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Retired police sergeant convicted of beating a prisoner named to Ambridge civil service board

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Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 1:14 p.m.
 

The lawyer for a man beaten by an Ambridge police sergeant is questioning why borough council unanimously appointed the now-retired officer to its civil service board.

Ambridge Council on Tuesday night selected Richard Heitzenrater, 63, for the board that oversees training and hiring of police officers. Heitzenrater pleaded guilty in July 2010 to a federal charge for beating David Baker, 42, inside a borough jail cell in 2009 after Baker was arrested for public lewdness that occurred near Heitzenrater's young granddaughter.

“I believe the citizens of Ambridge can hire anyone they want. I'd have trouble imagining they want a police officer convicted in federal court of improper conduct determining who will be hired as a police officer in Ambridge,” said lawyer Gerald Benyo, who represented Baker in civil and criminal cases stemming from the beating.

Heitzenrater and the borough's solicitor, Richard Start, did not return phone calls on Wednesday.

Gerald McCoy, council president, said Heitzenrater, a 33-year veteran of the police force, brings experience to the commission.

“We don't want to just put anybody on the board,” McCoy said.

Heitzenrater and one other person applied to fill the vacancy on the three-member civil service board. The position is unpaid. The council chose Heitzenrater in a 6-0 vote. One member was absent.

“I am a Christian and believe in forgiveness. He made a mistake, and who of us can't say we would not have made the same mistake? He should not have to pay for this for his entire life,” McCoy said.

Because Heitzenrater was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of violating Baker's civil rights, McCoy said, the appointment is legal.

Heitzenrater turned off the lights, entered Baker's jail cell and beat him. Heitzenrater also shoved his pistol into Baker's mouth, according to Baker's lawsuit.

Heitzenrater served six months in a halfway house.

Baker urinated in public while Heitzenrater's 8-year-old granddaughter was across the street. Ambridge police charged Baker with indecent exposure, corruption of minors and open lewdness.

He pleaded guilty to open lewdness and received a year of probation. The other charges were dropped.

Baker could not be reached for comment. Benyo said he lives in Las Vegas.

Ambridge paid Baker $150,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit he filed against the borough and its officials, including Heitzenrater and Ambridge police Lt. Robert Kuzma, who pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact for erasing a video showing Heitzenrater attacking Baker.

As a condition of the settlement, Baker is not to talk about the case, Benyo said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or rwills@tribweb.com.

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