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Truck Driver Convicted Of Murder, Sentenced To Life

June 15, 1994 GMT

BELLEFONTE, Pa. (AP) _ An Ohio truck driver was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison Tuesday night for strangling a 17-year-old girl who had run away from a Maine boarding school.

James Robert Cruz Jr., 36, of New Waterford, Ohio, was convicted of killing Dawn Marie Birnbaum, whose body was found on a snowbank near Interstate 80 in central Pennsylvania last year.

Cruz claimed he never met Birnbaum, but DNA tests showed the two had sex. ″Nothing, other than I didn’t do it,″ Cruz said Tuesday when Judge David E. Grine asked if he had a statement to make.

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As he was led out of the courtroom in shackles, his wife, Sheila, called out, ″I love you, Jim.″

Birnbaum was one of several young women whose bodies have been found on isolated stretches of interstate highways in the Midwest and East since the mid-1980s. Investigators still have those cases open.

″They will look at him for other crimes,″ said state police investigator William Madden.

Jurors, who deliberated 15 hours, acquitted Cruz of kidnapping, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and robbery charges.

A first-degree murder conviction carries either the death penalty or life without parole in Pennsylvania. Because there were no aggravating factors found by the jury, the life sentence was automatic and Grine imposed it immediately.

Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar said he wanted the girl’s family ″to have the satisfaction of seeing him sentenced tonight.″ Family members declined comment.

Birnbaum ran away from the Elan School boarding home in Poland, Maine, during an outing on March 21, 1993. Her body was found the morning of March 24, 1993.

Cruz didn’t testify. ″That was my decision. He wanted to take a stand,″ said his defense lawyer, George Lepley.