First Posted: 1/27/2014
HARRISBURG — Double-homicide suspect Hugo Selenski and his lead defense lawyer, Shelley Centini, worked together as a syndicate to undermine Luzerne County prosecutors by intimidating witnesses in the decade-old case, the state Office of Attorney General said Monday.
State prosecutors charged Selenski, 40, Centini, 38, and private investigator James Sulima, 49, a retired Pittston police officer, with multiple counts of witness intimidation, criminal conspiracy, tampering with evidence and perjury.
The charges are the result of a 13-page presentment by a state grand jury that investigated the Selenski case.
Prosecutors alerted Judge Fred Pierantoni III, who is presiding over the Selenski case, to the grand jury investigation during a pre-trial hearing in July.
Selenski’s trial on charges he strangled Michael Kerkowski and Tammy Fassett, both 37, has often been delayed because of appeals. The trial set to begin in March will likely be delayed once again.
Late Monday afternoon, prosecutors filed a motion in Luzerne County Court to remove Centini and Sulima, and to appoint new lawyers. A hearing is scheduled on Feb. 10.
Selenski’s co-defense lawyer, Edward Rymsza, was not charged.
The grand jury presentment alleges Selenski wrote letters that Centini and Sulima delivered to at least five prosecution witnesses at Rob’s Pub and Grub restaurant in Larksville in July.
Each letter was addressed to a specific witness with references to personal lives and families. The letters suggested how each witness should testify during the double-homicide trial.
One witness became outraged. Another witness stated his letter instructed him to “shut up.” Most of the five informed Centini and Sulima they would be committing perjury if they followed the instructions in the letters.
The presentment says Centini provided cash to one witness, and expressed to another that Selenski was angry with the witness for prior statements to police.
Centini received a subpoena to bring the letters when she testified before the grand jury. She did not produce the letters and testified under oath that the letters were lost, according to the presentment.
A witness who did not receive a letter from Selenski, Janna DeSanto, is identified in the presentment as “Follower 1.”
DeSanto began her relationship with Selenski several years ago and became a paralegal for his defense teams. DeSanto conducted personal tasks for Selenski and transported people to visit Selenski in prison.
“The collateral message of Follower 1’s efforts on behalf of Selenski and similarly situated Selenski devotees is clear. ‘Hugo Selenski can reach you. There is no escape.’ ”
When Centini and Sulima met with the witnesses at the restaurant, they never informed the witnesses they were free to leave and could refuse to speak with them.
Centini became a lawyer in 2000 and is a known opponent of the death penalty. The presentment states her “efforts to become a celebrity-lawyer were not merely passive.”
“Centini took great pains to hold herself out as a leading defense attorney in Luzerne County, including associating with the ‘Super Lawyers’ organization,” the presentment says. “There is no doubt that Centini’s desire to further her career, prevail at Selenski’s trail, and undo Pennsylvania’s death penalty laws made her extremely invested in the Selenski case.”
Centini was court-appointed as an independent contractor to defend Selenski in January 2012. A court order allowed Centini to be paid $85 per hour, without benefits, with a cap of $40,000 — equal to 470 hours of work.
Records obtained by The Times Leader in April 2013 show $90,869 had been paid to Centini since she was hired in January 2012.
The Times Leader earlier this month filed a right-to-know request with the county Controller’s Office for updated payments to Centini and Sulima. The county has since sought a 30-day extension before they release the payments.
Sulima was recently in court seeking $10,466 he believes he is owed from the county for his work on the Selenski case.
“I know Shelley Centini is innocent. I know it. She would never commit a crime. She would never commit an ethical violation,” attorney Barry Dyller, her law partner, said Monday afternoon.
Dyller, who last spoke with Centini on Monday morning, said he read the presentment online and described its language at “extremely vague.”
“It looks like a piece of fiction to me,” Dyller said. “That said, Shelley has to face these serious charges now, and I am sure that she will face them well.
“It was unimaginable that this would happen, because she didn’t commit any crime,” he said.
Selenski, Centini and Sulima were charged with multiple counts of witness intimidation, criminal conspiracy, criminal solicitation, tampering with evidence and perjury.
A formal requirement, bail was set for Selenski at $1.5 million. He is serving a 32.6-to-65-year prison sentence for a home invasion in Monroe County, and is held without bail on the homicide charges in Luzerne County.
Centini and Sulima were released on $500,000 unsecured bail each.