Man charged in death of fellow dog walker is barred from visiting most South Philly parks

The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Tommy Rowan and Mensah M. Dean

The 24-year-old man who allegedly threw the punch that led to the death of a fellow dog walker in a South Philadelphia park Jan. 5 agreed Wednesday to refrain from visiting four area parks while he awaits trial.

During a motions hearing before Judge David C. Shuter, Matthew Oropeza promised to stay away from Gold Star Park, Jefferson Square Park, Capitolo Playground, and Columbus Square for the duration of his legal battle.

Prosecutor Danielle Burkavage said he is permitted to visit only Dickinson Square Park, at Fourth and Tasker Streets.

“Obviously,” Burkavage added, “it goes without saying that his dogs must be leashed at Dickinson Square Park if he is to visit that location.”

Prosecutors said they sought the condition to limit Oropeza’s potential contact with witnesses in the case. He also agreed to turn in his gun and his license to carry it.

Earlier this month, police charged Oropeza with involuntary manslaughter, simple assault, reckless endangerment, and making terroristic threats after the deadly Jan. 5 encounter in Gold Star Park.

On that night, authorities said, Oropeza punched a fellow dog walker, Drew Justice, after Justice complained that Oropeza’s dogs were unleashed. Justice then fell backward, hit the ground, and soon after died. In Pennsylvania, involuntary manslaughter is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in prison.

Burkavage unsuccessfully argued that Oropeza should be placed under house arrest for the remainder of his case, saying his apartment on the 1600 block of South Sixth Street is a half-mile from the residence of Kristi Buchholz, Justice’s fiancee and a key witness.

Oropeza, who is free on bail and unemployed, had moved into the apartment in July with his girlfriend and their 2-month-old son.

Burkavage said that days before the fatal altercation, Oropeza had had a verbal run-in with another man at Gold Star Park about the same issue.

A neighborhood man spotted Oropeza walking his two dogs without leashes Jan. 1, Burkavage said, and told Oropeza that he must put them on leashes.

“And the defendant aggressively came toward that witness, who was with his wife and small child, and said something along the lines of, ‘Say it to my face, say it to my face,’ ” Burkavage said. “And he got within one foot of them.”

Days later, witnesses told police that Justice and Buchholz were walking their black Shih Tzu shortly after 9 p.m. when Justice asked Oropeza to put a leash on his two dogs.

“And the defendant, when told, ‘Hey, put your dogs on a leash,’ came right up to him and says, ‘Say it to my face, say it to my face,’ ” Burkavage said. “The exact phrase he had said days before.”

Burkavage also cited a 2016 incident in Delaware County in which Oropeza was charged with disorderly conduct after he shoved down a man outside RP McMurphy’s Bar & Grill at 2623 MacDade Blvd. Burkavage said the man suffered facial injuries. Oropeza also was arrested on drug charges after police found “six small baggies of a white powdery substance suspected to be cocaine,” Burkavage said. Oropeza completed a diversionary program to clear the charges.

“These incidents show what the defendant is made of,” Burkavage said. “And by that I mean he shows volatility and aggression.”

Shuter denied the house-arrest request, but ordered Oropeza placed under direct supervision, which requires him to check in with the court once a week and steer clear of anyone involved in the case.

“Bottom line is,” Shuter told Oropeza, “if you see any of these people … turn around and walk the other way.”

“I understand, your honor,” said Oropeza, who appeared in a black suit, white shirt, and salmon-color tie.

Oropeza’s attorney, Fortunato “Fred” Perri Jr., said after the hearing:

“[His client had been] minding his business with his dogs in the park and reacted to a situation that he felt threatened by. Unfortunately, tragically, someone passed as a result.”

Members of Justice’s family declined to speak to reporters.

Oropeza is scheduled for a preliminary hearing March 13.

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