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Baron trial recap: Key moments from week 1 as week 2 set to start in Scranton courtroom

Old Forge restaurateur Robert Baron went missing in 2017, and his remains were not located until March 2017. A murder trial for the man accused in his death, Justin Schuback, is underway in Lackawanna County Court.
Finding Robert Baron Facebook page
Old Forge restaurateur Robert Baron went missing in 2017, and his remains were not located until March 2017. A murder trial for the man accused in his death, Justin Schuback, is underway in Lackawanna County Court.

More than seven years after Old Forge restaurant owner Robert Baron was killed, the only man accused in his death went on trial starting last week in Lackawanna County.

While Justin Schuback is charged in the case, testimony at the county courthouse in Scranton focused on the actions and recollections of many people connected with him and the victim, including Baron’s own family.

The trial, which began with jury selection and opening statements last Monday, is set to resume today and continue through the week.

Here are some of the key moments and background as week two begins. Prosecution testimony ran all week, and the defense has yet to begin presenting its case.

The disappearance

Baron, the owner of Ghigiarelli’s Restaurant in Old Forge, failed to show up at the eatery as usual on the morning of Jan. 26, 2017 and never contacted anyone, which family said was uncharacteristic of him.

Baron reportedly drove his son home from work at about 10:30 p.m. the previous night and then returned to the business. Maria Baron reported her husband missing the next morning.

Police investigation found blood evidence at the restaurant, which appeared to have resulted from a "brutal attack," and someone had tried to clean it with household cleaning products and a mop left at the scene, the affidavit states.

Years of delay

Investigators also found blood in a car Baron had been using. That 2006 Hyundai was discovered abandoned on a residential street in the borough.

What they didn’t initially find was a body, despite an initial search in the area around Pagnotti Park.

It wasn’t until March 2023 that a second search of a wider area around the park uncovered skeletal remains determined to be those of Baron.

That search was made possible after advances in cellular phone tracking technology eventually helped investigators trace Schuback's movements around the time Baron disappeared to the area where the remains were found in the woods near a power pole line.

The suspect

Schuback, 38, who is being tried in Lackawanna County Court before Judge Terrence R. Nealon, faces charges including first-, second- and third-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty at a county court arraignment in June.

Lackwanna County District Attorney Mark Powell has said investigators do not believe anyone else was involved in the killing, which he has called "a burglary gone bad."

Schuback and Baron's son, Robert “Bobby” Baron, were friends with a shared history of drug use, and investigators say Schuback sometimes served as a dealer for the younger Baron.

Investigators allege Schuback was in debt to his drug dealer at the time of the killing, but witnesses said he was flush with cash in the hours after Baron Sr. disappeared.

While cellphone tracking allegedly places Schuback at Ghigiarelli’s on Jan. 25, 2017 and in the woods near the power pole line early the next day, defense attorney Bernie Brown has pointed out that there is no blood or DNA evidence placing his client inside the restaurant, where Baron is believed to have been killed.

And, Brown argued, there was no DNA or blood evidence on clothing recovered from Schuback’s home tying him to the crime.

A state police corporal testified later that Schuback’s DNA was found in the Hyundai Baron Sr. had been using.

The son

Brown has been focusing heavily on undermining the prosecution’s physical evidence, as well as discrediting the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Carlos Perez, who has claimed that Schuback confessed to him that he killed Baron Sr.

A central part of Brown's strategy also has been directing the jury’s attention to Bobby Baron — his drug use, his relationship with his father, and large amounts of cash in his possession before and after his father disappeared.

On Tuesday, Brown questioned Maria Baron, widow of the victim and mother of Bobby Baron.

He focused on Maria Baron's own statements regarding Baron Jr.'s drug use, temperament, feared involvement in the killing and tens of thousands of dollars in cash placed in a joint safe deposit box after Baron Sr.'s disappearance.

Brown asked Maria Baron whether she feared the couple's son had a hand in the murder.

"I hope to God it's not true," she replied.

When Bobby Baron took the stand the following day, Lackawanna County District Attorney Mark Powell asked him if he had any involvement in his father’s death.

Baron acknowledged that his family had concerns about his drug use and previous thefts from the family business, but he denied any involvement in his father's murder.

"He was my rock, my hero. He was the best friend I ever had or ever will," Baron replied.

A memorial honors Robert Baron, the Lackawanna County restaurateur who disappeared in January 2017. Justin Schuback, who has been charged in connection with Baron's death, is scheduled to go on trial this week in Lackawanna County Court.
Finding Robert Baron Facebook page
A memorial honors Robert Baron, the Lackawanna County restaurateur who disappeared in January 2017.

Drugs and money

Among the key themes emerging from testimony were drug use, thefts and questions about large sums of money circulating after Baron Sr.’s death.

Several people interviewed by police – including Schuback and Bobby Baron – were aware that Baron Sr. did not believe in using banks, operated the restaurant on a cash-only basis and frequently kept money at the business. Bobby Baron responded under questioning that Schuback had never been upstairs in the building, where his father kept the cash.

Baron also testified that he had not seen Schuback for about two years until two weeks before his father died, when Shuback and his girlfriend, Kortney Rake, appeared at the restaurant "out of the blue," staying briefly to chat and then leaving.

On the day before his father died, Bobby Baron reached out to Schuback to see if he could procure crack cocaine for him. He testified that Schuback arrived, walked with him to a location for the deal, took $50 for the transaction, and made him wait – but then never came back with the drugs.

Powell asked Bobby Baron about "a substantial amount" of cash he had turned over to his father on Jan. 25, 2017, the day before Baron Sr. disappeared. The son said his father suggested holding onto the money for safe keeping because he was concerned about Bobby’s drug use.

Bobby Baron said he had "no bills," lived in an apartment owned by his dad, and was able to save money. Powell pointed to a 2023 podcast in which Baron made "outrageous statements" about having $111,000.

"That's the money I had accumulated over a number of years," Baron said. "I didn't have that amount on me at the time."

Baron testified that he struggled with heroin addiction for 15 years. Powell asked Baron how he had supported his drug habit over the years.

"Through the restaurant," he replied, later clarifying: "No more than a couple hundred dollars at a time.”

The prosecution has depicted Schuback, meanwhile, as an unemployed “dope-sick” person with a drug addiction who was desperate for money.

Prosecutors say Schuback was in debt to dealer Pat Boyle for $60 at the time. Boyle testified that shortly after midnight on Jan. 26, 2017, Schuback texted him in search of drugs. The two met behind a building on South Main Street, where Boyle said Schuback paid him back the $60 and then bought roughly 10 bags of heroin, worth around $150, using “crumpled up” $5, $10 and $20 bills.

Rather than talk or take a walk around the neighborhood – something Boyle said he and Schuback would typically do to socialize and look less suspicious – Schuback quickly departed.

Not the man with the suitcase?

One theory surrounding Schuback seemed to be debunked under testimony.

Video footage reviewed by investigators showed an unidentified man walking down South Main Street with a wheeled suitcase around the same time Schuback was meeting with Boyle.

Lackawanna County Detective Lisa Bauer said she reviewed hours of footage from several locations and was able to track the person with the suitcase as far south as Independent Bible Church in Duryea, Luzerne County, around 1 a.m.

The person was wearing a scarf or mask. Video was sent to the Secret Service for examination, and the agency was not able to enhance the video sufficiently to identify the person.

Bauer testified that Boyle can be seen on video walking to his meeting with Schuback. While Schuback cannot be seen on the video, Bauer also testified that the person with the suitcase was not believed to be Schuback.

Brown asked if the suitcase came from Ghigiarelli’s Restaurant. Bauer responded that no luggage was missing from the restaurant, and there was no evidence of wheelmarks tracking through blood at the scene.

Where was Schuback?

Schuback’s movements the night of Baron’s killing remained in question, however.

Then-girlfriend Kortney Rake was living with Schuback in an apartment at 3 Foundry St. in a home owned by his family.

On the night of Jan. 25, 2017, Schuback left around 9 or 10 p.m., saying he was leaving to go work on Boyle’s mother’s car and possibly buy some drugs, testified Rake, who said they both were using drugs then.

“Justin would get drugs from Pat (Boyle),” Rake said. “We shared. He would crush them up, and I would snort them.”

When she hadn’t heard from Schuback for about two hours, Rake said she started to worry. When he did not respond to texts and calls, she reached out to Boyle.

In his own testimony, Boyle said Schuback had contacted him shortly after midnight “sick in need” of drugs, and they agreed to meet for the brief sale described above.

Boyle testified that Rake had been “blowing up his phone” looking for Schuback. She asked if Schuback was still fixing his (Boyle’s) mother’s car. He told her Schuback had never been fixing his mother’s car and that he had only seen Schuback briefly around 12:30 a.m.

She finally heard from Schuback around 1:30 a.m., when he texted: “Shh, I’ll explain when I get there.”

Rake testified that Schuback came home around 3 a.m., sweaty, out of breath and with mud on his legs. He said he had been hiding out from the police, Rake said. He changed out of his clothes – which she believes he left on the floor – they both snorted some crushed-up pills, and then she went to bed.

Rake said she did not observe any blood on Schuback’s clothing, just mud on the legs of his jeans.

She said he went out later that morning, possibly to buy more drugs, in the same clothes he had worn home: a hoodie, blue jeans and sneakers.

In her testimony, Detective Bauer said that surveillance footage from the morning of Jan. 26, 2017 shows Schuback walking into a convenience store around 8:40 a.m. wearing a gray Hollister hoodie which was later taken into evidence and shown to the jury last week.

That hoodie did not show any visible evidence of blood. Bauer said under cross-examination that the hoodie had been sent to a state police lab for testing, but was “kicked back” a few months later, and had not been tested.

She did believe the sleeves may have been partially cut off at the cuffs, however.

Bauer also said a green backpack and gloves taken into evidence had been tested and showed no blood and no DNA from Baron Sr.

Bauer said a number of sweatshirts were recovered from Schuback’s residence — but as Brown pointed out, only the Hollister hoodie was presented to the jury.

Bauer acknowledged under redirect from the prosecution that she did not know what clothing Schuback was wearing overnight on Jan. 25-26, and that he could have changed his clothes, washed them or gotten rid of them.

Electronic evidence

Lackawanna County Detective Sheryl Turner testified to evidence recovered once the cellphones from various parties in the case were searched, including:

  • She said that Robert Baron Sr.’s phone, which was found in the restaurant the morning after he disappeared, yielded “nothing of evidentiary value” to the investigation.
  • Turner also testified that Schuback on Jan. 24, 2017 had typed in several Google searches related to bank robbers who had succeeded in their missions, and others who got caught.
Defense attorneys Bernie Brown, left, and Jordan Leonard leave the Lackawanna County Courthose Tuesday afternoon following the first day of testimony in the murder trial of Justin Schuback, who is accused of killing Old Forge restaurateur Robert Baron Sr. in 2017.
Roger DuPuis
Defense attorneys Bernie Brown, left, and Jordan Leonard leave the Lackawanna County Courthose Tuesday afternoon following the first day of testimony in the murder trial of Justin Schuback, who is accused of killing Old Forge restaurateur Robert Baron Sr. in 2017.

The safe deposit box

Brown also asked Maria Baron about cash she was given by her son after her husband's death, which she placed into a joint safe deposit box.

Maria Baron said she was not aware of how much money was in the box, which was later seized by the DA’s office and remains held in evidence.

She acknowledged accessing the box "a few times" in 2017 and did not challenge Brown when he said records showed Maria Baron went to the box in February, June, four times in July, two times in August and two times in October that year.

Brown asked Maria Baron if she ever said there was $38,000 in the box. She said she did not recall saying that and hadn't counted the money. She also said she was not aware a family lawyer had written a letter to the DA’s office asking about the money.

Bauer testified that there was $22,000 in the box -- $21,700 worth of $100 bills and $300 of $20 bills, all of which appeared to be new currency.

Brown asked about two bills which were determined to have blood on them.

Bauer replied that state police testing showed the blood did not match anyone involved in the case and could have come from “a teller with a papercut.”

Search for remains and arrest

Pennsylvania State Police Corporal Greg Allen testified about his role after being assigned to the case in 2022, including meeting with members of the Baron family and, in 2023, with Schuback shortly before the search which uncovered Baron Sr.’s remains.

The jury heard a recording of an undercover interview from March 2023, when Allen and Turner spoke to Schuback on the porch at 3 Foundry St. Allen told the jury the point was to try and get Schuback comfortable talking with them before a major search of the nearby woods began, and that he wanted Schuback to believe Bobby Baron was the focus of their probe, not him.

In the recording, Schuback can be heard telling the investigators that he lied to Rake about hiding from police the night Baron Sr. disappeared.

“I went and got real high in the woods back there,” he can be heard saying.

Allen also noted that Schuback can be heard telling him he was never inside the car that was being used by Baron Sr. at the time of his death. That 2006 Hyundai was loaned to Baron by a family friend, Matthew Davis, while he was looking to buy a new one of his own.

“We already know Justin Schuback’s DNA is on the steering wheel and driver’s side door handle of the car,” Allen testified.

Later in the recording, the detectives ask Schuback why Bobby Baron would have pointed to him as a possible suspect from the outset.

“Because I was a drug addict maybe? I don’t know. I’m not a violent person,” Schuback can be heard responding.

Allen went on to describe interactions with Schuback after he was arrested in his home in March 2023.

“His immediate response was ‘how?’” Allen said.

Allen said Turner told Schuback tracking of his cell phone showed him being in Ghigiarelli’s Restaurant early in the morning of Jan. 26, 2017, which he denied. She further said his phone was tracked to Pagnotti Park around 2:15 a.m. that morning.

“His response was ‘ok,’” Allen said.

“He did not believe his DNA would be found anywhere,” Allen testified, adding: “He asks, ‘so how long does DNA last then?’”

Roger DuPuis joins WVIA News from the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. His 24 years of experience in journalism, as both a reporter and editor, included several years at The Scranton Times-Tribune. His beat assignments have ranged from breaking news, local government and politics, to business, healthcare, and transportation. He has a lifelong interest in urban transit, particularly light rail, and authored a book about Philadelphia's trolley system.

You can email Roger at rogerdupuis@wvia.org