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Suspect is ordered held for trial for alleged murder of pregnant Amish woman

Mar. 16—An Erie County man will go on trial in Crawford County Court for allegedly killing a pregnant Amish woman and her unborn child near Spartansburg last month.

Following about five hours of testimony at a preliminary hearing Friday, Magisterial District Judge Amy Nicols ordered Shawn Cranston held for trial for the deaths of Rebekah Byler, 23, and her unborn baby girl on Feb. 26 at the Byler home in Sparta Township.

Despite lengthy testimony, no motive for the alleged crime was presented Friday by those testifying nor did the Crawford County District Attorney's Office present it.

The young mother was found dead in the living room of her Fish Flats Road home around midday Feb. 26 after Byler's husband and a family friend had arrived back at the Byler home just after noon that day. The couple's two young children were found in the home unharmed.

Cranston killed Byler and her unborn female child by shooting Byler in the head and/or slashing her throat, according to charges filed by Pennsylvania State Police.

Cranston is charged with one felony count each of criminal homicide, criminal homicide of an unborn child, burglary with bodily injury, and criminal trespass. Cranston was arrested the night of March 1 in the parking lot of a store near his home on East Main Street in Corry.

More than a dozen witnesses were called in, including members of the Amish community — Byler's husband, Andy, and other area residents — and multiple Pennsylvania State Police investigators involved in the case.

Andy Byler, the deceased woman's husband, testified he and Julie Warner, a family friend and driver, had returned to the Byler home around noon Feb. 26. When Andy Byler and Warner left the home after 8 a.m. that day, Rebekah Byler was alive and doing laundry. When Byler and Warner arrived back, the Bylers' two young children came out of the home to say what had happened to their mother, Andy Byler testified.

"I didn't really believe it," Andy Byler testified. As he started to enter, Byler said he couldn't make himself go in farther into the home, racing out after seeing his wife's white cap lying inside the door.

"Julie went in," Byler said. "She called 911."

Byler testified he didn't know Shawn Cranston nor had he ever permitted Cranston to enter the home.

However, Byler also testified that about three weeks prior to his wife's Feb. 26 death, a man drove onto Byler's property late one night after 10 p.m.

"We were in bed, and there was a vehicle with no lights on in the driveway, and somebody ran into the barn," Byler said. When Byler went outside to investigate, he found the man in the barn.

"He said he wanted to buy my house and would be back at 10:30 a.m. the next day, but nobody showed up then," Byler said.

When District Attorney Paula DiGiacomo asked if he remembered the vehicle, Byler replied no.

Asked if he'd recognize the man, Byler said, "Not 100 percent," but remembered the man had a beard and a big head.

When Byler was asked if the man he saw that night was in the courtroom, Byler said yes and pointed at Shawn Cranston.

Warner and Byler had returned to the home, Warner said she headed toward the Bylers' barn as Byler walked toward the house. Warner testified she noticed laundry was still on the line at the time and didn't see Rebekah.

"He's yelling his wife is dead and what is he going to do," Warner testified as to what she heard moments later.

Warner called 911, went into the home and saw the two children playing with toys in the dining room. She called the children before going in to check on Rebekah Byler, Warner testified.

A 911 dispatcher had asked Warner to check Rebekah Byler's pulse, but Warner testified she couldn't do it, but said, "I could tell she was cold."

Several other witnesses called to testify stated they saw a red Jeep in the driveway of the Byler home between about 10 and 11 a.m. Feb. 26.

Several state police witnesses were called to testify about cellphone data of Cranston's phone number and vehicle global positioning system data, as well as video surveillance from several locations in the Spartansburg and Corry areas to connect Cranston as the alleged driver of the red Jeep seen in the area.

However, under cross-examination by Gary Kern, Crawford County's first assistant public defender and Cranston's defense attorney, Trooper Samuel Hubbard testified neither the alleged firearm nor sharp cutting instruments used to kill Rebekah Byler had been recovered yet by police.

"There's a lot of circumstantial evidence, but at the end of the day, there's no testimony regarding motive nor is there a weapon," Kern said in arguing the case be dismissed.

Nicols denied the request and ordered Cranston held for trial on all charges.

Cranston's trial is scheduled for the June term of county criminal court. He sent back to the Crawford County Correctional Facility in Saegertown, where he has been held without bond since his March 1 arrest.

Keith Gushard can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.