COUDERSPORT — Potter County Judge Stephen Minor accepted convicted killer Gregory Lynn Eldred’s guilty plea on Wednesday afternoon during a hearing held at the courthouse in Coudersport.
Eldred pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of his ex-wife, Darlene Sitler, a music teacher at the Northern Potter Children’s School and a well-loved member of the Potter County community.
By pleading guilty, Eldred, 53, of Dutch Hill Road, circumvented a trial for Sitler’s death.
A large contingent of uniformed Pennsylvania State Police troopers and deputies with the Potter County Sheriff’s Office escorted a disheveled and distressed-looking Eldred into the courtroom. He wore a yellow prison jump suit and shackles, staring at his hands or the table throughout most of the proceedings.
Eldred’s plea was accepted by Minor, and he was represented by Attorney William Hebe of Wellsboro, who negotiated the plea deal with District Attorney Andy Watson that will ensure Eldred avoids the death penalty. As part of the binding plea, Eldred will serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
After the facts of the case were read aloud, Minor asked Eldred: “Are those facts accurate? Did you do that?”
Eldred paused for a few seconds, and then replied, “Yes, your honor.”
The only allusion to a motive was made by Watson, who stated that, “Prior to the shooting, Gregory Eldred made a detailed plan to kill his ex-wife due to information she possessed.”
Hebe said that he met with Eldred either in person or via teleconference 15 or 20 times, including on the evening of the shooting. He said that Eldred has “no competency issues” and none of the defenses of diminished capacity, intoxication or mental health issues typically used in first-degree murder cases appeared to be applicable.
Sitler was a highly-respected and well-loved member of the community; an accomplished musician, a beloved teacher and an active member of her church.
She taught music classes for students in kindergarten through sixth grades, instructed the band and chorus, and played organ at her church and French Horn with the Wellsville (N.Y.) Performing Arts Orchestra.
Sitler was laid to rest at the Zion Cemetery in Columbia County. A memorial scholarship has been established in her honor, and a number of successful events have been held to raise funds, including a 5K Walk/Run and a benefit concert held earlier this year.
A memorial ceremony held at Northern Potter High School in Ulysses shortly after her death brought in a packed house for remembrances, music and prayer. A Facebook page dedicated to her memory and the scholarship has more than 550 followers.
Shortly after 11 a.m. on Dec. 2, 2012, Eldred entered the First Presbyterian Church of Coudersport, located at 402 North Main St., and shot Sitler while she played the organ during morning worship services.
Eldred then left the church and members of the congregation moved to help the wounded woman and alert law enforcement.
Despite their best efforts, Eldred re-entered the sanctuary and shot Sitler twice more. A number of witnesses retrieved the .45 caliber handgun from Eldred and subdued him. One more round was fired at this time, and was found lodged in a pew.
Approximately 25 people witnessed the shooting, though no one else was injured during the event. Witnesses were bused from the scene to the Gunzburger Building, cleared medically and given an opportunity to make a statement.
Though Eldred has waived his right to a jury trial by pleading guilty, witnesses and the family and friends of Sitler will be given an opportunity to speak during the sentencing hearing, which has been scheduled for 1:15 p.m. Tuesday and will likely include testimony from witnesses and the victim’s family and friends.
Typically, sentencing would have been completed at the time of the plea, but Watson said, “He has the right to have his sentencing on a separate date, and that was his wish.”