Trial begins for sheriff accused of threatening blogger

The operator of a Beaver County website testified tearfully Monday that Sheriff George David threatened him with a blackjack and his gun during a two-hour tirade April 16, 2012, at the sheriff’s office.

On the first day of Sheriff David’s trial on misdemeanor charges related to threats, John Paul Vranesevich, who operates the Beaver County website, said the longtime sheriff slammed the blackjack on his desk and waved his gun around while railing about a story Mr. Vranesevich was researching regarding uniform contracts for the sheriff's office.

“I really thought he was going to pull the trigger,” he testified.

While two deputies watched, the sheriff would scream at him, calm down and then start screaming again, Mr. Vranesevich said.

“It was like this parabola of emotion,” he told the jury. “He got more and more agitated. He just kept yelling. He was shaking; he was stuttering.”

In her opening statement, Senior Deputy Attorney General Laurel Brandstetter said Sheriff David used his position as the chief law enforcement officer in the county to attempt to “silence the media” by threatening Mr. Vranesevich and intimidating two deputies who witnessed the events into lying to protect him.

The state maintains that the sheriff unleashed the tirade to pressure Mr. Vranesevich into not writing about the uniform contract.

The sheriff’s lawyer, Lee Rothman, countered that Mr. Vranesevich had an agenda during the meeting to “prod and provoke” Sheriff David into getting angry and suggested Nancy Werme, the county prothonotary, put him up to it. The sheriff and Ms. Werme had been friends since childhood in Aliquippa but had a falling out after the November 2011 election because Ms. Werme was angry that the sheriff didn’t campaign enough for her, Mr. Rothman alleged.

Under prosecution questioning, Mr. Vranesevich said a deputy had provided him a tip that the sheriff was bypassing the low bidder for sheriff’s uniforms in favor of a company that employed a friend. Mr. Vranesevich talked to the then-director of purchasing, Mary Anne Ruskin, and on April 16, approached the sheriff.

When he sat down in the sheriff’s office in the presence of two deputies, Thomas Ochs and Michael Tibolet, he said the sheriff directed his secretary to give him the paperwork he wanted regarding uniform purchases and then said he knew he had been talking to “that whore,” referring to Ms. Ruskin.

The sheriff became increasingly agitated and began ranting about his enemies, threatening Mr. Vranesevich and Ms. Werme, whom he believed had fired his wife, Linda, and J.D. Prose, a Beaver County Times reporter who had previously written negatively about the sheriff’s department budget, Mr. Vranesevich said.

“The entire time in that room was irrational,” he said.

He said the sheriff slammed down the blackjack and shouted that he would beat Mr. Prose as he once beat black people in Aliquippa, where he had been a police officer for decades.

He said the sheriff then drew the gun in a rage as a warning to Mr. Vranesevich that he’d better not report negatively on his office as he said Mr. Prose had done.

At one point, the sheriff threatened to use the gun to blow Mr. Prose’s brains out and said he would do the same to Mr. Vranesevich, he said.

On cross-examination, Mr. Rothman attempted to raise questions about Mr. Vranesevich’s motivation, intimating that he embarked on a vendetta because the sheriff didn’t do enough to help his partner, Brad Davis, after he lost his job as an Ambridge police officer.

He also showed the jury thick stacks of printouts of negative stories about the sheriff and his department that Mr. Vranesevich had written since the 2012 incident, suggesting he was out to get the sheriff.

The trial, expected to last several days, will resume Tuesday with Mr. Vranesevich re-taking the stand.

Torsten Ove: or 412-263-1510. First Published July 7, 2014 12:00 AM

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