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CRIME

Pa. town ponders councilman's arrest in old murder

As a small town comes to grips with a 32-year-old murder, the talk isn't just about a borough councilman being held without bond in a local jail.

The long-forgotten murder of 23-year-old Catherine Walsh has also brought back memories of a man who may have been unjustly accused, as residents ponder the difference between reputation and true character.

Walsh was found dead in her home on Labor Day in 1979 in Monaca, a quiet borough on the eastern bank of the Ohio River, about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh. The Beaver River flows in from the north, and the neighboring towns of Beaver and the boroughs of Bridgewater and Rochester are all clustered nearby. Rudyard Kipling vacationed in the area in 1899, writing in one of his books of "peaceful, placid Beaver and its boundless cordiality, its simple, genuine hospitality."

Murders are rare in the area. There was none in Monaca Borough last year and just five robberies, according to state crime statistics. There wasn't a single robbery or murder in Bridgewater, and Beaver Borough had just one robbery.

Dave Porter grew up on the same street with the man who allegedly killed Walsh, Gregory Scott Hopkins, whom locals call Scott. And for many years Porter played hockey with Scott Walsh, Catherine's estranged husband at the time of the murder.

Hopkins won election to the Bridgewater Council last November. When news of his arrest Monday began to filter through the community, Porter said most people were stunned. And if Hopkins had a known flaw, it was hardly a criminal one.

"He had an edge to him, but the edge was he liked profit, he liked money," Porter said.

Public records show that in 2006 a building company sued Hopkins, who owned a construction company. The building company recovered a $52,654 judgment for unpaid bills and legal fees.

Bridgewater Council President William Rains told the Beaver County Times that Hopkins was a good councilman who "did his job proficiently," but many others suggested there was more to say, yet were unwilling to do so.

A man at one downtown bar said he knew Hopkins but then declined to speak after the bartender motioned with her hands. Others froze at just the mention of Hopkins' name.

Residents may just be struggling to reconcile the allegations of the murder with a man they thought they knew, said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Dusquesne University in Pittsburgh.

"People who were murderers don't always act like murderers" as time goes on, Ledewitz said. "It's like the cases in which a radical blows up a building in the '60s, and then goes underground and becomes a regular citizen." He added that many details about the case against Hopkins are still not public.

Hopkins' attorney, James Ross, said he plans to vigorously investigate and defend the case.

Porter said that as he turned the news over in his mind, forgotten memories of Walsh's murder came back.

"I can remember Scotty Walsh not being around for a few days, and everybody blaming him," Porter said of the victim's former husband, adding that two people he spoke to this week "both felt relieved for Scotty."

A phone number listed in the area for a Scott Walsh was disconnected.

After Walsh's death, police identified Hopkins as a possible suspect. He told investigators that he and Walsh had been in a consensual relationship, but he said he hadn't had sex with her at the house where she was killed for a month.

Advances in DNA technology helped secure Hopkins' arrest, District Attorney Anthony Berosh said. State police had kept in storage the sheets on the bed, the rope used to tie Walsh and the bandanna, and they started to re-examine the evidence in 2010. They obtained a match with Hopkins' DNA this month.

Ledewitz said the details of the evidence will be crucial if the case goes to trial.

For example, he said, "semen is not necessarily evidence that the person who had sex with her killed her. Then all you have is that he had sex with her around that time."

Porter said residents are struggling to process the new information.

"Everybody's caught off guard," he said.

Ledewitz said a person's reputation in a community can make a difference in a possible trial.

"But police don't care how good a life you've led," he said. "In this case, I think the community will eventually wake up."

On Friday, a Beaver County judge denied Hopkins' request for bond.