NORRISTOWN - Speaking publicly for the first time, a member of a violent gang of robbers claimed Thursday the gang's ringleader - admitted killer Michael McGrory - threatened his life and that of his family if he didn't participate in the armed robberies.

"His famous line was he dug ditches before and he'd do it again," Joshua Sheeler testified, referring to McGrory, when asked by Montgomery County Judge William R. Carpenter why he participated with three other men in nine robberies in five Pennsylvania counties during the fall of 2002.

"(McGrory) said if I ever would break away from the group and tell police, that he knew where my parents lived and he would dig ditches for them," Sheeler said. "He would basically kill them. I felt like I didn't have a choice, that if I said no, he could have done any number of things to me or my family."

Sheeler, 22, formerly of the 200 block of Estate Road in Douglass (Mont.), described himself as a follower who was caught in McGrory's web of violence.

"Once I was in it, (McGrory) made it clear there was no way out. I wasn't going to test him on it," claimed Sheeler, who pleaded guilty to multiple counts of robbery and conspiracy in connection with the crime spree that took place between Sept. 15 and Oct. 22, 2002, in five eastern and western Pennsylvania counties.

Sheeler's relatives, friends and former Little League coaches testified Thursday that Sheeler came from a good family and was basically a good young man who got involved with the wrong crowd.

"I'm so very sorry for everything that happened. I can't describe the remorse I have for all the victims," Sheeler said.

Carpenter, however, didn't buy the excuses: "Mr. Sheeler, doing the right thing, doing the law-abiding thing ... may have been difficult, but you chose not to," he told him before sentencing him to 16 to 40 years in state prison. "You ignored your upbringing. You ignored the teachings of your coaches, family and friends.

"Society will not tolerate this kind of activity," Carpenter said. "You basically agreed to take the social compact, tear it up and throw it in people's faces."

Sheeler's mother, Mary, and many of the two dozen other people who showed up to support Sheeler in court Thursday appeared stunned by the long sentence and wept as Sheeler was led away in handcuffs to begin his state prison term. Sheeler showed no emotion.

Defense lawyer Christopher Mullaney, who had argued for leniency, described Sheeler as a follower who fell under the spell of McGrory's threats.

"Josh seriously saw those threats to be truthful. This was a person who took a 180-degree turn. He went astray. We have an aberration that is beyond his control," Mullaney told the judge.

Assistant District Attorney Thomas McGoldrick argued, however, that Sheeler, by claiming to have had "no choice," did not take responsibility for his crimes. Instead, McGoldrick implied, Sheeler placed all the blame at the feet of McGrory and the other two robbers, Ian Taylor and Travis Drumheller.

"I believe (Sheeler) absolutely had a choice. He made the wrong choice," said McGoldrick, who sought a 20- to 40-year prison term against Sheeler and asked that some of the five-year mandatory prison terms he sought for each gunpoint robbery be implemented consecutively. "These four guys did these things together. They were all involved in these serious crimes."

Referring to the relatives, friends, former coaches and teachers who showed up to support Sheeler, McGoldrick implied Sheeler always had people he could have turned to if he felt threatened by McGrory or wanted to get away from the gang. Sheeler chose to participate in the violent crime spree, McGoldrick argued.

Sheeler was the last of the four robbers to be sentenced.

Last week, Taylor, 23, of the first block of Boxwood Court in Upper Pottsgrove, was sentenced to 10 to 30 years in state prison for his role in the crime spree. Prosecutors said Taylor was the least culpable and the "first domino to tumble" and cooperate with police during the investigation.

Drumheller, 20, formerly of Boyertown, was sentenced to 17 to 40 years in state prison. Prosecutors said Drumheller was the second gang member to cooperate with police.

McGrory, the alleged ringleader of the posse of robbers who wore ski masks, brandished rifles or BB guns, and used duct tape to restrain employees of the businesses they robbed, was sentenced last week to 25 to 50 years in state prison for the robberies.

McGrory, 30, of the 600 block of West Schuylkill Road in North Coventry, also pleaded guilty in Chester County Court to taking part in the brutal strangulations of Kerry and Katherine Schadler, whose bodies were found in Towpath Park in East Coventry on Nov. 22, 2002. Katherine Schadler was pregnant at the time of her death. McGrory could face three consecutive life terms without parole for the murders.

Chester County authorities have said the Schadlers were murdered because McGrory believed the Schadlers were about to go to police with information about the robberies.

Sheeler, according to authorities, bragged to the Schadlers about the robberies, then told McGrory and another man, Matthew Eshbach, 27, that Kerry Schadler had gone to the police to collect a reward that had been offered for information leading to the arrest of the robbers.

After speaking with Sheeler, McGrory and Eshbach set out to murder the Schadlers, according to police. There is no evidence, however, that the Schadlers ever cooperated with police, and the reward Sheeler bragged about never existed.

Eshbach is also charged in connection with the murders and is awaiting trial in Chester County.

On Thursday, Sheeler's father, Larry, testified that he and his wife were devastated when they learned about Sheeler's involvement with the gang. Larry Sheeler asked the judge to give his son a second chance and not to "throw away the key."

"I was stunned, just stunned. It was not at all characteristic of him. He was basically a good son," Larry Sheeler testified, adding that Joshua Sheeler lost his friends, his girlfriend and his dignity when he was arrested. "The two things he hasn't lost are his future and his family."

Edward Miller of Birdsboro, one of Sheeler's former Little League coaches, testified Sheeler "got tied up with the wrong crowd... "Josh was a young man who loved baseball. He was always very respectful. I have only good things to say about Josh," added Michael Ondo, a former Pottsgrove High School history teacher and one of Sheeler's former coaches. "Josh is a good kid. Josh deserves a chance."

McGrory, Drumheller, Sheeler and Taylor were originally charged with taking part in the Sept. 30, 2002, armed robbery of the La Taverna restaurant in Phoenixville that netted more than $9,000, police said. Sheeler, Taylor and McGrory were also charged in connection with three Pottstown robberies - at the Wendy's on High Street, the Papa John's on Shoemaker Road and the Domino's on State Street - between Oct. 13 and Oct. 15, 2002.

Drumheller was accused of participating in the robberies at Wendy's and Papa John's.

The investigation eventually widened, and the men were later charged in connection with crimes that occurred in Butler, Somerset and Erie counties.

The crimes included armed robberies at two pizza shops, a video store, a beauty supply store and a dance club in western Pennsylvania.

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