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Murrysville felon hands in gun, gets charged

Paul Peirce
| Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011

Terry P. Fairbanks believed he was doing the right thing when he turned over to South Greensburg police a .22-caliber handgun he found along a road.

But Fairbanks, 49, who resides in Murrysville, now faces a potential three-year prison term because police opted to charge him with receiving stolen property and unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon after he turned in the weapon in May.

On Tuesday, Fairbanks rejected a proposed plea bargain of 11 1/2 to 23 months in jail to close the case, insisting he did nothing wrong. He waived his right to a preliminary hearing before Hempfield District Judge James Falcon, opting to take the matter to Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court for trial.

"I'll tell you, this stinks. You try to do the right thing, and police turn around, do something like this just to try to build their reputations. ... It's not right," Fairbanks said.

Fairbanks, who formerly lived in an apartment in South Greensburg, said he discovered the old handgun as he walked along Oak Hollow Park Road, near Irwin, collecting aluminum cans.

Fairbanks, who works for a Hempfield T-shirt company, said he supplements his income by regularly collecting aluminum cans on roadsides and exchanging them for cash.

"I've found all kinds of things along the roads ... tools, an entire toolbox, one time a purse and wallet two years ago, which I called to return to its owner. It turns out she was a mugging victim and Wilkins Township police (Allegheny County) had me scheduled to come in to Pittsburgh to testify where I found that," Fairbanks said.

"This was the first time I ever found a gun," he said.

But Fairbanks said he believes he was treated unfairly on May 9 when he turned over the handgun to South Greensburg police Officer Henry Fontana.

"I'm not going to lie to you ... I am a convicted felon. Served two years of a three-year sentence in 2006 for burglaries in the Murrysville area, but I've been trying to keep clean since 2008 when I got out," he said.

According to the affidavit of probable cause filed before Falcon in support of the charges, Fairbanks told police he discovered the handgun in late April and thought about selling it before deciding against it. He telephoned police about 8 p.m. May 9.

"I thought about selling it, but I didn't want to go back to prison for selling the gun," Fairbanks said.

Fairbanks told the same thing to Fontana and added that he had a "few guys lined up" to make the purchase before he abandoned that plan. The affidavit noted "he was afraid to go back to jail if he followed through with selling the gun," Fontana wrote.

Fairbanks said he eventually returned to the spot where he hid the gun, put it inside two plastic bags and placed it in a cooler in his truck. He told Fontana he drove home and telephoned police. Fontana said his fingerprints might be on the gun because he couldn't remember whether he was wearing gloves when he picked it up.

Fontana wrote in the report that the gun was not loaded.

Fairbanks said a day after he turned over the gun, Fontana returned to tell him he learned the handgun had been reported stolen in a burglary in Lawrence County.

"(Fontana) said he was going to charge me because I had a record for burglary. I couldn't believe it," Fairbanks said.

Fairbanks has no criminal history in Lawrence County, according to court documents. He was sentenced to prison for a series of burglaries in the Murrysville area in the mid-2000s.

"Fairbanks has an extensive history of burglaries. Upon leaving the (Fairbanks) residence, later information showed that Fairbanks was a convicted felon and should not have had in his possession a firearm," Fontana wrote in his report.

The criminal complaint filed against Fairbanks alleges that he had "no intent to restore (the handgun) to the owner, knowing such property was stolen or believing that it had been stolen."

Fairbanks, who had not hired an attorney as of yesterday, said he plans to plead his case to a jury.

"I did not do anything wrong. They offered me 11 1/2 to 23 months for doing the right thing, and that is just not right," Fairbanks said.

Fontana declined comment on the matter as he departed Falcon's office. Assistant District Attorney Karen G. Patterson also declined comment after meeting with Fairbanks, saying the case is being litigated.

Fairbanks remains free on recognizance bond. His next appearance is scheduled for Oct. 3 in county court.

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