Westmoreland County could face legal action over suicide of suspended jail guard
Westmoreland County officials could face legal action from the jailed widow of a suspended corrections officer who committed suicide in November, according to documents the Tribune-Review received through a public-records request.
Pittsburgh attorney Jim Burn, who specializes in workers compensation claims, in March sent letters to the county commissioners and John Walton, warden of Westmoreland County Prison, regarding a potential case related to the death of Henry “Sonny” Caruso.
Caruso, 49, was found dead Nov. 6, two weeks after he was suspended from his job at the jail. Officials had learned he was being investigated by a state grand jury looking into allegations of human trafficking and prostitution at massage parlors in Monroeville and Murrysville — including several owned by his wife, “Sherry” Hui Xu, 44, of Hempfield.
The state Attorney General’s Office in March charged Caruso’s widow along with three others in connection with the yearlong investigation. Pending counts include conspiracy, corrupt organizations, trafficking in individuals, prostitution and dealing in proceeds of unlawful activities that allegedly occurred at four Tokyo Massage Parlors owned and operated by Xu.
She has denied the claims.
The grand jury said Caruso often picked up female workers at bus stops and took them to the parlors. Money from the businesses was used to buy cars in his name and pay his daughter’s college tuition, according to court documents.
Xu, who remains jailed in Washington County, blames Westmoreland County for her husband’s suicide. Caruso — in a suicide note — blamed Walton for his death.
Burn did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He has not yet filed a lawsuit against the county.
Vince Quatrini, a workers compensation attorney based in Greensburg, said successful claims can be brought against employers in cases of suicides.
“If a suicide was substantially caused by events at a workplace, the spouse and children are entitled to weekly compensation,” Quatrini said. “It’s rare, and I’ve not seen a lot of it, but rare doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
Caruso, according to a portion of his suicide note that friends read during a public meeting of the county’s prison board, specifically blamed county officials for his death and called on officials to hold the warden and others responsible.
Caruso, county officials said, was suspended with pay after it was learned he was a potential suspect in a grand jury probe.
Caruso’s widow, his father and others publicly claimed his involvement in the investigation had ended and had been cleared of any wrongdoing.
County Commissioner Gina Cerilli in November twice attempted to fire Walton for his handling of Caruso’s suspension. Cerilli said she privately shared information given to her by Caruso supporters, including misleading claims that he had been cleared.
Cerilli, in defending her effort to have Walton fired, originally contended information she received about his involvement in the criminal investigation came from Caruso family and friends.
Cerilli has denied ties, either political or personal, to the Caruso family.
Responding to questions from the Tribune-Review, Cerilli contends she has had little contact with Caruso’s and his family.
“I am not and never was in contact with (Correction Officer) Caruso’s family except his daughter. I met his family for the first time at the funeral and saw them at the prison board meeting. His daughter was a member of the Project 18 class (government class) at Hempfield. She was one of the many students to volunteer at my community service events for senior citizens,” Cerilli said in an email.
According to campaign finance reports, Caruso donated $1,900 to Cerilli’s political campaigns, including a $500 gift in August. Cerilli, under political pressure, this spring said she would donate those contributions to the county’s human trafficking task force.
Several photos that surfaced on social media showed Cerilli posing with Caruso and others, including her father and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, at various events.
Caruso’s widow posted a photograph on Instagram three days after the county received the legal correspondence regarding a possible lawsuit which showed her seated at a table with her father-in-law, Burn and Cerilli’s father, Greg Cerilli, and former jail guard Don Svetkovich.
“My father was in a public restaurant and saw CO Caruso’s father sitting at a table. (My father also only met the family for the first time at the funeral and hasn’t seen/talk to since),” Cerilli wrote in an email. “He went over to the table to inquire as to how he was doing. Afterwards, Mr. Burn and Caruso’s widow sat down. Mr. Caruso asked if he could have a photo with my father and of course my father obliged.”
Burn in 2017 served as Cerilli’s lawyer in a lawsuit she filed against the county’s Democratic committee in a failed attempt to win the party’s nomination to fill the vacant 18th District seat of former U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy.
Cerilli said she has no ongoing business with Burn but, if advised by the county’s solicitor, she will not participate in deliberations regarding potential legal action filed by Caruso’s widow.
Commissioner Ted Kopas said he wants Cerilli to explain any connections she might have with Caruso’s family before she participates in any legal response from the county.
“My primary concern is protecting the county,” Kopas said. “Any potential legal action from Caruso’s family is nonsense.”
County Commissioner Charles Anderson could not be reached for comment.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .