountable.”