Blotter


Drug sweep underway across the Alle-Kiski Valley

posted Nov 18, 2016, 9:58 PM by Joseph Gray


At least seven alleged street-level drug dealers from the Alle-Kiski Valley were arrested Thursday, and police are looking for at least nine more.

Police swept across the Valley on Thursday serving arrest warrants for people who allegedly sold heroin, crack cocaine or cocaine to undercover police or informants, mostly during the past year.

Officers from 10 police departments and state attorney general's agents participated. The 10 include Arnold, New Kensington, Tarentum, Plum, Springdale, East Deer, Vandergrift, West Deer, Frazer and Harmar.

New Kensington police Chief Jim Klein said the arrests weren't for large amounts of drugs.

“But it's all part of our continued fight against drug sales that bring it into our area and cause deaths,” he said.

The arrests mainly were made in New Kensington and Arnold and targeted the regional drug trade rather than specific neighborhoods.

Facing heroin charges:

Four alleged heroin sellers are charged with possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance.

They are:

• Devon Andrew Koch, 24, of Fifth Avenue, New Kensington;

• Christopher Andrew Mystkowski, 27, of Fifth Avenue, New Kensington;

• John P. Stapinski, 46, of Camp Ave., Arnold.

• Dominique Jamare Robinson, 28, of Wallace Street, Vandergrift (two counts).

These suspects are charged with a count of delivery of a controlled substance and related charges:

• Benjamin Dennis Bonaroti, 33, of Shaw Avenue, Springdale;

• Jarrel Laron Williams, of Kenneth Avenue, Arnold;

Facing cocaine charges:

• Ralph Scott, 28, of Fourth Avenue, New Kensington, is accused of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance.

Still at large

The AG's office said police have warrants for nine others.

The nine, their last known addresses and the charges they face are:

Crack cocaine sales:

• Richard Alsberry, 41, of Franklin Avenue, Vandergrift: two counts of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance.

• Erik L. Green, 48, of Kenneth Avenue, New Kensington: possession with intent to deliver.

Heroin sales:

• Michael Johnson-Barber, 28, of Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh: two counts of delivery of a controlled substance and related charges.

• Trivan Brian Griffey, 27, of Upview Terrace, Pittsburgh: three counts of delivery and related charges.

• Deron Howell, 24, of Woodstock Avenue, Swissvale: three counts of delivery and related charges.

• Von Eric McMillan, 22, of McCargo Street, New Kensington: delivery of a controlled substance and related charges.

• Laron Marqese Scott, 25, of Leishman Avenue, New Kensington: possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance.

• Dominic Tavella, 27, of Center Hill Road, Pittsburgh: two counts of possession of a controlled substance and related charge.

• Taquan Wright, 24, of Ridge Avenue, New Kensington: possession with intent to deliver.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

Fire in Vandergrift labeled suspicious

posted Nov 18, 2016, 9:56 PM by Joseph Gray


Vandergrift firefighters respond to a reported house fire at 213 Longfellow St. on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. Only a couch ended up being on fire inside the vacant building.
Vandergrift firefighters respond to a reported house fire at 213 Longfellow St. on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. Only a couch ended up being on fire inside the vacant building.
Photo by Sydney Davis | Tribune-Review
    
As Matthew Bockhouse walked up Vandergrift's Longfellow Street with his dinner Thursday night, he smelled smoke and feared his apartment building was on fire.

Instead, the smoke was coming from a fire in the vacant building next door — just five doors down from two commercial buildings that were destroyed by a conflagration two weeks ago.

Bockhouse called 911 and alerted the other tenant in his building, which is just 4 feet from the 21⁄2-story, white-sided house that was on fire at 213 Longfellow St.

Vandergrift No. 2 fire Chief Steve Potoka said the flames were were traced to a couch in the front room. Potoka said there was only minor damage to the room because firefighters quickly extinguished the small fire.

He deemed the fire — reported just after 8 p.m. — suspicious and said a state police fire marshal will investigate. The building is not connected to utilities and has been vacant for years, Potoka said.

Neighbors said squatters have used the building.

Meanwhile, Bockhouse sat across the street in the parking lot of Byers Taxi Service and ate his sandwich, surrounded by the grocery bags he'd been carrying home from Sprankle's Market when he spotted the fire. He wasn't too worried about his food spoiling — the only perishable item was the frozen turkey he'd bought for Thanksgiving dinner.

Liz Hayes is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at lhayes@tribweb.com.

Positive relations between youth, police encouraged at New Kensington forum

posted Nov 18, 2016, 9:54 PM by Joseph Gray


                                                                                
    
Community policing was a catchphrase used frequently Thursday during a New Kensington forum on how to prevent racial strife and improve relations with police.

“We need to get in touch with our youth at a young age and stay involved,” said New Kensington police Chief Jim Klein. “We want the first interaction with the youth (and police) to be positive.”

Klein was joined by police chiefs from Arnold, Harrison, Leechburg, Lower Burrell and Vandergrift, plus state police Lt. Chris Yanoff, for the discussion hosted by the Allegheny-Kiski Valley NAACP and Westmoreland County Community College. Also present were elected officials from Allegheny Township, Lower Burrell, Leechburg, New Kensington and Vandergrift.

All of the officers voiced support for more positive interaction between police and the community.

Vandergrift Chief Joseph Cap­orali spoke of his officers going into the businesses to talk to owners and customers and stopping to play ball with children while on patrol.

Lower Burrell Chief Tim Weitzel lauded the school resource officer and Drug Abuse Resistance Education programs, plus the police academy for high school students, that give Burrell students regular interaction with police.

Klein also spoke of his school resource officer at Valley Junior-Senior High School, and Mayor Tom Guzzo said he's creating community engagement teams to gather regular feedback. Klein and Arnold Chief Eric Doutt are working to resume a D.A.R.E. program.

Doutt said his department just began a “Coffee With Cops” program in Arnold's high-rise apartments and he plans to bring the initiative to other city neighborhoods.

Yanoff, the new commander at the state police station in Kittanning, demonstrated his approach to interacting with the community: As he spoke, he shook hands with each of the 40-some audience members, even pausing at times to ask the teenagers about their career plans and encourage them to consider going into law enforcement.

“I want to make it personal,” Yanoff said. He encouraged residents to talk to police, even flag down them down when driving past: “We don't bite.”

Residents' suggestions

Andre Carter, a Vandergrift resident and New Kensington business owner, suggested police officers stop at ball games to cheer on kids or volunteer at other events so youths see them as “regular people.”

Ellyse Williams of Arnold, one of three New Kensington-Arnold School Board members present along with Doutt and Liney Glenn, questioned whether police could resume bicycle or walking patrols because there is less opportunity for interaction when they're patrolling in cars.

The Arnold and New Kensington chiefs indicated their reduced staffs mean officers spend most of their shifts responding to incidents and they don't have the manpower or time for many walking shifts.

Budget constraints also were cited as the main reason the departments don't have dash or body cameras, rather than fear of being filmed doing something inappropriate.

Harrison Chief Mike Klein said he believes state laws are changing that clarify when and how police can film their interactions, which makes him more receptive to them.

Weitzel and Leechburg Chief Mike Diebold said they've had experiences in which car-mounted cameras still haven't given a full picture of an incident due to the position of the officer or suspect during an arrest. They also noted there are issues about the cost and process of storing the data and who can access it.

New Kensington Councilman John Regoli said he supports body cameras because they can be used as a defense against spectator videos that may not show the full story or suspects' claims of police brutality.

Keeping police stops routine

Phillip Ayers, a New Kensington native and judge for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission who moderated the forum, said police can help to improve relations by being professional and personable when pulling over cars or questioning people, especially if the issue is a minor traffic violation.

The chiefs agreed, but noted they have to approach every vehicle cautiously until they size up the situation and know whether someone inside is a risk to an officer's safety.

The chiefs also noted respect is a two-way street: citizens' attitudes toward police can unnecessarily escalate a minor traffic stop.

Doran Booker of New Kensington, who has five children, said she recently talked to her 18-year-old twin boys about how to react when approached by police because she fears what could happen if they “mouth off” or make sudden moves.

She said she regretted that she had to have that discussion: “They're good boys. I don't want them to feel like they can't talk to police.”

Although the panel of police officers was all white and the audience was predominantly black, the event was congenial and respectful.

“This is an excellent beginning,” Ayers said. “We will be in touch with continuing this process.”

Liz Hayes is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at lhayes@tribweb.com or 724-226-4680.

Halloween parade, Pokemon party draw hundreds to Vandergrift

posted Nov 18, 2016, 9:52 PM by Joseph Gray


                                                                                
    
More than 600 people visited downtown Vandergrift Friday night for a Pokemon party near the end of the borough's annual Halloween parade.

Groups of youngsters in zombie and chain-saw-masacre-themed costumes joined others dressed as princesses or ghosts.

About 60 kids and parents followed each of five fire engines that blared seasonal music. Just ahead of the engine a white hearse, with the back door swung open, added atmosphere.

Numerous families stood with strollers or, like Jason and Kristina McDermott and sons, Tyler, 9, Ryan, 14, and Nickson,11, sat on church steps to watch the parade.

At the top of Grant Street, Tara Hutcherson watched sons Mario and Marco, dash about in costume waiting for the parade to reach them. Then they were going to visit the end of the parade, where the firefighters and party planners were distributing candy and other treats.

The lights of the food booths could be glimpsed four blocks away.

Music, food booths, a pizza oven and wandering spectators, mostly toddlers, teens and 20-somethings with a sprinkling of silver-haired party-goers, filled most of Grant Street. Borough businesses donated costume prize money.

Inside a building showcasing everything Pokemon, Mark Gibson II of Elderton, formerly of Vandergrift, directed people to the displays and the haunted building down the street in the structure that once was shown in Cinemax's action series “Banshee.”

Cory Consalvo of Tarentum and Courtney Aldis of Allegheny Township, both 25, wore Pokemon costumes. “We grew up in day care watching Pokemon on TV. It's kind of nostalgic,” Consalvo said. “And you get exercise,” Aldis said.

Pokeman gamers Nicole and Todd Green of Cowansville were enjoying the day playing their favorite game.

“We used to do geo-cashing. You can open this up and play anywhere,” said Nicole.

Firefighter and event coordinator Randy Dunmire, 60, said he attended Vandergrift Halloween parades “as long as I can remember. This is a tradition we want to keep,” he said.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

Cause of Vandergrift business fire may never be known

posted Nov 18, 2016, 9:50 PM by Joseph Gray


A firefighter enters the front door of Carpenter's Cafe on Longfellow Street in Vandergrift on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016 while mopping up after a blaze that dstroyed two buildings on Friday.
A firefighter enters the front door of Carpenter's Cafe on Longfellow Street in Vandergrift on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016 while mopping up after a blaze that dstroyed two buildings on Friday.
Photo by Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
    
The cause of a fire that destroyed the Carpenter's Cafe building in Vandergrift may never be known because the building collapsed into a pile of rubble that continued to burn well into the next day, a state police fire marshal said Monday.

The fire started just after 7 p.m. Friday after the cafe at 229 Longfellow St. had closed for the day. The fire then spread to an adjoining building at 231 Longfellow St., a former candy store.

Both buildings are total losses and will have to be torn down, fire officials said. An estimate of the damage was not available.

A state police fire marshal listed the cause as undetermined, Trooper Joseph Lauricia said Monday. He said an independent investigation will likely be conducted by the buildings' insurers to try to determine the cause.

Steve Tatar, 50, of East Vandergrift, said he bought 229 Longfellow and rehabbed the building for the diner that has been operated by his girlfriend for more than four years. Tatar, who is a carpenter, and his girlfriend, Marcie Martin, could not be reached Monday.

Firefighters battled the blaze for about eight hours and had to go back Saturday to put out hot spots that flared, said Steve Potoka, chief of Vandergrift Volunteer Fire Department No. 2.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribwebcom.

Investigation continues at Vandergrift fire scene

posted Nov 18, 2016, 9:48 PM by Joseph Gray


             
Fire investigators discuss Friday night's blaze at Carpenter's Cafe on Longfellow Street in Vandergrift on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016.
• Fire damages commercial building in Vandergrift

Fire investigators Saturday sifted through the rubble where a fire gutted two buildings Friday, including The Carpenter's Café at 229 Longfellow St., while the cafe's owner salvaged what little was left.

The fire started about 7 p.m. Friday, after the cafe closed, on the second floor, then spread to an adjoining building at 231 Longfellow St., a former candy store.

Fire officials haven't pinpointed the cause, said Steve Potoka, chief of Vandergrift Volunteer Fire Department No. 2. A Westmoreland County fire marshal expects to have results Monday.

Both buildings are total losses and will have to be torn down, Potoka said.

Firefighters battled the blaze for more than eight hours. They still were dousing hot spots just before 5 a.m. Saturday, Potoka said.

After working the blaze for a short while, firefighters lost water pressure in nearby hydrants and had to bring in tanker trucks — at one point numbering 21 from five counties — to haul water from the Allegheny Technologies Inc. mill in Vandergrift and several other locations, he said.

Vandergrift had to rely on pumper trucks because the town's aging water lines don't carry enough water to extinguish such a large blaze, according to borough officials and the borough's water supplier, the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County.

Friday night, firefighters used four aerial fire trucks at the same time, causing the water pressure to drop, said Brian Carricato, borough council president. The newer fire trucks pull more water per minute, which drains the lines more quickly, he added.

“Longfellow Street has a smaller line, and there is not the volume of water to sustain that many aerial trucks at the same time,” said Tom Ceraso, assistant manager of the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County.

According to Ceraso, the authority and the borough have discussed this problem before and the plan has always been to use pumper trucks to supplement public water to fight large fires.

But lack of water pressure wasn't the primary reason the fire burned through the night.

The fire took so much time to extinguish because the cafe building collapsed in on itself, said Potoka.

“There were hard-to-get-to hot spots,” he said. “We didn't want to risk our firefighters going in.”

On Saturday, nothing but blue sky was visible through The Carpenter's Café second story windows.

Piles of charred rubble lay in the parking lot.

The only cheer left was a perfectly preserved green decal of the diner's name in the front window.

“This was my retirement,” said Steve Tatar, 50, of East Vandergrift, a carpenter who said he bought 229 Longfellow cheaply and rehabbed the building for the diner that has been operated by his girlfriend for more than four years.

“I guess I'll still be working in construction longer,” Tatar said.

Tatar's family and friends helped out Saturday. A large container on wheels was in place for debris.

A large black tow truck with custom-painted purple flames on its fenders from Big Dawgs Performance auto repair nudged the trash bin closer to the front door of the cafe Saturday morning.

“You see devastation like this, and it's hard to recover,” said Brian Swartzlander, owner of Big Dawgs of Vandergrift. “We don't have many businesses left in town. It's such a loss.”

Spared during the blaze were three houses at 233 Longfellow St. that are next to the former candy store.

Neighbor Michael Calderazzo, 64, was taking a shower when his sister banged on the door to tell him to evacuate Friday night. He saw flames shooting out of the two-story cement-block building.

“I was afraid my house would catch fire,” he said.

But it didn't. Firefighters watered down the exteriors of nearby buildings to protect them.

However, there was some structural damage to the exterior of the homes from concrete blocks that fell from the crumbling facade of the candy store onto Calderazzo's house and yard.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

Fire damages commercial building in Vandergrift

posted Nov 18, 2016, 9:45 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Nov 18, 2016, 9:45 PM ]


Firefighters from five counties were battling a blaze in the building housing Carpenter's Cafe at 229 Longfellow Street in Vandergrift Friday evening.

By 9 p.m., a brick wall was tilting toward a vacant lot and flames had just erupted from the side of the adjoining building, once home to a chocolate factory.

Two hours after the first alarm, new fire units were speeding down the Route 56 bypass to join the battle.

The fire was fully involved at 7:20 p.m. — less than 15 minutes after the initial report to emergency dispatchers — and flames were soon rocketing at least 60 feet into the sky, visible more than a half-mile away.

Vandergrift firefighters tried to enter a front stairwell to an apartment and then tried to get through a rear entrance, but each time they were forced back by the fierce blaze.

Across the street, Vandergrift police Sgt. Steve Callipare said police were told by neighbors told no one was inside at the time of the fire.

The Leechburg fire department quint — an aerial water gun — was able to slowly beat back the flames on the roof and exterior because the unit was supplied by tanker trucks. Apollo No. 2's "telesquirt" also was used but a Washington Township quint had to wait for water from tankers.

More than 100 spectators gathered across the street at a shopping center to watch the fire. It was as big a draw as the pumpkin-themed Pokemon festival a few blocks away.

Many of the youngsters wore costumes and their parents were taking video and photos. Earlier, most had been walking behind a borough fire truck for the annual Halloween parade.

Water pressure woes complicated the attack on the buildings and struggle to save the rest of the block.

Fire chiefs put out a call for tanker trucks to be dispatched from surrounding counties because they couldn't get enough. Soon, trucks were arriving from Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler and Indiana counties to join those already there from Westmoreland County.

Empty tanker trucks were sent to the ATI plant a quarter-mile away and elsewhere to recharge tanks.

By then the rear of the cafe building remained on fire and threatened nearby buildings, including two houses.

Cafe owner Steve Tatar's girlfriend, Marcie Martin, said the eatery was remodeled about four years ago. Tatar wasn't available for comment.

The cafe was a staple for borough and other people, said Jerry Stanczak, who lives several blocks down Longfellow Street. "It was very nice. They had home-style food and it was very nicely presented. A shame," he said.

Officials on the scene say the cause is not yet determined.

A damage estimate wasn't available Friday night.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

No criminal charges to be filed in Vandergrift traffic incident

posted Nov 18, 2016, 9:42 PM by Joseph Gray


An injured Vandergrift Borough worker is taken to an ambulance after being struck by a car in the parking lot of Kochka and Son Towing gas station in Vandergrift on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016.
An injured Vandergrift Borough worker is taken to an ambulance after being struck by a car in the parking lot of Kochka and Son Towing gas station in Vandergrift on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016.
Photo by Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
Chuck Biedka
By Chuck Biedka | Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, 12:00 p.m.
          

State police said no one will be criminally charged regarding a traffic accident last month in which two men were hit by an out-of-control car at a Vandergrift gas station, prompting a police officer to shoot at the car.

One of the men who was hit and thrown into the air at Kochka's Citgo was on-duty Vandergrift police Officer Richard Joseph Gray.

Police said Gray and borough employee Glenn Rupert, 49, were hit Sept. 14 by a car driven by Charles Pencak, 67. All three live in Vandergrift.

Gray and Rupert were treated and released at area hospitals on the day of the mishap. Pencak wasn't treated.

After being struck just before 9 a.m., Gray quickly collected himself and fired his service pistol twice at the car. He said it didn't appear to be stopping in the parking lot of the gas station and convenience store.

Pencak, who has a prosthetic leg, drives a car equipped with a modified gas pedal. He told investigators he couldn't get the vehicle to stop.

State police Trooper Jason Morgan told the Valley News Dispatch on Thursday that Pencak's foot was stuck under the brake pedal.

Pencak's Chevrolet Impala was inspected by state police mechanics and the company that installed the special gas pedal.

Morgan said the driver was in error, but there was “no malicious intent.”

The car came to a stop in the lot almost into Sherman Avenue.

State police interviewed the three men and numerous witnesses and investigated whether the gunshots should have been fired.

“It was a justified shooting,” Morgan said.

“There are no charges for anybody,” he said.

Pencak said he was relieved that no one was seriously injured but said he “can't talk about” the incident.

Rupert wasn't immediately available Thursday.

Gray said he has talked with state police and has been instructed by his attorney not to comment.

“This was an unfortunate accident and the justified shots fired,” said Vandergrift police Chief Joseph Caporali. “I didn't feel there was any ill intent, and Officer Gray felt his life was in danger.”

He said Gray is on medical leave.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

Vandergrift officer struck by vehicle, shoots at driver

posted Nov 18, 2016, 9:38 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Nov 18, 2016, 9:39 PM ]

                                                           

Somehow, no one was seriously injured Wednesday morning when a Vander­grift police officer and a borough employee were hit by a car and the officer fired gunshots at the driver. 

What at first was thought to be an intentional, criminal act may have been a case of an accident caused by mechanical malfunction, police said.

The incident occurred at Kochka's Citgo station and convenience store.

State police said Vandergrift Officer Richard “Joe” Gray, 45, and borough employee Glenn Rupert, 49, were struck by a car driven by Charles Pencak, 67. All three are Vandergrift residents.

State police spokesman Steve Limani said Pencak's Chevrolet Impala entered Kochka's lot from Sherman Avenue just before 9 a.m.

It made a loop around Gray's police car before hitting an ice machine and product display in front of the store. The car then struck Gray and Rupert, who were in front of the store, before striking a parked truck.

Witnesses said Gray, who was thrown into the air by the impact, managed to get to his feet and draw his gun. He ordered the driver to stop after the Impala made an abrupt U-turn in the parking lot and came back past the front of the store.

“I saw Officer Gray and another man thrown high into the sky and then landed on the asphalt. I'm surprised they were not killed,” said Stacy Johnson, 31, of Parks Township. She said the men landed on their backs or sides on the pavement.

“I heard Officer Gray tell the driver to ‘Stop! Stop! Stop! Turn off the engine!' That's when he shot at the driver,” Johnson said.

Both of Gray's shots struck the Impala's windshield, but Pencak was not hit.

His car continued past Gray, struck one of the station's gas pumps and stopped in the lot just short of Sherman Avenue.

“Preliminarily, it appeared to the officer that the driver was trying to get away when the officer fired,” Trooper Limani said.

Pencak was taken to the Kiski Valley state police station for questioning.

Limani said Pencak told police that his car's accelerator pedal stuck, causing the vehicle to go out of control.

When he got out of the car, Pencak “kept saying he was sorry and that the gas pedal had stuck,” Johnson said.

It may take several days before state police can complete the investigation and talk with the district attorney's office to decide if any charges will be filed, Limani said.

Because the incident involved a borough police officer, state police are handling the investigation.

Gray and Rupert were treated and released at area hospitals. Pencak was not injured.

It was unclear Wednesday whether Gray would be placed on leave pending the results of the investigation. It often is standard procedure for police officers to be placed on administrative leave when they are involved in incidents requiring them to discharge their firearms.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

Vandergrift Police 2016 Back Pack School Supply Drive...

posted Nov 18, 2016, 9:25 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Nov 18, 2016, 10:04 PM ]

Officer Lieu along with Mayor Purificato

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