Beaver County Sheriff George David has admirers, despite 11 charges he faces
'Rough edges' no turnoff to his fans
March 31, 2013 4:00 PM
Lucy Schaly/Beaver County Times
Sheriff George David stands in the hallway at the Beaver County Court House in September 2010.
Beaver County Times
Shown here in 1994, George David talked about being fired from the Aliquippa police force. Two years later, he was county sheriff.
By Torsten Ove Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
At Leone's Family Restaurant in Aliquippa, they still love George David, the Beaver County sheriff charged last week with waving his gun around while issuing threats and asking his deputies to lie for him.
He's 65 and gray now, but to the locals he'll always be the skinny, hard-charging kid from the tough streets of Aliquippa.
In a county dotted with downtrodden former steel towns fiercely protective of their identity, place always matters.
"Georgie never forgot where he came from. That's the best way to put it," said Raymond Rapko, 63, whose wife is from Aliquippa and who has known the sheriff for decades. "The man's innocent until proven guilty. There's two sides to every story. Wait and see. But he has our support. He's doing a good job. We put him in and we support him."
Sheriff David, a former Aliquippa police officer, was first appointed to his position in 1996 by then-Gov. Tom Ridge when Frank Policaro was named U.S. marshal for Western Pennsylvania.
He ran for re-election in 1997 but lost to Felix DeLuca, then became chief of security for the Beaver County jail until he was elected sheriff in 2007, drawing heavily on his support base in Aliquippa, Hopewell and Center.
He was re-elected two years ago.
"I know there are some rough edges [to him]," said a Leone's regular, Anthony Loschiavo, a retired elementary school principal who has known the sheriff most of his life. "But in his job, I don't know how you can help it."
The sheriff may be blunt, his supporters say, but he gets things done and looks out for his deputies, his friends back home and the people of Beaver County.
Ralph Ramanna, his former chief deputy who now works as a part-time deputy, said the sheriff is a religious man with a kinder side that the media don't see. After the sheriff lost the 1997 election, he made a point to pull aside Mr. Ramanna and apologize for losing because he knew it would cost Mr. Ramanna his job.
"That shows you what kind of person he is," Mr. Ramanna said over beef and french fries at Leone's. "I know he has his men's best interest at heart. I know he also has the people's best interest at heart."
Cuffed and peeved
The sheriff, who remains in office despite facing 11 misdemeanor charges, said he couldn't discuss his predicament pending the outcome of the case.
After an 11-month grand jury investigation, state police charged him with threatening local blogger John Paul Vranesevich with his gun in April 2012 and telling a campaign volunteer, Daniel Fleishman, in November 2011 that he would cut off his hands and eat them.
Troopers hauled the sheriff out of the courthouse in handcuffs on Monday, saying he was a potential threat.
Sheriff David was particularly angry with that show of force, his friends say, but on the advice of his lawyer he has declined to comment. He said he'll talk when it's all over.
His silence is unusual in that he prides himself on being bold and outspoken.
In years past, he has often defined himself through the prism of his upbringing in his hometown, where toughness counts. A former steelworker, he spent nearly 30 years as an Aliquippa cop -- he was shot in 1975 -- before becoming sheriff.
"Don't forget, I come from Aliquippa," he once said after being accused of threatening an Aliquippa councilman (he denied it), "and I come from a rough area and I'm not denying that I'm rough around the edges."
Sheriff David joined the Aliquippa police department at age 24, wearing a uniform that was too big for him and a gun belt that didn't fit. He learned the ropes from a veteran officer, the late Al Bialik.
His education came on the street.
He said he was often spit on and sworn at in the 1970s. At about 5 feet, 9 inches tall and 138 pounds, he was the constant target of challenges, he and fellow officers said.
"I'm not going to lie to you. I've busted heads. I've busted quite a few heads. But I was doing my job," Sheriff David said in 1994. "Hey, they come at me. I protected myself."
He was -- and still is -- aggressive, quick to anger and utterly unapologetic. That take-no-prisoners attitude has both helped and hurt him during his 40 years in law enforcement.
He won Policeman of the Year for courage and service beyond the call of duty in 1975 and the Purple Heart after being shot that year. The honors are on his office wall, among many other awards. In that incident in Aliquippa's Plan 11 neighborhood, Harold Thompson shot him in the foot through a door, but Sheriff David and his partner fired back and killed him.
In 1990 he single-handedly captured a trio of armed bank robbers after tracking them down in the woods. Once, when a young man was shot five times in the street, Sheriff David transported the victim to the hospital in time to save his life.
But he was also accused of brutality in 1978 (he was acquitted), got into a running feud with Aliquippa's mayor after arresting him in 1984 for drunken driving (the case was dismissed), and lost his job with the police department in 1994 after running for a Democratic Party committee seat and winning (the city said officers could not hold elected office, but he sued and got his job back).
During his first term as sheriff in 1996 and 1997 and from 2008 through now, he repeatedly butted heads with county officials over the scope of his powers. Many critics felt that he has tried to expand the sheriff's office into a county police department and overstepped his bounds in the process.
The main issue in recent years has been outside work by deputies.
In February, the commissioners obtained a preliminary injunction against the sheriff, saying he was illegally allowing his deputies to perform private security work in uniform. The sheriff appealed the ruling to Commonwealth Court, where it remains.
Sheriff David says deputies have worked security details for decades. "I'm only doing the same things that the past sheriffs did," he said.
The debate has been more fodder for the Beaver County Times, fueling a long-running feud between the paper and the sheriff, who has often complained about unfair coverage.
During the campaign, the paper editorialized that Sheriff David's habit of "rashness" would one day cause the county "more trouble than he is worth."
The grand jury's view
That prediction seems to have come true finally, 17 years later, with the grand jury presentment.
According to witnesses, Sheriff David met with Mr. Vranesevich, who runs the muckraking website Beaver Countian, on April 16 to talk about media reports that involved purchasing contracts for uniforms.
Mr. Vranesevich declined comment this week, but he testified that the sheriff was angry at the coverage of the uniform issue by another reporter, J.D. Prose of the Beaver County Times, and also at Prothonotary Nancy Werme, whom he believed had fired his wife, Linda.
The witnesses said Sheriff David became increasingly angry, then drew his revolver and told Mr. Vranesevich that if he started writing about the uniform contract he would shoot him.
Witnesses said he slammed a blackjack on his desk and shouted that he wouldbeat Mr. Prose.
Two deputies, Thomas Ochs and Michael Tibolet, witnessed the confrontation but both initially wrote internal reports saying nothing inappropriate happened. In the months after the episode, the grand jury said, the sheriff "repeatedly reiterated" to one of the deputies that "it never happened."
State police said the sheriff pressured them into covering for him.
"The deputies initially lied to us, but they told the truth to the grand jury," state police Lt. Eric Hermick said this week. "They feared for their jobs."
In the other incident, the grand jury said Mr. Fleishman, a Beaver County Jail guard, tried to shake Sheriff David's hand at a campaign event on Nov. 5, 2011.
"I heard you talk about me," the sheriff said, according to the grand jury. "Shake my hand, I'll cut your [expletive] hands off and I'll eat them."
While the sheriff has remained silent on the allegations, those close to him say he feels the charges are the result of a political vendetta by unnamed enemies.
His lawyer, Myron Sainovich, said his client denies he threatened anyone.
"George David is a no-nonsense type of person," he said. "He says a lot of times what he feels. But I've known him for many years I've never known him to follow through with threatening somebody or harming someone."
The county commissioners would not comment, but their solicitor, Joe Askar, said county officials cannot bar the sheriff from the courthouse.
If he's convicted, removing him from office will involve legal action from either the governor or the state Legislature.
So for now, the sheriff comes to work, same as always. The only difference is that he can't wear his gun. A magistrate ordered him to turn it over to the state police.