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New Ken police Chief Ron Zellers died of natural causes

| Saturday, March 31, 2012

A photo taken just after Ron and Leslie Zellers' wedding in the 1990s shows Zellers and three groomsmen.

All four worked as undercover detectives. But on that day, of course, they wore tuxedos and smiles.

On Friday, the groomsmen and other friends talked about life without their buddy, Zellers, 58, who died of natural causes Thursday.

New Kensington's police chief, Zellers was cutting the grass at his parents' house near Irwin when he was stricken. A passer-by administered CPR, but Zellers died in a hospital. A Westmoreland County deputy coroner said he died from natural causes.

At about 4 p.m Friday, numerous police cars with flashing lights and sirens escorted Zellers' body as it was brought back to New Kensington, where he had worked for 24 years. New Kensington officers started a vigil near his casket in anticipation of visitation and services.

On Friday afternoon, New Kensington Mayor Tom Guzzo said he has named Detective Sgt. Tom Klawinski, a longtime member of the force, as acting chief for the 22-officer police department.

The mayor said he met daily with Zellers. He'll miss that, he said, as well as the little things like driving together in city parades.

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said Zellers was professional, dedicated and will be fondly remembered.

Peck, county Chief Detective Mike Brajdich and most county detectives and New Kensington officers joined family members at the hospital on Thursday.

Zeller's groomsmen -- Westmoreland County Detectives John Clark and Terry Kuhns, and Lower Burrell Detective Lt. Rob Galvanek -- lamented Zellers' death.

They said he enjoyed teaching police across the state about undercover work, working with neighborhood watch volunteers and conducting anti-drug classes for kids.

But he relished making arrests for drug and homicide suspects, Clark said.

Many times Zellers was chewing on a small cigar when he made arrests. He sometimes left the cigar for other criminals to find -- as sort of a calling card, Clark said.

"He was a professional," Galvanek said. "Always. And a good guy. Tough when he needed to be. Always a friend."

Kuhns, who was a New Kensington policeman before becoming a county detective, remembers Zellers as "Stalwart. Steady. Dependable."

Kuhns started the investigation into the notorious Angel Hensley drug gang based out of Arnold. State troopers and federal agents eventually joined the local investigation, in which Zellers took part, that sent at least seven people to prison.

"We went through hundreds of doors for drug and homicide investigations with Zellers," Clark said. "When you needed someone to serve a search warrant, he always showed up."

On one occasion someone fired a shot through a back door. Clark wasn't hurt, but it underscored the danger the men faced together.

Zellers' first shift recalled

Clark was an Arnold policeman when Zellers joined the New Kensington force 24 years ago from the Irwin Police Department. He previously served in the Coast Guard. Clark and Zellers worked together since Day One.

"His first night, he jumped over a fence chasing a guy and he didn't know where he was," Clark said. "He called us and we told him where to walk out."

Retired New Kensington police chief Jim Chambers remembers that night, too.

"I welcomed him in as an officer and the next morning, there's Ron standing there asking for a voucher to replace his torn trousers," said Chambers, 69. "He had torn them going over a fence. I said OK and gave him the voucher.

"But here's the thing: The very next morning, there he was, asking for another voucher. His pants were ripped (again)," Chambers laughed. As with the previous night, Zellers had torn them chasing after a suspect.

"I told him that New Ken was a little bit different than Irwin," said Chambers, "and he said: 'No kidding!'

"He was that type of go-getter. He was a damned good officer. One of the best."

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