Law v. order

LISBON – Columbiana County Prosecutor Robert Herron has accused the sheriff of being reluctant to use the new Homicide Task Force, which he said could possibly hamper homicide investigations while preventing HTF members from gaining valuable experience.

“I am at a complete loss as to why you have repeatedly frustrated and undermined the effort to develop and utilize the HTF,” Herron said in a Sept. 9 letter to county Sheriff Ray Stone, copies of which were sent to police chiefs whose departments are part of the HTF.

The county Homicide Task Force was formed in May 2012, with participating local law enforcement agencies volunteering to provide immediate investigatory assistance when requested by another department. The idea is to provide smaller departments with enough personnel to investigate homicides during the first critical hours.

Stone was the first to sign up, and the sheriff’s office offered to set up an activation system for when the HTF is requested, but Herron’s letter indicated Stone has had little involvement since.

“Aside from rarely attending HTF meetings and failing to provide visible support, from the outset, you were to provide identification to task force members for use at crimes scenes. Your failure to do so led many members to obtain identification badges from the Emergency Management Agency,” Herron wrote.

He also noted that Stone failed to set up the HTF activation system until after the East Palestine Police Department did so itself. The sheriff’s office finally developed an activation system in July.

Sheriff Stone, in a letter responding to Herron’s missive, said he attended the first monthly HTF meetings while they developed guidelines and an organizational structure. Once that was in place, he believed future meetings were for detectives to share information.

As for the notification system, Stone said his department had “some computer issues that slowed us down in this process, which has been corrected by our IT personnel and is functioning fine.”

In his letter, Herron cited several recent homicides where he said the HTF was either requested and not activated, or could have been used but was not. The first example was the June 4 beating death in Salem of Samantha Shasteen that resulted in murder charges being filed against her estranged boyfriend Mason Feisel. Herron said Stone refused to activate the HTF after being asked to do so and instead only sent sheriff’s detectives to assist at the crime scene.

“I have confirmed with Salem’s chief and detective that they requested, wanted and could have used additional HTF manpower for their investigation,” he wrote.

Stone said he spoke with Salem Detective David Talbert, who told him the three sheriff’s detectives being sent to the crime scene would be sufficient. Stone said his detective advised him that Talbert told him the same thing after the detective arrived at the crime scene and asked if Salem wanted more help.

Herron was critical of Stone for failing to activate the HTF to help the sheriff’s office investigate the July 2 shooting death of Michael Fisher, which resulted in the arrest of his neighbor, Frank Gorichky, on reckless homicide charges. Stone said no additional help was needed because they had five deputies and one detective on scene at the Knox Township mobile home park where the shooting occurred.

Herron also questioned the decision to have the county Drug Task Force instead of the HTF help the sheriff’s office investigate the July 19 shooting death of Timothy Wamsley in Center Township. No arrests have been made in this homicide.

“You clearly exceeded your authority by your unilateral decision to reassign Drug Task Force officers from other jurisdictions to investigate a homicide in yours,” he wrote.

Stone said again there was no need to seek help from other departments because three of his detectives were on scene, including one currently assigned to the Drug Task Force, as well as sheriff’s Lt. Brian McLaughlin, who serves as the DTF’s director. He said it was McLaughlin’s decision to enlist the help of other DTF agents since “this was an obvious drug-related shooting.”

Herron said that Stone’s reluctance to use the HTF has “deprived HTF members of the opportunities to gain experience in murder investigations … This can only benefit the investigation and strengthen interagency cooperation as well. It’s just common sense.”

He also said a number of the police chiefs on the HTF share his concerns, which is why he sent them copies of the letter.

Stone, in his response, denied that he is trying to undermine the HTF and said he decided against activating the HTF in the above mentioned investigations because “they were just not needed in these cases.”

Stone, when contacted for the story, pointed out he activated the HTF to assist his office in investigating the Melinda Todd beating death in Salem Township last December.

He said under HTF guidelines, the chief law enforcement officer of the jurisdiction where the homicide occurs decides whether to seek the HTF’s assistance, not something that automatically happens when a homicide occurs.

“It’s a judgment call. It’s the chief or the sheriff’s decision to activate the HTF, and that’s based on the detective’s recommendation at the scene,” Stone said.

The sheriff noted neither of the police chiefs whose departments investigated the recent murder-suicide in the Salem Walmart parking lot and the suspected suicide at Beaver Creek State Park chose to activate the HTF.

“So it’s just not me who’s not using it,” Stone said.

In his letter to Herron, Stone said Herron has mischaracterized his decisions, and that as sheriff he is committed “to doing the right thing.”

“In closing, as two elected individuals committed to results in solving crimes for the people of Columbiana County, I think it is imperative that we work together rather than to correspond in this manner, this could be misconstrued as having political overtones,” Stone wrote, and then offered to meet with Herron.

Stone is a Republican and Herron a Democrat, but Herron said this has nothing to do with politics, and for the sheriff to suggest otherwise was a “lame attempt” to deflect the focus away from him.

Herron said he has been dissatisfied with some of the investigations presented to his office by the sheriff’s staff in the past and told Stone of his concerns when he first ran for sheriff in 2008. Herron said he continued to voice his concerns to Stone, but nothing changed.

“It’s fallen completely on deaf ears,” Herron said, which is one of the reasons why he chose to write the letter.

During a candidates forum last October, Stone was asked about the number of unresolved homicides and questionable deaths in the county. Stone said in some cases their investigations were completed and had been turned over to the prosecutor’s office for action.

“As far as I’m concerned, my detectives are doing a fine job,” Stone said, noting he recently added a fourth detective to the sheriff’s office staff, and he meets with them every Monday to review cases.

The Morning Journal learned of the letter on its own and obtained copies and then contacted Herron and Stone. Herron said it was not his intention to go public with the dispute.

“I’m not trying to create a controversy. I’m trying to create a viable task force, and that’s what this is all about,” he said.