Why didn't she just leave?

The question lingered, without an answer, long after Rebecca Olenchock was led away in handcuffs Wednesday, convicted of the first-degree murder of her mother.

Olenchock, 25, and 44-year-old Kimberly Venose shared a close but complicated relationship as they lived, homeless, in a hut for two years in the woods of lower Bucks County.

By all accounts, Olenchock was working hard to pay bills and save, determined to free herself of that existence.

And there was little dispute she felt slowed by Venose, her jobless mother, who lived off Olenchock and resisted her wishes to move.

On the morning of Oct. 17, Olenchock fleetingly freed herself in violent fashion.

She awakened early in the hut, near I-95 in Bristol. After texting an online boyfriend in Tennessee, Olenchock sat on her bed, contemplated her frustrating life, and grabbed a baseball bat, she told police.

Through tears that blurred her vision, Olenchock repeatedly clubbed her sleeping mother, who awakened, cursed her, and cried for help before falling still.

Thinking Venose was dead, Olenchock set a fire at the foot of her mother's bed, locked the door of the hut behind her, and drove off to the Tennessee apartment of her online friend.

"I wanted a new life, and I wanted to take her with me, but she wouldn't go," Olenchock told detectives who had tracked her down in Johnson City, Tenn.

The flames roused Venose, who got out of the hut. But she soon died of heart failure brought on by the blows and burns over much of her body.

Reciting those facts, Bucks County Judge Albert J. Cepparulo convicted Olenchock of first-degree murder, ending a three-day trial. He also found her guilty of arson and possession of instruments of crime.

"The evidence in this case was overwhelming," he said.

Defense attorney Joseph Haag argued that the killing had been an outburst caused by pressures mounting on Olenchock for weeks.

Venose had recently lost her spousal support, forcing Olenchock to work harder. Venose feared moving would expose her to an arrest warrant for a probation violation from a shoplifting conviction. And over the previous nine days, she had blown more than $500 of her daughter's savings on nonessentials, Haag said.

"What she carried with her the entire time she was in the woods was the burden of trying to get out," Haag said. The night before the slaying, Venose "threatened to kill Ms. Olenchock if she went to Tennessee," she added.

Deputy District Attorney Daniel Sweeney countered that Olenchock had not acted spontaneously and had rejected options short of murder.

"The choice wasn't staying or killing [her] mom," Sweeney said. "She could have done other things. She chose not to."

Cepparulo did not set a sentencing date, although state law requires a life term for the murder. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.

Debra McCormick, the victim's sister, met briefly after the verdict with Olenchock, her niece. She and Venose had been estranged until a few months before her death.

"The main question has always been: Why didn't she just leave?" she said.

She said Olenchock had offered no answer.

"The only thing we did was to hold each other, to hug and cry, and pray together."

Contact staff writer Larry King
at 215-345-0446, lking@phillynews.com or @KingInq on Twitter.