Murder trial in death of Bob Baron set to start Monday

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An Old Forge man accused of killing restaurateur Robert Baron in 2017 is scheduled to go on trial Monday in Lackawanna County. Justin Schuback, 38, of Foundry Street, was arrested on March 31, 2023, more than six years after Baron disappeared on Jan. 25, 2017.

The trial, before Lackawanna County Court Judge Terrence R. Nealon, is expected to last two weeks, with jury selection beginning Monday.

Baron owned Ghigiarelli’s Restaurant on South Main Street and was last seen at about 10:30 p.m. after he took his son Robert Baron Jr. home from work and returned to his restaurant.

The next day, at about 10 a.m. on Jan. 26, Baron’s wife reported him missing after he failed to pick up his son for work.

Maria Baron told officers her husband never deviated from his morning routine and was always in touch with family members early in the day.

Police officers immediately responded to the restaurant and discovered blood evidence from what they believed to be a “brutal attack.” They noted it appeared someone tried to clean up after the attack with household cleaners and a mop left at the scene, according to the police affidavit.

Law enforcement officers officially declared Baron a missing person and the Old Forge Police Department and Lackawanna County district attorney’s office asked for assistance from media outlets in locating Baron and his vehicle.

During an interview with Baron Jr. on Jan. 26, officers asked if he knew anyone who might want to hurt his father. He immediately replied, “Justin Schuback.”

Baron Jr. told police his father disliked Schuback because he used heroin. Baron Jr. said Schuback recently “ripped him off,” taking $50 from him for crack cocaine, but never delivered the drug.

Restaurant employees told police Baron Sr. was never happy to see Schuback at the restaurant and didn’t want Baron Jr. spending time with him.

Later that day, officers went to Schuback’s residence and spoke to Schuback. He admitted he took $50 from Baron Jr. for crack but didn’t deliver the drug. He denied knowledge of Baron Sr.’s disappearance.

Officers were initially unable to find Baron’s 2006 Hyundai Elantra, but they eventually located it Jan. 29 in the 100 block of Howard Street, Old Forge.

Police swabbed the vehicle and submitted samples to Pennsylvania State Police DNA lab for analysis. Results indicated two types of DNA on the steering wheel — that of Baron Sr. and another male. Results indicated the identity of the second male could not be determined because of an insufficient amount of DNA in the sample.

In March 2017, officers attempted to speak with Schuback at his home twice, but he refused to answer the door. At one point, as police were standing at the front door, they spotted a window being closed.

Also in March, police spoke with Kortney Rake, Schuback’s live-in girlfriend. Rake told officers Schuback had left the house between 9 and 10 p.m. on Jan. 25 and returned hours later at 3 a.m. on Jan. 26, out of breath and with his shoes covered in mud, arrest papers say.

When Rake asked where he had been, Schuback responded, “Don’t worry about it.”

During that interview, Rake said it was the only time Schuback had left the house without letting her know where he was.

Police continued to investigate but could not find the body or definitive evidence leading to a suspect.

Signs posted around the region requested anyone with knowledge of the disappearance to come forward.

The family initially offered a $10,000 reward for information about Baron Sr., later increasing the amount to $30,000.

Mike Schuback IV, Schuback’s first cousin, remembers Pennsylvania State Police requesting to search his Old Forge property in 2017.

Schuback, who owns a towing company, said he immediately gave permission for the search and fully cooperated with police at that time.

Schuback said he had little contact with his cousin’s family after the death of his uncle, Keith Schuback, in 1999 at 42.

Mike Schuback guesses his cousin might have faced significant challenges after the death of his father when he was just 13.

Gayle Piccolini, Justin’s mother, died in 2022.

Evidence and arrest

The case had little movement for years, until March 2023, when advancements in forensics and cell tower analysis made it possible for police to break the case, providing a timeline of Schuback’s movements on the day Baron went missing.

Special Agent Michael Sabric of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Cellular Analysis Team was able to track Schuback’s cell phone to Ghigiarell’s restaurant at 11:28 p.m. on Jan. 25, 2017, and then to the area of the pole lines near Pagnotti Park from 2:01 a.m. to 2:15 a.m. on Jan. 26.

At 8:39 a.m. on Jan. 26, Schuback’s phone was tracked to Howard Street, where Baron’s vehicle was later found.

Armed with the knowledge of Schuback’s whereabouts the night of Baron’s disappearance and the following day, police officers from multiple departments searched the area of the pole lines near Pagnotti Park on March 28 and 29, 2023.

Cadaver dogs from the New York State Police were deployed and alerted handlers to human remains. A femur bone found at the site was sent to a Pennsylvania State Police laboratory.

It was determined that the bone was Baron’s.

Following the discovery, Lackawanna County Coroner Tim Rowlands deemed the manner of Baron’s death to be a homicide and the cause of death as “trauma.”

On March 31, police took Schuback into custody at gunpoint at his home at 3 Foundry St. As officers arrived, police called out, “Justin Schuback, we have a warrant for your arrest.”

Officers directed Schuback to put his hands up and he was ultimately led from his residence by a law enforcement officer in tactical gear, carrying a long gun.

Legal proceedings unfold

Schuback remains in the Lackawanna County Prison without bail, a requirement in homicide cases.

At his preliminary hearing in June, Schuback pleaded not guilty to six criminal charges, including first-, second- and third-degree murder.

In February of this year, Nealon ruled a state trooper and Lackawanna County detective violated Schuback’s constitutional right against self incrimination by continuing to question him after he told them, “I need a lawyer.”

“Federal and state courts have uniformly concluded that the statement, ‘I need a lawyer,’ constitutes an unequivocal request for the assistance of counsel that obligates law enforcement to terminate all questioning immediately,” Nealon’s ruling read.

But Nealon rejected Schuback’s defense attorneys’ motion to suppress the cell tower site data, which they alleged were inappropriately obtained with a court order rather than a search warrant.

The judge also rejected a defense motion to move the trial to another county or bring in a jury from another county. The defense contended Schuback couldn’t get a fair trial here without one or the other because of pre-trial publicity.

Nealon also ruled against the defense’s motion to exclude Schuback’s alleged jailhouse confession.

Schuback’s attorneys, Bernard Brown and Jordan Leonard, argued he was under the influence of Suboxone when he allegedly made incriminating statements to Carlos Perez at Lackawanna County Prison following his 2023 arrest. His attorneys also argued he was denied the right to an attorney during his conversation with Perez.

In a ruling filed on April 24, Nealon said Schuback’s voluntary use of Suboxone before speaking with Perez may be used to argue the weight of the alleged statements, but not admissibility.

Nealon ruled Schuback didn’t have a right to an attorney during his conversation with Perez because Perez was not acting on behalf on the prosecution.

Nealon also granted the prosecution’s motion to preclude reference to behavior surrounding polygraph tests taken by Baron Jr. and Schuback’s cousin, Jason Cistola, because the tests, themselves, are not admissible.

The trial was originally set for Jan. 15, but was delayed after defense attorneys requested more time to prepare.