Witnesses testify to seeing alleged killer morning of 2017 slaying

A number of people testified in Lycoming County Court Monday that they encountered a man on a bicycle near the home of Donald Kleese Jr. the day before he was found dead in his Eldred Township residence.

Kleese’s bloodied body was found April 6, 2017 in the bedroom of his Quaker Hill Road residence.

Graham N. Norby-Vardac is accused of bludgeoning the 82-year-old man with a shovel before stealing his car and driving to the Canadian-New York border where he was taken into custody by authorities.

In his opening statement on the first day of the non-jury trial, Lycoming County District Attorney Kenneth Osokow told the court that Norby-Vardac confessed to police that he did in fact strike Kleese with a shovel before strangling him.

Osokow said he told police he was “sorry this happened” and explained that he had been starving and tired when he reached Kleese’s home during a bicycle trip from Virginia to Canada.

He said he thought the house had been abandoned.

“I only did what I did to survive,” Norby-Vardac told police.

Among those testifying to have seen him the morning of the alleged killing was Veronica Heim.

Heim said she saw a man in dark clothing and a backpack pushing a bicycle toward Kleese’s home around 6:30 a.m.

Her daughter, Veronica Heim, driving to school that morning, said she too encountered a man along the road who asked her for a ride to campgrounds.

Heim said she declined that request.

“I thought he had autism from the way he was talking,” she said.

She said he exhibited no threatening behavior toward her.

Claudia Eck said she was asked by a man to give him a ride to campgrounds after he waved down her car from along the road.

She testified that “something didn’t seem right” with the man and later called her husband.

She pointed out Norby-Vardac in the courtroom as the man she had encountered that day.

Bonnie Wheeland and her daughter, Megan Wheeland, testified they saw a man at the foot of Kleese’s driveway, trying to flag down their cars.

Kleese’s daughter, Rachel Campbell, said she came to his home the day after the alleged killing and found her father on the floor of the bedroom.

“He was cold. He was battered,” she testified.

She said police arrived after she called 911.

State Police Trooper Russell Ramin testified about evidence uncovered at the crime scene.

He said he found a rear door window broken at Kleese’s residence.

He also found several firearms, including in the bedroom of the crime scene, but no shell casings or evidence that any guns had been fired.

He testified he found blood on different areas of the shovel believed to have been used as the murder weapon.

Norby-Vardac, who reportedly has a history of mental illness, was deemed competent to stand trial after a series of hearings leading up to it.

He faces charges including criminal homicide, aggravated assault and burglary.

Testimony in the trial will resume Thursday at 8:30 a.m. before President Judge Nancy L. Butts.