It sounded, at first, like an innocent hunting accident: A Bucks County hunter who had just bagged a buck caught a stray bullet and died on the first day of hunting season last month.
But as an investigation unfolded into the Nov. 29 death of hunter Barry Groh, things suddenly seemed more sinister: The apparent shooter is a lawyer who allegedly used a high-powered rifle illegal for deer hunting in Bucks County, and this wasn't his first involvement in bloodshed. In 1993, as lawyer David Michael Manilla and a friend hunted pheasants, a shot hit another hunter in the neck, narrowly missing an artery. Manilla and his friend were cited for careless hunting.
And in 1985, Manilla beat a man with a weightlifting bar outside a Norristown gym. The attack required skull surgery for the victim and earned Manilla a conviction for aggravated assault and four months behind bars, according to court records.
In the latest case, a bullet fatally ripped into Groh's arm and chest as he prepared to gut a deer beside a stream near property owned by Manilla in Richland Township. Groh had doffed his blaze-orange vest to dress the deer but was still wearing his fluorescent hat when he was shot, said Bucks County District Attorney David W. Heckler.
Manilla's hunting group found Groh and alerted authorities.
Although authorities say Groh's death was not intentional, Manilla is likely to face trouble because of his 1985 case: Convicted felons in Pennsylvania are not permitted to possess or use firearms.
And yet in the latest incident, a high-ranking law-enforcement veteran - Manilla's uncle, former Montgomery County District Attorney Michael D. Marino - was part of the hunting party and may have witnessed Manilla's alleged gun-handling. Marino couldn't be reached for comment.
Heckler said yesterday that he hopes to announce charges in the case tomorrow.
"There's no evidence to suggest that anybody set out to kill him for any motive, or that he was viewed as a trespasser," Heckler said.
Rather, "this is an irresponsible shot, a reckless, outrageous shot taken without regard to the obligations one has when handling not only a high-powered rifle but any firearm."
Meanwhile, the victim's mother, Anna Groh, 89, cried yesterday as she recounted hearing about her youngest child's death.
Groh, 52, a married father of two from Quakertown, adored fishing and hunting, his mother said.
Laid off recently from his factory job, he had started college courses this fall in the Allentown area, she said.
She said she's eager for authorities to arrest her son's killer.
"They should put him away for life," she said.
Richard Winters, Manilla's Norristown-based attorney, did not return telephone calls from the Daily News yesterday.