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Ohio handyman gets life in murders of 2 women

May 14, 2010
By THOMAS J. SHEERAN, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - An ex-convict handyman was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the crowbar beating deaths of two Polish immigrants who survived World War II concentration camps.

William Bryant, 58, sat impassively and blinked as Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Timothy McMonagle sentenced him in front of relatives and friends of Mary Hopko, 81, and Maria Slivka, 80, who were killed by blows to the head with a crowbar.

''Our children no longer have a grandmother,'' Slivka's daughter-in-law, Laura Ann Maldonado Slivka, said as she asked the judge to deny Bryant any chance of parole.

Hopko's goddaughter, Darlene Sadowski, told the judge about Hopko's wartime ordeal. Despite that, Sadowski said, ''she managed to survive and thrive in Cleveland.''

She described Hopko as a caring person who was ready to help anyone. ''She didn't deserve a violent death,'' Sadowski said as others sobbed quietly in the courtroom.

Bryant's attorney, Bill Thompson, told the judge that his client had a troubled family life and spent 3 1/2 years in reform school, never getting a family visitor. He asked that Bryant have the chance for parole at some point.

A career criminal who served more than 20 years for crimes including robbery and kidnapping, Bryant avoided the death penalty because of his claim that he has a mental deficiency.

''You have two very innocent, independent elderly women. Their friendship with one another resulted in the circumstances that led to their death,'' said assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Steve Dever. ''They are united in death.''

But not before Slivka attended Hopko's funeral at St. Monica Roman Catholic Church, a heavily Polish-American parish in Garfield Heights southeast of Cleveland.

The two women quickly bonded when they resettled in America after World War II, Hopko by way of Canada and Slivka through Buffalo, N.Y.

The two were arrested shortly after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and started to round up Jews, intellectuals, priests, military officers and anyone seen as a threat or wanted for labor camp work.

The women, both Catholic, were sent to forced labor camps and eventually survived concentration camps, according to Dever, who prosecuted the case. The two apparently didn't cross paths during the war, and they met around 1950 when both went to work for St. Alexis Hospital, now closed.

They married and lived in homes about a mile apart, Hopko in Maple Heights and Slivka in Garfield Heights.

In the postwar years, the tree-lined neighborhoods were quiet, with people keeping to themselves, according to a Slivka neighbor, Bob Miller, 58, who saw her husband walking to work in a nearby brick factory.

''It was peaceful in those days,'' said Miller, noting that the Slivka murder put people on edge. ''We're more watchful.''

Hopko was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her home on Dec. 7, 2006. Her death initially was thought to be an accident. Her body was discovered after she missed her regular visit to the Maple Heights senior center.

Three weeks later, Slivka was found dead in her bedroom on New Year's Day 2007. Police found in her home a piece of paper with Bryant's phone number and an envelope addressed to Hopko's family.

The link was confirmed when a search of Bryant's truck turned up items belonging to both victims.

Also found was a crowbar with traces of DNA from both women, Dever said. ''That's how they put the connection together,'' he said.

Robbery was the motive: Tens of thousands of dollars were believed taken from Hopko's home, and jewelry and cash were mising from Slivka's. Bryant pawned some of the stolen property, Dever said.

Prosecutors believe Bryant met Slivka while attending a garage sale. The widow hired Bryant to do odd jobs around her house and recommended him to Hopko, also a widow.

AP-CS-05-14-10 1306EDT

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