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Slaying of a Teen Leaves City Stunned

After the Philadelphia youth was killed for $500, the four suspects shared a hug, says one.

June 26, 2003|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- Jason Sweeney was a brown-haired, easygoing teenager who loved working beside his father on construction jobs. His best friend was Eddie Batzig, a bespectacled 16-year-old. The girl he wanted to bring home to meet his mother was pale, slender Justina Morley, 15.

On the evening of May 30, Justina lured Jason to the Trails, a wooded area of the working-class Fishtown section of Philadelphia along the Delaware River. She promised him sex.

The two were undressing when Eddie Batzig suddenly appeared. He had a hatchet. With Eddie were two other teenage boys Jason knew. One carried a hammer.

According to a confession by one of the teens revealed in court last week, Dominic Coia, the three young men attacked 16-year-old Jason, beating him savagely and fatally. The three teens are charged with murder along with Morley, who police say was part of the murder plot.

As Jason lay dying, Coia told police later, "We took Sweeney's wallet out and split up the money and we partied beyond redemption." But first, Coia said, the teens shared "a group hug -- it was like we were all happy with what we did."

Like any big city, Philadelphia is accustomed to almost daily homicides, some of them brutal, some committed by teenagers. But this one was different, and the accused teens' apparent callousness and utter lack of remorse has shocked even this tough, gritty town.

The accused killers were not high on drugs. The killing was not random. It was not a crime of passion or self-defense, of soured love or a drug deal gone bad.

A police detective testified that he asked Coia, 18, whether he was high on drugs during the killing. "No, I was as sober as I am now," Coia said. "It is sick, isn't it?"

The killers carefully planned the crime several days in advance, according to police. They sent Justina Morley as "the bait," Coia told police. As Sweeney lay unconscious after the first blows, they smashed his face at least a dozen times. They left with Sweeney's $500 weekly cash salary, which they spent on heroin, marijuana and the tranquilizer Xanax.

To prepare for the killing that day, Coia confessed, "we must have listened to 'Helter Skelter' about 42 times." Mass murderer Charles Manson said the Beatles song inspired him and his followers during their 1969 killing spree in Los Angeles.

Batzig, who had been Sweeney's best friend since fourth grade, told a detective that he hit his friend's face four or five times with a hatchet, according to court testimony. "Jason started begging for his life, but we just kept hitting him," Batzig said.

Judge Seamus Patrick McCaffery listened intently to the testimony at a June 17 preliminary hearing and reviewed photos of Sweeney's corpse. He mentioned to a defense lawyer that he had presided over hundreds of murder cases -- "a lot of them really brutal murders."

But this one, the judge said, "This one is beyond. This is barbaric. This is something out of the Dark Ages.... Friends. Friends! Over five hundred bucks."

The hearing offered no explanation for why the killers did not simply rob Sweeney rather than beat him to death. Jason's father, Paul Sweeney, thinks he knows why.

"Jealousy," he said this week, squatting on a step in the kitchen of his Fishtown row house. "They were jealous that Jason was moving past them, growing beyond them as a good person. He wasn't hooked on drugs like the rest of them, and they wanted vengeance."

Coia abused heroin, marijuana and alcohol, his lawyer, Lee Mandell, said in an interview. Justina Morley, Batzig and Coia's brother, Nicholas Coia, 16 -- all charged with murder -- abused heroin, marijuana and prescription drugs, according to court testimony.

Jason's mother, Dawn Sweeney, said she and her husband forbade Jason to associate with the Coia brothers three summers ago because "we could see they were going down the wrong path." Last summer, the couple ordered Jason to stop seeing Batzig shortly after the Sweeneys paid for Eddie to accompany Jason on a vacation visit to Dawn Sweeney's parents in Florida.

"Eddie used to be such a kind kid, but he had become very rude and inconsiderate," Dawn Sweeney said inside the row house, where photos of Jason and the couple's four other children dominate the walls. She wore a button with Jason's photo to the court hearing, and now wears a locket containing Jason's hair around her neck.

Her son did not do drugs, she said, and he obeyed her demands to stop seeing Eddie. But through other friends, he met Justina Morley.

"He told me: 'She's nice. I think you'll like her.' He was going to bring her home to meet me on the night after they all killed him," Dawn Sweeney said.

She is certain her son would have given his attackers his money if given the chance, she said. "I told him many times: 'Jason, nothing is worth giving up your life for. So if somebody tries to take something from you, give it to them. It's replaceable. Your life is not.' "

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