Ernest Wholaver – Cold Blooded Murder
In July of 2002, Ernest Wholaver Jr. was charged with multiple sexual offenses for alleged conduct involving his two daughters, Victoria and Elizabeth, the latter of whom was still a minor at the time the charges were lodged.
On behalf of Elizabeth, just 15, Wholaver’s wife, Jean Wholaver, obtained an order under the Protection From Abuse Act which included provisos that Ernest Wholaver Jr. was evicted from the family’s Middletown residence, with no right or privilege of entry. He was also prohibited from possessing or acquiring firearms.
Wholaver moved in with his mother, father and younger brother, Scott Wholaver, in Cambria County.
Christmas Eve 2002 Ernest Wholaver Jr. Makes His Move
Just after midnight on December 24, 2002, Ernest Wholaver Jr. set out for the Middletown residence with his brother, Scott.
While his brother waited in the vehicle, about a block away, Ernest Wholaver Jr. approached the family home. He cut the telephone wires and made forcible entry into the house. He then shot Jean, Victoria, and Elizabeth to death with a pistol, leaving Victoria’s nine-month-old daughter, Madison, alive, but alone and unattended, crying next to her mother’s dead body.
Ernest Wholaver Jr. and his brother then drove to Clearfield County, where Ernest discarded the pistol, a shotgun and other potentially incriminating items at a remote location.
Following the discovery of the bodies, and baby Madison (who survived) approximately twenty-eight hours after the killings, police obtained search warrants for the Middletown residence to gather evidence. They later executed warrants to search Ernest Wholaver Jr.’s person, his vehicle and the Cambria County home where he was living.
Ernest Wholaver Jr. Was Charged With Three Murders
Wholaver was arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder and the Commonwealth furnished notice that it intended to pursue imposition of the death penalty.
Prior to the trial, Scott Wholaver pled guilty to third-degree murder and agreed to cooperate as a Commonwealth witness. He led police to the Clearfield County location, from where they retrieved the firearms and other evidence. Also, before the trial, the prior sexual offense charges were consolidated with the murder cases. Ernest Wholaver Jr. secured a change of venire, in light of pre-trial publicity.
At the trial, the Commonwealth presented Scott Wholaver as a central witness. He testified that, following Jean Wholaver’s decision to seek a divorce from Ernest, Wholaver stated that he would shoot her.
He then described the brothers’ nocturnal trip to the Middletown residence on December 24th, indicating that Ernest Wholaver Jr. had claimed that he wished only to retrieve his dog. The trip involved furtive activities and was corroborated by a surveillance video obtained by police from a convenience store located mid-way between Cambria County and Middletown.
Brother Scott Turns On Ernest Wholaver Jr.
Scott Wholaver testified that, upon arrival in Middletown, he was told to stop the vehicle to permit Wholaver to access the rear seat. Ernest then directed him to proceed to a location about a block from the Wholaver residence. He parked the vehicle there and waited as Ernest Wholaver Jr. proceeded toward the residence. Ernest returned five to ten minutes later appearing shaken.
Ernest instructed him to drive to the remote Clearfield County location where he saw the shotgun in the rear of the vehicle and watched Wholaver shuttle from the vehicle to the woods. Wholaver told him to repeat a false story if asked about his whereabouts during the time period spanning these activities.
The Prisoners Keep No Secrets
The Commonwealth also offered testimony from several prisoner-witnesses, who described various incriminatory statements by Ernest Wholaver Jr., as well as evidence of Wholaver’s jail-based efforts to hire a West Virginia man to kill the father of Victoria’s child, Francisco Ramos, and to fabricate evidence suggesting that Mr. Ramos had killed Jean, Victoria and Elizabeth Wholaver.
A prisoner-witness involved police at an early stage in these efforts, and undercover officers documented Wholaver’s subsequent solicitation attempts. This conduct was acknowledged by the defense in closing argument, where Wholaver’s trial counsel suggested that the attempt reflected only an effort by a distraught husband and father to avenge the killing of his family against the man that he believed was the perpetrator.
Parenthetically, the defense theory of the case recognized that Mr. Ramos was not the killer but asserted that another man, who had also been intimately associated with Victoria, had perpetrated the murders.
Ballistics evidence was presented to connect the pistol found in Clearfield County to the killings (although the association could not be made firmly, because both the firearm and bullets were degraded). Further, the Commonwealth presented evidence that the pistol was registered to Wholaver’s uncle.
The Commonwealth also introduced the preliminary hearing testimony of Elizabeth and Victoria Wholaver from the sexual assault case under the forfeiture-by-wrongdoing exception to the hearsay rule, on the theory that they were killed to prevent their testimony.
Wholaver was convicted of first-degree murder pertaining to each of the killings, and of the separate crimes of killing prosecution witnesses, conspiracy, reckless endangerment (of Madison), burglary, and criminal solicitation related to his attempt to have Mr. Ramos killed. He was acquitted of the sexual offenses, however.
The Penalty Phase
In the penalty phase of the trial, the Commonwealth pursued the in-perpetration-of-a-felony, grave-risk, multiple-murders, and protection-from-abuse-violation aggravators, incorporating the evidence adduced in the guilt phase. Wholaver pursued the no-significant-history-of-prior-criminal-convictions and catch-all mitigators.
The jury found all of the aggravators, at least some of the jurors accepted Wholaver’s proffered mitigators, and the jurors unanimously returned three death sentences as a consequence of their individual weighing determinations.
Ernest Wholaver Jr., 47, of St. Benedict was convicted of three first-degree murders in the shootings of his wife and their two daughters.
He was sentenced to death on Aug. 31, 2004. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed Wholaver’s sentence on Aug. 22. His petition to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a review was denied Jan. 16.
Wholaver is an inmate at SCI-Greene.
At trial, the Dauphin County district attorney’s office showed that Wholaver and his brother – Scott Wholaver, also of St. Benedict – had time to drive from a Cambria bar to Middletown and commit the killings. Scott Wholaver was sentenced to 12 to 25 years in prison for driving his brother to the crime scene.