By DON AINES
May 10, 2013
A Waynesboro, Pa., man pleaded guilty Friday in Franklin County Common Pleas Court to three counts of first-degree murder in the 2012 shootings of his estranged wife, her boyfriend and the boyfriend’s mother, and was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without parole.
Kevin Mathew Cleeves, 36, formerly of 601 W. Main St., pleaded guilty to the July 27, 2012, shooting deaths of his estranged wife, Brandi N. Killingsworth Cleeves, 25, in the driveway of her boyfriend’s home on Pa. 997. In the same incident, he shot and killed Brandi Cleeves’ boyfriend, Vincent Luke Santucci Jr., 28; and Santucci’s mother, Rosemary Holma, 55.
The three-hour sentencing hearing took place amid tight security, with a half dozen or more uniformed deputies in the courtroom at any one time. About two dozen members of the victims’ families were present.
“You took something from me I will never get back, my daughter Brandi,” her mother, Wanda Clark, said in court.
“I will never know if you are truly sorry or not ... but I know we will all stand in judgment for what we do,” Clark said.
Cleeves also was charged with kidnapping a minor, unlawful restraint of a minor, endangering the welfare of a child, reckless endangerment and two counts of unlawful possession of a handgun. Those charges were dismissed as part of the plea agreement, but not before Common Pleas Court Judge Shawn Meyers asked him to acknowledge that his actions were consistent with those charges.
“I do accept that,” Cleeves replied.
He also apologized to the families of his victims.
“I know you hate me,” he said. “If I was in your position I would too. ... I know nothing can replace your loss."
The kidnapping charge was for abducting his then-4-year-old daughter, Leia Cleeves, from the scene of the shootings. The firearms counts are tied to a misdemeanor conviction in Arizona, according to court records.
After the shooting, Cleeves was apprehended in Ohio with Leia, who was the subject of a custody dispute between her parents in court.
Cleeves had pleaded not guilty in November 2012, and Franklin County District Attorney Matthew Fogal said then that he intended to seek the death penalty.
Fogal said he consulted “extensively” with surviving relatives and Pennsylvania State Police before agreeing to the proposed sentences.
“I have considered many factors, not the least of which is the potential emotional trauma to be inflicted upon the innocent young girl who witnessed her mother’s murder, if she were to be called as a witness in a trial,” Fogal said in a news release earlier this week.
“In today’s society, we hear the word closure a lot,” Fogal said during the hearing. He told the court he did not believe the plea agreement would bring closure “nor will it necessarily bring healing” to the families.
“There’s the little girl involved in this case ... She saw three people murdered in front of her — one of them was her mother — by her father,” Fogal told the court.
The plea agreement did not sit well with many of the victims’ relatives.
“Cleeves shot my son eight times, is there any doubt what his intent was?” Vincent Santucci Sr., the father of Vincent Santucci Jr. and the former husband of Rosemary Holma, told the judge. The three victims were shot a total of 22 times, he said.
Santucci told the court that he had listened to a recording of the 911 cellphone call that his son made as the shooting took place. He said he could hear the victims screaming until the only voice left was that of Leia Cleeves.
“It turns out Leia is the reason we’re here today ... She saved your life,” Santucci said, directing his remarks to Kevin Cleeves. Santucci told the court he doubted that either the defense or prosecution would have called the child to testify at trial.
The last time Leia Cleeves saw her mother was as she was being murdered by her father, Santucci said.
Holma, his former wife and an emergency room nurse, was killed trying to come to the aid of Brandi and his son, Santucci told the court.
“She died a hero trying to save my son and Brandi,” Santucci said.
“The overwhelming majority of the family wants the case to go to trial and seek the death penalty,” Santucci told the court.
Santucci and others said they also wanted the state to pursue the other charges that were dismissed.
“I think our family deserves an answer to those questions,” Santucci said.
Meyers said he agreed and called a recess. When the hearing resumed, Cleeves made his acknowledgment that his actions were consistent with those charges.
For purposes of sentencing, any sentences for the other charges likely would be merged with the consecutive life sentences, Meyers told the victims’ families.
Authorities have said that Cleeves was locked in a bitter custody battle with Brandi Cleeves before the slayings. Authorities allege that he killed her and Santucci outside Santucci’s home, then killed Holma when she tried to help her son. Cleeves then fled the scene with his daughter.
Cleeves was captured the next day near Youngstown, Ohio, with the girl, who was unharmed.
A Glock 9 mm handgun was recovered when authorities apprehended Cleeves, Pennsylvania State Police wrote in an affidavit of probable cause filed in the case.
Kevin and Brandi Cleeves had submitted custody filings in court. According to those documents, the couple began a relationship in September 2005, and Leia was born in December 2007. They married in February 2012 and separated in June 2012.
Online court records from Scottsdale, Ariz., indicate Cleeves was charged with domestic violence in August 2004 and pleaded guilty.
In an amended affidavit of probable cause, Pennsylvania State Police said Cleeves did not finish requirements in an Arizona diversion program and a warrant subsequently was issued. Because of that, state police said Cleeves was not eligible to possess or use a firearm.
Vincent Santucci Sr. questioned how Cleeves was able to obtain a concealed weapons permit in Pennsylvania.
He said he had talked to his son in the days before the murders, and his son told him he contacted police and informed them that Kevin Cleeves had been sending threatening texts and possessed a handgun, Santucci said.
He had contacted Pennsylvania State Police and Waynesboro police about his son’s concerns, but they denied he ever spoke with them, Santucci said after the hearing.
Along with the three life sentences, the terms of the plea agreement call for Cleeves to have no contact with his daughter or the other victims’ family members, Fogal told the court. Contact can only be initiated by Leia Cleeves, at her discretion, once she is an adult, Meyers said during sentencing.
Cleeves also waived his appeal rights as part of the plea agreement, Fogal told the court.
Meyers ordered Cleeves to pay $30,869.46 in restitution to the victims’ families.