Prosecutors say two people charged with the 2016 murder of Penn State professor Ronald Bettig were taking advantage of a man whose mental and physical health were deteriorating before they ultimately lured him to a quarry where he was pushed off a ledge and fell to his death.
They allegedly believed they would profit from Bettig's recently written will.
Defense attorneys for George Ishler Jr. and Danelle Geier both say their clients had no motive at all to kill their friend, 56-year-old Bettig, of Lemont. Ishler claims Bettig jumped to his death, while Geier contends Ishler acted alone.
Nineteen months after Bettig's body was found at the bottom of the former Hanson Quarry off Rimmey Road in Potter Township, the trial began Monday morning in Bellefonte for Ishler and Geier, who are charged with murder, conspiracy, aggravated assault and tampering with evidence. Ishler also is charged with lying to police.
Ishler reported Bettig missing to police on Aug. 15, 2016, three days after Bettig fell to his death. Police say that Ishler and Geier lured him to the quarry by telling him Ishler had marijuana growing there and that Ishler pushed him off a ledge while Geier waited in Bettig's car.
In his opening statement, District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said the last five years of Bettig's life were marked by deep depression that began with the death of his second wife in 2011. By 2015, when he first met Ishler, Bettig, who was estranged from his two adult children, also was suffering from dementia and failing physical health.
Bettig would meet Geier, Ishler's niece, through Ishler in early 2016 and take her, her young child and then boyfriend into his home.
In moments of clarity, Cantorna said, Bettig knew that Ishler and Geier were taking advantage of him, both using his credit card without permission. But he also "trusted them with his life."
"How does a man like Ronald Valentine Bettig end up in a car with two people who plan to kill him?" Cantorna said. "He cared for these people because at that point in his life he didn't have very much in it."
Geier's attorney, Deb Lux, said her client played no part in planning Bettig's death and that Ishler only told her what he had done after they left the quarry.
"George Ishler is a cold-blooded killer and a cold-blooded rapist," Lux said.
Lux said Ishler threatened to kill Geier and both of her children, one of whom she did not have custody of and lived in Florida, if Geier did not go along with his plan to return to the scene and plant evidence to make it look like Bettig had been there alone. Lux also claimed that Ishler raped Geier twice after Bettig's death.
Karen Muir, Ishler's attorney, said Bettig "suffered from personal demons" after losing his wife and no longer being able to teach. Bettig, she said, jumped off the cliff in front of Ishler.
The moment was "shocking and traumatic," for Ishler and he "didn't react in the best way," Muir said.
Bettig was an associate professor of communications, who, after receiving his graduate degree from the University of Illinois in 1997, was hired by Penn State and spent the rest of his career there, writing two books along the way. In the spring of 2015, as he struggled mentally and physically, he went on sabbatical.
He tried to return in August but was unable to teach and was placed on disability leave.
His brother, Fred Bettig, testified later on Monday that Ron Bettig's mental decline began in 2011 and became steadily worse. He learned that while on sabbatical in 2015, Ron was staying in bed all day and losing weight. The two talked every few weeks by phone and Ron had become unable to hold a coherent conversation, Fred Bettig said. He also grew more despondent over being unable to teach.
A neighbor testified that in 2015, Bettig came out of his house on a cold day, wearing a dressing gown and slippers and wavered as he walked toward her before collapsing. She said he told her he had been sick and hadn't eaten in days.
"He doesn't have anyone in his life," Cantorna said during opening statements. "He is a vulnerable human being."
In late 2015, Bettig met Ishler at an East College Avenue smoke shop and their relationship largely centered on marijuana, Cantorna said. After meeting Geier and her boyfriend through Ishler, Bettig invited them and Geier's child to live in his house. He would later throw the boyfriend out of the house after finding him with another woman and drugs, Fred Bettig testified.
Though his mental condition continued to decline, Ron Bettig's mood improved after taking Geier in, his brother said. He also said that in April 2016, Ron told him he was upset with Ishler and was going to tell him he didn't want him in his life anymore.
Fred Bettig testified that his brother had spoken more frequently in 2016 about his will, telling him where it was and that Fred was named as the executor.
But in the spring, Bettig hand wrote another will that would leave his house to Geier and named Ishler as the executor who would decide if Bettig's children should receive anything, Cantorna said.
Throughout the summer, Geier and Ishler used Bettig's credit card and he became angry when he discovered a bill, saying he didn't have the money to pay for it, according to Cantorna.
Geier allegedly told another person that she didn't know what Bettig was worried about because he had $1 million in Disney stock. Bettig's brother testified that the stock was actually worth about $50,000.
On Aug. 8, 2016, Ishler allegedly made several internet searches about the value of Disney stock before making a phone call to an estate attorney. Around the same time, Cantorna said, Geier and Ishler began ending their text message exchanges with "I love you." Ishler also allegedly received a text message addressed to "Ron" about purchasing a four-wheeler, to which Ishler responded that he was teaching at the moment and would respond later.
Late on the night of Aug. 10, Bettig, Ishler, Geier and her child traveled to Rehoboth Beach, Del. Cantorna said Ishler and Geier planned to drown Bettig on the trip and make it look like an accident, though they did not follow through on that. Text messages Ishler sent on Aug. 11 indicated he was looking for someone to buy drug from, Cantorna said.
Lux said Ishler invited Geier and Bettig to go with him to the beach and that Ishler's true purpose was to find someone who owed him money. Ishler, she said, owed money to Bettig and had motive for killing him.
That night, Geier was in a motel room when she placed several phone calls to Ishler before texting him "So ready. I'm pissed off." Police say Geier admitted that meant she was ready for them to follow through with their plan to kill Bettig.
Lux, however, said Geier had been stuck in the motel room all day while Ishler and Bettig were out and pointed to earlier text messages asking where they were and saying she wanted to eat. "So ready," meant she was ready to go home, Lux said.
When they returned to Centre County on Aug. 12, they took Bettig's car directly to the quarry. While Geier fed and changed her child, Ishler and Bettig walked through a wooded area toward the ledge.
In a confession Ishler says was made under duress and with false promises by police, he admitted to pushing Bettig, telling investigators "I pushed the professor off the cliff." Muir previously filed a motion, which was denied, to preclude the statement.
Muir said during her opening remarks that if jurors decide his statement was not made voluntarily, it cannot be used against him. She said she believes there will be no evidence that Ishler pushed Bettig.
Cantorna said Ishler and Bettig struggled briefly, with Ishler going down to his knees and nearly falling himself before throwing Bettig over. Bettig fell 80 feet, shattering both femurs and breaking an arm as he landed on his back. A medical examiner previously reported that Bettig may have been alive for up to two days before he died.
Ishler and Geier left in Bettig's car and returned to his Lemont home. Bettig's neighbor testified to seeing the car travel at a high rate of speed and saw that Ishler was driving it. She said Bettig was not with them.
Lux said Geier repeatedly questioned Ishler about where Bettig was and that Ishler told her Bettig was tending to marijuana plants. Geier noticed gravel on Ishler's knees and he eventually said he killed Bettig, Lux said. Ishler then allegedly threatened Geier and her children and raped her.
"Danelle had no reason to kill the professor," Lux said. "He took her in and cared for her and [her child.]"
Ishler left in Bettig's car and returned later that night for them to go back to the quarry, where he would place a water bottle, hand rake and flashlight, Cantorna said.
On Aug. 15, Geier texted Ishler, writing "Uncle George, can you can come over? He hasn't shown up." Ishler then reported Bettig missing.
Bettig's brother testified he learned Ron had been reported missing and called his house several times before Geier answered. Geier told him that after they got back from the beach she took a nap and when she awoke he was gone. She told him she couldn't think of any reason anyone would be upset with him and that she was concerned because a few weeks earlier Bettig had experienced dizziness that caused him to fall. She told him she knew he was growing marijuana somewhere and that she was afraid he might have gone there and collapsed, Fred Bettig said.
She said she was upset people might think she had something to do with his disappearance because "I loved him."
"My heart sank because it really struck me that she used the past tense," Fred Bettig testified.
After Ron Bettig's body was discovered on Aug. 17, Fred Bettig said he received a phone call from someone identifying himself as "George" from a number he didn't recognize. He said he had never spoken to Ishler before and that "George" asked him if he knew anything about what had happened to Ron. "George" told him Ron wasn't doing well but that he had introduced him to Geier and seemed to be doing better before asking him to let him know if he heard any more information.
Police say that Geier admitted Ishler pushed Bettig. Lux said Geier told police she was afraid of Ishler and that police told her to pack up her things and took her to a safe location.
Ishler, meanwhile, was questioned overnight Aug. 17 into Aug. 18, eventually telling investigators, "I pushed the professor off the cliff," according to Cantorna.
Muir said during her opening statement that jurors should pay close attention to the circumstances when Ishler made the statement and what police said to him.
The trial is scheduled to last through next week.