Obituary: Ralph D. Pampena / Pittsburgh police chief in 1989-90
Ralph D. Pampena, was a smart and streetwise policeman with impeccable style, who served as head of homicide and city police chief and knew his way around a crime scene investigation, the golf course and the four-part harmony of a quartet.
A native of East Liberty and longtime Morningside resident who moved to Shaler almost a decade ago, Mr. Pampena died Saturday of cancer. He was 78.
"He was a bright guy, but a common-sense guy," said Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen, who worked as head of the city's robbery, rape and homicide squads when Mr. Pampena was police chief from 1989 through May 1990. "That mix was part of his success. It's difficult to find ... cops with that mix. He was very smart and fair, well-rounded and with a good understanding of the street."
Charles Moffatt, now the Allegheny County police superintendent, transferred into the homicide squad when Mr. Pampena was its leader and remembers him as a "detail-oriented" commander whose squad had one of the highest rates of solved murders in the nation.
"He was one of the sharpest guys I've ever worked with and the [clearance] rate was a tribute to him and the guys he worked with on the squad," Mr. Moffatt said. "He also had a lot of compassion for the victims."
Mr. Pampena was a graduate of Central Catholic High School, received an associate degree from the Community College of Allegheny County and joined the city police force in 1958 as a patrolman in East Liberty. He continued his schooling at the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a bachelor's degree in administration of justice and master's degrees in public administration. He was also a graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va.
He rose steadily through the ranks of sergeant, lieutenant and was head of the homicide detectives and assistant chief of operations at the police academy in the early and mid-1980s.
He left the department to become security director at Carnegie Mellon University in 1986, but returned at the request of Mayor Richard Caliguiri a year later to become police chief. Mr. Pampena was eased out of the city police chief's position in 1990 after the 1988 death of Mr. Caliguiri and replaced by Mayer DeRoy. Mayor Sophie Masloff appointed Mr. Pampena deputy public safety director.
As police chief, Mr. Pampena was viewed as a strong administrator who took a thoughtful approach to police work. Those traits and a desire to learn every job from the ground up were the constants of his police career, said Ron Freeman, a former city homicide detective and commander, now retired.
"He had no homicide experience when he was appointed to head the homicide unit, but what struck me was his ability and desire to learn every facet of the job," Mr. Freeman said. "He wanted the knowledge, wanted to be better at investigations, crime scene processing, physical and psychological evidence and criminal profiling."
Mr. Freeman remembered that Mr. Pampena played a pivotal role in solving two murders in 1970. Homicide detectives were investigating the October 1970 murder of Martha Daw, who was bludgeoned to death near her Homewood residence, and had identified a suspect. Mr. Pampena, who was monitoring the investigation, concluded the crime bore similarities to the Oakland murder of Margaretta Strawder in February of that year.
"Right away he was able to link the two using psychological evidence, because we had no physical evidence yet," Mr Freeman said. "He immediately told our whole squad go to the suspect's house, just based on that instinct. We did a search and found bloody clothes that linked the suspect to the first murder, and he later confessed to the second."
"If an investigation required 'hands-on,' he could do that. But he didn't get in the way. He was a good leader."
And a very good dresser, who took pride in his clothes and professional appearance, Mr. Freeman said.
"He could work around the clock on a case, literally 24 hours straight, but before he'd go in front of the camera's at a press conference the next morning he'd always take time to go to the bathroom to shave and look his best."
He is survived by two daughters, Linda Marie Devine and Judy Findlay; a son, Michael A. Pampena; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Friends will be received from 1 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. today and Tuesday at John A. Freyvogel Sons, 4900 Centre Ave. at Devonshire Street. A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Wednesday in St. Paul Cathedral.
In lieu of flowers, remembrances can be made to the Good Samaritan Hospice, 146 Neely School Road, Wexford, PA 15090.
First Published December 17, 2012 12:20 am