July 22, 1996 12:00 PM

EXPERIENCED HUNTERS KNOW THAT when guns and people mix, accidents will occasionally happen. So it was that officials in rural Montrose, Pa., greeted the 1976 shooting death of attorney Marty Dillon with something like resignation. On June 2, Dillon, 30, had driven to Gunsmoke, his family’s small hunting camp in nearby Silver Lake Township to shoot at clay pigeons with a friend, physician Stephen Scher. There, according to Scher, Dillon tripped while chasing a porcupine; the shotgun he was carrying fired, discharging directly into his heart. Scher said he had tried CPR, but Dillon was already dead.

It took Susquehanna County coroner John Conarton just 24 hours to conclude his report: “Manner of death: accident.” But the passage of 20 years hasn’t diminished the desire of many residents—including the victim’s parents, Lawrence Dillon, 76, a former mayor of Montrose (pop. 2,000), and his wife, Jo, 73—to see Scher prosecuted for Dillon’s murder. The purported motive: Scher’s love for Dillon’s wife, Pat, a nurse who worked with him at Montrose General Hospital. Both repeatedly denied having an affair, yet Pat, now 49, and Scher, 56, were married within two years of Dillon’s death. And questions about the shooting remained: Why, for example, was Dillon carrying Scher’s gun, as Scher maintains? And why did Dillon alter a $50,000 life insurance policy two weeks before his death, removing Pat as his beneficiary?

Some of the answers may soon be known. A new autopsy was recently done on Dillon’s body and new tests performed on Scher’s boots, which allegedly showed blood-splatter evidence consistent with Scher being nearby when Dillon was shot (Scher maintains he was 250 feet from Dillon at the time). On June 20, 1996, Pennsylvania state police arrested Scher for murder at the family-practice office he opened in Lincolnton, N.C., in 1992. Although Scher adamantly denies any guilt, “Marty’s friends are joyous,” says the dead man’s former secretary Bonnie Mead. “We’ve waited so long. It’s justice.”

Scher and Dillon first met about 25 years ago. Martin Dillon was a local boy who left Montrose to go to college, and then law school, at Villanova University, outside Philadelphia. Taciturn and devoutly Catholic, he had known his wife-to-be, Pat Karaveller, since Montrose Area High School, where he graduated near the top of his class in 1963. “She was gorgeous,” says a friend of Marty’s since elementary school. “Nice girl, bubbly personality.” They began dating seriously after Pat entered her second year at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and were married in August 1968—Montrose’s “event of the year,” says one of Pat’s friends. The couple had two children—Michael, now 25, a sophomore at the University of New Mexico, and Suzanne, 23, a costume designer who lives in Colorado.

In 1971, Dillon landed a job with one of Montrose’s most successful attorneys, Robert Dean. “He was a great addition,” says Dean, now 79, and his timing was perfect. During the mid-’70s, a real estate boom hit the picturesque little town in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains, and lawyers such as Dean and Dillon handled as many as 10 property transactions in a single week. “Things were going great,” recalls Dean. But Kathy Stanton, 49, a childhood friend who went to nursing school with Pat, suspected the Dillons were drifting apart. “Pat felt like Marty was busy, busy and gone a lot,” says Stanton. “I kept thinking, what do they do together besides dinner parties?”

For the next five years, Pat continued to work as a nurse at Montrose General. That’s where she met Canadian-born Stephen Scher, who had moved to town with his first wife, dog breeder Ann Vitale, in 1969. When the doctor decided to specialize in allergy medicine in 1975, he asked Pat to be his private nurse—and rumors of an affair began to fly. Vitale, now remarried, says she grew suspicious after the Dillons and the Schers flew to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for a medical seminar in the summer of 1975. There, Pat and Scher were scheduled to attend a class one afternoon, but instead their spouses found Stephen massaging Pat’s legs at poolside. “I was upset,” says Vitale. “[When] I ran into Marty, he said, ‘I’m trying to get plane reservations. I want to get Pat out of here.’ ”

Scher eventually admitted to his wife that he was in love with Pat, and the couple began discussing divorce, Vitale told police last year when the case was reopened. But outwardly at least, Marty Dillon and Stephen Scher remained friends. On June 2, 1976, at about 4 p.m., the pair met at Gun-smoke, about 20 minutes from Montrose. According to Scher, they had already been shooting skeet when Dillon spotted a porcupine, reached for Seller’s 16-gauge shotgun and pursued the animal. Scher said he didn’t see the weapon fire, but he did hear the blast, and then silence. By the time he reached his friend’s side, he told police, Dillon was dead. Scher summoned help and then, apparently distraught, smashed his shotgun against a tree, badly damaging it.

The coroner’s report tacitly absolved Scher of any guilt, but many in town felt the investigation had been perfunctory. “It sounded fishy,” says Stew Bennett, a private investigator later hired by Dillon’s parents to look into their son’s death. Jock Collier, a Montrose detective who interviewed Scher after the shooting, reported that the doctor and Dillon had discussed Scher’s rumored affair with Pat on the afternoon of the shooting. Given the angle of the wound, Collier said in a letter to Susquehanna County DA Ed Little, he found Scher’s version of events “not satisfactory.” Ann Vitale, too, suspected foul play. Depressed by the breakup of her marriage, she had attempted suicide that day by swallowing a variety of pills. She was recovering at Montrose General when she heard news of Dillon’s death. “The only thing I said was, ‘[Stephen] killed him, didn’t he?’ ”

Yet over the years, Little—who believed the shooting was accidental—refused Jo and Larry Dillon’s many requests to reopen the case. After his divorce from Vitale in December 1976, Scher moved to Las Cruces, N.Mex. Pat Dillon, who moved to Philadelphia within weeks of her husband’s death, eventually joined Scher there. They married in 1978.

Larry and Jo Dillon never lost hope that one day Scher would stand trial for their son’s death, but they waited to push their demands until their grandchildren Michael and Suzanne were grown. Finally, in 1988, they asked the incoming county DA, Jeff Snyder, to reopen the case, but he refused. Two years later they had a record of the local police investigation forwarded to Washington for analysis by the FBI, which in 1992 determined that the shooting was a possible homicide. Even so, Snyder refused to budge. Eventually the Dillons hired lawyer Peter Loftus and Bennett, the private investigator, to conduct new forensic tests and study court documents. They fought—and won—a yearlong legal battle to exhume Dillon’s body for a new autopsy last year.

The pathologist’s findings, announced on June 26, 1995, stunned Montrose: The wound could not have possibly been self-inflicted. Dillon’s death was officially ruled a homicide. The next day, Stephen and Pat Scher drove to Scranton, Pa., to defend themselves at a press conference. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” said the doctor. “I went shooting with my best friend, and he died.” Added Pat of her husband: “He’s the kindest, most gentle man. He’s a healer.” (Scher’s defense team has since exhumed Dillon’s body for a third autopsy, but results haven’t yet been released.)

On June 28, Dr. Stephen Scher appeared at a bond hearing at a Montrose courthouse, where some 30 supporters gathered. Bail was set at $1 million, which his friends and family are trying to raise. “He’s been a great father,” an emotional Suzanne told the court during the hearing. In fact, she gave the $65,000 she received in trust from Dillon’s life insurance for her stepfather’s defense. “I turned it over to him because he’s my dad,” she says. “He’s been the most stable thing in my life.”

For friends and family of Dillon, though, the sight of Stephen Scher once again in Montrose was bittersweet. “They don’t know what happened that day [in 1976], but they want some answers,” says Bill Nash, a Dillon cousin. “They just want their day in court.”

PATRICK ROGERS

MARIA EFTIMIADES in Montrose

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