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Stolen gun unreported by Westmoreland sheriff for 7 months

| Friday, April 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

More than seven months after a gun was allegedly stolen from a Westmoreland County deputy sheriff, department officials filed written notice of its disappearance.

Sheriff Jonathan Held this week submitted an insurance claim for the department-issued, .40-caliber Smith & Wesson sidearm that was reported as stolen on Sept. 8.

“I tried to turn this in last year but I wasn't given any direction,” Held said Thursday.

The sheriff said he sent a letter to the county's human resource department on Sept. 16, but a request for documentation on Wednesday from that office failed to produce any correspondence from the sheriff.

Later that day, Held filed a claim form.

According to Held, former deputy sheriff Ashley Bossi lost the weapon while undergoing police training at Penn State University in State College. Bossi, 23, of Belle Vernon had been hired in April.

Held said she reported the gun was taken from her car. She was immediately suspended without pay and left the county's employ two weeks later, he said.

“She (Bossi) is the subject of an ongoing investigation that is being conducted by the PA State Police,” Held wrote in the insurance claim form.

Held indicated on the form that Bossi was fired. On Thursday, Bossi said she quit. County human resources staff declined to disclose the circumstances of her separation.

“I think we took the appropriate action,” Held said. “We have to be accountable at all times. There was no explanation for it. We filed it as a possible theft, but we're more concerned about getting it back.”

Bossi, a former member of the military police with the U.S. Marine Corps, was referred for the sheriff's job by Matt Junker, an aide to county Commissioner Charles Anderson, Junker confirmed Thursday.

“She passed all the background checks,” Held said.

Bossi, who now works as a 911 dispatcher in Washington County, on Thursday said she has no idea what happened to the gun, which disappeared after she left it in her locked car. There was no sign of forced entry into the vehicle, she said.

“The sheriff's department never told us what to do with the gun. There was no way I was going to have it in my house,” Bossi said.

“When I realized the gun was not in my car, I called the state police. I took and passed a polygraph,” Bossi said.

Thefts of guns from law enforcement agencies are rare, according to Adam Reed, public information officer for the state police in Harrisburg.

“Every time one is reported as stolen, we take it very seriously. You don't want that weapon falling into the wrong hands,” Reed said.

He referred questions about the Westmoreland investigation to a spokesman at the Greensburg barracks, who did not return a telephone call.

Staffing issues have plagued Held's department in the 16 months since he took office.

Deputy Erika Ditch, 24, of Greensburg was arrested earlier this month on drug charges after she was allegedly found by Pittsburgh police in a store parking lot with heroin. She resigned her job a day after being released from jail.

After Ditch's arrest, it was disclosed that three other deputies hired by Held have faced legal problems.

Deputy Sheriff Alex J. Harshell, 25, of Greensburg, was charged with drunken driving in February and on April 11 entered the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Program, or ARD, for first-time offenders. He was ordered by Judge Debra A. Pezze to serve one year on probation. Entry into the program is not an admission of guilt.

Before he was hired by Held last year, Deputy Sheriff Michael Patrick Murphy, 24, of Penn Township, pleaded guilty in 2009 to a misdemeanor charge of furnishing alcohol to a minor and was sentenced to serve one year on probation.

A department clerk, Mario Anthony Lizza, 35, of Scottdale, was arrested last year on a charge of furnishing drug-free urine to be used in a drug test. Lizza entered the ARD program last August and served six months on probation.

Harshell and Murphy are still on staff.

Held said Lizza no longer works for the county but has declined to say whether he was fired.

Held on Thursday reiterated he would not alter his hiring practices.

“These are isolated instances. Every law enforcement agency has isolated instances. I don't know what else you can do; they pass the background checks,” Held said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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