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FBI files show staff turmoil at Allegheny County Jail after 2010 beating

Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, 5:42 p.m.
 

Mistrust, shifting alliances, junior guards dishing on superiors and reprisals against suspected snitches followed the 2010 beating of an Allegheny County Jail inmate, an FBI dossier reveals.

The turmoil between late 2010 and early 2012 that FBI agents detailed includes claims that jail leaders schemed to shield ex-Maj. James Donis from prosecution for the beating but fired low-ranking officers for similar crimes. So far, the scandal has brought the conviction of Donis, the jail's fourth-highest ranking official, and the resignation of its No. 2 boss, former deputy warden Lance Bohn.

A federal judge last week sentenced Donis, 50, of Shaler to serve eight months in a halfway house and five years of probation for falsifying reports to hide his abuse of Gary Barbour, 31, a heroin addict, after Barbour's April 6, 2010, escape attempt.

Amie M. Downs, Allegheny County's communications director and spokeswoman for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said the administration couldn't comment because it has not received a copy of the FBI files.

“That being said, we take every allegation of abuse extremely seriously and investigate fully,” Downs said in a written statement. “Obviously, since this incident occurred we have a new administration in place — in the Executive's Office, the county manager and the warden — that reviews our policies and procedures on an ongoing basis, while also identifying and moving forward with appropriate training.”

Granted immunity from prosecution in 2011, Bohn, 42, of Swissvale, blew the whistle on co-workers for sanitizing incident reports and failing to initiate a criminal investigation after learning about the inmate abuse. He and other past and present jail officers accused co-workers, some highly placed in the prison, of engaging in a long cover-up to protect Donis, the institution's reputation and their jobs.

In his FBI interviews, Bohn said current Deputy Warden William Emerick, then the jail's No. 3 official, told him Donis was accused of “inappropriately using force against Barbour” long before the lockup began investigating on April 26, 2011 — more than four months after the FBI began its probe. That surfaced during the Jan. 7, 2011, termination hearing of Correctional Officer Tim Miller, 55. Facing Emerick and Donis as his judges, Miller angrily pointed out the hypocrisy of a suspected abuser of inmates deciding his fate.

When contacted, Emerick, 53, of Pitcairn referred questions to Warden Orlando Harper, who did not return calls.

Although Emerick was entrusted with disciplining guards who used unreasonable force against inmates, he apparently never investigated Miller's allegations against Donis, according to the FBI file. The file reveals that Tom Leicht, the jail's former Internal Affairs chief, thought Emerick considered it “acceptable to harm inmates.”

Several co-workers accused Emerick of initiating reprisals in early 2011 against Sgt. Andrew Coulter, 31, of McKeesport. Although the FBI conducted clandestine interviews away from the jail with witnesses to Barbour's abuse, Coulter believed senior officials suspected he squealed on Donis.

Emerick twice pushed disciplinary charges against Coulter, even after Allegheny County Police Inspector Christopher Kearns, the Internal Affairs chief who replaced Leicht in 2010, cleared him of wrongdoing, according to the FBI files. Coulter claimed that Emerick removed his “pass days” away from the jail and that Donis booted him from a coveted coaching slot at the jail and leaked to a junior guard confidential and embarrassing information about Coulter's disciplinary hearings.

Kearns, however, quietly supported him, at one point pulling Coulter aside to urge him to “tell the truth about what happened” to the FBI.

Kearns, 48, of McKeesport declined to comment.

Emerick told the FBI that others misunderstood his actions. He said he focused scrutiny on Coulter because the sergeant claimed before Bohn, Emerick, Donis and interim warden Daniel Burns that he lied to FBI agents to protect a major who “beat the (expletive) out of the inmate,” according to jail reports and the FBI file.

Coulter's accusation against Donis and an “addendum report” that Donis filed to radically revise his statements about Barbour's arrest forced the jail to investigate the allegations. That was more than a year after Barbour's beating and four months after FBI began looking into the case.

Initially, Capt. Ron Pofi, the senior jail employee in Internal Affairs, accompanied Kearns and the FBI to interview jointly junior co-workers. They started leaving Pofi behind when some employees said they didn't want to talk in front of him because they distrusted or feared him.

August Smarra, the jail's fire safety officer who found Barbour after he tried to escape but was not accused of harming the inmate, told investigators that Pofi once “came into the shift commander's office and told Smarra that Smarra was going to be arrested, and walked out of the (jail).”

“At the time,” the FBI report said, “Smarra did not know what Pofi was talking about, or why Pofi would have said something like this to Smarra. In retrospect, Smarra believed that Pofi knew about the Barbour investigation, and for unknown reasons wanted to upset Smarra. Smarra did not fully trust Pofi and suspected that Pofi leaked Internal Affairs information to various correctional officers.”

Smarra, 51, of Jefferson Hills and Pofi, 68, of Monroeville didn't return Trib messages.

County officials in late 2011 promoted Pofi to major and gave him Donis' old responsibilities — and his office.

Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or cprine@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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