Man connected to Shephard murder gets probation

Man connected to Shephard murder gets probation

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F. Bruce Covington, who’s accused of bringing illegal drugs to the home where a young man was killed in 2006, was sentenced this week to three years of probation for drug offenses in a separate incident.

In February 2008, Covington allegedly administered the “date-rape” drug, gamma hydroxybutrate acid, to a 27-year-old man during a sexual encounter inside Covington’s apartment in Narberth, Montgomery County.

Covington also allegedly injected crystal methamphetamine into the man, according to court documents.

Seventeen months earlier, 23-year-old Jason Shephard was found strangled to death inside William F. Smithson’s home in Thornbury. The victim had consumed GHB that Covington allegedly brought to the home, according to court documents.

Covington will stand trial on those charges next month; an exact date hasn’t been set. Delaware County Common Pleas Judge James F. Nilon Jr. is expected to preside over the trial.

In the Montgomery County case, a search was conducted inside Covington’s apartment, which yielded crystal methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, a crack pipe and other drug paraphernalia, according to police records.

Covington, a former administrator at St. Joseph’s University, faced 37 misdemeanors and two felonies stemming from the Montgomery County case — all drug-related counts.

He was not charged with sexual assault.

But on June 22, after the witness failed to appear for Covington’s drug trial, a hastily arranged plea-bargain was announced. Under the deal, Covington pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges related to possessing methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

In return for the guilty plea, Covington avoided jail time. He was facing life imprisonment, if convicted of all 39 counts.

Instead, Covington must serve three years of probation, pay a $500 fine and court costs, attend sex-addiction classes and receive treatment for drug addiction during his probation.

Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge William J. Furber Jr. also ordered Covington to stay away from the witness during his probationary period.

Covington, who holds a law degree, still faces charges for delivering crystal methamphetamine, GHB and drug paraphernalia to Smithson’s home in September 2006, when Shephard died.

He’s also charged with lying about his whereabouts when police questioned him about the homicide, but hasn’t been directly linked to Shephard’s death, according to court records.

Smithson was convicted of Shephard’s murder last November, though he continues to maintain his innocence and has implied that Covington was the killer.

According to court documents, Covington first said he went to Smithson’s home on the night of Sept. 18, 2006, for a sex party. Initially, he said he left the house before Shephard arrived, according to court documents.

However, Covington’s phone records indicated that he remained in Smithson’s house throughout the night, and left about 8:30 the following morning, after Shephard was killed, according to court documents. In a follow-up interview with authorities, Covington reportedly said he was asleep in the basement of Smithson’s house during the time of Shephard’s killing and knew nothing about it.

Covington, 58, remains free on bail, pending the outcome of his Delaware County trial.

Smithson, 44, remains incarcerated at the Delaware County Prison in Thornton while awaiting transfer to a state correctional facility.

Several advocates for Smithson attended Covington’s plea-bargain proceeding this week, and questioned why Covington hasn’t faced trial yet for his alleged 2006 offenses.

They said Furber may not have accepted the plea bargain so readily if Covington had already been convicted of his alleged offenses in the Shephard incident.

Erica Parham, a spokesperson for the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, had no comment about the scheduling of Covington’s trial for the 2006 incident.

Rob Nardello, a close friend of Smithson, expressed disappointment that Covington’s trial for the 2008 incident wasn’t postponed until the witness could be located and brought to court.

“It’s a shame they couldn’t have postponed the trial until the witness was available, because there are still so many more unanswered questions in regard to Covington’s actions,” Nardello said. “If Covington keeps getting these slaps on the wrist, we may never really know the true extent of his involvement in either case.”

Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney John W. Aitchison, who helped craft the plea bargain on June 22, said he had no control over Delaware County’s trial schedule.

“It would have been preferable to have the Delaware County charges tried first,” Aitchison told PGN. “It’s always in the interest of judicial economy to have matters tried in the chronological order that they occur.”

When asked about requesting a continuance, Aitchison said Furber made it clear at the June 22 proceeding that he expected the witness to appear by noon that day, if a trial were to take place.

Aitchison said Covington wasn’t charged with sexual assault because of a joint decision made by the District Attorney’s Office and the witness.

“During our investigation, we, along with the victim, decided it would not be fruitful to go down that road,” he said.

Aitchison also said he couldn’t introduce transcripts of the witness’ testimony about his alleged drugging and sex assault by Covington in lieu of the witness’ actual testimony on June 22.

The transcripts were made when the witness testified at Smithson’s trial, and Covington didn’t have the opportunity to confront his accuser during that proceeding, Aitchison noted.

Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 x. 208.

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