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Probe of deer hunter's death centers on Montco lawyer

An investigation into the Nov. 29 shooting death of a Bucks County deer hunter is centering on a Montgomery County lawyer who was cited for careless hunting in a previous shooting accident.

Barry Groh of Quakertown (left) was found fatally shot. He was marreid with two sons. David M. Manilla (right) is the focus of the probe into the bucks killing, one of his lawyer said.
Barry Groh of Quakertown (left) was found fatally shot. He was marreid with two sons. David M. Manilla (right) is the focus of the probe into the bucks killing, one of his lawyer said.Read more

An investigation into the Nov. 29 shooting death of a Bucks County deer hunter is centering on a Montgomery County lawyer who was cited for careless hunting in a previous shooting accident.

The criminal probe by the Bucks County District Attorney's Office has become focused on David M. Manilla of Worcester, confirmed Richard Winters, one of two lawyers representing Manilla.

"That's probably a fair statement," Winters said Monday, publicly affirming what had been circulating in county government and legal circles. "It's not really a secret; it's pretty much out on the street."

Manilla, 49, and his uncle, former Montgomery County District Attorney Michael D. Marino, were in the hunting party that reported the shooting to authorities, according to several sources familiar with the case. The sources said Marino, 68, was not a suspect.

A lawyer since 1992, Manilla touts himself as an expert in drunken-driving cases.

He also has experience as a criminal defendant. Manilla has a felony assault record in Montgomery County and a conviction for reckless hunting in Schuylkill County and is in a probationary program for a shoplifting arrest last year in Berks County.

He did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Bucks County District Attorney David W. Heckler has confirmed that investigators have identified a suspect in the shooting death of hunter Barry Groh. He declined Monday to name that suspect.

Heckler said he hoped to make an announcement in the case by the end of this week. "We would love to get this done and move on," he said.

Groh, 52, of Quakertown, was found fatally shot in the chest around noon on the first day of Pennsylvania's gun season for deer. His body lay in a creek along the border of land Manilla owns in Richland Township, not far from a buck that Groh had shot and dragged to the creek bed.

The death of Groh, who was married and had two sons, has been ruled a homicide.

Heckler said it did not appear that Groh had been killed intentionally. The prosecutor said he was weighing an array of possible charges ranging from third-degree murder to hunting violations.

Marino served as Montgomery County's top law enforcement official from 1988 through 1999, and as a county commissioner from 1999 through 2003. Reached by phone Monday, he declined to comment, citing the investigation.

Lawyer Timothy Woodward, a former Montgomery County detective and former first assistant district attorney, confirmed that he was representing Manilla's girlfriend in the investigation. He declined to comment further and would not say why the woman needed a lawyer.

Because no charges have been filed, neither Winters nor Heckler would discuss details of how the shooting might have occurred.

Heckler has said, however, that the fatal shot was fired from a high-powered rifle. It is illegal to hunt with such weapons in heavily populated counties such as Bucks, where only bow and shotgun hunting are allowed.

It is not the first time Manilla has been scrutinized in connection with an accidental shooting while hunting.

In 1994, Manilla was cited for carelessly or negligently shooting at another hunter in Schuylkill County. A 59-year-old man was injured.

Nine years before that, Manilla was convicted of aggravated assault, a felony, for beating another man in the head with a weightlifting bar outside a gym in Norristown.

That 1985 case, in which Marino served as his nephew's defense lawyer, raises questions of whether Manilla was hunting legally. State and federal laws generally prohibit convicted felons from buying or possessing guns, or hunting with firearms.

Last year, Manilla was arrested in Berks County for stealing flashlights, fishing lures, and clothing from Cabela's, the hunting and fishing mecca near Hamburg, Pa. He was put on probation in June and ordered to participate in an antitheft program.

In court records, Manilla has described himself as a careful, longtime hunter. He testified in 1994 that he began hunting at age 12 and had taken safety courses.

That testimony came after a Dec. 23, 1993, accident in which Ronald Rautzahn of Williamstown, Pa., was shot in the neck while pheasant hunting.

Manilla was with three other lawyers and one of the lawyers' sons that day at the Rock Ridge Hunting Preserve in Schuylkill County. The group included Winters, who is Manilla's lawyer in the Bucks County shooting investigation.

Just ahead of Manilla's group, Rautzahn and five friends had flushed a pheasant from a field of sorghum, according to a court transcript. The bird flew behind Rautzahn and toward Manilla, Rautzahn testified.

Rautzahn said he turned to see Manilla raising his gun about 40 yards away, "pointing directly toward me. It's kind of like, to use the expression, I was looking down his barrel."

Rautzahn recalled diving for the ground as his hat, jacket and neck were peppered with birdshot. One pellet penetrated his neck, missing an artery by an eighth of an inch, he said.

Manilla and Winters, who also had fired, were convicted of summary offenses and fined $800. It was never established whose shot wounded Rautzahn. Winters said Monday that he had paid his fine and "never hunted again after that day."

But Manilla appealed his case, first to Common Pleas Court, then to state Superior Court. He lost both appeals.

Reached by phone Monday, Rautzahn, now 75 and still hunting, said he suffered no lasting damage. "The other gentlemen were very apologetic, but not him," he recalled, referring to Manilla.

According to Manilla's testimony and online public records, he has held hunting licenses in Pennsylvania, Alaska, California, Florida, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, and North Dakota.

Whether he hunted in those states legally is unclear. Under federal and Pennsylvania law, a convicted felon cannot legally possess a firearm unless he has been pardoned for his crime or receives some other post-conviction relief. A search of Montgomery County Court and online public records found no indication of such relief.

Asked Monday how his nephew and former client could lawfully hunt with a gun despite a felony record, Marino declined to comment.

In the 1985 case, Manilla, who was 22 at the time, admitted bashing another man over the head with a weightlifting bar during an altercation outside a Norristown gym. The victim suffered a fractured skull and brain damage that required surgery.

Manilla was defended by Marino, who persuaded prosecutors to drop an attempted-homicide charge and give Manilla a four- to 23-month sentence for aggravated assault. At the time, Marino called the case "one of the most difficult that I have handled in 17 years."

In that case, Common Pleas Court Judge Paul W. Tressler told Manilla he would not have accepted the plea deal had Marino not presented testimony that the victim was initially the aggressor in the fight.

"You're lucky . . . the guy didn't die, because if he had died, there's no way you would have kept yourself out of Graterford," Tressler told Manilla, according to a court transcript.

Manilla went on to earn a law degree from Villanova University and to operate a private law practice in Worcester, an online biography says. According to the website of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Disciplinary Counsel, his law license is in good standing.