Friday, November 21, 2014

A Family Tragedy - "Shock, Confusion, Grief"

Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.


     Prosecutors called it "a bloody massacre."
     The March 5, 2011, brutal murders of 70-year-old Joseph C. McAndrew, his wife, 64-year-old Susan C. McAndrew, and their son, 23-year-old James McAndrew, in the family's Holstein Road home in Upper Merion stunned the local community. The arrest of the couple's other son, Joseph Jr., sent additional shockwaves through the community.
Convicted killer Joseph McAndrew Jr./Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     "He snuffed out the lives of three people who were wonderful people who were having great impacts in their community and that's the tragedy of what occurred," Montgomery County First Assistant District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said this week when Joseph McAndrew Jr., 27, was sentenced to three consecutive life prison terms after he was found guilty but mentally ill of three counts of first-degree murder.
     "The family is devastated by what happened. The far-reaching impacts of what occurred are unimaginable," Steele added, referring to the grief suffered by the victims' relatives.
     That grief, that loss, was palpatable in the courtroom when Steele, with a sorrowful tone in his voice, read to Judge Gary S. Silow a heart-wrenching letter written by the killer's half-sisters, who are the daughters of the elder, slain McAndrew. You could have heard a pin drop in the courtroom as deep sadness flowed from the pages of the victim impact statement and was soaked in by all who listened. One could not help but be moved by the revealing, candid words.
   

Montco First Asst. DA Kevin Steele & co-prosecutor Kathleen McLaughlin
Excerpts of the McAndrew family's victim impact statement appeared in daily newspaper accounts about the sentencing hearing. However, because of limited space in daily papers, the entirety of the statement could not be included in the typical news accounts. So I am sharing the poignant statement, as read in open court to Judge Silow, to provide readers with a better understanding of the confusion and anguish suffered by those in the wake of such an unimaginable tragedy.


Honorable Judge Silow:

This statement is being made on behalf of Joseph McAndrew Sr.'s daughters and their husbands.

There are no words that can adequately describe the full impact of the horrific actions that took place during the evening of March 5, 2011. Those actions abruptly altered the path of our lives forever. The past three and half years have been filled with shock, confusion, disbelief, grief, depression, anger and anxiety. Everything we thought we understood in our lives, had to be reexamined. Simple things in life became great challenges, for example:
  • being able to go alone into the basement at night
  • having dinner in a restaurant and not anxiously be watching the door to make sure the defendant isn't entering
  • focusing on the blessings in life, when all you want to do is cry
We had to rebuild our confidence in the things that most people take for granted everyday; all while trying to deal with and accept the loss of our dearest loved ones, Joe Sr., Sue, and Jimmy. We know life is not easy, but no family should have to go on the path we have encountered and will continue to encounter.
  • The defendant didn't have to go through and clean out the home, which was once filled with so many wonderful memories, but now stands as an awful reminder of the tragic actions that took place.
  • The defendant will not have to explain to our children why they won't be able to see their Nana, Pop Pop McAndrew or their Uncle Jimmy.
There is absolutely no justifiable reason for the actions that resulted in the loss of our father, mother and brother. Those actions can only be accounted for by true evil, nothing else.

By the grace of God, our family has begun picking up the pieces. We continue to pray that God will work in our hearts to be able to forgive the defendant for this horrific act. However, we will never forget what happened by the hands of the defendant.

Your Honor, while this victim impact statement conveys some of the impact of the defendant's actions to our lives, this statement isn't really about us. If it were, we would have elected not to make a statement. This statement is really about our obligation to confront evil. This obligation requires us to give you some insight into the far reaching, long lasting effects of that night that are beyond the scope of this trial. In doing so, we encourage you to sentence the defendant to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. It is imperative that the defendant never again has the opportunity to harm another person.

Sincerely,
The McAndrew Family

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Swinehart Murder Still a Fascinating Tale

 


     It's a crime that has stayed alive in the minds of many Pottstown-area residents. The January 1982 murder of 44-year-old Pottstown real estate magnate David Swinehart ranks as one of the infamous stories that grabbed headlines in the region for more than 14 years in the 1980s and 1990s. The tale of greed, sex and conspiracy that ended with Swinehart being smashed over the head with a baseball bat and stabbed 14 times became known in local circles as the "Crime of the Decade."
     Interest in the crime continues to this day.
     Indeed, at 9 p.m. tonight former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr., now a county commissioner, will be featured prominently on Investigation Discovery Channel when the network airs a program that examines the Swinehart murder and the subsequent trials related to the crime, according to county spokesman Frank X. Custer. Castor prosecuted three of the five defendants charged in the case.
David Swinehart...killed January 1982
     Castor’s appearance tonight marks the fifth case involving Castor that Investigation Discovery has profiled in recent years., Custer said.
     I remember the Swinehart case well as it was the focus of much of my time when I took over the county courthouse beat for The Mercury in 1991. I had a front-row seat to all the drama that unfolded.
     Swinehart, trial testimony revealed, was stabbed and beaten to death with a baseball bat as he left his home in the 200 block of Maugers Mill Road in Upper Pottsgrove on Jan. 15, 1982. Swinehart and his wife, Patricia Ann, were estranged at the time and Mr. Swinehart had been visiting his four children who ranged in age at that time from 6 to 17, according to testimony.
     Prosecutors alleged Patricia Swinehart conspired with Thomas and Jeffrey DeBlase, her nephews through marriage, to kill her husband in order to collect more than a half-million dollars in life insurance money and so the socialite could continue her sexual affair with Thomas, then a handsome 24-year-old construction worker and former Pottstown High School quarterback.

Patricia Swinehart/Mercury file photo
    Patty Swinehart denied ever asking either of her nephews to kill her husband and she was acquitted by a jury of murder charges during a high-profile trial that lasted several weeks in January and February 1994. The DeBlase brothers were both convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the death of their uncle.
    When Patty Swinehart and Thomas DeBlase, for the first time in many years, came face-to-face in court during Thomas’ trial in 1996, she forced to testify against her ex-lover and about their affair, there wasn’t an empty seat in the courtroom.
     For a brief time, soap opera took over a court of law.







The Mercury/ Dec. 31,1989
     Following is a brief synopsis of the case, compiled from The Mercury’s vault:
     Jeffrey DeBlase, now 57, was convicted in 1985 of first-degree murder in connection with the slaying of his uncle. Sentenced to life in prison, Jeffrey DeBlase is currently housed at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, Huntingdon County, according to court records.
     Jeffrey DeBlase was the first of five defendants to stand trial for the murder.


The Mercury/ Feb. 3, 1996
     DeBlase’s brother, Thomas, Swinehart’s wife, Patricia, and two other Pottstown area men, Terry Lee Maute and Arthur Hall, also were charged with taking part in one of Pottstown’s most notorious crimes.
     Prosecutors called the case a “contract killing,” alleging Patricia Swinehart conspired with her nephews and Maute to kill her husband. The motive, authorities alleged, was to collect $523,000 in life insurance money and to allow Mrs. Swinehart and Thomas DeBlase to continue their sexual affair. The DeBlase brothers were Mrs. Swinehart’s nephews through marriage.
     Thomas DeBlase, now 56, was convicted Feb. 2, 1996, of first-degree murder and is serving a life prison sentence at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township in Northumberland County.
     Patricia Swinehart, who would be72 now, was arrested July 28, 1993, more than 11 years after her husband's killing. At the time, prosecutors said the arrest came after they uncovered new information about the case. She was acquitted of all murder charges in February 1994 during an emotional trial at which she was represented by veteran criminal defense lawyer Frank DeSimone. She denied any involvement in the killing.
     Maute, who would be 66 now, was acquitted of murder charges in 1985. However, he was sentenced to a 20- to 64-year jail term on unrelated forgery and theft charges.
     Hall, who would be 65 now, pleaded guilty to robbery charges in connection with the crime and served a 29- to 59-month county jail term.
 
I will be interested to see what Castor has to say tonight during the national television program that examines the case.
 
    


                                   

Monday, October 20, 2014

Montco's Marge Cesare keeps 'Hope Afloat'

    
     Marge Cesare, first deputy of Montgomery County's Jury Selection Board, will be celebrating life and raising awareness about breast cancer when she participates in the 2014 International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission (IBCPC) Dragon Boat Festival in Florida later this week. Cesare, 62, who has worked for the jury board 13 years, is a member of the Philadelphia-based dragon boat team, "Hope Afloat USA."
     "I'm a 14-year breast cancer survivor and I joined this team two years ago. It's the best move I ever made, actually. The camaraderie there, everyone on the boat is a breast cancer survivor, so there is a lot of understanding," Cesare said as she prepared to head to the Sarasota area on Oct. 24 to take part in the competition. "The people are beautiful people."
     Cesare said a relative who also is on the team approached her two years ago and said, "You've got to try this."
     "I tried it and instantly loved it," said Cesare, who has competed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont with the team, one of several that represent Philadelphia. "We were in five races this year and took home a medal in every race."
     The team, last month, won a Gold Medal in Cape May at the Cape May Dragon Boat Festival.
     Cesare, one of 20 paddlers on the boat, said she enjoys being on the water and the thrill of the competition.
     "Oh, it's a rush. It's just a rush," Cesare, of West Norriton, smiled brightly. "You're nervous once you first get out there. Once you start, you're so in the zone you can't hear anything around you except the drummer on the boat telling you what to do. It's exciting and the adrenalin is flowing."
Marge Cesare, first deputy of Montgomery County Jury Selection Board, wearing her team jacket.
Photo courtesy of Marge Cesare
     With the competition comes a lot of personal fulfillment, Cesare said.
     "You just feel so honored to be on a team like this, so lucky to be on a team like this and have these friends," said Cesare, a mother of two and grandmother of four. "You grow to love these people. They become your second family. I'm so humbled being on that team."
     About 3,000 breast cancer survivors and supporters from all over the world are expected to participate in the event, according to organizers. The festival marks the first time that international teams have competed in the U.S. Teams from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Italy and New Zealand are expected to participate in the event.
     "Our team is excited this event is being held in the USA and we are eager to head to Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota to paddle," Peg Schofield, president of the group, said in a news release. "Being part of this world-class event at a world-class rowing venue is simply joyful. It enables us all to put our fears behind us and paddle forward to celebrate life."
     The festival kicks off Friday, Oct. 24, with pre-race events that will include training sessions, educational forums and social activities focusing on breast cancer awareness, wellness and healthy lifestyles. Race days are Oct. 25 and Oct. 26.
     The IBCPC is an international not for profit organization whose mandate is to create positive, proactive breast health awareness through the development and support of recreational dragon boat paddling teams within the framework of participation and inclusiveness. The organization promotes a healthy, active lifestyle and provides organized opportunities for physical fitness and wellness education among breast cancer survivors and their supporters, according to its website. For more information visit www.ibcpc.com
     Kudos to Marge for raising awareness and for celebrating life.
     I'm sure her courthouse family wishes her much success and is cheering her on.


    

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Remembering Shirley

     Those passing through the hallways of the Montgomery County Courthouse at lunchtime during the last several months noticed a void. The chair, regularly  occupied by Shirley Jane Dilliplane, of Pottstown, sat empty while she reportedly recovered from an illness.
Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     "Where's Shirley?" many concerned courthouse employees often were heard saying as they strolled past the chair on the courthouse plaza level where Shirley, 52, sat each day on her lunch break, between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m., crocheting blankets and joking with fellow employees she had come to know during her 28 years working for the county as an accounts payable clerk.
     Shirley's laughter and sense of humor were a constant, day-in-and-day-out, at that location, and courthouse visitors noticed when she was not there. I, on many occasions, was witness to the strong-willed, friendly woman speaking her mind, and she would often have a comment about the tie I wore on any particular day. Many in the courthouse family would stop and chat with her about her latest blanket creation.
     Sadly, word came on Sept. 22 that Shirley, a 1980 graduate of Pottstown Area High School, had passed away.
    
Memorial to Shirley Jane Dilliplane
     In the days that followed, some employees who knew the longtime county worker created a memorial, in the chair considered Shirley's. The memorial began with a flier, attached to the chair, announcing Shirley's funeral details. But soon, another employee added a floral tribute and then another added a crocheted blanket, gently draping it over the arm of the wooden chair. Finally, a photo of a smiling Shirley was placed on the wall behind the chair.
     "We saw her every day. She used to sit in her same place. We saw her knitting every day. She always talked to everybody," recalled Lisa Blake, a courthouse employee who often talked with Shirley. "She had a sense of humor, funny, and was always nice to everybody."
     "She liked to joke with me about Christmas because I hated Christmas. She likes it and I hate it and she'd put things on my Facebook page a lot," Blake laughed.
     In addition to crocheting blankets for relatives and friends, Shirley, a daughter of Marie A. (Garner) and the late Richard E. Dilliplane, also loved to read, attended Allentown School of Business and obtained an associate degree in accounting. In addition to her mother, Shirley is survived by a brother, a sister and numerous nieces and nephews, many of whom she would often mention with love and laughter during her conversations with others.
     Those who took the time to create the memorial for Shirley exhibited a special kindness. I'm sure your thoughtfulness was appreciated by many.
     "I tell God to tell her, 'Hi,'" Blake said.
     Rest in peace, Shirley. You will be missed.

In Memory of Shirley Jane Dilliplane

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Mother's Tears and a Letter of Grief

     You could have heard a pin drop last week in a Montgomery County courtroom when a mother's anguished words, read by a prosecutor to a judge, filled the courtroom where one of the men responsible for her son's murder was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
    Gloria Watson's grief was palpable.
    While Watson, of New York, was not able to join other relatives in the courtroom on that day, Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Strubel read a victim impact letter penned by Watson, whose son, Vincent Taylor, also known as Victor Baez, was gunned down outside a Pottstown bar on March 22, 2013. With each word uttered, the eyes of some of Taylor's relatives shed another tear.
     The entirety of Watson's heartbreaking letter could not be included in a typical news account of the day's events. So, I thought I would share all of those sorrowful words here to give readers a better understanding of the pain that is suffered by those left in the wake of the tragedy of murder.

"To whom it may concern,

     Where do I start? This is the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life. My eldest son, Vincent Taylor, was murdered on March 22, 2013. Everything in my life changed that very moment I got the news. I have not been the same since.
     I have cried every day since that day. Every time I remember him I cry. If he was sick for a long time I would have at least had time to prepare myself that may be, may be he could die. How does a mother accept the death of her child? You bond with that child from the womb and see that child growing up and becoming a man, only to lose him so senselessly.
     An empty void has been left in my heart that will never ever be filled. There was only one Vincent and to me he was everything. He loved life and loved having fun.
     To you who murdered my son, I say to you, you did not only put my son in the grave, but the family who loved him and cared for him, our lives have changed also. I don't imagine that you even gave thought that your life would have changed too. The only difference is you are still alive and if you have a family they can still come and talk to you, but you are obviously dead inside to yourself and to the world for you have committed murder.
     Your life has changed also from that moment because you will no longer have a freedom to make something of yourself, but that your every dignity will be taken away from you and you will now become part of a world of an animal and to be caged. I hope you will have that time to experience all the indignities that you switched your very life for.
     May God have mercy on your soul." - Gloria Watson

     (NOTE: Michael Romain Hinton, 27, of Norristown, was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to a mandatory life sentence for his role in Vincent Taylor's death. Hinton's cousin, Maurice Laverne Andrews Jr., 20, of Pottstown, was convicted of third-degree murder in connection with the slaying and is scheduled to be sentenced next month.)

Friday, September 19, 2014

New Guidelines for District Court Judges

                                                                 
   The 30 magisterial district judges, or as I still call them district court judges, in Montgomery County now have new guidelines to govern their actions while on the bench and outside the courtroom.
    According to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, the policies are part of a revised version of the Rules Governing Standards of Conduct of Magisterial District Judges that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued this week. The new rules take effect Dec. 1.
    The guidelines are designed to bring greater clarity to rules affecting the conduct of Pennsylvania's district court judges, rules that have not changed significantly in 40 years, officials said. The guidelines complement a similar rules overhaul approved earlier this year applicable to conduct standards for trial and appellate judges that had been in place without revision since 1973, according to a press release from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
  
     The new set of rules for district court judges mirror many of the rules for trial and appellate judges that took effect last month. Much of the updating was based on language used in a model judicial code adopted by the American Bar Association and guidelines used in other states.
    "We are fully committed to maintaining the public's trust and confidence in the judicial system," Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Ronald D. Castille said. "These updates help enhance the integrity of our court system so its fairness can remain beyond question."
    The rules differ from the recently adopted rules for other judges in Pennsylvania because district court judges are not required to have a law degree and they may have outside employment that does not conflict with their judicial duties, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
    Judges who violate the rules can be suspended or removed from office. A judicial disciplinary process laid out in the state constitution provides for an independent agency - the Judicial Conduct Board - to investigate misconduct complaints about judges and prosecute misconduct violations when appropriate.
    There are a total of 526 district court judges statewide, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
    The new code of conduct essentially consists of four canons that discuss judicial ethics. They are:

     CANON 1 - A MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE SHALL UPHOLD AND PROMOTE THE INDEPENDENCE, INTEGRITY, AND IMPARTIALITY OF THE JUDICIARY, AND SHALL AVOID IMPROPRIETY AND THE APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY.

     CANON 2 - A MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE SHALL PERFORM THE DUTIES OF JUDICIAL OFFICE IMPARTIALLY, COMPETENTLY AND DILIGENTLY.

    CANON 3 - A MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE SHALL CONDUCT THE MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE'S PERSONAL AND EXTRAJUDICIAL ACTIVITIES TO MINIMIZE THE RISK OF CONFLICT WITH THE OBLIGATIONS OF JUDICIAL OFFICE.
 
   CANON 4 - A MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE OR CANDIDATE FOR JUDICIAL OFFICE SHALL NOT ENGAGE IN POLITICAL OR CAMPAIGN ACTIVITY THAT IS INCONSISTENT WITH THE INDEPENDENCE, INTEGRITY, OR IMPARTIALITY OF THE JUDICIARY.

    To view a complete list of the rules and for more information about the Code of Conduct readers can visit The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania's website at www.PACourts.us













Friday, September 5, 2014

Pottstown native Nicholas Reifsnyder is moving on...


     Pottstown-area native and Hill School graduate Nicholas Reifsnyder, who worked in the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office for more than seven years, first as a summer intern while in law school and later as an assistant prosecutor, is moving on to a new challenge. Reifsnyder is joining the law practice of James P. Lyons in Maple Glen where he will concentrate on criminal defense work.
     "He's a local defense attorney and he's one of the best we have so it's an honor and a privilege to be working with him," Reifsnyder said recently as he prepared to leave the DA's office.
     Reifsnyder rose through the ranks as a prosecutor, working his way from the pre-trial division to the economic crimes unit, to the drug unit and then was promoted to the major crimes unit where he was captain of the elder abuse division. Reifsnyder summed up his time as a prosecutor as "fantastic."
     "It's a great place to work. You're working with very bright and very talented people, people who really believe in what they do. The bosses are great people to work for," said Reifsnyder, referring to District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, First Assistant District Attorney Kevin R. Steele and Deputy District Attorney Thomas McGoldrick. "All-in-all it was a magnificent experience and I wouldn't trade these last seven years for the world."
     Reifsnyder was born in N.J. but his parents moved to the Pottstown area when he was in the second grade and he attended local public schools and also attended St. Aloysius Catholic school. He is a 2000 graduate of The Hill School. He completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard University and graduated from Temple University Law School.
Nicholas Reifsnyder on his last day as a Montco prosecutor. Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     Those he worked with in the office praised Reifsnyder for his legal acumen and friendly nature.
     "He was someone who was diligent. He was intelligent, he spotted issues. He was someone that the younger people counted on to go to for advice and he will be missed," said Assistant District Attorney Jason Whalley, who worked with Reifsnyder on the drug unit and considers him a friend. "He understood the issues, he prepared and was a good teammate when we were both on the same unit."
     Fellow prosecutor Jordan Friter, who leads the district attorney's sex crimes unit, recalled he and Reifsnyder began their jobs as prosecutors on the same day.
     "Nick is one of the smartest people I have ever had the opportunity to work with. We always bust his chops about going to Harvard," Friter joked. "He keeps the mood of the office light all the time and we're going to miss him a lot."
     Friter said it will be "strange" to appear against Reifsnyder in a courtroom battle.
     "It is strange. When you come into the office you never think about that actually happening but now it's a reality and he's got a job to do and I look forward to going against him," Friter added.
     At the notion of going up against his former colleagues, Reifsnyder said, "Everyone's got a job to do. They have a job to do. I'm going to have a job to do and one of the good things about the people in the office is they don't tend to take things personally. They understand that the defense bar has a job to do just like they do. It might be a little bit weird at first but I think that that will disappear pretty quickly."
     Prosecutor Kathleen Colgan recalled she was a certified legal intern in the office when Reifsnyder accompanied her during her very first court appearance.
     "Nick is a brilliant attorney and I've learned an immeasurable amount by working with him," Colgan said. "Nick has a brilliant legal mind and he had the ability to explain complicated nuances of the law to an intern in a way that I was able to understand it as a very young attorney. He's continued to be a mentor to me."
     Others had this to say as Reifsnyder said his farewells to the office.
     "Nick Reifsnyder was a huge asset to our office and we're definitely going to miss him," said Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden. "He was an excellent prosecutor, very passionate about his cases."
     "Nick was a great guy to work with and he was always willing to help out with a case," added prosecutor Laura Adshead.
    "Nick was a tremendous prosecutor who demonstrated an extraordinary knowledge of the law and was a powerful presence in the courtroom," said fellow prosecutor Jeremy Abidiwan-Lupo.
     Several years ago, Reifsnyder helped prosecute a Pottstown merchant who sold synthetic marijuana from his downtown convenience store, a crime that ended in a state prison term for the store owner. The prosecution of the store owner and a business associate were an outgrowth of the investigation of a May 2012 double-fatal wreck on State Street in Pottstown during which the driver of the vehicle was driving under the influence of synthetic pot, known as K2, which had been purchased at the store.
     That prosecution marked the first time that a store operator was charged in the county with selling K2 under a state law that went into effect in August 2011 and criminalized such activity.
     "It was a privilege," Reifsnyder said, to participate in that important prosecution.
     Ironically, one of Reifsnyder's legal foes during that case was Lyons.
     "It's a new challenge," Reifsnyder said about his decision to turn to criminal defense work. "I'm looking forward to being able to make sure that people are getting fair trials. You've got to put the commonwealth's evidence to the test. I hope to give the people that I represent the best representation that I possibly can."
     From a personal standpoint, Reifsnyder was always available for press questions and never tried to dodge the press while his cases played out in court. And he always treated reporters with respect, understanding we have a job to do too.
     I look forward to reporting about Reifsnyder's defense career.
     Congratulations, Nick. Best of luck.





    


Monday, August 11, 2014

Matthew Quigg, moving on....

                                                             
Montgomery County Courthouse
Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
 
After years of putting robbers and rapists behind bars, Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Matthew Quigg is leaving the prosecutor's office to enter the field of criminal defense. Quigg, who has joined the practice of well-known defense lawyer Timothy Woodward, also a former prosecutor, will be missed by his colleagues.
 
    "I think Matt has been a stellar prosecutor. He has committed himself to this job at the highest level. He has a wonderful sense of judgment and perspective. He is one of those people I often hear praise about from others who come in contact with him, that he's fair, balanced and easy to deal with," District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said last week as Quigg prepared to leave the office. "When I look at his overall body of work here, I think he exemplifies what it is to be a prosecutor."
    Ferman said Quigg has been a mentor to other prosecutors just beginning their careers and that his institutional knowledge will be missed.

Former Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Matthew Quigg
Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
                                           

   "I think it's part of the lifecycle of an office like ours. People come and they stay for a period of time and they contribute so much and then they move on to other parts of their career. While I'm sad to see Matt go, I'm also very pleased to see him joining with another former member of the office who also operates at the highest levels of practice and professionalism."
   Assistant District Attorney Kelly Lloyd said Quigg was the "go to" man in the office.
   "He's an amazing trial attorney. It's a huge loss for our office to see him go. He's definitely got excellent judgment and great character and I'm sure that he'll maintain those when he goes to the defense side," Lloyd said.
   Prosecutor Stewart Ryan worked closely with Quigg, who was captain of the firearms unit, on several major prosecutions.
   "I do view him as a mentor. He is somebody that all young ADAs go to for advice about cases and legal issues that we may not be familiar with. He is able to give sound advice about all of those," said Ryan, who started with the office in August 2012. "I leaned on him, not just when I was on the firearms unit, but before I got there, for advice. He's the person that has always led by example."
   Deputy District Attorney Thomas McGoldrick hired Quigg as an intern and Quigg spent several summers at the district attorney's office while in law school.
   "I knew from the moment I interviewed him for the internship that we had a quality individual that I would want to someday be part of the office. He kept coming back every summer for about five years. We just had to wait for him to get all the way through law school and pass the bar exam. As soon as he did that he had a job here. He had earned that long before he ever became a lawyer," McGoldrick recalled.
   Before he left, Quigg told me he found the work as a prosecutor rewarding and indicated he'll never forget his experience with the district attorney's office or the people he worked with day in and day out.
   Current prosecutors will have a worthy foe when they have to go up against Quigg, who will continue to be a familiar face at the courthouse in the role of defense lawyer.
   Congratulations, Matt, on your next career endeavor.
   
   
   
 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Montco DA Elected to Leading Role in Professional Association

                                                                  
 
Montgomery County Courthouse/Mercury photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
 
    
    Montgomery County’s top law enforcer will play a leading role in the professional association that provides training for prosecutors and information on legal and legislative issues.
    District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman has been elected by her peers to the post of vice-president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association for the 2014-2015 business year. Ferman’s election took place last week during the association’s annual business meeting.
    During the meeting, Union County District Attorney D. Peter Johnson was elected president of the association while Lebanon County District Attorney  David Arnold was elected secretary-treasurer for 2014-15.
    Ferman, previously secretary-treasurer of the association, said she was honored to be elected by her colleagues as vice-president.
    "It's been a privilege to serve on the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association's Executive Committee  for the past few years and I look forward to working with our new president, Union County District Attorney Pete Johnson, and our other officers and executive committee members to advance our mission to seek justice across the commonwealth," Ferman said during an interview this week.
    Ferman explained the association has a long history of identifying reforms of the criminal justice system and establishing best practices for prosecutors statewide.
Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman
Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
 

    "As vice-president, I expect to be much more involved in supporting our legislative agenda. Some of the issues that I anticipate dealing with over the next year or so include the continued expansion of our network of child advocacy centers so that every child in Pennsylvania has access to a child advocacy center," Ferman said. "I believe we'll be devoting a good deal of effort to crime prevention programs that focus on prescription drug and heroin abuse. From what we're seeing across Pennsylvania, this is one of our greatest epidemics."
    In a press release, association officials recently said the PDAA successfully led efforts to: reform Pennsylvania's child protection laws; establish historic, first-time state funding for children's advocacy centers; and create a statewide prescription drug return and disposal program  to help fight prescription drug abuse.
   The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association is comprised of approximately 1,000 members and is charged with providing uniformity and efficiency in the discharge of duties and functions of Pennsylvania’s 67 district attorneys and their assistants. Founded in 1912, the association sponsors extensive training programs and reports legal and legislative developments of importance to Pennsylvania prosecutors.
   "The Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association plays an important role in protecting the integrity of our profession and helping to preserve, protect and advance Pennsylvania's criminal justice system," said Johnson, first elected Union County District Attorney in 1995. "As president, I am firmly committed to continuing the association's work and always adhering to the prosecutor motto to do the right thing, for the right reasons." 
   Prior to his election as district attorney, Johnson served as an assistant district attorney and conducted a general law practice. Born and raised in Erie, Johnson is a graduate of the Dickinson School of Law (1984) and Gannon College (1979).
   Ferman, a Republican and career prosecutor who spent 15 years climbing the ranks in the district attorney’s office, was elected the county’s first female district attorney in 2007. Ferman began her career with the district attorney’s office in January 1993 and cut her prosecutorial teeth in the pre-trials division, ran the sex crimes unit, oversaw homicide, wiretap and grand jury investigations and supervised the trials division as a deputy district attorney before being appointed second in command by former District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. in 2002.
   A 1983 graduate of Abington High School, Ferman received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987 and graduated from Widener University School of Law in 1992.
   Ferman was an intern with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1991.
   Ferman, who lives in Abington, also is a founder of the Montgomery Child Advocacy Project, which provides pro bono legal representation for children who are victims or witnesses of abuse. She also helped lead the effort to open “Mission Kids,” a child advocacy center for abused children.
  
  
 
 
    
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Monday, June 30, 2014

'Dare To Be Different' - Montco Prosecutor Inspires Youth

 
     Offering messages of hope and encouragement, Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Joseph Green II recently returned to Philadelphia's inner city where he grew up, to inspire young people to acquire a strong educational foundation to prepare themselves for a successful future.
     Green was invited to provide a commencement address at James R. Ludlow School in North Philadelphia, which he attended as an elementary school student. Green told me he saw it as an opportunity to "nurture" and to "pour something positive into the minds of our youth that may make a difference."
     "I take that very seriously because it could be a game-changing moment, a life-changing moment. I hoped to convey that they can be successful that if I can do it, they can do it," said Green, who entitled his address, "Dare To Be Different." "The norm in the inner city is chaos and I told them that just because there's chaos they don't have to become chaotic. I told them that there's a lot of love and that there are persons in the inner city who care about education - teachers and parents in the community."
 
                           Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Joseph Green II
                                                                     Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

     The 18 graduates were leaving the 8th grade and moving on to high school.
     "High school doesn't start until September. Just because school is out doesn't mean that you have to sit on the step all day listening to Kanye West and Nicki Minaj," Green recalled telling the students. "There's nothing wrong with going to the Free Library and picking up a book or two and reading it over the summer. Books will assist you in the development of your learning as it relates to your reading comprehension. Books are also inspirational but most of all books can take you places that some of us have never been. Dare to be different.
     "Don't be around the nonsense. Don't be around the foolishness, I told them," Green recalled.
     Telling students to 'dare to be different' when choosing friends, Green mentioned to them that he recently prosecuted two young men for attempted robbery and burglary, one of whom had a scholarship to play football at a university this fall.
     "This young man was most likely on his way. But he chose the wrong road," Green told the students, adding a collegiate atmosphere can offer a spirit of healthy academic competition, a diversity of ideas and lasting friendships from all walks of life. "Be wise in your choices in who you make your friends. Dare to be different."
     Green pointed out that some studies by behavioral and educational analysts have suggested that the ills that plague the inner city - low income, single parent households and crime - correlate to poor academic performance. Candidly, Green told the students, "I'm not supposed to be here because according to the naysayers I was a child at-risk."
     That, Green said, was his motivation to graduate high school and to go on to college and law school.
     Grabbing their attention, Green candidly shared that he was from their community and the ills that plagued the community were a part of his life, including having relatives who were murder victims.
     "I once sat where you are now sitting. So if I can do it, with all the things that I've been through, you can do the same," Green recalled telling the students. "That's what I wanted to convey to them."
     "We're all familiar with the educational and behavioral ills that plague the inner city and one of those ills is the stereotype that education is not a priority," recalled Green, who told the graduating students they are products of parents who do provide encouragement  for student achievement and who place a value on the importance of education. "I know firsthand that there is a lot of sacrifice, hard work and love that comes from inside of our North Philadelphia homes. I said continue to dare to be different."
     Green, always impeccably dressed in court and wearing his trademark bow tie, explained first impressions are lasting impressions and urged the students to have respect for others.
     "Know your capabilities as well as your limitations and don't be afraid to ask for help," Green reminded the students. "Seek out mentors and work hard."
     "I also talked to them about the Internet and having the world at their fingertips if they use the Internet positively," Green recalled.



 
Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Joseph Green II
   


Green, a father of three whose wife is a school principal in New Jersey, entered his alma mater's gymnasium behind the students during the graduation procession








     "As I began to walk it took me to like a 'Back to the Future' type moment. It gave me goose bumps. It was my educational foundation," Green reflected. "It took me back to the time when I was matriculating at their level. The faces of the teachers were different but the goals were still the same, to prepare them for the next stage in their educational development."
     Green, whose grandmother was once a janitor at the school and who still lives in the community, was greeted with a standing ovation after his address.
    A month before he addressed the graduates, Green even met with the students who wouldn't be graduating this year to impart to them the importance of education.
    "They sent me some thank you letters. I actually connected with them," Green said happily. "If you reach just one it becomes infectious, because that one can reach someone else."


Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Joseph Green II
  





     Kudos and thanks to Green for being a mentor and inspiring others as part of his devotion to public service.
 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Flag Retirement Ceremony a Success

     As June 14th and the Flag Day holiday approached, for some Montgomery County organizations it was an appropriate time to retire tattered and torn American flags, many of which were collected at the county courthouse in a special flag drop-off box during the last year.
    "We found that people would go and buy new flags and then wonder, ‘What do we do with our old American flags?’ A lot of people don’t know the proper method to retire a flag,” Stan Sarnocinski Jr., of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, Washington Camp 523 of Eagleville, said recently when I interviewed him about the drop-off box. “You never throw an American flag in the trash. That’s disrespectful.”
                                                      

        Stan Sarnocinski Jr. of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, Washington Camp 523 of Eagleville/ Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

     During the last year, about 400 tattered flags were left in the courthouse drop-off box, said Sarnocinski, who works for the county's purchasing department as supply room supervisor. On Sunday, June 8, those flags were among 4,000 that were properly retired during a solemn ceremony sponsored by Camp 523 and Camp 387 of Schwenksville, and Boy Scout Troop 105 of Schwenksville, in the meadow behind the Schwenksville Fire Co. off Route 29.
     "Over 4,000 flags were properly retired and then the ashes were buried up at Heidelberg Cemetery in Schwenksville," Sarnocinski said. "It shows the public the proper way to retire an American flag and it keeps them out of landfills. We do it every year around Flag Day."
      The Boy Scouts cut each stripe and cut the stars, explaining what each stripe and star means, and then burn them in proper fashion.


Flag Retirement Ceremony, Schwenksville, Pa. Photo Courtesy of Stan Sarnocinski Jr.

 
     Several dozen people attended the ceremony, including state Rep. Marcy Toepel, the Republican who represents the 147th District, who spoke about the meaning of the flag.
     "It makes me proud," said Sarnocinski, referring to the ceremony.

              

Boy Scout Troop 105 of Schwenksville participate in June 8 flag retirement ceremony. Photo courtesy Stan Sarnocinski Jr.

      Sarnocinski, currently the national vice-president of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, the oldest patriotic organization in the U.S., founded in 1847, urged citizens to continue to drop off their tattered and torn flags in the boxes sponsored by the organization so they can be properly retired during next year's ceremony.
     The Order also sponsors flag retirement boxes at the following locations: Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge National Historical Park; the Lower Salford Township building; Ace Hardware, Route 63, Harleysville; the 4-H Club along Route 113 in Creamery; the Lowe’s store on Egypt Road, Oaks; the Montgomery Township building along Stump Road in Montgomeryville; the American Legion Post 688, Route 30, in Wayne, Chester County; and at the organization’s state office along Route 61 in Leesport, Berks County.
     "We get some unique flags. We have had a lot with 48 stars, the old flags that people have been holding onto," said Sarnocinski, the recording secretary of Washington Camp 523.

     Kudos to Mr. Sarnocinski and all those who participated in this very patriotic event!
 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Meet A Future Journalist...

     While on the Montgomery County Courthouse news beat last month, I had a shadow - Germantown Academy senior Cliff David, who was interested in learning about the life of a court and crime journalist as part of his senior project. Cliff, 18, of Ambler, was extremely inquisitive as he roamed the courtrooms with me searching for the latest crime/justice stories and so he should do well if he decides this challenging profession, that is changing daily with new innovations in digital reporting, is right for him.
     "I've always been interested in writing and journalism, in particular, so I'm hoping I get to see some up-close journalism for the first time in my life and see how it works behind the scenes," Cliff told me during a break one day as we scoured the courthouse for breaking news. "I've always wanted to learn how it works and I think this is a cool way to get inside of it."
                                            
                              Cliff David starts his day at Montgomery County Press Room
                                                                          Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

     While enrolled at Germantown Academy, Cliff has written for the school newspaper, Germantown Academy Times, and studied AP English and is part of the writing center program. When he heads to Trinity College, a private, liberal arts school in Hartford, Conn., in the fall, he's contemplating majoring in journalism or American studies, which he describes as an interdisciplinary field that incorporates history, English and literature.
     During his time at the courthouse, Cliff was able to observe the trial of a man accused of domestic violence and observed two Philadelphia men admit their roles in a disturbance prosecutors said was akin to the "Wild Wild West" that ended with a drive-by shooting in Lansdale during which a man suffered a gunshot wound to the arm. Additionally, Cliff watched Judge Garrett D. Page call his trial list and got a chance to chat with the judge behind the scenes.
     KYW News Radio Reporter and Suburban Bureau Chief Brad Segall provided Cliff with a lesson in how to produce a radio news report from his small news studio in the courthouse press room. Finally, District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman also took time to discuss with Cliff the dynamics of how a district attorney's office interacts with the media, handles press calls and breaks news at press conferences.
                                              

                               Cliff David meets Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman
                                                                                 Mercury Photo/Carl Hessler Jr.

     Cliff said he's always been interested in politics and political reporting and he's a fan of political satirists Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and how they inform the public "about things that are very important." But being at the courthouse a few days also seemed to spark Cliff's interest in crime and justice reporting, something he didn't think too seriously about previously.
     "I think definitely now that I've been here I would be interested in it, it's actually something that matters to your community. It's really exciting. It's a lot more active than I thought it would be, you keep moving around from court to court and see a lot of things," said Cliff, who easily kept up with me as we burned shoe leather running from courtroom to courtroom. "It's very exciting. I like writing and I like journalism so I'll follow that path and see where it takes me."
     Cliff sent me a note the other day, indicating he enjoyed his brief stint here in the press room of the courthouse.
     "It was an extremely valuable experience for me that I'm sure I will remember and look upon while I make decisions regarding what I'll end up doing someday," Cliff wrote.
     I want to take this time to thank Cliff for showing an interest in the profession and we in the press corps enjoyed having him around. We wish him much success in his future and have no doubt he'll flourish in any profession he chooses.
    Additionally, thanks to the judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, other courthouse employees and fellow journalists who assisted in showing Cliff what it's like to work in a place where crime, justice and news intertwine.
    


    

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In Memoriam: James W. Staerk

                                                          
                                           James W. Staerk /Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

     The news was shocking when it reached the Montgomery County Courthouse on Good Friday. Former Assistant District Attorney James W. Staerk had passed away in South Carolina on April 17, just one day shy of his 55th birthday and just two years after he retired from a prosecutorial career that spanned 27 years. Those who worked with the gentleman affectionately known as "Jim" walked the hallways of the courthouse in the days that followed with saddened faces, but wonderful memories, as they grappled with the unexpected news of their friend's passing.
     "We're all deeply saddened. Jim was an icon in the Montgomery County legal community. His knowledge of the law and the way that he dealt with people and the respect that he treated everybody with, is really what I think, everyone will remember, especially his sense of humor and his overcoming all the obstacles that he did in order to become such an icon here in Montgomery County," said Assistant District Attorney Matthew Quigg.
     Believed to be one of only a few prosecutors nationwide who plied their legal skills from a wheelchair, Jim never let his physical condition define him or keep him from realizing his goals as a dedicated public servant. A neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which became apparent when Jim was a young child, resulted in his using a wheelchair since he was 8.
     But it wasn't the wheelchair that colleagues, legal adversaries and jurors noticed. It was Jim's reputation as a tough, yet fair, reasonable man who had a combination of courage and humility, that stood out. District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman once told me Jim was "one of the most inspirational and extraordinary" people she'd ever met.
     Ferman said Jim was an "example of grace in a challenging circumstance."
     "Jim took me under his wing when I was in the pretrials division, taught me all about forfeitures and taught me about criminal prosecution in general," Assistant District Attorney Kathleen Colgan recalled this week. "He had an extremely sharp, legal mind, an even sharper wit and a huge heart. He will be greatly missed."
     Jim's quips were infamous and I witnessed many of them as I covered him in court.
     Shortly before he retired in the summer of 2012, Jim used drug forfeiture laws to seize convicted drug smuggling pilot James Handzus' 1959 Piper Comanche single engine aircraft, which was christened "My Lady." While arguing to have the plane forfeited Jim suggested to the judge, "It is time for Mr. Handzus to kiss his lady goodbye." Jim always nailed it in court.
     A 1977 graduate of Abington High School, Jim had a love of law enforcement that was deeply rooted in family. His father and uncle both served the public as Abington cops. Jim once told me being a prosecutor was "a good fit" for him.
     "He was inspired to be in law enforcement his whole life," recalled defense lawyer Jon Fox, who is also a former county commissioner. "He's a man who had a disability but he didn't think so and he inspired others to do their best, to keep a sense of humor and to make sure that whatever he did was to help the citizens of Montgomery County."
     In court, jurors couldn't help but notice the wheelchair, initially. But the wheelchair always seemed to fade into the background once Jim spoke, his commanding presence permeating the courtroom. Jim also was well known for arguing before the state Supreme Court in an appellate case that led to changes that strengthened corrupt organization laws.
     Hundreds of people, including former colleagues, judges, detectives, police officers, friends and family, celebrated Jim's life and remembered their good friend during a service last Saturday at St. John of the Cross Church in Roslyn.
     I had the privilege of interviewing Jim in May 2012 shortly before he retired and in typical Jim fashion he approached the interview with great humor and questioned the fuss people were making about his retiring. When the interview concluded, I was struck by his integrity, courage, determination, perspective on the world and knowledge about the legal institution he loved so much. Not once did Jim lament about his physical challenges.
     "My condition is what I am. But I don't let my condition limit what I am," Jim told me. "It's a part of me and I just go out and do what I feel like doing, the best that I can."
     Thank you for inspiring others, Jim. You will be missed.
                                        
                                             

Friday, April 25, 2014

Courtroom Civility and Decorum, Where Has It Gone?

                                        Montgomery County Courthouse, Norristown, Pa.
                                                                         /Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

     As I sat in a Montgomery County Courtroom last week covering the trial of three defendants charged with killing a West Pottsgrove man during a violent home invasion robbery, it struck me that civility and decorum in public places really has become an afterthought for some. A friend and supporter of one of the defendants repeatedly entered the courtroom throughout the week, his soiled, baggy jeans hanging below his waistline, displaying his underwear and rear-end to all the courtroom spectators. Each day, court crier Bruce Saville, a former county detective, had to remind the young man to pull them up.
    On the final day of the trial, as the verdict was about to be announced and tension was mounting, Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy reminded some of the spectators that she wasn't amused by the brashness they displayed throughout the week,  at times being disrespectful in the court of law by talking loudly.
     I see it on a daily basis - ragged T-shirts with inappropriate phrases; caps worn in court; low-cut blouses revealing way too much cleavage; short skirts that leave nothing to the imagination; and yes, way too many saggy jeans displaying way too much butt. No one wants  or needs to see it!
     Honestly, I'm not a prude, but my mother taught me that when you leave the house headed for a public place such as school or court you should dress appropriately. Some old-timers here at Swede and Airy can recall a time when people dressed for court, men in suits or shirts and ties, and women in dresses, even for jury duty. Did the advent of so-called casual Fridays change the way people think about daily attire?
     I'm not a sociologist so I won't speculate on the reasons for the lack of decorum or incivility.
     But I have to give kudos to Demchick-Alloy for demanding decorum in her courtroom.
     Last September, a short, form-fitting, black, sleeveless dress was inappropriate attire for court and Demchick-Alloy let a Pottstown woman know it with a stern dressing-down. The woman's cocktail dress couldn't hide scratches on her arm, which she sustained in a fight.
     “You’re not dressed for court. Don’t come to court like you’re going to the beach or a nightclub,” Demchick-Alloy scolded the 20-year-old woman who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge stemming from a June 2013 disturbance in Pottstown. "Next time you come to court cover up."
     Earlier this month, Demchick-Alloy, who as a former prosecutor had a reputation for being "a pitbull in heels," scolded another defendant who apparently believed it was dress-down day in court.
     When the Philadelphia man arrived to court for his hearing wearing sagging jeans with holes that revealed a little too much backside, a stern Demchick-Alloy gave him a dressing-down of a different sort.
     “Your pants are completely ripped and rear end is hanging out the back. You come in here looking like a complete slob, which is disrespectful,” Demchick-Alloy scolded the man as he pleaded guilty to a summary disorderly conduct charge in connection with a 2011 disturbance in Cheltenham.
     The 26-year-old man told the judge he works in demolition and that he was wearing a belt in court. But the judge wasn’t impressed by the man’s excuses, reminding him his attire wasn’t proper for court, and added, “You could have made an effort.”
     The judge told the man she was reluctant to have him stand, for fear his pants would fall down, as she imposed his sentence.
     “Keep them pulled up sir, I don’t need to see your rear end,” Demchick-Alloy said with a strict tone in her voice.