A man charged with shooting a pregnant Ambridge teenager 10 months after he walked out of a Downtown community corrections center had previously committed crimes that should have raised red flags when officials were evaluating whether to let him out of jail.
Marlin Kelly, 27, of McKees Rocks had a history of repeated drug and gun convictions, and had faced allegations of violence. Despite that, and despite an Allegheny County policy that calls for special care with defendants who have been charged with violence and gun crimes, he was placed at the Downtown facility of Renewal Inc., where unsupervised time outside of the walls is part of the program.
Kelly is now facing charges including escape, criminal homicide and homicide of an unborn child, in an example of an assignment to community corrections gone wrong.
In response to a two-month probe by the Post-Gazette, Allegheny County officials said last week that they are changing policies regarding who gets to go from jail to community corrections and installing new technology to monitor the process, though they would not detail why.
Community facilities like Renewal -- where convicts stay overnight and on weekends while working and getting counseling -- are viewed as important parts of the correctional system because they are a bridge between incarceration and freedom.
"Some people are [in jail] that would be better off in treatment," said Donna Jo McDaniel, Common Please Court president judge, who also chairs the Jail Oversight Board. "A person that's been a long-term drug addict, if that person is sentenced to six months in jail, they get little or no treatment," but in a community corrections center they can get help.
A Post-Gazette review of the criminal histories of 40 people who were sent by the jail to community corrections indicates that there has been confusion about who should and shouldn't be eligible for the increased freedom that comes with such placements.
Kelly, for instance, was arrested in 2006 with a .38 special in his waistband, and pleaded guilty to carrying a firearm without a license. Later he was accused by police of attacking, in the Courthouse, a man who was there to serve as a witness in a homicide trial. He pleaded guilty to intimidating a witness. He served a year and a half in jail before the cases went to trial and he was sentenced.
"This kid has already proven to us that he's a danger and menace to our society, that he belongs behind bars," said Sgt. James Mann, acting chief of Ambridge Police. "He's still out walking around and he ends up killing a 19-year-old girl and her [unborn] baby."
A jail policy, last updated in October 2011, indicates that firearms offenses and "aggressive/violent behaviors" should be viewed as signs that an inmate may not be appropriate for a community correctional facility.
Despite this policy, Kelly landed at Renewal in August 2011, a move that Sgt. Mann questioned because of Kelly's numerous arrests for gun possession.
"His criminal record speaks for itself," he said. "How many chances do you give somebody who gets caught with a gun?"
Kelly's criminal history stretches to when he was 12, when he was adjudicated delinquent in a case that is not open to the public.
When he was 14, Kelly was, in two separate incidents, adjudicated delinquent for stealing a car, and for escape after a drug arrest. He was not found delinquent on the drug charge. He was subsequently placed in several residential facilities.
The arrest that landed him in Renewal came in June 2010, when Kelly was pulled over by police in Perry South because one of his brake lights was out, according to a criminal complaint.
In the car, police found a silver revolver in the center console. They also found a small bag of marijuana, 14 bags of heroin and $265 in cash. He was charged with illegally possessing a firearm, numerous drug offenses and driving infractions.
On May 4, 2011, Kelly went before Judge McDaniel to plead guilty. She sentenced him to one year of "house arrest" and three years of probation.
She required him to get a job -- "I don't care if you are flipping burgers" -- and to submit to a drug and alcohol evaluation and treatment. Though police said he showed no signs of heroin use during his arrest, he was listed as drug and alcohol dependent on a sentencing form.
The judge attempted to communicate to him the gravity of his crimes, what he could have faced in terms of prison time. "How many months should you be getting today?" she asked, according to a court transcript.
"Thirty. Yes ma'am," he replied.
"Before we finish, I'll tell you this. If you spit on the sidewalk and I find out about it, you are going to the state [prison]. Do you understand me?" she said.
Despite the judge's warning, Kelly was arrested twice in the month following his sentencing, and then violated terms of his probation by driving with a suspended license. He was sent to Renewal and walked out on Christmas Eve.
On the run
Sometimes called halfway houses, community corrections centers are meant to provide supervision and treatment for offenders, while allowing them to be part of society through employment and other activity.
The very nature of those facilities, though, makes them easy to escape. Because inmates are expected -- sometimes required -- to leave during the day for work, they have the opportunity to walk off without anyone knowing for hours. If they aren't back within an hour of their scheduled return, the facilities are required to alert the jail and police.
Records provided by the county in response to a right-to-know request indicated 55 escapes from the community corrections facilities with which it contracts. Of those escapes, 23 took place since the beginning of 2012. Twelve of those 23 escaped from Renewal.
"If someone comes to a front security desk and demands to get out," said Renewal CEO Doug Williams, "we're instructing our staff to, after trying to talk them out if it, if that doesn't work, just open the door and let them out." Then staff is required to call the jail, police and parole office.
Kelly left Renewal on Dec. 24, 2011, ostensibly to go to work at La Cucina Flegrea, an Italian restaurant in Market Square. When he wasn't back shortly after midnight, when he was due, a security officer checked his room and found his locker empty. A case manager was contacted and at 2:20 a.m. he was declared an absconder. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
Ambridge Police said he ended up in that Beaver County community, selling heroin under the street handle "Twin" with a man named Tyrone Fuller.
On the evening of Oct. 28, prosecutors said, Fuller and Kelly met up with James Leo, a man who testified he regularly bought drugs from the pair. Mr. Leo drove them to a shabby apartment shared by 19-year-old Conekia "Coco" Finney, then seven months pregnant with her second child, and her boyfriend Stephen Murray, a man that Fuller wanted to rob because he claimed he was "stepping on his toes," according to Mr. Leo's testimony.
In the meantime, Finney was getting ready to leave her apartment to meet her mother, Elaine, who was waiting for her in a car on the street.
Instead, police said she was met by the pair at the front door. One of the men shot her in the chest at point blank range, according to police. Her mother, who heard the shot and saw two men running from the apartment, found her lying in her kitchen on her back, arms sprawled out. She and her unborn child were pronounced dead soon after.
U.S. Marshals arrested Kelly, who was found hiding under a bed, three days later in Turtle Creek. He pleaded not guilty, and he and Fuller were held for trial two weeks ago.
No crystal ball
There are three primary routes from the county jail to a community correctional facility. First, a judge can recommend that option as part of a sentence. Second, when someone violates terms of their release, a probation or parole officer or a judge can recommend community corrections. Third, the community corrections providers, who comb through the jail's files, can request inmates.
The jail can accept or veto any referral to community corrections.
"It's ultimately the jail" that decides, said Judge McDaniel. Jail officials "really do have to accommodate the judicial system when they can. But they are not mandated" to put any inmate into community corrections.
A county Bureau of Corrections policy agrees, saying that it's up to jail officials to "utilize ... discretionary authority as to which inmates are suitable for placement into alternative housing."
There's no way to predict with certainty who will do well in community corrections, said Judge McDaniel. "Can you tell me what I am going to do this afternoon?" she asked.
County jail officials have crafted a policy designed to keep the highest risk offenders locked up, rather than in community corrections.
The policy, last revised in 2011, bars from community corrections inmates who have been convicted of murder, manslaughter, rape, statutory rape, statutory sexual assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sex offenses requiring registration under Megan's Law, or arson. Also barred are those who have committed aggravated assault or robbery in the past 10 years.
That policy says that the jail can "evaluate" for community corrections inmates with histories of "aggressive/violent behaviors," firearms offenses, corrupting the morals of minors, endangering children, domestic assault, stalking, misdemeanor sexual assaults, vehicular homicide, burglary and prior escapes from halfway housing. Of the 40 recent community corrections referrals reviewed by the Post-Gazette, 13 had convictions for these charges.
The policy is vague on a number of points, including how the jail should evaluate someone whose history includes charges from the latter list. Latoya Warren, jail deputy warden of inmate services, said Warden Orlando Harper has ordered a rewrite of the policy. "Part of Warden Harper's charge is to make it clear," she said.
There's nothing clear-cut about the lives of many criminal defendants. Take Michael Ritter.
Ritter, 31, of Carrick, is a former high school athlete whose troubles started with an arm injury that led to prescription drug abuse, said his father, also named Michael Ritter.
The son was first arrested in 1998 when, police said, he was seen kicking a man in the head, twice, in Brentwood Park. Four years later, an officer who was breaking up a bar fight said that Ritter punched him in the jaw and kicked him in the head. Both times he was charged with aggravated assault, but pleaded down to simple assault.
After being summoned to court repeatedly for probation violations, Ritter was again arrested in 2008. Officers said he was speeding dangerously around the South Side and tossed a bag of heroin out the car window. He pleaded guilty to fleeing or eluding and traffic-related charges.
In 2010, officers wrote in a complaint, they had to remove Ritter from a bar patron, and he spat on an officer and threatened to "kill you." He pleaded guilty to two counts of simple assault and other charges, getting six to 12 months in jail plus probation.
Last year, Ritter was arrested again when, police said, they saw him stuffing stamp bags of heroin into his order of french fries. Parole was revoked for failure to abstain from drugs, among other violations, and a probation officer suggested an assignment to community corrections. Despite the warning sign of repeated violence, the jail sent him to Renewal.
"He was working. He had a pretty good job. Everything was working out," said Ritter's father. But the younger Ritter had a hard time getting medicine on which he relies, his father said.
The younger Ritter escaped in November. He was arrested in early January and charged with theft and drug possession, which are pending along with the escape charge.
"He's done a lot more good for people than he's done harm in his life," said Ritter's father, adding that he hoped his son would get another chance.
No 'emailing back and forth'
Allegheny County contracts with three community corrections centers: Renewal, Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania and The Program for Offenders. It's a big expense.
The county pays Renewal, for instance, $60 per inmate per day, minus room and board that the inmate must pay to the facility after getting a job. Last year, the county paid Renewal $2.68 million for community corrections services, $2.76 million to Goodwill and $1.12 million to The Program for Offenders Inc., according to the county controller's office.
Though the county has reserved 342 beds in the facilities, it typically fills around 250 of them, officials said.
Ms. Warren said the vacant beds are the result of the weekslong process by which inmates are cleared to go to alternative housing. It includes a review of criminal history, sign-offs from judges and medical and psychological clearances.
"We're working very diligently to come up with mechanisms to get [the beds] filled," Mr. Harper said.
The county isn't supposed to pay for beds it doesn't fill. However, a January 2012 audit released by county Controller Chelsa Wagner found that Renewal billed the county for 1,915 days of service that weren't provided to residents, for a total of $100,636. The facility paid that sum back, and its managers said the error was due to a change to a new computer system.
An informal group of county jail, judicial, human services and executive branch representatives has been meeting every other week for several months to discuss jail management issues, said county manager William D. McKain.
Rewriting the community corrections policy, he said, is a priority.
The jail is planning to provide two new assistants to its alternative housing administrator Ruth J. Howze, who was off on leave last week and declined comment.
The jail, courts and the Department of Human Services are also working together on a new computer system, designed to inform and guide decisions on the appropriateness of community corrections. It is expected to be up and running in March.
It's unclear whether new rules, staff and systems would rule out the likes of Terrelle Smith.
Smith, 21, of East Liberty, was first arrested at age 18 with an unlicensed and loaded pistol, after police said he ran from them and punched an officer in the head. Months later, police responded to a call of shots fired, and said they found Smith and another man lying in the weeds, with an AK-47 and a handgun nearby. Smith, they said, kicked a K9 officer during that arrest. A year later he was arrested with what police described as 30 stamp bags of heroin.
Smith has pleaded guilty to carrying an unlicensed firearm twice, resisting arrest twice, simple assault twice, loitering and prowling and drug possession. Nonetheless, in October a Renewal manager wrote an email to Ms. Howze, including Smith in a list of seven inmates she hoped to have placed at the facility. Though the jail classified him as a medium security risk, it sent him to community corrections.
"All of this emailing back and forth [between jail and community correctional staff] will not be part of the decision-making process," after the new system is in place, said Erin Dalton, a deputy director in charge of data analysis for the county Department of Human Services. Judges and jail officials will also see more and better information on offenders, improving and speeding the decision-making process.
For Sgt. Mann, the Kelly case cries out for a re-evaluation of the system that let a man with such a troubling past into a community corrections center.
"If they followed those policies and procedures and he's still able to go there with that criminal record," said Sgt. Mann, "then they need to evaluate those policies and procedures."