A former city traffic officer accused of insurance fraud, reckless endangerment and related charges in a 2010 road rage case was acquitted this afternoon in a non-jury trial.
Common Pleas Judge Jill E. Rangos granted Garrett John Brown's motion for insufficient evidence in the case that stemmed from an encounter — first recounted in this City Paper story — with donut deliverymen Matt Mazzie and Blaine Johnston in the early morning of Nov. 18, 2010.
As they testified in court today, Johnston and Mazzie contend that they crossed paths with Brown around 4 a.m., when Brown began chasing them after they turned in front of his truck off Fifth Avenue and onto Morewood Avenue. Both men testified that Brown was far enough away that the turn was safe, and that they heard screeching brakes after they passed through the intersection. Brown, they alleged, chased them down, and confronted them at multiple stoplights — without identifying himself as an officer. At one point, they say, he threw coins at the window while pulled up alongside them; during another confrontation he allegedly punched the side of the van and reached for Johnston's arm. Later, they testified, he ran them off the road; as Brown left his own vehicle, they said, they drove off to Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville, their next delivery stop, where police arrived after Mazzie dialed 9-1-1.
"Some psycho just tried to run us off the road," Mazzie can be heard telling a dispatcher in the recording, which was played in the courtroom today.
Although he did not testify today, according to a police report taken that night, Brown told police that he was sitting at a red light when Johnston rear-ended his truck. Brown, who was off-duty at the time of the incident, told police officers at Children's he had pulled up to the van to exchange information, but Johnston fled. In a recording of Brown's own 9-1-1 call, which was also played in court, Brown tells a dispatcher he was rear-ended by a U-Haul truck which left.
Erie Insurance paid Brown approximately $2,100 for damages to his truck and $445 for a rental car, but questioned Brown's version of events after hearing other accounts of the crash. They hired their own investigator and concluded Brown's version wasn't consistent with his statement, according to a complaint against Brown. Brown was later charged with lying to investigators and on his claim when he said he was rear-ended.
Rangos heard nearly three hours of testimony from Mazzie and Johnston, as well as from Erie Insurance adjustor Gloria Vish and city police Sgt. William Kunz. In the afternoon, the prosecution withdrew its expert witness, William Simcox Sr., after Rangos and defense attorney William H. Difenderfer questioned his credentials for accident reconstruction. Simcox, a supervisor for accident-investigation company Unified Investigators, primarily deals with fire and mechanical investigations.
Much of the debate in the courtroom hinged on discrepancies between the witnesses' accounts.
Johnston estimated that he and Mazzie were traveling at 45 miles per hour. Johnston said he couldn't remember with which part of the truck Brown struck them, but said the two vehicles ended up parallel, facing the same direction. Johnston said that as Brown got out of his truck, he saw Brown reach behind his back, near his waistline — and that Johnston threw the van in reverse at Mazzie's prodding. In the process, he testified, his van ripped off Brown's bumper.
"I was fearful of my life," Johnston said. "This was getting out of control."
Mazzie, who estimated the vehicles' speed at only 25 mph, acknowledged telling Johnston to leave. But he testified that he didn't see Brown reach behind his back. "He looked agitated," Mazzie said.
Rangos ruled that between the 9-1-1 calls and inconsistencies in witness statements, there were too many conflicting accounts about what happened that night to uphold the charges. "The witnesses were unclear on how the accident occurred," she said. While Brown may have engaged in "bad behavior," she added, "I don't see that rising to reckless endangerment." While "it's pretty clear Mr. Brown did not answer truthfully [on the insurance company's questionnaire] that words had been exchanged between the parties," she said, there was insufficient evidence to indicate he had committed insurance fraud.
"I'm just not seeing how the Commonwealth can meet [the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt] when we've got three different versions of how an accident happens — a fourth from the defendant," Rangos said. "This isn't a civil case ... I need beyond a reasonable doubt at this point."
Brown and his attorney left immediately following the trial — we've contacted Difenderfer for comment and will update this post if we hear back. Nicholas Radoycis Jr., the prosecutor, declined comment after the verdict. Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen Zappala, said prosecutors have no option to re-file charges. "We believed that we had the evidence to try and case and the judge ruled otherwise," he said in an e-mail.
Brown, a 10-year veteran of the police force, was fired from the bureau on Feb. 16, 2011. Johnston faced charges from leaving the scene of an accident from the case, which were later dismissed because Brown failed to appear at the preliminary hearings.
Both Mazzie and Johnston declined comment after the trial.
Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. And the third time, apparently, it repeats as an allegation in a federal civil-rights suit against the Pittsburgh police.
As the Post-Gazette first reported Sunday, the city's police brass is on trial in a federal civil court this week, thanks to a lawsuit filed by 32-year-old Jarret Fate, who alleges that his vintage Porsche was damaged in 2010 by a former police detective, Bradley Walker. Walker reportedly rammed his vehicle into Fate's and later choked the man; he was fired after pleading guilty to simple assault in the incident. But Fate is alleging that the city was negligent in keeping Walker on the force even after he'd been the subject of more than 30 complaints between 1993 and 2008. The complaints included allegations of excessive force, domestic violence, and "road rage"-like behavior. You can read a list of those allegations against Walker below, in a document culled from fillings in Fate's lawsuit.
Judging from yesterday's arguments in court, city attorneys will argue that Walker was off-duty when he accosted Fate, so his behavior isn't the city's fault. It'd be ironic if that defense actually worked: In another case of a cop accosting an innocent citizen while off the clock, a judge found that police officers are never really "off duty" -- even when they are celebrating their wife's birthday on the South Side and shoot someone by accident.
But whatever the court finds in the Fate case, there's at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that the city can't effectively handle officers with long disciplinary records.
A coalition of groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Black Political Empowerment Project today called for community input in the search for a new police chief and the qualities/agenda he or she should possess.
"This is a healing moment," said Tim Stevens, executive director of B-PEP, citing recent turmoil in the department as the result of a federal investigation into potentially fraudulent spending accounts. "This is an opportunity for us to move forward and hopefully create a future with regard to police-community relations that will hopefully be at a level we've never seen before."
Vic Walczak, legal director of ACLU-PA, said it was time to address leadership failures in the bureau that has led to high-profile incidents involving police officers — such as using plainclothes details known as "99 cars;" five off-duty officers shooting at a fleeing vehicle in the South Side; the beating of Homewood teenager Jordan Miles and other "countless crazy off-duty behavior."
"The worst part is not these incidents occurred," Walczak said. "But who's taking responsibility — not only for the incidents but standing up to say they won't happen again?"
Walczak said the ACLU and community groups were calling on Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and mayoral candidates Bill Peduto and Michael Lamb to pledge to comply with bureau management guidelines contained in the 1997 consent decree that led to federal oversight of the department until 2002; and pledge to diversify the force by race and gender.
"The police are becoming increasingly white and increasingly male," Walczak warned. But he said the ACLU "wasn't quite there" in taking the city back to court which led to the former consent decree.
Hazel Blackman, regional council member with Action United, said the lack of diversity leads to distrust within the black community. "We feel targeted because of the color of our skin," she says. "We have a problem of a trust."
The groups invited Ravenstahl, Peduto, Lamb and the public to participate in a public hearing on the matter that they say is scheduled for next Wednesday at 1 p.m. (though the meeting hasn't been confirmed yet by the City Clerk's office.)
Ravenstahl appointed Regina McDonald as interim chief, and said at a press conference last week he would not be looking within the current department for a replacement.
City councilor Ricky Burgess, who also spoke at the press conference, said he would not confirm any appointment that came from within the department. Burgess said he would be looking at a chief's specific attributes and administrative agenda for whether they were qualified and would improve relations within the community.
"The best way to improve public safety," he said, "is to improve community confidence."
In the ongoing drama, Police Accounts of Our Lives, City Controller Michael Lamb today denied any knowledge of potentially fraudulent or unauthorized slush accounts and theorized that the city's finance department misrepresented funds.
He also used the press conference to launch an anti-fraud hotline.
"The need here is obvious," he said at a press conference, citing the federal investigation into the city's police bureau that led to the resignation of former police chief Nate Harper and questions about funds in the bureau's special events department. "This administration's response has been to look for who to blame."
Lamb denied that he knew as recently as three months ago about potential fraudulent accounts at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union. Lamb said that a member of the Fraternal Order of Police, Officer Bob Swartzwelder, came to him in November for a "general discussion" on how funds come into the city, where they go and who handles it.
Swartzwelder returned to the office in December, Lamb said, "with more sort of detailed information."
"Then we began our initial questions over at the bureau and based on the answers to those questions that we decided we should go over and audit," Lamb said.
"Again we weren't looking at fraud at that point," Lamb said. "We were looking at what we thought were questionable management practices."
Lamb said Swartzwelder "had no suspicion" of fraud. "I think he's just as surprised about this whole thing as anybody."
Lamb said his auditors first had to do a required audit of the bureau's property room which is "an all hands on deck kind of thing." Then, as he went to conduct the audit for the special events office, "the FBI seized many of the files we need".
Lamb said that his office isn't responsible for tracking city revenue: "Any incoming money is audited and accounted for by the treasurer's office and finance department."
Lamb said that the treasurer's office and the city finance department should have noticed funds "that should have been identified as city revenue were misidentified as overtime reimbursement. Those funds went into the premium pay account when some of the money was taxpayer money."
By Lamb's theory, the improper channeling of money to questionable credit union accounts "basically padded the [premium pay] account so there was money available in that account, so if someone were going to pilfer checks, it would have gone unnoticed." But he says his theory still has to be proven by his audit and the investigation.
Lamb says the padding may not be the result of a nefarious plot but unintentional misrepresentation of funds.
"Our original intent...was to look at what we think is the mismanagement of the money which led to the padding, not a conspiracy to commit fraud. ... This, we think, provided the opportunity for fraud, but maybe was not the fraud itself."
Lamb also announced the formation of a fraud hotline in his office, so city employees, vendors and public can report fraud, waste and abuse of city tax dollars.
The hotline launches this Friday. Those with tips or complaints can call 412-255-4777.
After days of standing behind Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Chief Nate Harper, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl abruptly asked for his resignation today, after spending two hours this afternoon being questioned by the FBI and U.S. District Attorney's Office.
In the course of that questioning, Ravenstahl told reporters tonight, he made the decision to ask Harper to step down. Harper has been with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police for 34 years. He was sworn in as Chief of Police in 2006.
"I learned enough to know it was time for Chief Harper to resign," Ravenstahl said.
Ravenstahl said that following the meeting he called the chief and asked for the resignation by phone. He said no severance package was discussed and whether or not he continues to receive a pension will be up to the pension board. "As of today, he is no longer a city employee," Ravenstahl said.
Harper has not been charged with any crimes.
Despite the federal agents' questioning, Ravenstahl says that he does not believe he is becoming ensnared in the ongoing investigation that has raised questions about mysterious bank accounts, Harper's business relationships with subordinates and the handling of police officers' off-duty work.
"I am not a target," Ravenstahl asserted repeatedly. He said he met with federal authorities at their request this afternoon, but did so voluntarily — without a subpoena.
A personal attorney and a city attorney attended the meeting with him, Ravenstahl said. He declined to name the attorney personally representing him.
Assistant Chief Regina McDonald will become acting chief "indefinitely," Ravenstahl said.
Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson, who served as acting chief recently after Harper took time off following his mother's death, is on vacation now, Ravenstahl said. But he said McDonald is likely to remain in place even after Donaldson's return.
Ravenstahl spokesperson Joanna Doven described the transition details about a half hour before the press conference as "fluid," saying then that Harper's replacement was not yet known. Ravenstahl started the conference nearly an hour after it had been originally scheduled, emerging from meetings on the subject.
Ravenstahl said he has not asked anyone else to resign related to the investigation.
Reacting to criticisms from two of his challengers, City Controller Michael Lamb and City Councilor Bill Peduto, in the upcoming mayoral election, who argued Harper should have been put on leave or fired much sooner, Ravenstahl said he needed more information before making that decision.
"Others without my responsibilities can be quick to judge and make politically expedient statements," he said. "I cannot."
"This had zero to do with politics," he said. "It's a political loser either way."
This morning, the ACLU announced a $400,000 settlement in a case involving 13 people swept up in a mass arrest in Oakland, hours after the G-20 summit ended here in 2009. As is typical in such cases, the city is admitting no wrongdoing.
Is Pittsburgh any freer as a result? It's not clear.
"This settlement marks an end to the lawsuits filed by people arrested or harassed during the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh," ACLU of PA Executive Director Reggie Shuford said in a statement announcing the settlement.
"I hope that this settlement sends the message that there are consequences when a city uses police state tactics," the statement quotes plaintiff Melissa Hill saying. Hill was covering the conference for Twin Cities Indymedia, and was among those swept up by police on the Cathedral of Learning lawn on the night of Sept. 25, 2009.
The settlement wraps up the last of the major pieces of litigation surrounding the event. A separate $88,000 settlement, involving 11 other ACLU plaintiffs rounded up by police, was reached a year ago. Combined with settlements in other ACLU litigation, the city has paid out $800,000.
But the city was carrying $10 million in insurance to cover the cost of such suits. Cynics may suspect that what these lawsuits have shown is not the sacredness of the Constitution, but of a good insurance policy.
One of the most lasting impacts of the case, in fact, may be the steps city officials took to preserve its coverage. When the city's Citizen Police Review Board, which investigates claims of police misconduct, requested documents pertaining to the G-20, the board was stymied — apparently over concern that the material could be used by plaintiffs, jeopardizing the city's policy. The review board lost an ensuing legal battle over whether it should have access to unredacted internal police reports.
The absence of such reports "leaves us against the wall" in terms of figuring out what happened, says Beth Pittinger, the review board's executive director.
ACLU attorney Sara Rose says that her side took over 100 depositions related to G-20 matters: "We did have a chance to ask a lot of the questions," she says. "But I’m not sure that we got a lot of satisfactory answers in terms of why this happened."
"I think a lot of people will say, 'Will this change anything?'" Rose says. "But ultimately it’s important to make sure the First amendment is protected. The cities that host these events have an obligation to protect both the diplomats and the demonstrators."
What's more, she says, "We saw this case as being about making sure the plaintiffs were vindicated." Though many of those swept up by police argued they were innocent bystanders, "they spent the night in jail, many having never been arrested before. We didn't see this case as a chance for a change of policy: We've worked with the city for years in terms of crafting ordinances and practices, and we think their policies [about protecting the First Amendment] is pretty good. The problem is that during the G-20, all of that went out the window."
District Attorney Stephen Zappala released a statement on the case this morning, after calling for more details this weekend in a Tribune-Review story.
Here's the full statement, distributed to reporters via email:
"There are a number of questions that need to be answered concerning the death of Ka‘Sandra Wade and what information was communicated regarding the call placed to 911. I am not going to comment any further until reviewing a transcript of the 911 call in question as well as any history of domestic violence that may have been present between Wade and Anthony Brown."
Pittsburgh Police are looking for a vehicle involved in a hit-and-run with a pedestrian in Oakland early Friday morning.
A 59-year-old woman was struck in the 3600 block of Bates Street around 6:45 a.m. Friday. She remains in critical condition, according to police.
Police say they are looking for a light colored, full size sedan. Media reports at the time said police were looking for a vehicle similar to a Chevy Cobalt.
Anyone with information regarding the wreck is asked to contact the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Collision Investigation unit at 412-937-3051. Callers may remain anonymous.
City homicide detectives have arrested a man accused of slashing a cyclist's throat in the South Side last month.
Anthony Scholl, 21, of West Mifflin, is accused of following cyclist Colin Albright as he was carrying his bike up the city steps in the South Side and stabbing him in the arms, neck and head before slashing his throat, around 11 p.m. on Sept. 5. At the time, police said that Albright thought he might have cut off his assailant's vehicle at an intersection in the South Side.
Scholl is currently incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail for allegedly lighting his parent's house on fire in West Homestead, according to police. He was taken from the county jail and questioned about the incident at police headquarters where he was arrested this afternoon, police reported in a press release, and his vehicle is being processed for evidence.
Updated 3:40 p.m. Police spokeswoman Diane Richard says via email that West Homestead Police provided information "based on the video we released when this incident occurred. As a result of the video and vehicle description we were lead, through investigative effort, to Mr. Scholl who was in the [Allegheny County Jail] for prior charges in an attempted Arson case."
In light of questions arising out of the Jordan Miles civil lawsuit, the Pittsburgh Citizens Police Review Board will hold a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. to look into the policies and procedures surrounding the Pittsburgh City Police's undercover units known as “99 Cars.”
Miles was a senior at CAPA High School on January 12, 2010 when he was walking from his mother's home on Tioga Street to his grandmother's house to sleep at about 11 p.m. Miles says he was approached by a speeding, light-colored sedan and jumped by three men inside who demanded “guns, money, and drugs.” He was then severely beaten, arrested and charged with aggravated assault among other charges.
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