Weeks before Johnstown native and Iraq War veteran Nicholas Horner killed a retired insurance executive and a high school senior outside Altoona, he was arrested in Lilly for drunken driving and possession of prescription pills.
This incident was a significant motivator for the start of veterans court, an aggressive, labor-intensive, multi-agency initiative started in Cambria County in January that recognizes the unique issues many veterans – especially those with war experience – are attempting to deal with, said county District Attorney Kelly Callihan.
“It was that case that made us realize the need for veterans court,” Callihan said in an interview at the courthouse last week.
Started in January after more than two years of planning, veterans court was designed to meet the usually multifaceted, often complex needs of men and women who have served in the military or are still on active duty and find themselves in trouble with the law, said Callihan and President Judge Timothy Creany.
“It’s so much more intensive than any other program we have outside of the day reporting center,” Creany said. “I think this program is something that helps us all. It tries to get to the root of the problem.”
The goal of this special court is to get the veterans into treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration, with the hope the people who have served this country will be able to return to a healthy lifestyle and be productive citizens, Creany said.
The court is designed as a pathway to get the veterans or active military personnel into intensive treatment while getting support from other veterans who volunteer to be peer mentors, both said.
In Cambria County, which has the highest concentration of veterans in the state with 15.7 percent of its residents having served, the program is catching on quickly. Every level of the justice system is involved, including police officers who are encouraged to determine if the defendant is a veteran at the time of arrest.
It moves to the magisterial district judge level, where many flagging veterans make Callihan’s office aware of their status, she said.
Six months into the special court, no one is willing to call it a success statistically, but indications are it is meeting a lot of needs, Callihan said.
According to figures provided by Amy Birkhimer, the DA’s program representative, there are 24 veterans in the program. Three have successfully completed it, four are about to and 12 are in the application process.
Callihan and Creany stressed that the program is not for the violent or more aggressive law-breakers, but more likely for those facing DUI, petty-theft or domestic–violence cases where the spouse wants to save the marriage.
It is built on a two-track philosophy. One track is a diversionary program for first-time offenders who, with successful completion, will have charges against them dismissed.
The second track is for those with prior criminal records, Callihan said, with participation determined on a case-by-case basis. They are able to enter a guilty plea to charges and work to lower the degree of criminal offense against them.
Scott Lilly, Cambria County’s chief deputy district attorney, handles the court proceedings and reviews for Callihan while Cambria County Assistant Public Defender Maribeth Schaffer handles the defense. The county probation officer is Richard Rok.
Unlike traditional court programs, the specialty court depends heavily on outside sources, in particular the Veterans Administration through the James E. Van Zandt facility in Altoona and VetAdvisor, a private agency with offices in Ebensburg.
“We in the VA at Altoona are pleased as punch to be part of this veterans court,” said Bonnie Clark, veteran justice coordinator with the VA in Altoona. “They’re giving vets a second chance.”
For those veterans with something other than an honorable discharge, income too high to qualify or no service-related injuries, Randy Levander, a veteran court lead military coach with VetAdvisor, appears in court as an advocate.
“I’m a peer to the veterans, and I help with coordinate care,” he said.
Levander, with eight years of active Air Force duty and currently serving in the Air Force Reserve, said his focus is on career, financial, wellness and behavioral counseling for the veterans in his care.
Key to the program is the peer mentor aspect involving veterans who volunteer their time to be a friend and adviser for the men and women in veterans court, Creany said.
Finding, training and supervising the peer mentors who work closely with the defendants is Tom Caulfield, regional director of the Veterans Leadership Program.
“We’ve really got a good group of peer mentors. They really work with the defendants. They spend a lot of time with the defendants,” Caulfield said.
The needs of each defendant vary, and for some of the mentors it involves little more than some cheerleading, he said. For others, it means working closely to help them through difficult times and work with them through employment or housing searches.
In his office, Creany, who served as a Marine in the Vietnam War, maintains a chart on every participant in veterans court. He is optimistic that the program is changing lives.
“I can see the good it’s doing,” he said. “It’s more work, more of a stress and demand, but really for everyone involved, it’s rewarding.”
Horner was convicted last year of two counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths three years earlier of Scott Garlick, 19, a high school senior from Hollidaysburg, and Raymond Williams, 64, a retired Northern Cambria insurance executive living in Blair County.
Horner served two tours in Iraq and one in Kuwait. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is serving a life sentence in prison.
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.