Prosecutor will use grand jury to investigate Western Psych shooting
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. will use an investigating grand jury to review the fatal shooting rampage at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and a ventilation pipe collapse at Shaler Area Elementary School.
Zappala has used the secret grand jury to investigate criminal cases such as the successful prosecution this year of former state Sen. Jane Orie and the pending case against her sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, on charges of using state workers for politics.
The prosecutor on Friday called the Shaler investigation a criminal matter but said he's not sure about the hospital shooting.
“On the Western Psych shooting, there are several issues, one of which is the investigation into whether or not a crime has been committed,” he said.
The jury of up to 23 people, which is being empaneled now, will look at “who knew what when, and what they did about it,” Zappala said after talking with hospital officials Downtown about how they can improve security by using technology.
Former grad student John Shick, 30, of Oakland took a bat into a UPMC facility a few weeks before he walked into Western Psych on March 8 and opened fire, killing therapist Michael Schaab, 25, of Regent Square and hurting five others. University of Pittsburgh police ended the rampage by killing Shick. Investigators say Shick, a schizophrenic off his medications, was angry with what he considered misdiagnoses by doctors, some at UPMC, which operates Western Psych.
Zappala has questioned whether doctors and others did enough in their interactions with Shick before the shooting.
“It may not require an adversarial use of the grand jury, but I want to know about this stuff,” Zappala said. “I want to know people will be safe when they come in these buildings.”
Grand juries can subpoena witnesses and documents and are useful in complicated or unusual cases, said John Burkoff, a Pitt law professor.
“It is a good tool when you don't know exactly what you're looking at to get more information,” Burkoff said. “It's something where they think this is complicated, there's a lot we need to consider and look at, so we want to take our time and question a lot of people, and then see what it is we need to do, if anything.”
Zappala's office would not say whether he was using the grand jury because UPMC or others were not cooperating.
UPMC said in a statement that it has been cooperating and will continue to do so.
Grand juries can be used for more than determining whether to file charges, said Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz.
“He's not necessarily looking for indictment,” Ledewitz said. “It could be how this kind of thing can be prevented in the future.”
The grand jury will subpoena Shick's medical records from New York, where he was committed for psychiatric evaluation three times, in addition to looking at security procedures, Zappala said. He expects it to begin in early July.
People called to testify will do so under oath and without an attorney, which gives the proceedings power, a benefit not found in police investigations, said Pitt law professor David Harris.
“It's an extra step they can take when they can't get the information any other way or they prefer to get the information under oath,” Harris said.
The grand jury also will investigate why a suspended metal air duct collapsed April 3 on students and staffers in the cafeteria of Shaler Area Elementary, injuring a dozen people, Zappala said. He said 35 different contractors had worked on the school renovation.
“They used substandard equipment,” Zappala said. “We have enough right now to know it's a criminal matter.”
Shaler Area School District Superintendent Wesley Shipley did not return a call seeking comment. D&G Mechanical Inc. of West Middlesex, one of the subcontractors that worked on the project, also did not return a message.
At the meeting yesterday in Highmark Inc. headquarters, Zappala urged representatives from organizations including PNC Financial Services Group Inc. and Westinghouse Electric Corp. to use new technology to improve security. A laser scanner could create a 3D model of a building that police could use for training and for use in an incident such as the one at Western Psych, Zappala said. Cameras in buildings could transmit images to computers in officers' cars so they could see incidents unfold while en route, he said.
“Western Psych got my attention,” Zappala said. “We're trying to take it to the next level with technology.”
About 50 people attended the meeting, including representatives from UPMC, The Bank of New York Mellon Corp. and Carnegie Mellon University, Highmark spokesman Aaron Billger said.
Administrators at the 11 psychiatric facilities in the county are working with police to develop protocols and security plans in case of incidents. Zappala and UPMC each set up a team to look at security issues at Western Psych.
Zappala said he would like to see the receptionist area enclosed by bulletproof glass, a way to restrict access throughout the building and cameras placed at intersecting hallways. John Hudson, a former Secret Service agent who does consulting work, is part of Zappala's team. He said members plan to meet with UPMC on Monday.
“We'll lay out a road map of where we're going and how to enhance overall security,” Hudson said.
Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or firstname.lastname@example.org.