DA Zappala holds firm on misdemeanor charges in Pittsburgh gas station fight
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Wednesday he isn’t bowing to political pressure to file more serious charges against the men caught on video beating two women at a gas station in Pittsburgh’s Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood.
“The evidence, based on what I saw, doesn’t support aggravated assault,” Zappala said Wednesday. “It would be easy for me to do politically. I have discretion, I can charge anything I want. It wasn’t the right thing to do.”
Two sisters were beaten Friday by the Marshall Avenue Exxon station’s two owners and a clerk. One of the owners, Sukhjinder Sadhra, 35, of Ross, and station employee Scott Hill, 50, of Perry South, were charged with two counts of simple assault. The other owner, Balkar Singh, 40, of Cheswick, was charged with one count simple assault.
The filing of misdemeanor charges against the men has been met with public outcry from African American activists and black political leaders, who have written to Zappala asking for more serious charges of aggravated assault.
The letters claim there were four men involved in the assault, but police spokeswoman Cara Cruz said the men who were charged were the only ones involved.
The images of the assault are “shocking, disturbing and an unacceptable display of disregard for basic humanity,” Pittsburgh Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle of the Hill District wrote in a letter that also was signed by six of his colleagues.
The letter asks Zappala to charge the three men with aggravated assault, saying they were disturbed by the “anemic legal response from your office” in charging them with a lesser charge of simple assault.
“This raises serious questions about equity in our justice system and the disregard of minority communities,” the letter said. “If the clear images of two African-American women being punched, slammed against a gas pump and dragged across the pavement by their hair are insufficient to warrant more serious charges, it forces one to wonder where the threshold lies and may set a dangerous precedent for future incidents.”
Council members Darlene Harris of Spring Hill and Anthony Coghill of Beechview declined to sign the letter. They congratulated Lavelle for suggesting it, but said some in the community are using the incident for political gain.
“I would be happy to support a letter to go over to Stephen Zappala asking him to go to the highest level that is legal, but not to tell him to go from simple assault to an aggravated assault,” said Harris, who represents Marshall-Shadeland.
Another letter, signed by members of the Pittsburgh Black Elected Officials Coalition that includes state Reps. Jake Wheatley, Ed Gainey, Summer Lee and Austin Davis, along with Pittsburgh councilmen the Rev. Ricky Burgess and Lavelle and Allegheny County Councilman DeWitt Walton, expresses similar sentiments and asks for a meeting with Zappala to clarify the charges.
Black Political Empowerment Project CEO Tim Stevens also has written letters to Mayor Bill Peduto, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich, police Chief Scott Schubert, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and County Council members asking them to put pressure on Zappala to up the charges.
Doing so wouldn’t be upheld by the courts, Zappala said.
He answered questions about the case after receiving the 2019 “Guardian of Victims’ Rights Award” by Marsy’s Law for Pennsylvania and the Center for Victims, based on the South Side.
The award honored him for serving as an advocate for crime victims and “working to ensure that they are treated with dignity and respect,” according to an email from Zappala spokesman Mike Manko describing the award.
The distinction between simple and aggravated assault requires a use of force that wasn’t present in this case, Zappala said.
“With aggravated assault, you need a weapon, a bodily injury, you need somebody who gets hurt,” he said. “Police interviewed the ladies that were involved and they said basically, ‘We’re fine.’”
“This is all about $17 worth of gasoline — $17 worth of gasoline, seriously,” Zappala said in describing the case.
The pump malfunctioned, a “small amount” of gasoline was spilled and the women asked for a $17 refund, police wrote in a criminal complaint.
The gas station employee Hill, who is white, called Singh and Sadhra because the women were upset he wouldn’t refund the money, according to the criminal complaint,
Singh’s ethnicity is noted as “Asian or Pacific” on the complaint and Sadhra’s race is listed as “unknown.”
Zappala characterized what happened inside the store as a “discussion,” but he said it was severe enough that a display was knocked over. It was caught on the store’s surveillance video, which police will not release because it is considered evidence in the case, Cruz said.
The women told police they were surrounded by the three men and one of the men pushed one of the women first, prompting her to push back and a fight to ensue, according to the complaint.
Hill pushed the head of one woman into a gas pump and dragged the other woman by her hair, the women told police. Video captured by a bystander went viral.