Second accomplice in 1996 killing of Lancaster store clerk is eligible for parole, judge rules

LANCASTER — A second prison inmate previously serving life for the killing of a Lancaster store clerk in 1996 was given eligibility for parole, according to the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office.

Rodney Lee Walton, now 38, was convicted of second-degree murder and in 1997 sentenced to life in prison for the March 1996 robbery that ended in the shooting death of clerk Michael Heath.

At a re-sentencing hearing Friday, Lancaster County President Judge Dennis Reinaker ordered Walton serve 25 years to life in prison.

In about four years, Walton will have a parole hearing and likely be released shortly after that.

On May 23, 1996, Walton and three others targeted the former Uni-Mart at Duke and Liberty streets for a robbery. Walton agreed to the robbery plot and served as a lookout.

Aramis Gonzalez III, then 16, asked Heath for money, then counted down from three before fatally shooting Heath. Clarence Laudenberger and Anthony Lewis also were convicted in the case.

A 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that deemed life sentences against juveniles “unconstitutional” prompted the resentencing of Walton – and 11 other inmates serving life terms for killings they committed as juveniles in Lancaster County.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has provided guidelines, which in Walton’s case, call for a minimum 30-year prison term.

Assistant District Attorney Ande Gonzalez asked President Judge Reinaker to order that 30-year minimum, stressing the crime’s devastation on Heath’s surviving family and the community.

“They all played a part, they all played a piece,” Gonzalez said of the four co-defendants’ roles in the killing. “Michael Heath died… because he stood up to that behavior. That’s why he died.”

Sherry Heath, Michael’s widow, read a statement to Walton and the judge, opposing parole for Walton.

“You took away every chance of Mike having a life with me,” Sherry Heath said.

Walton, a bald man in a black suit, bowed and buried his head in his hands for much of the 90-minute hearing, wiping tears. He testified for about 15 minutes, looking at Sherry Heath and apologizing.

“There’s no excuse for what happened. You shouldn’t have to go through what you been going through,” Walton said. “Your son was left without a father.”

Walton’s father testified that he was an abusive alcoholic when Rodney was a child and provided little supervision of his son.

Sherry Heath, and Walton, cried as Gonzalez played a recording of the 911 call Michael Heath made as he was mortally wounded.

“He died clutching the phone on the floor of a Uni-Mart, begging for help,” Gonzalez said.

Anthony Lewis received the same sentence as Walton earlier this week.

President Judge Reinaker has said he must consider amenability to treatment and likelihood to become law-abiding members of society when ordering sentences, as outlined by the higher courts.