Repeat offender from Cecil blames disorder, gets sentenced

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On paper, Nino Petrocelli is a career criminal with a penchant for leading police on car chases.

He has 20 separate cases just in Allegheny County dating back to the 1980s, with charges ranging from drug possession to DUI, bribery, soliciting prostitution, fleeing and eluding police and recklessly endangering.

He has spent 10 out of the past 11 years in prison and has committed so many driving infractions that he will not be eligible to get his license restored until 2044.

He led police on at least five chases, including one in 2002 on the Parkway where he drove in the wrong direction and tried to carjack a woman.

But Petrocelli, 50, of Cecil, also is a man struggling with bipolar disorder who opened a successful thrift store and helped homeless people.

That Petrocelli, on a tenuous road to recovery, collided with the guy with the penchant for car chases three years ago while driving a box truck for his thrift store. Police attempted to pull him over for not having a license plate, which had been stolen.

Instead of simply stopping, Petrocelli, who had only been out of prison for seven months, fled. He struck several parked cars in the area, then led police on a 16-mile pursuit into the West End, sometimes going the wrong way on routes 65 and 28. He finally wrecked into several cars on Lincoln Avenue in Millvale.

He went to trial on the charges in 2011 and was found guilty of reckless driving and other misdemeanors and was sentenced from two years and nine months to five years in prison. He is serving his time in the state system.

The case also resulted in Petrocelli violating probation he already was serving.

On Wednesday, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O'Toole ordered Petrocelli to serve an additional 31/2 to 7 years in prison on the probation case.

"I don't think anyone sitting here listening to you would suggest you're an evil or bad person," the judge said. But, he continued, "You became, by definition, a hazard and a danger to the people of Allegheny County."

It wasn't Petrocelli's first time before Judge O'Toole.

In April 2004, he ordered Petrocelli to prison for 10 to 20 years stemming from the 2002 car chase on the Parkway East, but later resentenced him to five to 10, and ultimately reduced it again to three to six years, allowing the man's immediate release in February 2009.

The judge also added 12 years of probation.

"The court showing yet another act of mercy to the defendant reduced the sentence," said Deputy District Attorney Dan Fitzsimmons.

During Wednesday's probation hearing, Judge O'Toole listened as the prosecution laid out its case as to why Petrocelli deserved to get the maximum possible penalty on the violation.

But the defendant told a different story.

He recounted for the judge his troubled family life, a strong work ethic and a long battle with substance abuse, that finally ended in 2000.

"I'm sorry to be here," he told Judge O'Toole. "I know you believed in me last time. I believed in me, too."

When he was released from Judge O'Toole's sentence three years ago, Petrocelli began working with a retired registered nurse from his church.

She provided $50,000 for the startup money for a 6,000-square-foot nonprofit thrift store in Heidelberg.

Petrocelli bragged to the court that she has already been paid back in full, and the store is still open and doing well.

They also worked to provide housing for homeless people, and Petrocelli passed out clothing and food to the needy.

"What was going on was wonderful," he said.

Petrocelli still can't explain why he didn't simply pull over when the police tried to stop him that night in September 2009.

After his last arrest, Petrocelli's attorney, Brent McCune, recommended his client be evaluated at Torrance State Hospital.

He was there for eight months, began a regimen of medication and told the court that since then, he feels good.

Petrocelli told the judge that despite all of his years in the system before that he never knew of his bipolar diagnosis.

Instead, he said he attempted to self-medicate for years with drugs and alcohol.

He never understood why he couldn't get the racing thoughts in his head to stop, so that he could sleep, he said, or just feel normal.

But since taking his meds, Petrocelli has stopped getting in trouble in prison and helped form a ministry there.

"I'm not manic anymore. I'm not depressed," he said. "I feel different. My thoughts don't pile up in my brain and stay with me all day long. I feel really good."

Near the end of his comments, Petrocelli, who cried throughout, began pleading with the court. "I don't want to go back to jail. I hate it."

But Judge O'Toole said allowing Petrocelli anything less than prison would be contraindicated based on the charges and his history.

Instead, the judge told him, Petrocelli needed to see "the consequences of your choices."

neigh_south

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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