On the morning that police say his wife and daughters were killed, a masked Ernest Wholaver Jr. walked into the darkness toward the family’s Dauphin County home, returned to his waiting younger brother several minutes later, and said, “Drive, drive, drive,” the brother testified yesterday.
“We were never here,” Ernest Wholaver said later, according to Scott Wholaver’s testimony in District Justice James Pianka’s courtroom.
The Wholaver brothers are closely linked with Cambria County. Scott Wholaver. 28, is of the 200 block of Dunsmore Road, St. Benedict. Ernest Wholaver had been staying with relatives in northern Cambria County for months prior to his arrest.
The testimony came after Scott Wholaver, 28, agreed to plead guilty to three counts of third-degree murder and related charges and to testify against his brother in a deal that prosecutors say strengthens their case against Ernest Wholaver.
Following the hearing, Ernest Wholaver was ordered to stand trial on three counts of murder and other charges.
Police accuse him of breaking into his former home in the 800 block of North Union Street early on Dec. 24 and fatally shooting his wife, Jean, and his daughters, 20-year-old Victoria and 15-year-old Elizabeth. Their bodies were discovered Christmas morning.
The house was entered by way of a broken window pane on a garage door, police said.
Dauphin County Chief Deputy District Attorney Francis T. Chardo said Ernest Wholaver killed the three out of vengeance and a desire to silence them. The girls had accused their father last summer of sexually molesting them for years, and Ernest Wholaver had been due to stand trial on those charges when the killings occurred.
“He had the greatest of motives to kill these three witnesses against him,” Chardo said.
Spero T. Lappas, the attorney for Ernest Wholaver, reiterated that his client is falsely accused and called Scott Wholaver’s story that he drove with Ernest to the family’s Middletown home a complete fabrication.
“Scott is desperate and he’s at the mercy of powerful forces,” Lappas said. “The fact that Scott Wholaver testified against (Ernest) means nothing. Desperate and devious brothers have been harming one another since Cain slew Abel.”
Chardo called three witnesses yesterday – Scott Wholaver, Middletown police Sgt. Robert Givler and a co-worker of Jean Wholaver who helped to pin down the timeline of the slayings.
Givler said he went to the Wholaver home on Christmas morning after relatives in the Johnstown area called to inquire why they had not arrived as planned.
Givler said he saw Jean Wholaver’s body in the kitchen as soon as he stepped inside from the garage.
Drawn upstairs by a noise, police found Victoria Wholaver’s body. In the crook of Victoria’s outstretched arm was her 9-month-old daughter, Madison. The child was unharmed but crying.
Elizabeth Wholaver was in a bedroom, sprawled across a bed. he said.
All had been shot once in the head with a .22-caliber weapon, police said.
A large man with a small voice, Scott Wholaver haltingly testified that he and Ernest Wholaver had been out drinking near their parents’ Cambria County home late Dec. 23 when Ernest told him they were going to Middletown because “he wanted to go get his puppy.”
The two took turns driving to Middletown, he said. At one point, they stopped so Ernest could change into dark clothing, he said.
Scott Wholaver said he knew that Ernest Wholaver had been prohibited since July from going to the Middletown home, under the conditions of his bail release in the sexual assault case and a protection from abuse order obtained on behalf of Elizabeth Wholaver.
Scott said he parked about a block away from the home around 4 a.m. Ernest Wholaver got out and walked in the direction of the house, Scott Wholaver said. He wore a mask and two pairs of gloves, Scott said.
Five to 10 minutes later, he returned, Scott Wholaver said.
“He got back in the truck and said ‘Drive, drive, drive,'” Scott Wholaver said. “He was shaking, nervous.
‘You wouldn’t believe what I saw,” Ernest said, according to his brother’s testimony.
The brothers stopped several times on the way back to Cambria County so that Ernest could change cloth and leave several items in the woods, Scott Wholaver said.
Scott Wholaver’s attorney, Public Defender Justin McShane, said his client agreed to plead guilty partially because he feels “extreme remorse” for his role in helping Ernest get to Middletown.
“My honest belief is that he did not know what was going on,” McShane said.
If prosecutors decide that Scott Wholaver kept his end of the bargain after Ernest’s trial- which is likely a year away – he faces 12 to 25 years in state prison.
Lappas called the prosecution’s case against Ernest Wholaver thin. “They have absolutely nothing,” he said.
Chardo disagreed, saying his office has more than Scott Wholaver’s testimony.
“We have extremely compelling circumstantial evidence,” he said.
Prosecutors hope to try Ernest Wholaver on the sexual assault charges and the killings at the same time.
Ernest Wholaver remains in Dauphin County Prison. Scott Wholaver was moved to Cumberland County Prison for his safety, prosecutors said.