In 2003, Sixteen-year-old Jason Sweeney enjoyed an unremarkable albeit blessedly tranquil life with his family in Philadelphia. He had friends – a girlfriend and was enjoying being young. He had honorable ambitions and an excellent relationship with his parents. When the young man’s life was cut short, all of Philadelphia was left stunned.
When Jason Sweeney was found murdered in the most numbing of ways, no one saw it coming. There was hardly a lead-up. No glaring warning signs. His mother’s expressed concern over the wayward choices of a few of his friends would make it seem that following in the drug-addicted footsteps of his peers was the most significant danger Jason faced. But it wasn’t. No matter how wayward, no one could have imagined what his friends were capable of.
Jason Sweeney’s Family, Friends, and Honorable Ambition
Jason Sweeney is described by David Zucchino of the Los Angeles Times as “a brown-haired, easygoing teenager.” He had a great relationship with his parents and enjoyed helping his father, Paul Sweeney, in his construction business. In 11th grade, he dropped out of school, focusing entirely on carpentry, a skill at which he’d become highly accomplished under his father’s tutelage. Jason’s existence was wholesome, slightly old-fashioned, and matched the Irish-American and Italian-American community of Fishtown, where he was raised. His relationship with his parents followed in the same vein. “We love our kids, and our kids love us,” his mother, Dawn Sweeney, is recorded by Maryclaire Dale of The Intelligencer to have said. “We enjoy spending time together.”
Amiable, responsible, loving to his family, and intent on becoming a Navy SEAL, Jason Sweeney appeared poised for success. His path was respectable, and there didn’t appear to be any glaring threats to his future. In hindsight, the only questionable area of his existence was pointed out by his mother around his 16th birthday while the family celebrated in Florida. She said she wasn’t comfortable with Jason’s best friend, Edward “Eddie” Batzig Jr. Her reasoning? She felt that he was ‘heading down the wrong path.’ “Eddie used to be such a kind kid, but he had become insulting and inconsiderate,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
The scary truth was that she couldn’t have been more right about the dangerous demise of Eddie’s character. What no one would have guessed was just where that deterioration would lead.
It was May 29th, 2003, on the tail-end of a week that seemed like any other, when Jason told his mom about 15-year-old Justina Morley, ABC News records. Jason had only been seeing her for a few weeks but expressed excitement over the budding relationship and the prospect of introducing her to Dawn Sweeney. He told his mother that she was going to like her young Justina. This was one of the last conversations Sweeney would have with her son before he met his untimely end.
On the evening of May 30th, Jason Sweeney set out to meet with Justina. She brought him to a remote area called “The Trails,” near the Delaware River, and told him she wanted to have sex. Jason seemingly agreed, but according to the Los Angeles Times, the couple barely had time to undress before Jason realized they weren’t alone. It was then that three others appeared. It was none other than his best friend, Eddie, and two brothers, who he also considered his ‘friends.’ The three boys had a hatchet and a hammer and hit Jason repeatedly.
The violent perpetrators proceeded to rob their victim, dividing the five hundred honorably-earned dollars in his pocket amongst themselves before fleeing the scene.
The gruesomeness of Jason Sweeney’s murder shocked all of Philadelphia into utter disbelief, the Los Angeles Times writes. Unfortunately, news of homicide is commonplace, even those carried out by underage individuals. But the wildly unwarranted nature of Jason’s murder elevated the case to another level entirely. The state of the young man’s broken body spoke volumes, but it was time for authorities to get the whole story.
Jason’s likable personality made the idea that anyone would wish him harm ludicrous. However unjust though it is, his upstanding disposition ultimately got him into fatal trouble. Though no one seemed to realize it, his blue-collar life, safe, loving home situation, and good morals placed a target on his back.
Upon looking at the Coias brothers, Eddie and Justina, their united addiction to drugs such as marijuana and heroin came to light. Jason Sweeney was the complete opposite and never touched drugs or alcohol. “They were jealous that Jason was moving past them, growing beyond them as a good person,” Paul Sweeney stated in an interview. “He wasn’t hooked on drugs like the rest, and they wanted vengeance.” Dawn Sweeney’s statement to the Intelligencer supported her husband’s suspicions about the teens’ twisted motives: “Jason came from a home that none of them had.”
According to an interview by the Los Angeles Times involving Joshua Staab, a close friend of Dominic Coia, Staab stated that Dominic had been boasting for a week about his intention of using Justina to lure Jason to his fate. He said that Dominic knew Jason Sweeney had just been paid.
Details of the Brutal Murder of Jason Sweeney
The teens met in Staab’s home on the evening of the murder, rallying together before carrying out their plan. They listened to the song “Helter Skelter,” a ballad said to have been Charles Manson’s anthem of choice before carrying out his murderous crimes, on repeat before heading to the Trails.
One detective asked Dominic if the teens were under the influence during the murder. “No, I was as sober as I am now,” he answered. “It is sick, isn’t it?” Being sick is a massive understatement. Usually, having drugs absent from one’s system would be reassuring. However, in the case of such cold-blooded violence, it only accentuated the ice-cold nature of the crime. Dominic said the teens divided the money equally and “partied beyond redemption.”
Though the teens’ response appears sickeningly calloused, hints of remorse were noted by Staab when they returned to his house. “Dominic comes in; he’s shaking,” he reported. “Well, they’re all shaking. They’re saying they did it; they couldn’t believe they killed him.” Being shaken is understandable, considering they’d just murdered their friend and were covered in blood. Yet, when asked further about the dispositions of the teens, Staab described the murderous group as ‘happy,’ plunging the whole incident right back into the dementedly calloused category.
The numbing brutality of the murder was placed in the spotlight at the teens’ preliminary hearing. According to the Intelligencer, even Judge Seamus McCaffery was appalled. “I’m not sure we can call ourselves a civilized society when this happens.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Dawn Sweeney reinforced that there was no need for such violence. She firmly believed that her son would have handed over his paycheck had the kids asked him to.
But the boys hadn’t asked–they’d just taken Jason Sweeney’s money but the family of their son and so much more. “I didn’t just lose a son,” his father said. “I lost my best friend.”
Brothers Dominic Nickolas Coias and Eddie Batzig faced first-degree murder charges and possibly the death penalty, according to the Intelligencer. Justina Morley also faced murder charges, but, due to her age, was exempt from the death penalty. Though the goal was to charge all participants in the unacceptable murder case as adults, Justina’s lawyer did his best to have her tried as a juvenile in light of her struggle with depression.
No matter the circumstances, no matter if the children were underprivileged or depressed, the entire case was heartbreaking and unwarranted. “This is barbaric,” the judge is recorded by the Los Angeles Times to have stated. “This is something out of the Dark Ages… Friends. Friends! Over five hundred bucks.” Amid much disbelief, Jason’s teenage sister’s solemn words to the Intelligencer are even more devastating: “Everywhere you go, you find kids like this… It’s just a question of how much the neighborhood can hide the bad.”