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LIFE IN PRISON FOR TOOLEY

By DAVID WEISS Times Leader Staff Writer

Tuesday, September 16, 2003     Page: 1A

WILKES-BARRE Larry Tooley took something unique away from each of Casey Zalenski's family members when he killed the 16-year-old in November. From a father, he took the away the boy's "soft, sweet voice, saying: "Hey, dad, do you want to play basketball with me?" From a mother, he took a nighttime phone call telling her he was done with work and needed a ride home. From a younger brother, he took a video game partner and a best friend. On Monday, Tooley learned his own life wouldn't be taken for killing Zalenski. Instead, he will spend the rest of his life in prison for the Nov. 8 killing in Franklin Township. A jury deliberated for nearly three hours before telling Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. it could not reach a unanimous decision on whether Tooley, 46, should be sentenced to death on a first-degree murder conviction. The deadlock called for an automatic life sentence without parole on the murder charge. He will be sentenced on robbery, burglary and conspiracy charges in October. Sources Monday night indicated the jury was deadlocked at 10-2 in favor of the death penalty. The deadlock did not sit well with Zalenski's mother, Shirley. She began crying while the jury and Tooley were still in the courtroom. She sat, surrounded by her family, sobbing and saying: "He killed my son." But District Attorney David Lupas said justice still prevailed in taking Tooley "out of circulation." "The unlawful taking of a human life is in and of itself disturbing," said Lupas, who commended the prosecution team. "But when that life is a child's life, it is all the more horrendous. Larry Tooley is a heartless, soulless, cold-blooded killer without a conscience." It also came as a relief to a Tooley attorney, William Ruzzo. He was pleased the jury spared Tooley's life, but realized the amount of pain still felt by the Zalenski family. "My sympathies go out them," he said. "There are just no winners in this situation. My feeling of elation for what I think is saving someone's life is very much tempered by the fact that their son is gone and not coming back. Essentially, Larry Tooley is put away and not coming back, either." An unemotional Tooley made no comments after the verdict. The same jury last week convicted Tooley of murder for going to the Zalenski home with 33-year-old Tina Young, the family's former babysitter, to steal money for heroin. Monday's deadlock came hours after members of both families and two experts testified. Prosecutors presented evidence, called aggravating factors, to show why they thought Tooley should be put to death. They said Tooley deserved the penalty because he killed Zalenski while committing a felony and because of his violent past. And Tooley's attorneys were seeking to show 16 reasons, called mitigating factors, to show why Tooley should be sentenced to life in prison. The hearing got off to a rough start, when Tooley's attorneys asked for a mistrial. After a lengthy discussion, Olszewski denied the request. Ruzzo told jurors the manner in which Tooley's father raised him played the biggest role in warping Tooley's life. Tooley grew up in a Paterson, N.J., housing project. His father was either in prison or out drinking and "chasing women," Ruzzo said. Tooley's family members, including his 74-year-old mother and two brothers, told jurors Tooley was subject to seeing his father beat his mother once shooting at her and having his father urge him to be violent. They also noted Tooley's father giving him a gun with bullets for his 12th birthday, the affects of Tooley's military service in Vietnam, and how he once got his throat slit helping his father in a fight. It was all those negative factors, Ruzzo argued, that twisted Tooley's life to where it is now. Their testimony was preceded by Assistant District Attorney William Finnegan telling jurors of Tooley's prior criminal conviction on charges of rape, robbery and kidnapping. In 1981, Tooley grabbed a 22-year-old woman from behind as she left a doctor's office in New Jersey, Finnegan said. He covered her mouth and said he would "blow her away" if she tried to escape. Tooley forced the woman into the car with his hand around her neck. He struck her, raped her, robbed her of $150 and tied her to a fire escape before leaving. He served 18 years in prison on the charges and was released in 2000. But Zalenski's parents and two younger brothers read impact statement to jurors, telling them how Tooley's actions two years after his release impacted their lives. His parents said they will never get to see their eldest son fulfill any of the goals he had set, including becoming a Navy SEAL. "When Casey died, a part of me died with him," said Shirley Zalenski, who suffered medical problems the day of her son's funeral but didn't immediately go to the hospital. "How do you go to a hospital when you have to bury your son?" His father, Bill, slows down every time he reaches the spot on the steps where his son was killed. "I don't want to hurt him," he said. And Casey's younger brothers, Tommey, 15, and Brandon, 11, miss playing video games, going for hikes and spending time with their big brother. "There was never a day we spent ... apart," Tommey said. "Casey, you will always be in our hearts."
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