As background, in July
2002 Ernest R. Wholaver, Jr. was charged with multiple sexual
offenses for alleged conduct involving his two daughters, Victoria and
Elizabeth, the latter of whom was still a minor at the time the charges
On behalf of Elizabeth,
Wholaver’s wife, Jean Wholaver, obtained an order under the Protection
From Abuse Act which included provisos that Wholaver was evicted from
the family’s Middletown residence, with no right or privilege of entry,
and was prohibited from possessing or acquiring firearms.
took up residence with his mother, father, and younger brother, Scott
Wholaver, in Cambria County.
Just after midnight on
December 24, 2002, Wholaver set out for the Middletown residence with
While his brother
waited in the vehicle about a block away, Wholaver approached the house;
cut telephone and other wires leading to it; forcibly gained entry; and
shot Jean, Victoria, and Elizabeth to death with a pistol, leaving
Victoria’s nine-month-old girl, Madison, alive but alone and unattended.
Wholaver and his
brother then drove to Clearfield County, where Wholaver discarded the
pistol, a shotgun, and other potentially incriminating items at a remote
Following the discovery
of the bodies and Madison (who survived) approximately twenty-eight
hours after the killings, police obtained search warrants for the
Middletown residence to gather evidence. They later executed warrants to
search Wholaver’s person, his vehicle, and the Cambria County home where
he was living.
Wholaver was arrested
and charged with three counts of first-degree murder, and the
Commonwealth furnished notice that it intended to pursue imposition of
the death penalty.
Prior to trial, Scott
Wholaver pled guilty to third-degree murder and agreed to cooperate as a
Commonwealth witness. He led police to the Clearfield County location,
from where they retrieved the firearms and other evidence. Also before
trial, the prior sexual offense charges were consolidated with the
murder cases. Wholaver secured a change of venire, in light of pre-trial
At trial, the
Commonwealth presented Scott Wholaver as a central witness. He testified
that, following Jean Wholaver’s decision to seek a divorce, Wholaver
stated that he would shoot her.
He then described the
brothers’ nocturnal trip to the Middletown residence on December 24th,
indicating that Wholaver had claimed that he wished only to retrieve his
dog. The trip involved furtive activities and was corroborated by a
surveillance video obtained by police from a convenience store located
mid-way between Cambria County and Middletown.
testified that, upon arrival in Middletown, he was told to stop the
vehicle to permit Wholaver to access the rear seat; Wholaver then
directed him to proceed to a location about a block from the Wholaver
residence; he parked the vehicle there and waited as Wholaver proceeded
toward the residence; Wholaver returned five to ten minutes later
appearing shaken; Wholaver instructed him to drive to the remote
Clearfield County location where he saw the shotgun in the rear of the
vehicle and watched Wholaver shuttle from the vehicle to the woods; and
Wholaver told him to repeat a false story if asked about his whereabouts
during the time period spanning these activities.
The Commonwealth also
offered testimony from several prisoner-witnesses, who described various
incriminatory statements by Wholaver, as well as evidence of Wholaver’s
jail-based efforts to hire a West Virginia man to kill the father of
Victoria’s child, Francisco Ramos, and to fabricate evidence suggesting
that Mr. Ramos had killed Jean, Victoria, and Elizabeth Wholaver.
involved police at an early stage in these efforts, and undercover
officers documented Wholaver’s subsequent solicitation attempts. This
conduct was acknowledged by the defense in closing argument, where
Wholaver’s trial counsel suggested that the attempt reflected only an
effort by a distraught husband and father to avenge the killing of his
family against the man that he believed was the perpetrator.
defense theory of the case recognized that Mr. Ramos was not the killer
but asserted that another man, who had also been intimately associated
with Victoria, had perpetrated the murders.
Ballistics evidence was
presented to connect the pistol found in Clearfield County to the
killings (although the association could not be made firmly, because
both the firearm and bullets were degraded). Further, the Commonwealth
presented evidence that the pistol was registered to Wholaver’s uncle.
The Commonwealth also
introduced the preliminary hearing testimony of Elizabeth and Victoria
Wholaver from the sexual assault case under the forfeiture-by-wrongdoing
exception to the hearsay rule, on the theory that they were killed to
prevent their testimony.
Wholaver was convicted
of first-degree murder pertaining to each of the killings, and of the
separate crimes of killing prosecution witnesses, conspiracy, reckless
endangerment (of Madison), burglary, and criminal solicitation related
to his attempt to have Mr. Ramos killed. He was acquitted of the sexual
In the penalty phase of
the trial, the Commonwealth pursued the in-perpetration-of-a-felony,
grave-risk, multiple-murders, and protection-from-abuse-violation
aggravators, incorporating the evidence adduced in the guilt phase.
Wholaver pursued the no-significant-history-of-prior-criminal-convictions
and catch-all mitigators.
The jury found all of
the aggravators, at least some of the jurors accepted Wholaver’s
proffered mitigators, and the jurors unanimously returned three death
sentences as a consequence of their individual weighing determinations.
Execution set for man in his family’s murder
April 25, 2007
The execution of a triple murderer from northern Cambria County has
been scheduled for June 20 after Gov. Ed Rendell on Wednesday signed
a warrant for the execution by lethal injection.
Ernest R. Wholaver Jr., 47, of St. Benedict was convicted of three
first-degree murders in the shootings of his wife and their two
daughters. The murders took place at his wife’s home in Middletown,
outside Harrisburg. Their bodies were found on Christmas Day 2002.
He was sentenced to death on Aug. 31, 2004. The Pennsylvania Supreme
Court affirmed Wholaver’s sentence on Aug. 22. His petition to the
U.S. Supreme Court seeking a review was denied Jan. 16.
Wholaver – the former owner of a Cambria County trucking company –
had returned to Cambria from suburban Harrisburg months before the
murders, as his marriage was breaking up.
He murdered his estranged wife, Jean, 43, and his daughters,
Victoria, 20, and Elizabeth, 15, on Christmas Eve 2002. Police said
he killed his family in retaliation after child molestation charges
were filed against him. The victims were found after they failed to
show up for Christmas Eve dinner at the home of Jean’s mother in
Victoria’s 9-month-old daughter was found crying but unhurt next to
her mom’s body.
Wholaver is an inmate at SCI-Greene.
At trial, the Dauphin County district attorney’s office showed that
Wholaver and his brother – Scott Wholaver, also of St. Benedict –
had time to drive from a Cambria bar to Middletown and commit the
killings. Scott Wholaver was sentenced to 12 to 25 years in prison
for driving his brother to the crime scene.
Father and husband now charged in murdering family
January 14, 2003
DAUPHIN CO. - A father charged with sexually molesting his two
daughters has now also been harged with the Christmas Eve murders of
the two young women and their mother.
42 year old Ernest Wholaver Jr. was charged Tuesday with killing his
estranged wife, 43 year old Jean Wholaver, and their daughters, 20
year old Victoria and 15 year old Elizabeth, after breaking into
their Middletown home as his brother, Scott Wholaver, waited in a
The victims were found Christmas morning, each had suffered a single
gunshot wound to the head from a .22-caliber weapon. Dauphin County
District Attorney Edward M. Marsico Jr. said Tuesday morning that he
will not decide whether or not to pursue the death penalty until
However, he said that various circumstances exist under which he could
pursue the death penalty, including the killing of a witness in a
court case, Marsico said. "Killing three people in an attempt to
subvert the criminal justice system is a horrendous act and one that
calls for severe punishment"
been free on $100,000 bail pending trial on charges
that he sexually molested his daughters. His bail
was revoked and he was arrested January 2 because
authorities were concerned that he would attempt to
flee before the upcoming sexual assault trial.
His 28 year old brother, Scott,
was charged January 3 with three counts of homicide
as an accomplice. He remains in the Dauphin County
Prison, being held without bail.
Authorities have charged Ernest
Wholaver with three counts murder, which means
prosecutors must prove he acted with malice and
forethought, rather than a blanket charge of
criminal homicide, which includes several degrees of
murder and voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.
He also is charged with burglary,
reckless endangerment and related counts. The
endangerment charge is related to Victoria
Wholaver's 9-month-old daughter Madison, who police
found unharmed near her mother's body.
The charges against Wholaver were
filed based upon a recommendation by the
investigating grand jury, which heard testimony last
"Up until now, the investigation
of this case has taken place in secret, with sealed
warrants, secret testimony and behind closed doors,"
Wholaver's attorney, Spero T. Lappas, said Monday. "The
filing of these charges entitles Mr. Wholaver to a
speedy public trial, and we anxiously await the
opportunity to defend this case in open court."
According to the grand jury
documents, called a presentment, Scott Wholaver
first told police he and his brother were looking
for deer in Cambria County at the time the homicides
occurred but later told police he drove his brother
halfway across the state to the Middletown home of
his wife and daughters.
According to the presentment,
Scott Wholaver said they were drinking early on
December 24 at a Cambria County bar when his brother
said he wanted to go to his former home to get his
Under the conditions of his bail
release in the sexual assault case, Ernest Wholaver
had been barred since July from visiting the home or
contacting his family.
The presentment states that Scott
Wholaver said he parked a block away from the home
around 4 a.m. on Dec. 24 and watched his brother
walk toward it, returning 10 minutes later "in an
agitated state" and telling his brother to drive
"Scott Wholaver also indicated
that on a prior occasion, Ernest Wholaver had
indicated that he would kill Jean Wholaver, Victoria
Wholaver and Elizabeth Wholaver," the grand jury
The presentment also states that
an uncle of the brothers said they did not come home
on the night of the killings and that a .22-caliber
revolver was seized during a search of the home of
Ernest Wholaver Sr. in Cambria County, where Ernest
Wholaver Jr. was living since the sexual assault
charges were filed against him.
Marsico said that ballistics
tests have not determined whether the .22-caliber
revolver seized in the search was the murder weapon.
According to the presentment,
police found a broken garage window at the Wholaver
home, through which the garage door could be opened
and an intruder could get inside the house.
Ernest R. Wholaver Jr.