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Beaver County sheriff faces six more charges

| Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, 1:31 p.m.

A visiting judge upheld six witness-intimidation charges against embattled Beaver County Sheriff George David in a court hearing that raised concern from a legal expert because part of it was held in secret.

When two witnesses answered questions in open court on Monday in Beaver, Mercer County Senior Judge Francis J. Fornelli asked attorneys to make closing arguments on the validity of seven counts against David in closed chambers.

The Tribune-Review and another newspaper formally objected. The judge and attorneys spent about 40 minutes behind closed doors.

“That is not appropriate,” Melissa Melewsky, a media law attorney for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said of the private session.

Fornelli said he closed arguments in the pretrial proceeding to avoid further tainting Beaver County's jury pool and prevent the high-profile case from being moved to another county. Fornelli said no one has filed for a change in venue or to bring in an outside jury.

“This is a case that ought to be of great interest to people in Beaver County because it involves the elected sheriff. I believe the people of Beaver County ought to have a right to rule on it,” Fornelli said.

State police accuse David of keeping deputies Mike Tibolet and Tom Ochs “from truthfully reporting David's wrongdoing” in dealings with John Paul Vranesevich of the Beaver Countian news website. Police say David threatened Vranesevich with a revolver during an April 16, 2012, interview. The sheriff is accused of threatening to cut off and eat the hands of a campaign volunteer.

“I'm trying to limit all the arguments being laid out before members of the potential jury,” Fornelli said.

Fornelli issued an order to seal a transcript of the proceedings in chambers until after a jury is selected.

“Voir dires (questions used during jury selection to determine bias) and changes in venue are the appropriate methods to deal with potential issues with pretrial publicity. Courts shouldn't be blocking out the public in order to preserve a fair trial. That doesn't make sense,” Melewsky said.

Melewsky found it unusual that Fornelli closed the arguments while allowing witnesses' testimony to be open to the public.

State Trooper Daniel Mosura and Ochs testified at Monday's hearing, where defense attorney Lee Rothman of Pittsburgh tried to get six counts of witness intimidation and an obstruction charge thrown out.

Ochs, who was present at David's April 16, 2012, interview with Vranesevich, said he talked with David on the phone within 10 minutes of receiving a call from troopers who began investigating the incident that night.

“His response was, ‘You know nothing happened,' ” Ochs said, adding David repeated that numerous times in following months. “I believed that was our game plan.”

Ochs failed to tell investigators about the initial conversation for about a year and a half. He said on Monday that he had forgotten about it.

Fornelli threw out an obstruction charge but upheld three counts each of intimidation of the two sheriffs' deputies. David also faces charges of harassment, making terroristic threats, reckless endangerment and simple assault.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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