The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

January 23, 2013

MORNING BRIEFING: Turnpike officials still getting free cars

News from across Pennsylvania

Associated Press


State auditors are criticizing the fact that Pennsylvania Turnpike commissioners are still driving free cars.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports Turnpike Commission Chairman William Lieberman got a $40,000 2013 Jeep Cherokee on Dec. 28. The newspaper reports he handed down the 2012 model he got a year earlier to fellow Commissioner Pasquale "Pat" Deon.

The other two commissioners, Michael Pratt and William Lincoln, drive 2011 Ford Explorers that cost $33,945 each.

Outgoing Auditor General Jack Wagner criticized the free cars, calling them an "overly generous" perk. Tolls went up Jan. 6.

State auditors write that they don't believe part-time commissioners require permanently assigned vehicles. They say the commission should discontinue the practice.

The commission's acting chief executive officer, Craig Shuey, calls the vehicles "appropriate and necessary."


Ex-Drilling firm controller set for theft plea


PITTSBURGH — The former controller of a natural gas drilling company is scheduled to waive indictment and plead guilty to charges she helped steal more than $5.4 million from the western Pennsylvania business.

Cheryl Diane Brooks was charged in December with one count of conspiracy and three counts each of mail fraud and filing false tax returns in connection with the alleged scheme at Falcon Drilling LLC of Indiana, Pa. Her attorney said then he anticipated Brooks would plead guilty, but he didn't immediately return a call for comment about Wednesday's plea scheduled before a federal judge in Pittsburgh.

Federal investigators say Brooks began forging checks in February 2004 at the behest of 52-year-old Larry Winckler, the company's former chief operating officer.

Winckler's attorney has confirmed the ongoing investigation but has otherwise declined to comment.


Ex-Special ed prof pleading in child porn case



PITTSBURGH — A former western Pennsylvania university professor who specialized in special education faces is scheduled to change his not guilty plea to federal child pornography charges.

Thirty-six-year-old Balazs Tarnai (BAH'-lash TAR'-nai) is charged with possessing child pornography in 2011 and also with making videos and photos of four young boys engaged in sexual conduct in 2008 and 2009.

Tarnai's attorney previously said the professor planned to "fight these charges vigorously" and didn't immediately return a call and email for comment on Wednesday's plea before a federal judge in Pittsburgh.

Tarnai was suspended without pay from Seton Hill University in Greensburg when the first charges were filed in 2011.

Tarnai had also taught children's Bible study classes at St. Vincent Basilica, but has been suspended from that program as well, according to the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg.


Review board wants new Pittsburgh 911 protocol


PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board wants city police to develop new protocols to deal with 911 calls reporting "unknown trouble."

The board, which investigates citizen complaints of police misconduct, is recommending the change in the wake of the death of 33-year-old Ka'Sandra Wade.

Wade was found fatally shot Jan. 1, less than 24 hours after calling 911 to report an unspecified disturbance at her apartment.

Police who responded say Wade's boyfriend, 51-year-old Anthony Brown, wouldn't let them in but told them through a window everything was OK.

Brown shot himself during a police standoff after her body was found, but not before he confessed to killing her shortly after police left the night before.

The police response is still being reviewed internally and by the FBI. Critics say police shouldn't have left without confirming Wade's well-being.


DA: Mom chased pot while twins died in fire

PITTSBURGH — A Pittsburgh-area woman has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and other crimes for allegedly leaving her 3-year-old twins alone before they died in a fire, while she was trying to retrieve marijuana stolen by her 15-year-old daughter.

The attorney for 32-year-old Dalawna Berran-Lett says he's still reviewing the charges filed Tuesday against the North Braddock woman who remains in shock from burying her twins on Saturday.

The boys, Ky'heir and Dy'heir Arthur, died in the Jan. 4 fire. Investigators believe the boys started the fire while trying to cook something while Berran-Lett was gone for about 15 minutes trying to retrieve her marijuana.

Investigators say the boys nearly started a fire trying to cook some ribs in December when they were also left alone by Berran-Lett for about 20 minutes.


Boy held on charges he killed over cigarette


BEAVER FALLS — A 14-year-old western Pennsylvania boy has been ordered to stand trial on charges he fatally shot a woman after she told him to "get a job" when he tried to bum a cigarette off her boyfriend.

Marcus Velasquez, of Beaver Falls, was held for court after a preliminary hearing Tuesday. Two other boys, aged 14 and 13, who were allegedly with him when he shot 22-year-old Kayla Peterson are being tried in juvenile court.

Investigators say the teens followed Peterson's boyfriend home and yelled profanities after he ignored their requests for a cigarette. Velasquez allegedly shot Peterson when she confronted the youths as her boyfriend arrived home.

That man, William Bailey, testified Tuesday that Peterson told him she loved him and their 2-year-old daughter as she died in his arms Dec. 8.


Jury picking set for Justice Joan Orie Melvin


PITTSBURGH — Jury selection is set to begin for suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and her sister, Janine, who are charged with illegally using Melvin's former Superior Court staff to run her political campaigns.

The sisters have denied wrongdoing. But Allegheny County prosecutors say Melvin used her state-paid staff to campaign for the state's highest court back in 2003 and again in 2009 when she was elected as justice.

The sisters, who live in Pittsburgh's North Hills suburbs, are also charged with conspiring with a third sister — former Republican state Sen. Jane Orie — to illegally use Orie's state-funded staff to work on Melvin's campaigns, too.

Orie is in prison for misusing her own staff on her own campaigns, but was acquitted last year of using her staff to help Melvin campaign.


Pa. high court upholds nixing disabled man's death


PITTSBURGH — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld a lower court ruling that a Pittsburgh-area man who stabbed his wife then dismembered her body should not be on death row because his low IQ makes him mentally disabled.

Allegheny County Judge Lawrence O'Toole ruled in 2010 that 61-year-old Connie Williams should, instead, serve life in prison. The justices agreed in a decision Tuesday.

Williams was convicted and sentenced to death in 2002 for the 1999 killing of Frances Williams, whose head, hands and feet he cut off.

Attorneys for the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia filed a motion in 2008 seeking to vacate the death sentence.

Williams had previously served seven years in prison for the 1974 stabbing murder of his girlfriend's landlord.

It was not immediately clear if county prosecutors will appeal to federal court.


Guard expected to appear in Pittsburgh prison case


PITTSBURGH — A fired state prison guard is expected to take the stand to defend himself against criminal charges that he physically and sexually abused convicted child molesters and gay inmates serving time at the state prison in Pittsburgh.

Sixty-one-year-old Harry Nicoletti has maintained the charges are "made up" and on Wednesday is expected to counter 80 charges including involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, institutional sexual assault and official oppression.

Twenty inmates have testified that Nicoletti singled them out because of their sexual crimes or orientations and either abused them personally or had other guards and inmate workers do so. Some inmates claim they were sexually assaulted or beaten, while others say they had their bedding or food fouled by urine or other bodily fluids.

Nicoletti is expected to be the last witness to testify, sometime Wednesday.


2 firefighters among 5 hurt in Philly-area fire


EAST NORRITON — Two firefighters have been hurt fighting a fire in freezing conditions in suburban Philadelphia.

Officials say the blaze broke out at a home in East Norriton Township around 1 a.m. It took more than two hours to get under control.

Two firefighters were hurt after they fell on the ice. Three residents in the home were also injured after they jumped from a window to escape.

The cause remains under investigation.


2 fatally shot at home in central Pennsylvania


ROUZERVILLE — Police are investigating a shooting that left a man and woman dead at a home in central Pennsylvania.

State police in Franklin County say they responded to a call at the home in Rouzerville around 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. They say they found the two victims dead from apparent gunshot wounds.

Investigators have not released the victims' names or said what they believe may have happened. But authorities do say the shootings don't appear to be random and that the public is not in danger.


Police seek leads in young Philly doctor's slaying


PHILADELPHIA — Police are looking for leads in the murder of a 35-year-old pediatrician whose body was found bound and burned inside her downtown Philadelphia home.

Firefighters responding to the home Monday afternoon found Melissa Ketunuti's body on fire in the basement, with her ankles and wrists bound. The body was found with a rope around the neck and police believe she was strangled.

A $20,000 reward is being offered in the case.

Homicide Capt. James Clark says police don't know if she knew her killer, but that there were no signs of forced entry at the home. Clark says her boyfriend has been ruled out as a suspect and she had no known disputes with anyone.

Ketunuti was a second-year infectious diseases fellow and researcher at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.


USA Field Hockey to call Lancaster home in 2014


LANCASTER — The United States women's national field hockey team is going to be based in Lancaster next year.

USA Field Hockey announced Tuesday that it will make Spooky Nook Sports its home base in 2014. The team says the $25 million sports complex, which is still under construction, will host USA Field Hockey sanctioned events through 2022.

USA Field Hockey executive director Steve Locke says the team has been searching for a "Home of Hockey" in the Northeast for several years. Nook Sports will be USA Field Hockey's home base for many elite, junior and development events.

The Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era reports much of the sports complex is expected to be completed by March 1, but the section for USA Field Hockey won't be done until late summer.