Monday, April 18, 2016

Remembering Eric J. D'Ercole, 'A Buddy to Everyone'

That ever present smile and the friendly voice of Eric J. D’Ercole, who usually greeted all those he cared about with a friendly, “Hey buddy,” were noticeably absent from the courtrooms and hallways of the Montgomery County Courthouse last week.

But that trademark, “Hey buddy,” greeting still lingered in the air and in the hearts and cherished memories of fellow courthouse workers who were saddened to learn that the 34-year-old popular court clerk passed away unexpectedly on April 10 at his Phoenixville residence.

“I’m almost 55 years old and whenever he saw me he called me ‘Buddy,’ and when he did I felt like a little girl. I’ll miss that,” a tearful Suzanne Hayes, court clerk for Judge R. Stephen Barrett, said a day after learning about D’Ercole’s death.  “He’s the one who would have been here giving us all the hugs we needed today. He would be the one to do it and I’ll forever be grateful for having known him and for having been his ‘buddy.’”
Eric D'Ercole, background, with courthouse friends/ Submitted photo

D’Ercole, husband of Rachel (Rosenberry) D’Ercole, was a graduate of St. Pius X High School and was a retired Army veteran, having served in Bravo Company 1-111th IN. Eric worked as the court clerk for Judge Rhonda Lee Daniele.

Many of Eric’s fellow court clerks gathered last week to share tears and seek comfort in each other as they openly reflected upon the man they considered a friend.

Tamara Herder, court clerk for Judge William R. Carpenter, said she remembers Eric “as the person who did everything, anything for anybody.”

“You never saw a frown on his face. Eric and I did have talks and eat lunch together and we would talk about life. Eric would give his last dime to anybody that he thought needed it more than him,” said Herder, her voice quivering with emotion at times. “He was a wonderful father, son and husband. He loved his family.

“It’s been a sad couple of days at the courthouse,” Herder said as she fought back tears.
Tamara Herder/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Colleagues recalled D’Ercole was most proud of his toddler daughter, Eden, and was always sharing photos of his pride and joy that he collected on his cell phone.

“You couldn’t get the smile off his face. It was one of the most exciting events of his life,” Herder recalled. “Everything was with a smile. His term of endearment, everyone was his ‘bud.’ He was one of the most caring men that ever blessed my life as a coworker and a friend.”

Monica Pokorny, currently the court clerk for Judge Todd Eisenberg, knew Eric for about eight years. They often worked together when they were rotating clerks before being assigned permanently to one judge.

“He was amazing and a friend to everyone. When you were around him he made you feel happy. Every time I worked with him, before we’d start the day, he’d say, ‘I’m so excited you’re here, bud. We’re going to have a great day bud.’ Everyone was his ‘bud,’” said Pokorny, whose eyes welled with tears as she spoke about D’Ercole. “He would be so genuinely excited to be working with you and spending the day with you. That’s how he made everybody feel.”
Monica Pokorny/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Eric, who enjoyed kayaking in his spare time, began his courthouse career working part-time in the probation department’s satellite office before moving on to be a court clerk.

“He was a very nice man and a great person to work with. I was so glad they hired him,” said Deborah Baron, who runs the satellite probation office.  “As soon as I heard he was a veteran, that was it, he had me hook, line and sinker. I just can’t thank him enough for his service to our country.”

“He was just a bright light,” said Pokorny, who also once worked in the Clerk of Courts Office and who would see D’Ercole on a daily basis while he worked for probation. “In the mundane of the everyday courthouse he was the person that you saw and made you feel happy.”

D’Ercole suffered a leg injury in a traffic accident many years ago and at one time walked with the aid of a cane. His colleagues said he kept a positive attitude despite some obstacles and was excited whenever he reached a milestone in his recovery.
“He never complained,” Pokorny said.

“You never heard Eric complain about anything and he was probably in pain a lot of time,” added Herder. “He never dwelled on it. He never harped on it.”

Hayes recalled a poignant story that exemplified D’Ercole’s caring nature.

“When my father became ill he ended up needing a cane and he never found one he really liked. When I told Eric, Eric went out and bought one just like his for my father. To this day, it’s my father’s favorite cane,” said Hayes, her voice filled with emotion. “You never had to ask Eric for anything, he just went and did.”
Suzanne Hayes/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Ronette Johnson, court clerk for Judge Garrett D. Page, became emotional as she remembered Eric’s generosity, recalling a story several years ago when she told Eric she was taking her two son’s camping.

“I didn’t have a clue about camping and Eric said the first thing is you’re going to need some firewood and he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to bring you some firewood,’” Johnson recalled.

The following day D’Ercole pulled his pickup truck next to Johnson’s car in the courthouse parking garage and transferred some logs he had gathered to her car.

“I can only imagine it must have taken him hours to chop those logs. One by one he took logs from his truck and put them in my trunk. I had a trunk full of logs,” Johnson said.
“He said, ‘Hey buddy, this will keep you and your boys warm for the weekend. This is good wood, even if it rains it won’t go out,’” Johnson laughed. “He was right. That fire stayed burning and me and my boys had a great time, looking at that fire. I thanked Eric when I got back.

“That’s just the kind of guy that Eric was. He was concerned about me and my boys staying warm and he knew I didn’t know a thing about camping. He made it a little easier for me. He was so giving,” Johnson added.

Personally, I will remember Eric as someone who always had a friendly word to share as I passed him in a hallway. I never heard him say anything negative about anything.
His kindness and graciousness will continue to live on in the hearts of all who knew him.
In the wake of his absence, I urge you all to celebrate Eric’s life with a memory or two today and bid him safe passage. His courthouse family will never forget him.

“We have lost a good buddy. He was a buddy to everyone,” Johnson said it best, her voice trailing with emotion.

Rest in peace, Eric. You will be missed.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Montco D.A. Making Some Changes

Montgomery County Courthouse/ Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Three months after taking office as district attorney in Montgomery County, Kevin R. Steele has begun to make some personnel changes, putting his mark on the office. Courthouse insiders had expected that Steele, who replaced Risa Vetri Ferman as the county’s top law enforcer when she became a county judge in January, would make some changes during the first several months of his term.
Montco D.A. Kevin R. Steele
Mr. Everybody’s Business has learned that Steele announced the personnel changes in a letter distributed last week to his staff and all court officials. According to that letter, the changes are:
Lower Merion Detective Walter Kerr will be hired as a Montgomery County detective and will be assigned to the Major Crimes Unit. Kerr will fill the position opened when Lt. Mike Gilbert retired.
Montgomery County Detective Jeff Koch will be reassigned to the Violent Crime Unit.
Assistant District Attorney Gabriel C. Magee will be promoted to captain of the newly-created Community Prosecution Unit. That position will be focused on certain areas of the county that are particularly plagued by violent crime, according to Steele’s memo that was obtained by Mr. Everybody’s Business. It’s expected that Magee will work closely with community leaders and the police to address crime problems. Magee will keep his current caseload and will be reassigned to Judge Todd Eisenberg’s courtroom where he will be courtroom captain.
Assistant District Attorney Lauren I. McNulty will be reassigned as captain of the Grand Jury Unit. She will keep a select portion of her current caseload and will remain assigned as captain in Judge William R. Carpenter’s courtroom.
Judge Steven T. O'Neill
Assistant District Attorney John N. Gradel, who once handled grand jury matters, will be reassigned to be captain of the Major Crimes Team. Gradel will remain assigned as captain in the courtroom of President Judge William J. Furber Jr.

Assistant District Attorney Alec O’Neill, who previously headed the Domestic Violence Unit, will be reassigned to be captain of the Forfeiture Unit and will keep a select portion of his current caseload.
Assistant District Attorney Lindsay A. O’Brien will be reassigned to be captain of the Domestic Violence Unit and will assume the majority of O’Neill’s caseload. O’Brien will be assigned to Judge Gail A. Weilheimer’s courtroom where she will be courtroom captain.
Judge Gail A. Weilheimer
Assistant District Attorney Laura Adshead will be reassigned as captain of the Firearms Team and will be assigned to Judge Steven T. O’Neill’s courtroom where she will be the courtroom captain.
Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Geiser will be reassigned as captain of the ARD Unit.
Assistant District Attorney Brianna L. Ringwood will be transferred from the Domestic Violence Unit to the Community Prosecution Unit. She will remain assigned to Judge William Carpenter’s courtroom.
Assistant District Attorney Kathleen McLaughlin will be transferred from the Drug Team to the Firearms Team and will remain assigned to Judge William R. Carpenter’s courtroom.
Judge Garrett D. Page
Assistant District Attorney Benjamin McKenna will be transferred from the Major Crimes Team to the Firearms Team and will remain assigned to Judge Garrett D. Page’s courtroom.
Assistant District Attorney Alexandria T. MacMaster will be transferred from the Economic Crimes Team to the Domestic Violence Unit and will remain assigned to the courtroom of Judge Thomas P. Rogers.
Assistant District Attorney Katelyn Damanis will be transferred from the Major Crimes Team to the Sex Crimes Unit and will be reassigned to Judge William R. Carpenter’s courtroom.
Assistant District Attorney Richard H. Bradbury Jr. will be transferred from the Firearms Team to the Major Crimes Team and will remain assigned to Judge Gary S. Silow’s courtroom.
Assistant District Attorney Samantha L. Thompson will be transferred from the Economic Crimes Team to the Drug Team and will remain assigned to Judge Gail A. Weilheimer’s courtroom.
Assistant District Attorney Douglas Lavenberg will be transferred from the DUI Team to the Drug Team and will be assigned to the courtroom of Judge Garrett D. Page.
Assistant District Attorney Scott Frame will be transferred from the DUI Team to the Economic Crimes Team and will be assigned to Judge Todd Eisenberg’s courtroom.
Judge Todd D. Eisenberg
Assistant District Attorney Matthew Brittenburg will be transferred from the DUI Team to the Major Crimes Team and will be assigned to Judge Gail A. Weilheimer’s courtroom.
Assistant District Attorney Roderick Fancher will be transferred to the Trials Division where he will join the Economic Crimes Team. Fancher will be assigned to Judge Thomas P. Rogers’ courtroom.
Assistant District Attorney Kelli Ann McGinnis will be promoted and will remain assigned to the Juvenile Division.
Assistant District Attorney Timothy B. Collier will be transferred from the Pre-trials Division to the Juvenile Division.
Special Assistant District Attorney Lauren A. Alessi will be hired as an assistant district attorney and will be assigned to the Pre-trials Division.

Congratulations and good luck to all those who are taking on new roles in the District Attorney’s Office.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Some Parting Thoughts as Brad Richman Says Goodbye in Montco

Montgomery County Courthouse
Last week, lawyer Bradford Richman ended his work as a Montgomery County prosecutor to move on to new challenges in the private sector. Many people I interviewed for a story reviewing Richman's noteworthy career spoke about his skills and his being a mentor to them.

On a personal note, I just want to say that Richman was always candid and kind whenever I interviewed him for a story I was covering. He always returned phone calls and he never avoided press questions, whether he lost or won in court. For that, I want to say thanks, Brad. I wish you the best in your future endeavors.

Richman's career spanned more than 30 years and took him from helping to prosecute members of the radical organization MOVE in Philadelphia in the 1980's to launching elder abuse and DUI units in Montgomery County. Much of that career was recounted in a published story last week. But there were many things that I couldn't include there, so as a postscript, here are a few other items I took away from that interview.
Bradford A. Richman / Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

During his career, Richman, 61, worked for and with some well-known law enforcement and political heavy-hitters in the Philadelphia region.
"I've been extremely fortunate to work with people, who as leaders knew how to affect change," Richman told me.

As a law clerk and then full-fledged prosecutor in the 1970s and 1980s, Richman worked for then Philadelphia District Attorney Ed Rendell, who hired him, and who later became Philly mayor and then governor.

"The time under then DA Rendell was a very exciting time in the office. They were attacking police brutality at the time. He started a domestic violence unit, he started a rape unit. Then DA Rendell really brought vision to that office and he went on to bring vision to the mayor's office and the governor's office too," Richman said. "It was exciting because we were doing new things."
Bradford Richman on left with members of Philadelphia Police Stakeout Unit 1980/ Photo courtesy of Richman

In the late 1990's, Richman went to work for the Philadelphia Police Department under then Mayor Ed Rendell and Police Commissioner John F. Timoney.

"And why that was so exciting, was that was a time in the Philadelphia Police Department again where there was a mandate for cultural changes. Then Mayor Rendell had pretty much given Commissioner Timoney carte blanche to make improvements. It was a very exciting time to be in a bureaucracy like the police department and really have authority to fix things," said Richman, who during that time wrote a police academy curriculum preparing officers for testifying in court.
Bradford Richman 1980/ Photo Courtesy of Richman

"Commissioner Timoney was a visionary, one of the nationally renowned police chiefs in the country. He brought innovation and his way of using people for their strengths," Richman said. "Bureaucracies aren't known for that. Bureaucracies are known for wasting people's strengths, trying to make everyone the same."

In 2000, working for the Philadelphia Police Department, Richman remembers the National Republican Convention coming to town.

"Talk about being in the middle of everything. I got to walk down Broad Street, followed by all these protesters in the middle of July. We walked the whole length and I'm walking with the police commissioner and the head of civil affairs. There were protests and those things have a real energy about them and could explode. I was standing right in the middle of it. That's another amazing experience that I would never have had," Richman recalled.

"This job has really allowed me to be in the middle of some really important issues and some really important events and some really important experiences," Richman said.

In 2005, Richman was hired in Montgomery County by then District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr., who later went on to be a county commissioner.
Bruce L. Castor Jr..

"He brought me on and he was one who saw the kinds of things I was good at; he understood the kinds of things I was not as good at and he let me play to my strengths, which is the sign of a good leader, a good manager of people," said Richman, recalling Castor.

When Castor left as district attorney Richman then went to work for Risa Vetri Ferman who took over as the county's top law enforcer in 2008.

"She's an extraordinary public figure. I was so impressed by her in so many ways in her handling of so many different things. She was also very, very skilled at recognizing people's strengths and letting people flourish in the areas that they're strong in," said Richman, praising Ferman.

Montgomery County Judge Risa Vetri Ferman/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
"And I think she recognized that at my age, and this office does not get a lot of lawyers who stay at my age, unfortunately, because of the pay scale, that I was in a good position to mentor younger DAs. And I think that she recognized that with my commitment on the issue of teen driving and DUI and my commitment to victims that I think she realized that this would be a good opportunity for a DUI unit and for me to work closely with the young lawyers and help them hone their skills," Richman said.

In January, Ferman was installed as a county judge and Kevin R. Steele, who spent eight years as first assistant district attorney, ascended to the district attorney's seat.

"Kevin, I think, is going to be a great DA. He certainly was an integral part of the last eight years and I think the last eight years were great DA years in the office and he's going to pick that ball up now under his own administration and take it to new places," Richman said.
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele

"Part of me is sorry that I'm not here to help him to do what he thinks I can do to help his efforts, and part of me thinks I'm an old man and he needs a bunch of young DAs that are just starting out, at earlier stages of their careers, ready to tackle full steam the challenges that he wants to take on," Richman added. "I have real high expectations of him. I think he's going to be a spectacular DA. The office and the county are in great hands with him."

Richman once flirted with the idea of going into defense work, wanting to be the next "Clarence Darrow." But working the MOVE cases changed his mind, he wanted to support law enforcement, "no question," he said. One thing is evident, Richman has enormous respect for law enforcement.

Bradford A. Richman / Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
"Meeting these officers...we'd sit in my office, in the prep room, and they're funny guys, laughing, playing practical jokes on each other. They're genuine, real guys, guys you'd actually like to go out and have a beer with or go to a ballgame. And then at the turn of a switch these guys are in flak vests, doing barricaded man situations, walking into gunfire, doing dramatic rescues. They're just incredible human beings.  They're just ordinary people who find themselves in these tremendous situations and rise to the occasion and protect us," Richman said.

Brad, thank you for your public service. It's time to have that beer and take in that ballgame. Enjoy, you deserve it.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Jurors, Beware the World You're About to Enter

Mr. Everybody’s Business has concluded that being summoned as a juror for a criminal trial sure must be an enlightening experience for many of those called for duty. As a juror, one is exposed to the underbelly of society at times and jurors get a glimpse into the lives of others like they’ve never had before.
Montgomery County Courthouse 

After jury duty, perhaps many wish they hadn’t had that glimpse. I always say, “You can’t make this stuff up” and “It’s like nothing on television.”

There is a legal rule that defendants are entitled to a jury of their peers. Sometimes, I sit there in court, looking at the wide-eyed reactions of jurors to a witness’ statement and I think, “Wait a minute, these jurors don’t travel in the same circles as the defendant or the witnesses; how could they be peers?”

For example, at a trial last month before Judge Todd Eisenberg a man accused of sexual assault took the stand in his own defense and claimed to jurors he liked to play a game called “Follow the Porn,” during which he and his then girlfriend, the victim, would re-enact what they viewed in a pornographic video, implying he didn’t commit sexual assault.

I can only imagine what jurors were thinking. Perhaps, “Did I really just hear that said in public?” or “Too much information!” Incidentally, he was convicted.

During a trial before Judge Gail A. Weilheimer, jurors received an education on how to make a cocktail that has a very risqué name.  

One female who witnessed an alleged shooting testified she had been out at local clubs and had been drinking. Her drink of choice she said was “Red-headed Sluts.” She proudly proceeded to inform jurors it’s concocted with “Jagermeister,” peach-flavored schnapps and cranberry juice.

“What is that?” defense lawyer Benjamin Cooper pondered to jurors during his closing argument. “It didn’t sound too cool to me.”

Ditto, Mr. Cooper. Ditto.