'The reputation for the police department is scorn'
Since January, three police officers from Washington County's Smith Township have been arrested
May 3, 2009 4:00 AM
Steve Toprani, Washington County District Attorney.
Smith Police Chief Winford "Bernie" LaRue in his office.
By Jonathan D. Silver Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In mostly rural Smith Township, police officers these days are just as likely to be accused of breaking the law as upholding it.
Since January, three Smith officers -- one-third of the tiny Washington County community's force -- have been arrested for crimes including burglary, robbery, perjury, assault, official oppression, false swearing and drug possession.
"The reputation for the police department is scorn," Smith police Chief Winford "Bernie" LaRue said in a recent interview. "I understand that. The trust is not there. I've been under fire, which I can rightly understand."
It gets worse.
Last week, an Ohio couple sued two of the suspended officers in federal court alleging excessive force after a 2008 concert at the Post-Gazette Pavilion.
And Washington County District Attorney Steven M. Toprani is looking into other allegations of police misconduct in Smith and adjacent Burgettstown, where one of the accused officers, Amber Price, also works part time.
"It's scary," said resident Amber Hughey, 30, who has viewed the arrests with trepidation but also a sense of relief that a housecleaning appears to be in progress. "I think it's a good thing if it's true."
"They can't control themselves," complained Harry Prevost, owner of an auto mechanic service down the road from the police station. The department "should have all new ones."
Mr. Prevost might be getting his wish. Chief LaRue recently hired two officers to plug the hole left by the suspensions of Derek A. Dayoub, Michael A. North and Officer Price.
Officer North, 30, of North Strabane, is accused of obtaining prescription painkillers illegally and lying in an affidavit that led to a possibly illegal warrant to search a house. His attorney could not be reached for comment.
Officer Price, 39, of Oakdale, is charged in the same affidavit incident. .
"It was poor police work. She didn't read the search warrant before signing it," her lawyer, Dennis Paluso, said. That does not mean that she broke the law, he argued.
"The commonwealth presented a case believing that just because she signed the search warrant, that in and of itself made it criminal. It does not," Mr. Paluso said. "Amber Price never intended to misstate or lie on a search warrant."
Police said Officer Dayoub, 26, of Upper St. Clair, assaulted two people. His lawyer would not comment. His father expressed surprise at the charges and said his son does not have anger problems.
"He's a very, very nice guy," Mr. Dayoub said. "Always he wanted to be a police officer."
All three officers work part time for other departments, and all are either suspended or off the schedule in the other departments while charges are pending.
DA questions leadership
Over the past few months, Chief LaRue has fielded numerous questions about the breakdown of his department.
"How could this happen? How did we get here?" Chief LaRue said last week from behind his desk, the only officer on his shift to cover the 47-square-mile township and its 5,000 residents. "Well. That I can't answer."
Mr. Toprani, the district attorney, thinks he knows. He and his chief of detectives, J. Michael Aaron, a Washington County native who spent 15 years investigating homicides in violent Camden, N.J., pin some of the blame on Chief LaRue.
They said Smith's department has no structure and minimal supervision -- accusations that Chief LaRue denies. They also said the force lacks leadership.
"We see the recipe for this type of behavior in small departments," Mr. Toprani said. "This was like the perfect storm."
While any small, rural police department might be susceptible to problems, many have a bulwark against misconduct in the form of a strong leader who heads off trouble, according to Chief Aaron and Mr. Toprani.
Chief Aaron ticked off a list of other small Washington County departments with chiefs whom he believes would have forestalled the type of misdeeds alleged in Smith.
"It wouldn't have been tolerated," Chief Aaron said.
Chief LaRue said he was unaware of some of the allegations until they culminated in criminal charges brought by state police and the DA's office. The case involving the questionable search warrant took place in Burgettstown, not Smith, he notes. And he said he himself contacted state police about drug allegations against Officer North.
The chief noted that he is the department's only full-time officer and does not have the resources to conduct internal investigations. He said he is open to criticism, but took umbrage at the slam on his leadership.
"That part really surprises me, for a district attorney and a county detective to say that there's no leadership here," said Chief LaRue, 43, a 14-year veteran of his hometown department.
"They have never shared that with me. The only thing I got from them was how good of a job I'm doing and to 'Hang in there.' "
Not only has the DA pointed fingers at Chief LaRue, he has sparred with District Judge James Ellis, who dismissed charges against Officers North and Price for lying in an affidavit.
"I said it was bad police work, not a crime," Judge Ellis said, declining further comment.
Mr. Toprani disagreed. He refiled the charges. Citing unspecified "errors of law" by Judge Ellis, the DA's office successfully petitioned the county's president judge to reassign the case. The new preliminary hearing is scheduled for June 8.
Starts with traffic stop
Smith's tempest in blue has its origins in a traffic stop last spring carried out by Officers North and Price.
On March 21, 2008, they pulled over Harold Huber Jr., 53, because of a burned-out light on his pickup truck.
The officers said they seized cocaine from Mr. Huber and wanted to search his Burgettstown home.
Officer Price went to District Judge Mark Wilson for a search warrant. She presented him with her affidavit, a typed, eight-line sworn statement signed by her that explained what she was looking for and why.
Included was the following sentence: "Huber was observed by this officer leaving his residence."
There was one big problem. Mr. Toprani would later conclude that neither officer ever saw Mr. Huber exiting his house prior to the traffic stop.
Not only that, but according to an affidavit supporting her arrest, Officer Price said she did not even write or review the search warrant application; Officer North did, but she signed the sworn statement anyway.
"I probably wouldn't have issued the search warrant if she hadn't put that in there," Judge Wilson, a former police officer in Monongahela, said in an interview. "Why would they need to go search his house if they didn't see him leaving his house?"
Judge Wilson also questioned the ethics of one police officer signing an affidavit for another.
"I could maybe understand that happening when there's a bunch of people working on a case. But not when there's one or two. How else can you get accuracy when you're not doing it yourself?" Judge Wilson said. "I was a policeman for 15 years. I couldn't get anyone to do my work for me."
Mr. Huber's attorney, George K. Hanna, was onto the alleged deception. He filed motions to suppress the evidence from the traffic stop for a variety of reasons.
Those motions drew close scrutiny to the case by the DA's office. It wasn't the first time there were concerns raised about Smith police officers. Chief Aaron said complaints have poured into his office and the state police over the past year about officers in Smith from 30 to 40 citizens and other police officers.
By August, Mr. Toprani had made up his mind. He ordered the charges dropped against Mr. Huber.
The following month, police report Officer Dayoub beat up a 56-year-old man whose son was arrested for breaking into a vehicle. A police affidavit said Officer Dayoub slammed John J. Dvorsak's head into a minivan and emptied a can of pepper spray into his face. He was charged with simple assault and official oppression.
Then in October, police said, Officer Dayoub walked into a Burgettstown McDonald's, ate something and then assaulted a 19-year-old employee after asking if "he had been talking about him." Officer North was also in the restaurant. Both officers were on duty.
In December, according to an affidavit, Officer North walked into Nancy Lugalia's mobile home in Smith and stole three hydrocodone pills from the 61-year-old woman.
Investigators get a 'break'
In January, state police recorded a conversation between Officer North and a confidential informant who said 30 oxycodone pills would be left in the informant's mail box, an affidavit said.
Investigators put 30 placebo pills in an envelope and placed them in the mailbox. Officer North picked them up; he was arrested at his house.
That was the break investigators were looking for. Court papers reveal that on Jan. 8, Officer North confessed about lying on the Huber affidavit.
Smith is now left to deal with the legal fallout of the arrests and try to rebuild its image. Mr. Toprani and Chief LaRue know there is work to be done.
"We don't want to indict the entire department," Mr. Toprani said. "The whole situation is precarious. I mean it's a difficult one, but we'll persevere."