High-speed chase ends with arrest

posted Jul 2, 2016, 4:58 AM by Joseph Gray

     James Francis
James Francis

Updated 10 hours ago

A Tarentum man is accused of driving at speeds exceeding 100 mph as he led police on a chase through several communities just after midnight Friday.

James Lawrence Francis, 18, of West Ninth Avenue, was charged Friday with 15 offenses including reckless endangerment, speeding and driving while his license is suspended.

Police from Vandergrift say Francis failed to stop at a stop sign at Longfellow and Hawthorn streets and was pulled over but sped away when a police officer got out of his patrol car to approach Francis.

Francis fled along Route 56 through Allegheny Township and Route 356 through Freeport and Buffalo Township.

Police from several municipalities pursued him at speeds of more than 100 mph, according to court documents.

Police put spike strips at Route 908 and Route 28, but Francis swerved to miss them, the documents state.

In Harrison, the car went up the wrong lane of Freeport Road and down Cottage Avenue before driving into a ditch at the parking lot of the Citizens Hose Fire Department.

When air bags deployed and rendered the car undriveable, police moved in to take Francis and a passenger into custody.

The passenger eventually was released.

Francis was arraigned by District Judge Cheryl Peck Yakopec.

He is accused of driving through five stop signs and two red lights.

He was ordered sent to the Westmoreland County jail pending a preliminary hearing. Because Francis also is wanted in Allegheny and Butler counties, detainers were filed against him.

That means he won't be released, even if he can post bond.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

Harrison man accused of assault

posted Apr 28, 2016, 1:26 PM by Joseph Gray

A 49-year-old Harrison man accused of trying to stab a Vandergrift woman in her residence Sunday was arrested Tuesday night.

Vandergrift police said Anthony Michael Irwin of Neeley Street had been hiding in a wooded area before he was spotted by police. Three Vandergrift officers arrested him.

Irwin was arraigned and sent to the Westmoreland County jail in lieu of bond pending a preliminary hearing in May.

Irwin's attack was “so violent that the steak knife blade snapped away from the handle,” said Patrolman Richard Gray, who investigated the Sunday assault.

He said the 40-year-old victim received defensive wounds to her arm and hand.

According to court papers, Irwin also is accused of attempting to strangle, punch and slap the woman before she was able to shove him out the door, lock it, and summon police on the cellphone he had tried to damage.

Irwin is charged with two counts of felony aggravated assault, three counts of simple assault and one count of reckless endangerment.

He was already on probation after pleading guilty to assaulting the same woman.

In December, he was sentenced to a jail term and two years of probation. A county judge gave him credit for serving 104 days in jail and permitted his probation to start immediately, records show.

In 1990 Irwin was sentenced to 4 to 20 years for third-degree murder in Allegheny County. According to the state Department of Corrections, Irwin was paroled on Dec. 5, 1993, but was returned to state prison on Jan. 13, 2005, for a parole violation. He was reparoled on Dec. 26, 2006.

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

  Anthony Michael Irwin

Vandergrift Police seize 150 stamp bags of heroin

posted Mar 31, 2016, 8:44 PM by Joseph Gray

Vandergrift, Pa. - Police in Vandergrift make an arrest after a tip leads police to a location in Allegheny Township where an alleged drug deal results in the seizure of 150 stamp bags of Heroin. 

According to the police criminal complaint, Zachary Polka, age 23 of 110 1st Street in Leechburg was driving a 2016 Hyundai Silver SW while under suspension in the parking lot near Big Lots in Allegheny Township.  Law Enforcement Officers conducted a traffic stop on Polka near the Pizza Hut and a subsequent pat-down for weapons resulted in Law Enforcement Officer Nathaniel Rigatti questioning the suspect about hard objects in his right sweat pants pocket.  Officer Rigatti asked Polka what was in his pocket and Polka advised, "dope".

Officer Rigatti then removed 3 bricks of suspected Heroin (150) stamp bags with red markings "Black Power".  Also seized was $340 in cash and two cell phones.  Polka was transported to the Vandergrift Police station and held in a cell while police processed the evidence.  A portion of the evidence was field tested by Allegheny Township Law Enforcement Officer Mark Junod and proved positive for the presence of Heroin, a Schedule 1 controlled substance.  Polka was subsequently transported to the Westmoreland County Jail and faces charges of possession with intent to deliver, possession of a controlled substance and driving while under suspension.  

AKVNEWS.COM will update this story as more details become available. 

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Police investigating fatal Vandergrift crash

posted Mar 20, 2016, 11:40 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Mar 31, 2016, 8:49 PM ]


Victim identified after crash incident in Vandergrift

Vandergrift, Pa. - Westmoreland County Coroner Kenneth A. Bacha has released the following information after a death investigation on March 20, 2016 in Vandergrift.   Richard C. Lunden, 31 y/o  of  White Cloud Road Leechburg, PA was pronounced deceased at 1:52 A.M by Deputy Coroner Timothy P O'Donnell.  The decedent did not die as a result of injuries related to the vehicle collision.   For an unknown reason, the decedent traveled onto the west sidewalk and collided with a fire hydrant near the intersection of Beech and Linden Streets in Vandergrift.  The decedent was found unresponsive and not breathing within the vehicle by police and emergency medical personnel.  An autopsy was performed by Dr. Cyril H. Wecht and Pathology Associates on March 20, 2016.  Cause and manner of death will be pending autopsy and toxicology results.

Police in Vandergrift were dispatched to Linden and Beech Streets for a minor crash into a fire hydrant just before midnight Sunday morning.

Law Enforcement Officer Joe Gray said a 31 year-old Allegheny Township man was found unresponsive when police arrived. The man was pulled from the Subaru and CPR was started on the individual however the man died at the scene.

Westmoreland County Detective Todd Roach investigated the scene and the Westmoreland County Coroner's Office arrived about an hour later to process the scene. Officer Gray said Vandergrift Police are not releasing the man's name while the investigation continues into the incident. The cause and manner of death is not known until a coroner's autopsy is completed.

Assisting Vandergrift Police was Vandergrift VFD and Lower Kiski EMS. Kochka and Son Towing of Vandergrift removed the vehicle from the sidewalk. AKVNEWS will continue to follow this story and bring you more details as they become available.

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Vandergrift police arrest 2 in methamphetamine drug bust

posted Jan 5, 2016, 11:35 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Jan 5, 2016, 11:37 PM ]

WESTMORELAND COUNTY (KDKA) — Two men were arrested Saturday for running an alleged drug distribution center out of a house in Vandergrift.

Police arrested 42-year-old Michael Medina from the state of Indiana and 32-year-old Paul Connor from Texas. Both face multiple drug-related charges, including possession with intent to deliver.

Police say they began an investigation into the two men in November 2015 on the suspicion that they were possibly running a meth lab. The investigation was started after neighbors reported their concerns about unusual activity to police shortly after the two men began operating out of the house in the 500-block of Burns Street.

“I’ve been worried about it since they moved in the place,” neighbor Ryan Richardson told KDKA. “They’ve only been here probably about a month, and it’s like Grand Central Station over there – cars coming and going constantly. Just all the tell-tale signs of something rotten happening.”

During the investigation, police say they noticed a pattern of shipments and vehicles going to and from the house, and they learned of a shipment possibly containing crystal meth arriving Saturday.

Police say around 10 a.m., they went to the Vandergrift Post Office with a search warrant and obtained the package, which did test positive for crystal meth. Officers then obtained another search warrant for the house, where they found drug paraphernalia and packing materials. The two men were not operating a meth lab, as originally suspected, but police did determine that it was a distribution point.

Vandergrift Police patrol officer Joe Gray credited the neighbors as a major source of assistance throughout the investigation.

“If it weren’t for the neighbors, we wouldn’t have been as productive with this because they were literally our eyes, ears and everything that we needed,” Gray told KDKA. “And we worked very, very well with the neighborhood.”

Photo courtesy of Tribune Review                

Vandergrift man accused of having sex with teen

posted Jan 1, 2016, 5:41 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Jan 1, 2016, 6:46 PM ]

A 37-year Vandergrift man is accused of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl.

Herbert Norris Covey IV is in the Westmoreland County jail awaiting a preliminary hearing.

Allegheny Township police were tipped to the case by Kiski Area School District officials after the girl confided the information to a district principal.

The assaults allegedly happened in Covey's Emerson Street residence.

According to a police report, the girl said she had sex with Covey in August and September. On at least one of those occasions, the girl told police, Covey provided her and others in the residence with alcohol.

Covey is charged with two counts of statutory sexual assault, two counts of corruptions of minors and furnishing liquor to a minor.

Covey is being held in lieu of $50,000 cash bond pending a Jan. 12 preliminary hearing before District Judge Cheryl Peck Yakopec.

Covery was convicted in 2012 of operating a meth lab in Parks Townshipn and sentenced to two to eight years in prison. A detainer has also been filed by parole and probation so he would stay in jail even if posts bond.

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or

Westmoreland County Jail
Herbert Norris Covey IV

Vandergrift police officers distribute over 500 ski caps to elementary students

posted Dec 14, 2015, 11:20 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Jan 1, 2016, 6:45 PM ]

About 500 kids in the Vandergrift area now have a new winter hat thanks to Vandergrift police. 

On Monday, officers handed out blue-and-gold ski caps to East Primary School students and to 90 students at The Cardinal Maida Academy.

Weeks earlier, Patrolman Richard “Joe” Gray was parked near an elementary school when he saw a hatless young boy walking to school.

“It was a very cold morning, so I went over to talk with him,” said Gray, a patrolman and father. “I asked him about it, and he told me he didn't have a hat — not one.”

In quick order, Gray discussed what he had seen with other officers, including Patrolman Nate Riggatti, and Sgt. Stephen J. Callipare. The sergeant asked area businesses if they could help.

Thirteen businesses, churches and social clubs and one individual — Gray's mother — contributed about $1,200.

Brenda Gray has just retired from baking at Community Market in Lower Burrell.

“I told her she just retired and didn't have the money,” Gray said, “but she insisted.”

“This is Vandergrift's future, and we have a vested interest,” she said.

On Monday, Officer Charity Butz, an Allegheny Township officer assigned as resource officer to the Kiski Area School District's six schools, and Callipare joined Gray and Rigatti for the hat distribution.

Without prompting, at least a dozen students at the public school walked up to hug an officer.

Many knew the officers by their first name.

Rigatti plays kick ball with students when not on duty. Gray and Callipare have children who are students at the schools and Butz is in and out of East Primary daily.

Each officer separately said they hope students — especially when they are older and facing challenges — will turn to police and teachers for answers if they can't talk with their parents.

Warm hats, warm smiles

In some classrooms, teachers used cellphones to take a photo of the students in their caps with the officers who gave them.

Many of the second-graders smiled broadly, flashing grins sporting missing baby teeth that charmed the officers no matter how many times they were told thank you.

One girl put the cap on top of faux reindeer antlers.

Jodie McCartney, a fourth-grade teacher from Washington Township, said the hat distribution made the police more friends.

First-grade teacher Samantha Gispanski, of Ford City, said, “One student just asked me if he could wear his hat all day.”

Kelly Ridenour, a second-grade teacher from Lower Burrell, said the police cap distribution was a hit.

“This is a wonderful idea,” she said.

East Primary Principal Patrick Marchand introduced the officers to each classroom and praised the children's good behavior.

He clearly enjoyed helping to distribute the ski caps, which sported Kiski Area's school colors.

“Wait until they go home today. We have 350 walkers,” he said. “I can't wait to see all of them wearing the caps. It should be something.

The scene at Cardinal Maida

Down the street at The Cardinal Maida Academy, Principal Mark Talarico embraced the distribution.

“The children know Mr. Gray because he has a son here,” he said. “They are getting to know some of the other police, and that's a great thing.”

Police had to hold off distributing hats in the classroom of music teacher Donna Blair, of Bell Township, while 10 students practiced two Christmas songs for a Thursday program. The officers applauded twice and smiled.

Students are seeing police as mentors instead of someone who will just arrest people, Blair said, and that will pay off when the students are older.

The caps were a hit with the mothers of two pre-kindergarten students at the Academy.

“This is nice. Very nice,” said Bethany Gourley, of East Vandergrift.

“It was a really nice thing to do,” said Bethany Traugh, of Allegheny Township.

By Chuck Biedka Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, 12:36 a.m.

Vandergrift man accused of sexual assault

posted Jul 9, 2015, 7:47 PM by Joseph Gray

Tuesday, June 30, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

A Vandergrift man accused of having sex with a 14-year-old girl is separately accused of getting other juvenile girls to drink some of his blood after he cut himself.

Jonathan Ryan Davis, 21, of Emerson Street, is also accused of getting three girls to cut themselves so he could lick their blood, perhaps as part of a online role-playing game.

Davis was arraigned Monday by District Judge Cheryl Peck Yakopec.

Police allege Davis had sex with a 14-year-old girl in December in a stairwell of the unlocked St. Gertrude Roman Catholic Church along Franklin Avenue when no one else was there.

Davis is charged with statutory sexual assault, corruption of minors and indecent assault.

In a second case, Davis is accused of obstructing justice and hindering prosecution by placing Facebook messages discouraging testimony against him in the other case.

Davis, who police said uses the names “Daryl Nohara” and “Shiki Nohara,” is also accused of encouraging three girls to cut their hands or wrists with a razor so that he could lick or suck some of their blood, and then cutting himself for them to reciprocate.

Police said some people over age 18 allowed Davis to taste their blood, but they aren't charged. They agreed to the action and so it isn't illegal, police said.

Davis' Facebook page, Shiki Nohara, was deactivated on Monday.

Davis allegedly told police that the blood letting and sampling is part of “Mabinogi.”That is described online as a “massive, multiplayer role-playing game” distributed by a South Korean company.

Police talked with Davis and his attorney in January and on subsequent occasions.

He could have left the area but didn't, and he attended his arraignment Monday as required.

For that reason police didn't oppose Davis' release on a $50,000 unsecured bond pending a preliminary hearing in July.

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or

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Police chase ends in Allegheny Twp. when car hits house

posted Jul 9, 2015, 7:45 PM by Joseph Gray

Two people and a police officer were injured Friday evening when police chased a car from Vandergrift to Allegheny Township that crashed into the living room of a group home.

Police said Joshua Aaron Lawhorn Taylor, 23, of Vandergrift fled on foot and surrendered to police after they surrounded him at the Hyde Park walking bridge. Police were working on charges after they arrested Taylor before at about 10:35 p.m.

Two residents who were in the group home at 1518 Hyde Park Road, owned by Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, received what appeared to be minor injuries when the Chevrolet Impala smashed through the ranch home's wall into the living room, according to Allegheny Township Chief John Fontaine.

One resident was taken to Allegheny Valley Hospital in Harrison while the other was treated at the scene.

Vandergrift Police Officer Joe Gray injured his leg during the foot pursuit, according to police.

The car sheared off a gas meter, rupturing a natural gas line that had to be shut off.

Residents in the group home were to be taken to another home for the night, according to police.

Shortly before 10 p.m., Taylor was driving on La Belle Vue Road in Vandergrift and was allegedly weaving and crossed the double lines toward an oncoming Vandergrift police car, according to Fontaine.

Police chased the suspect on the Vandergrift Bypass, to Leechburg Hill Road and then onto South Gosser Hill Road as they approached the Leechburg Bridge.

But the car was traveling too fast to negotiate the turn onto Hyde Park Road, the chief said, and drove through the group home's front yard and crashed into the building, Fontaine said.

Taylor allegedly got out of the car and fled on foot, but so did police, who were able to aim a Taser at Taylor, but he still kept running. The car chase lasted about 10 minutes and the foot pursuit about 15 minutes according to Fontaine.

About seven departments set up a perimeter to catch Taylor, who police say was found near the walking bridge, where he was surrounded by police and surrendered.

“There were enough police officers, and we were able to put in a coordinated effort,” Fontaine said.

Police brought him back to the scene so the eight officers who allegedly saw Taylor flee could identify him.

Assisting Vandergrift and Allegheny Township police were police from Apollo, Parks Township, Leechburg, West Leechburg and Lower Burrell's police dog and handler. Allegheny Township's Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 and Markle Volunteer Fire Department also assisted.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or

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Charges filed against man shot by police in Bell Township

posted Sep 19, 2014, 1:23 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Sep 19, 2014, 1:23 PM ]

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Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
A Pennsylvania State Police forensic services unit officer looks for evidence off of Stefaniak Drive in Bell Township after a police involved shooting the previous night. Photographed on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.



State police obtained an arrest warrant early Thursday for the Monroeville man who they say shot at four police officers Wednesday evening in Bell Township.

Joshua Benjamin Jesse, 41, of Tyrolia Drive, remains in critical condition with multiple gunshot wounds in an area hospital. Police have not said how many times Jesse was shot.

The warrant accuses him of four counts each of attempted homicide and aggravated assault against four Alle-Kiski Valley police officers. State police are heading the investigation.

The shooting happened about 7:20 p.m. along Stefaniak Drive in Bell Township after a 30-mile chase that began in Murrysville when police tried to stop Jesse so he could be taken for a mental health evaluation.

Police say Jesse led police on the chase from Route 22 and School Road in Murrysville, through Washington Township, and into Bell Township.

When police tried to stop him at Routes 819 and 66 in Washington Township, he turned his gray pickup onto Stefaniak Drive.

At a dead-end, Jesse jumped out of his truck, allegedly carrying a handgun, and was confronted by four officers from various local departments.

Trooper Stephen J. Limani said one officer fired a Taser at Jesse, who fired once from about 10 feet away, but missed.

At least three officers returned fire in self-defense.

Limani said Jesse received medical treatment at the scene and then was taken to a hospital where he is under guard by troopers.

Frank Stefaniak Sr., who lives nearby, said he was watching television in his home along Stefaniak Drive when he heard the shots fired.

“I was watching ‘Gunsmoke' — of all things — when I heard what sounded like two shots fired in rapid succession,” said Stefaniak, 84. “If (Jesse) shot first, the cops weren't messing around with him. I'm glad they got him, though, he could have come into any of these houses here with a gun.”

One house down, Frank Stefaniak Jr. and his wife, Lavina, were oblivious to the fracas taking place a couple hundred feet up the road. Neither heard the shots, and it wasn't until Stefaniak Jr. stepped outside to check on his elderly aunt and neighbor that he realized what had happened.

“It was like a Christmas scene with all the lights,” he said of the 30-or-so police vehicles that lined the normally quiet street. “I saw them loading the guy into an ambulance, I could hear him moaning in pain. He looked at me, and I just turned and looked away.”

Stefaniak Drive runs about 600 feet off Route 819 until it button-hooks at Beaver Run Creek and runs back against itself. The road's only four houses sit along that stretch of road along the Kiski River.

Jesse was cornered by police at the bend along the creek. Stefaniak Jr. said the outcome of the chase could have been different, had Jesse been more familiar with the terrain.

“I think he saw the creek and thought he had nowhere to go, so he got in a standoff there,” he said. “The creek is only ankle deep. He could have been on the other side like it was nothing. He wouldn't have even got his belt wet.”

Started in Monroeville

Monroeville police Chief Kenneth “Doug” Cole said officers were called to Jesse's house about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Jesse's family members told police they were concerned about his welfare and that he may have been on his way to St. Marys in Elk County.

Monroeville police radioed area officers to stop Jesse. He was spotted in Murrysville and the chase began.

Cole said he couldn't say if police had been called to Jesse's Tyrolia Drive home before Wednesday.

News of the chase and shooting came as a shock to Jesse's neighbors.

Tyrolia Drive resident Judy Ribic, 71, described Jesse and his wife as “wonderful” neighbors who would help her and other older neighbors.

“That neighbor needed something,” Ribic said, pointing to other homes nestled in the cul de sac. “He'd always help you out.”

Ribic said she was aware that Jesse and his wife argued on Wednesday but, otherwise, they seemed happily married with two young sons and had recently celebrated an anniversary.

Ribic said Jesse had a hip replacement about a month and a half ago and had been spending a lot of time at home recovering. She thought he left town to go to his camp, where he would go to shoot guns, to get out of his house in Monroeville.

Staff writer Gideon Bradshaw contributed to this report. Chuck Biedka and Braden Ashe are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Biedka at 724-226-4711 or Reach Ashe at 724-226-4673 or

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