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Montco lawyer faces sentencing in death of hunter

David Manilla, the Montgomery County felon-turned-lawyer whose years of lawless gun-toting ended with the death of a Quakertown deer hunter, will be sentenced July 8.

David Manilla, the Montgomery County felon-turned-lawyer whose years of lawless gun-toting ended with the death of a Quakertown deer hunter, will be sentenced July 8.

The short, stocky, pin-striped lawyer pleaded guilty Tuesday in Bucks County Court to two felony counts of illegal firearms possession, and no contest to a misdemeanor charge of involuntary manslaughter.

Manilla, 49, whose adult life has been marked by several large breaks from the justice system, faces a potential 121/2 to 25 years in prison for the negligent Nov. 29 slaying of Barry Groh.

He admitted fatally shooting Groh, 52, in the heart as the married father of two stood in a creek bed bordering land Manilla owned outside Quakertown.

"You no longer enjoy the presumption of innocence," Judge Albert J. Cepparulo told Manilla in a courtroom brimming with Manilla's and Groh's loved ones. "You are now convicted. . . ."

Neither Manilla nor Groh's widow, Theresa, would speak to reporters afterward.

Barry Groh, a longtime sportsman, was killed while standing beside a large buck he had shot and dragged to the creek bed, presumably to gut it there. Manilla has told detectives he thought he was shooting at a deer when he fired at Groh.

"What is clear is that the defendant failed to absolutely and positively identify his target" before pulling the trigger, Deputy District Attorney Robert James told Cepparulo.

After the hearing, defense attorney Keith Williams said that expert witnesses may testify at Manilla's sentencing in a bid for leniency. Possible topics include Manilla's "serious health issues" and the fact he "has undergone psychiatric care."

Williams said Manilla believes the Groh family "deserves to be properly compensated" and is negotiating to settle a wrongful-death civil suit the Grohs have filed.

"He is very sorry for what happened. It's a tragic accident," Williams said. "Obviously he shouldn't have been hunting, but he never intended to cause this death."

The fatal shot came from a high-powered rifle that was neither legal for hunting in Bucks County nor legal for Manilla to have in his hands.

In 1985, Manilla had acquired a felony record by breaking the skull of a man outside a Norristown gym, beating him over the head with a steel weightlifting bar. He pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and, at the behest of his attorney and uncle - future Montgomery County District Attorney Michael Marino - received an unusually light four-month sentence.

As a felon, Manilla was banned by law from owning or possessing firearms.

He went on to earn a law degree from Villanova University, started a practice specializing in drunken-driving cases - and continued to hunt with guns.

In 1993, Manilla and another lawyer negligently fired in the direction of a nearby quail hunter in Schuylkill County. The man was wounded in the neck by bird shot from one of the guns.

Manilla lost his hunting license for two years. But because he was charged only with a summary offense, a criminal-background check was not done. Such a check would have uncovered his felony record, exposing him to felony firearms charges.

James said that Manilla brazenly continued to hunt in other states and countries, sometimes with other lawyers and police officers.

In 2009, Manilla was arrested again, this time for shoplifting about $200 worth of fishing gear and clothing from a Cabela's outfitter store in Berks County. Despite his felony record, prosecutors allowed him to enter a preconviction probationary program, later saying they were unaware of the 1993 shooting incident.

That break, which would have left Manilla without a permanent record of the theft, was rescinded after Groh's death. Manilla pleaded guilty last month to retail theft, receiving five years of probation and 40 hours of community service.

Over the years, James said, Manilla illegally piled up more than 90 rifles and shotguns in the Worcester house he shares with his elderly mother. Many were registered in the name of Barbara Fletcher, his longtime girlfriend.

Fletcher has told police that Manilla frequently gave her money to buy guns at gun shows, and that he recently admitted to her that he has bought guns in her name without her knowledge.

James said Bucks County authorities have been cooperating with federal investigators who are looking into additional gun charges against Manilla.

On the morning he shot Groh, Manilla waited more than 30 minutes to call 911, James said, trying unsuccessfully to hide the guns he had with him and to locate the spent casing of the fatal bullet.

By the time Manilla confessed to the shooting, James said, Manilla had spent many days hiding his guns and transferring real estate assets that could be claimed in a lawsuit.

"If Manilla had never had a gun in the first place, Barry Groh would still be alive today," James said. "Ever since he fired that fatal shot, he did everything he could to avoid criminal prosecution."

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