4 Armstrong County drug task force members on leave after money goes missing | TribLIVE.com
Valley News Dispatch

4 Armstrong County drug task force members on leave after money goes missing

Chuck Biedka

Four members of Armstrong County’s Narcotics Enforcement Team (ARMNET) are on administrative leave while the district attorney investigates $300 missing in a drug case.

The issue surfaced last week during First Assistant District Attorney Jared Trent’s preparation for the jury trial of a Kittanning man on drug charges.

Trent found that the $300 ARMNET officials said they used to buy drugs from the suspect in a buy-bust operation is “unaccounted for,” District Attorney Katie Charlton said.

Charlton said defense attorney David Regoli was immediately notified of the “discrepancy,” and an independent investigation was started by an outside third party. She declined to say who is doing the probe.

Charlton on Wednesday confirmed that some members of ARMNET involved in the case are being investigated. She declined to identify who they are or even the number of those on leave.

“At this stage, there is nothing indicating wrongdoing or ill intent on anyone’s part. However, out of an abundance of caution and to protect the integrity of the investigation, all officers involved in the matter have either removed themselves from their work as ARMNET detectives or been placed on leave from ARMNET, ” Charlton said in a statement.

“It is of the utmost importance to me to get to the bottom of what happened to the funds involved with this case,” she added.

Charlton is encouraging all members of ARMNET, “both past and present, to cooperate fully in the investigation.”

After a two-day trial, a jury Wednesday acquitted Christopher Sean Westlake, 40, of Kittanning of felony drug sales of cocaine but convicted him of lesser charges of having drug paraphernalia and criminal use of a communications facility, court officials said.

Regoli, Westlake’s defense attorney, said he was informed that four of the ARMNET officers were on leave, including an ARMNET coordinator, a full-time county detective, and task force members who also are Kittanning police officers. One of the four resigned before the leave was ordered, he said.

Charlton declined to comment about those details.

Kittanning police Chief Bruce Matthews confirmed that two of the officers work for Kittanning police.

Regoli said he is happy with the verdict. However, he has filed a motion to set aside the verdict on the communications charge.

“That verdict is inconsistent because the jury dismissed the underlying charges associated with the (communication) charge,” Regoli said.

President Judge James Panchik has been asked to review Regoli’s motions.

Regoli, who has practiced law for 26 years, including two years as a Westmoreland County judge, said this is the first instance he’s seen of material evidence missing.

He praised prosecutors for their handling of the issue as it related to his client’s criminal case.

“They did everything very ethically,” Regoli said, noting that Trent informed him of the missing money a week before the trial and even informed the jury of the matter during his opening statement.

Trent didn’t reply to a reporter’s inquiries, and Charlton said she couldn’t say more at this time.

A legal expert said the missing money is “very traceable” and questioned whether someone would have stolen it from the evidence room.

“This sounds like a matter of inadvertence,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Saint Vincent College.

“Nevertheless, people need to take this very seriously,” he said.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at 724-226-4711, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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