Guilty plea in slaying of man; body found in suitcase near airport

Thomas Brennan was sentenced to 27 1/2 to 55 years in prison in the murder of Scott Bernheisel.

After he was arrested in June 2015, Thomas Brennan told two cellmates how he killed Scott Bernheisel with a five-pound dumbbell and knife, packed the body in a large red suitcase, and left it in the weeds near Philadelphia International Airport.

On Friday, the 27-year-old Brennan spoke not a word after he pleaded guilty to third-degree murder in the killing of Bernheisel, 40, and was then sentenced to an agreed-on 27½ to 55 years in prison.

“I don’t know how something like this could happen, I just don’t know,” said Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Steven R. Geroff, citing Brennan's lack of an arrest record before Bernheisel’s slaying.

“It makes no sense,” Geroff continued, shaking his head.

Brennan didn’t elucidate and did not appear to acknowledge his father, sister, and aunt seated in the gallery behind him.

His lawyer, Perry de Marco Jr., said afterward that the killing seemed to result from a combination of mental illness, drug use, and Brennan’s perception that Bernheisel might be romancing his girlfriend.

“Considering the totality of the circumstances, this sentence is a victory,” said de Marco, adding that Brennan would have gotten a life sentence had he gone to trial and been convicted.

Before Brennan’s sentencing, Bernheisel’s sister, Tracy Sharp, read — before being overcome with emotions — part of a mournful victim-impact letter from their mother.

Sharp said Bernheisel contacted their mother on Mother’s Day, May 10, 2015, and that she spoke to him on May 18. That was the last anyone heard from him, Sharp added.

“This has been devastating and it’s not getting any easier,” Sharp said, stopping several times to stare at Brennan.

Outlining the evidence against Brennan, Assistant District Attorney Gail Fairman said he told two cellmates he killed Bernheisel sometime before Memorial Day 2015 in the basement of a house on Wilder Street near Second Street in the Pennsport section of South Philadelphia.

Fairman said Brennan told his cellmates that Bernheisel pressured him to help sell methamphetamine, and when Brennan refused, Bernheisel made sexual advances and offered to trade drugs for sex.

According to Fairman, Brennan told his cellmates that Bernheisel hit him in the chest with a five-pound dumbbell but he wrestled it away and hit Bernheisel twice in the head. Then, Fairman continued, Brennan said he stabbed Bernheisel in the throat to “make it look like a Mafia hit.”

On May 28, 2015, a man walking his dog on Second Street near Fourth Avenue in Tinicum Township, Delaware County, came across a foul-smelling large red suitcase in the weeds along the road. The man called police and Bernheisel’s body was inside.

Items in the suitcase and fingerprints led police back to the Wilder Street house, where blood and DNA from the fatal conflict showed Brennan’s and Bernheisel’s DNA on the dumbbell.

On June 7, police arrested Brennan and girlfriend Crystal Leibhart, 28, in Lancaster at the home of one of his relatives.

Leibhart pleaded guilty to charges involving robbery, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice and is awaiting sentencing.

Fairman said Leibhart would have testified against Brennan and describe how she encountered Brennan and the mortally wounded Bernheisel in the basement of the Wilder Street house.

Leibhart said Bernheisel was still alive, struggling to breathe, and in obvious pain.

“If you have anything to say to him, you better say it now,” Brennan said, according to Leibhart’s statement.

Fairman said that after Leibhart left the basement, Brennan stabbed Bernheisel in the neck. He then stored the body in a duffel bag in a closet for several days before putting the body in the suitcase and dumping it.