LISBON - Joseph Eltringham, the former Ohio National Guard serviceman who beat and robbed a World War II veteran in his own home, was sentenced Thursday to eight years in prison by Columbiana County Common Pleas Court Judge Scott Washam.
The sentence was two years less than what Assistant County Prosecutor Ryan Weikart asked for, but was not the sentence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment in a veterans clinic sought by defense attorney Richard Hura and the family. Eltringham, 45, had pleaded guilty previously to aggravated robbery, felonious assault and intimidation for his actions toward Robert Kastelic in August 2011.
Washam listened to more than two hours of statements and letters made by both attorneys, family members of both men and those with experience with PTSD. He also was shown a segment from a "60 Minutes" television show earlier this month highlighting the problems veterans have returning from active combat, the special courts recently established for veterans and how veterans are given the option in those courts of going through mandatory, intensive counseling in lieu of conviction.
However, Weikart said Eltringham's problems went back long before any diagnosis of PTSD due to his military service, which included tours in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Weikart said Eltringham admitted to drinking at excess at the age of 14, experimenting with illegal drugs and being drunk every weekend throughout his junior and senior high school years. In 2008 and 2011 Eltringham underwent two knee surgeries and became addicted to pain medications, which Weikart said Eltringham mixed with alcohol. He also had two OVI convictions in 1988 and 1989.
On Aug. 17, 2011, the day of the beating and robbery, Weikart said Eltringham ran out of his pain prescription and could not get more. Instead he chose to consume at least four Xanax, a fifth of vodka, a half-bottle of rum and a 12-pack of beer.
Eltringham then went to the home of the 86-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, who had befriended his family, tutored him and helped him out on several occasions. Over a 30- to 45-minute period, Eltringham struck Kastelic multiple times in the head, face and midsection. Those who investigated found a large amount of blood throughout several rooms, Kastelic's hearing aid knocked out and a broken flashlight with blood on it laying near one of Kastelic's shoes displaced in the struggle. One of Kastelic's belts covered with his own blood and tissue was found in Eltringham's vehicle. He stole $400 from a Kastelic's wallet, the title to his truck and the deed to his home.
Kastelic, who had macular degeneration and his eyes swollen closed, had escaped by crawling out of a bedroom window while Eltringham stole items from the garage. He crawled through the yard and across the road, attempting to follow an electric fence to a neighbor's house. He was found by Sheriff's Chief Deputy Allen Haueter in the field.
It was Eltringham's wife, Denise Eltringham, who called police when her husband returned home and she realized something terrible had happened. For that, Kastelic's son, Paul Schlagel, thanked her in the courtroom while making his statement.
While his father has made a recovery physically, Schlagel said it is the peace of mind and security living on the farm by himself which has been harder to get back. Schlagel said his father bought the farm in 1982. Moving from the suburbs of Cleveland, his father liked the safety and the community of living in a place with old-fashioned American values. He became involved in his church, local veterans groups, gardened and made friends of his neighbors and others.
Schlagel read letters from other family members, including his mother, who despite her divorce from Kastelic after 28 years of marriage has remained friends with him.
"What kind of a monster would thrash nearly to death a World War II veteran," Carolyn Kastelic asked in a letter read by Schlagel.
In a letter read by Weikart from a longtime friend, Eustathea Kavouras said when she was in the hospital with Kastelic he was nearly unrecognizable.
"It may have been evidence of a truly desperate man, a man suffering from PTSD or a man who could not control himself in the face of hardships," Kavouras wrote. "Whatever the reason, one will never know for sure that he won't repeat his actions if he is given the opportunity, or worse, carry out the death threat he left with Mr. Kastelic."
Family members of Eltringham, his clergy and several associated with the military and PTSD spoke on his behalf prior to sentencing as well.
Chaplain Joshua Stone of the Ohio National Guard counsels soldiers and reported Army suicides are up 15 percent in the past year. He pointed out the rage and anger is a pattern he has seen over and over.
"(PTSD) is not something that is a joke or something Sgt. Eltringham's family has just latched onto," Stone said "I think it is a tragedy that the very country who sent him to war on four separate occasions would now send him to jail."
Lawsin Whitfield, a battle captain of Eltringham's military unit, wrote a letter expressing how much of a calming factor Eltringham had on other members of the group. He wrote about the sometimes unnecessary stress soldiers face and out of the 150 soldiers, 37 have had some readjustment issues such as PTSD.
Eltringham's brother-in-law, Thomas Aquino, and another veteran, Frank Delorenzo, both talked about the horrible things they personally saw in combat and how difficult it can be to adjust to life at home when soldiers return.
"You've been gone for a year. You feel left out and alone," said Aquino adding when he returned and his own family would leave for the day he sat in a rocking chair petting his dog for five hours a day. "Thank God I did not add alcohol to that."
Aquino said he felt guilty he did not talk to Eltringham about him having problems adjusting before it was too late. Eltringham's wife, Denise, also said she saw a different man return following his fourth tour of duty and she wished she had learned more about PTSD before this happened.
"Every deployment took a little bit of Joe away, but it was something he felt he had to do," she said.
She described a husband who did not drink at home, worked three jobs so she could stay home and cared for the children, even those she had from a previous relationship, like they were his own.
"I know the man I came home to that night (Aug. 17) was not my husband," Denise Eltringham said. "All he kept saying was 'he killed our people.'"
Before the beating, Eltringham reportedly talked to Kastelic about his service in World War II, including whether he was involved in killing Italians. Kastelic was on a naval landing ship in the Pacific.
His sister, Patricia Richardson, also said Eltringham's actions showed he needs treatment, not prison time. Others in the family expressed what a good person Eltringham was, how proud they were of him and how out of character his actions were.
"Incarcerating Joe and throwing away the key is neither the smartest or most cost effective way to deal with Joe," Richardson said. "We need to wrap our arms around him."