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Toprani looks back on lone term as DA

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Monday, Dec. 5, 2011
 

Shortly after he was elected district attorney in late 2007, Steve Toprani was waiting in line at the Giant Eagle in Fisher Heights when a women gave him a disheartening message.

"You can now leave. We're sure you'll move to Peters Township or North Strabane," the woman told Toprani, a life-long resident of the Mid-Mon Valley.

Toprani, who was raised in Carroll Township and now resides in Monongahela, said the woman's comments stuck with him - just as he has stuck with the Valley.

So as Toprani began his new career as Washington County's new district attorney - the youngest county prosecutor in the state at the time - he remained true to his roots.

"It was the right decision," said Toprani.

"I want my children to grow up with the same understanding of their roots. It's a great area. We can turn it around."

With his feet planted firmly in the Valley where he was raised, Toprani made it his "mission to weed this Valley of the criminal element."

That meant fighting illegal drug trafficking wherever it was found.

"I've arrested people on my own street," Toprani said. "That didn't make me popular, but we fight them where we find them."

Toprani leaves the district attorney's office at year's end, having chosen not to seek re-election.

It was the state of the district attorney's office that motivated Toprani to seek office.

In December 2006, there were numerous reports about an ongoing federal probe of the district attorney's office, Toprani recalled.

Toprani was practicing law in South Fayette Township at the time. Friends approached him about running for the office.

"I was civic minded, but that was not on my radar," Toprani admitted. "But, as time passed, I gave it a lot of consideration."

Toprani spoke with Steven Fischer, who at the time had just lost a bid for county commissioner. Toprani said he then saw the need to get involved. Fisher would serve as chief of staff during Toprani's administration.

"On election night, it was incredible to see the voters come out," Toprani said. "It was just an amazing ride. Looking back, it's a blur. It seems like 100 years ago, but it was just four years ago."

Toprani received 65.5 percent of the vote - an amazing total in any race, but especially for the Republican newcomer in a heavily Democratic county.

"The public wanted change in the office," Toprani said. "That gave me my charge. I did not want to let the voters down.".

Then District Attorney John Pettit left office the target of a federal investigation concerning alleged wrongdoing in his office.

As part of a grand jury investigation, federal agents and state police shortly after the election seized a computer, six boxes of documents and a 4-foot-tall safe from Pettit's offices

And Topani wasted no time getting started in his new job.

The day after the election, Toprani met with Craig MacKay, Dennis Popovich and Fisher - all of whom would serve as assistant district attorneys - along with Chief County Detective Mike Aaron, Ron Levi, who organized and led the office's drug task force, and Donora resident Dave Lonich.

Lonich was a retired Ringgold teacher and a lifelong friend. Toprani said "it was important to have someone there outside of law enforcement helping plot our direction."

Within the week, Toprani moved into temporary office space arranged by the county commissioners and began evaluating the office. He recognized there was talent in the office and worked with that select group of people to make a smooth transition.

"That paid off because we were prepared," Toprani said. "We were tested right away with the Amanda Faux homicide in Charleroi."

The day before Toprani took office, the nude body of the 22-year-old Faux was found in a Dumpster in an alley near the 213 Fifth St. Apt. 3G apartment she shared with Joseph John Natale, 28. Natale was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in jail in August 2008.

He took over an office with limited technology Toprani said, noting: "My home office was better equipped technologically than the district attorney's office."

Toprani likened taking over the office to "repairing a ship while it was afloat."

He said the last budget increase for the district attorney's office prior to him taking over was in 1999.

"We were running the office with 10-year-old dollars," Toprani said. "The commissioners helped with our budget. We were also able to do more with less."

One way he did that was to actively seek government grants.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy ( R-Upper St. Clair) helped secure a $220,000 grant, which Toprani's office used to overhaul the drug task force, obtaining electronic surveillance equipment that not only protected police officers but enhanced convictions.

A $100,000 grant funded an automatic license plate recognition system. The system provides for cameras mounted in the police cruisers that aid with such things as identifying stolen vehicles and posting Amber alerts.

South Strabane and North Strabane townships, Peters Township, Cecil Township, Canonsburg, and the county sheriff's department have the system, which can run several thousand license plates in a shift.

Another grant funded a unit to fight illegal gambling in the county and propped up the office's nuisance bar program.

Signature's in California and Dominico's in Charleroi were among those establishments targeted by the program.

"There's always a cost to government, but you have to live within those limits," Toprani said.

Among the accomplishments of his tenure, Toprani said he is most proud of his ability to repair the image of the office and forge relationships with law enforcement that were strained - on the local, state and federal levels.

He is also proud that he was able to address community safety.

Toprani used the first investigative grand jury in Washington County history "to provide protection to the people who need it the most."

With the use of the grand jury, Toprani filed charges in several outstanding cases, including two Valley cold cases murders:

-- The 2001 disappearance of Jerry Lee Cushey, of Monongahela.

Christopher James Myers, 43, of Connellsville, pleaded guilty in September to third-degree homicide and criminal conspiracy in the case and is expected to testify against co-defendant Ronald Michael Curran, 31, whose trial on charges of homicide and conspiracy is scheduled for March.

-- The 2003 murder of John Lynn Newman, 45. Newman was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in his car outside his California home in February 2003 after Newman agreed to be a police informant.

John I. Bronson Jr., 54, an inmate in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg; Michael Duncan, 34, of Amherst, Ohio, and Howard E. Irwin Jr., 40, of Charleroi, are expected to face trial early next month.

Despite his accomplishments, Toprani understands the limitations of time.

"I feel I lived up to my goal, but there is still some economy of the office. It's hard to address everything. There were a lot of late nights I would spend in the office with my staff."

Toprani was also buoyed in his efforts by his critics, who attacked his youth. He turned 29 just days before he was sworn in.

"I felt I had to do more to prove myself, fairly or not," Toprani said. "Serving as the youngest district attorney at the time gave me the motivation to roll up my sleeves and get to work."

Toprani is leaving the office on his own terms after serving just four years.

When he announced in early March that he would not seek re-election to a second term, Toprani said he felt he could run the office "without the taint of politics."

"I feel a public office belongs to the public," Toprani said. "I felt like it was the right timing for me. I felt I am being called in a different direction."

Toprani said looking back he is comfortable with his decision to focus on the Mid-Mon Valley

"Going to Charleroi that first night before I took office for a homicide and going to my parent's neighborhood reinforced the need in the Mon Valley," Toprani said.

In March 2009, just two months after he took office, Toprani was called to the Highland Road neighborhood in Carroll Township where he grew up. His next-door neighbors, retired police chief Howard Springer and his wife, retired teacher Nancy Springer, were found murdered inside their home.

Ultimately, Toprani's office would get a second-degree homicide conviction against Gerald Szakal.

"The Valley was overlooked by my predecessor. We refocused our efforts here with the cooperation of local police."

Toprani said so many local police departments lent their support to efforts to battle drugs. For awhile, Toprani used to keep a running count of the number of drug arrests his office made. He eventually lost count.

"We really tried to upset the flow of drugs into our communities," Toprani said.

But for Toprani, was the decision to focus on the valley personal?

"Yes, it is home, but yes it was needed," Toprani said. "When you live here and drive through here, the need is underscored."

About five years ago -- in the midst of a frustrating, fruitless search for her brother's killer -- Sonya Helmantoler asked Jerry Cushey to send her three dimes as a sign to keep the search.

When authorities filed charges in the case, Helmentoler gave Toprani one of those dimes.

Toprani still carries that dime in his wallet.

"You carry all of it with you; that's just a token," Toprani said.

"You carry the expectations and hopes and fears of the victims. I was just happy to be in a position to do something."

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