Maintain the focus, professionally

There is an apparent rift between county Prosecutor Robert Herron and Sheriff Ray Stone, and that cannot be good for Columbiana County.

With the county already facing a backlog of unsolved homicides and suspicious deaths, the recent exchange of letters reveals a problem between the county’s two leading law enforcement officials, whose ability to work closely together is essential to solving these crimes.

On Sept. 9, Herron wrote a letter to the sheriff accusing him of repeatedly frustrating and undermining efforts to develop and utilize the HTF. He also accused Stone of failing to activate the HTF in response to a Salem homicide when he was asked to do so, and chided him for declining to use the HTF to help investigate two homicides in the sheriff’s jurisdiction.

Stone responded, also in writing, saying Salem never asked for any additional help beyond the three detectives he sent them, and that he did not believe the HTF’s assistance was needed to investigate the two homicides in his jurisdiction. Arrests have already been made in two of the three homicides cited by Herron.

Stone also said he hoped politics was not behind Herron’s letter, which Herron denied. Herron said he decided to write the letter, in part, because of his dissatisfaction with the investigations being turned over to his department for prosecution by the sheriff’s office. He also sent copies of the letter to each police chief on the HTF.

Not exactly the kind of working relationship you want between your county prosecutor and sheriff.

The county HTF was formed in 2012, with participating local law enforcement agencies volunteering to provide investigatory assistance when requested by another department. The idea was to provide departments, especially smaller ones lacking adequate staffing, with enough personnel to investigate homicides during the first critical hours after they occur.

Herron appears to be of the opinion the HTF should be activated automatically, regardless of whether the police chief or sheriff feels it is necessary, so the investigators from the other departments can gain experience. That runs contrary to HTF bylaws, which states the commanding officer on scene in the jurisdiction where the murder or suspicious death occurs decides whether additional help from another department is needed, just like a fire chief at a fire.

It is not Herron’s job to decide when the sheriff’s office needs the HTF. That is the sheriff’s call, and Stone – like all elected officials, including Herron – answers to the voters every four years for the decisions he makes.

Herron’s letter to Stone was written about three weeks after a Morning Journal editorial of Aug. 18 about the state attorney general’s office bringing charges in a vehicular homicide case because our prosecutor’s office was reluctant to pursue it, citing evidentiary issues. Without any additional evidence, the attorney general’s office obtained a guilty plea and justice was served.

We went on to question the prosecutor’s office for the lack of action regarding the 15 unsolved murders/questionable deaths in our county and suggested the state take a look at some of those cases, too. The editorial also mentioned that during last year’s election season, when asked about these unsolved cases, Sheriff Stone stated in many instances the investigations had been turned over to the prosecutor’s office for action.

Regardless of whatever differences exist, Herron and Stone need to sit down like two professionals, instead of communicating by letter, and work them out and do the job they were elected to do. We do not want this disagreement to result in the two of them losing their focus on what’s most important – resolving the number of unresolved murder cases in our county.

One of those cases would be the 2011 murder of businessman/farmer Gerald Klusch. No charges have been filed in the case, but this week the Klusch family took action by filing a wrongful-death civil suit against the man they believe committed the crime.