Commissioners fear lawsuit over DA's handling of sexual assault case
SUNBURY - Northumberland County Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy believe a conflict of interest exists that could result in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit if the district attorney's office continues to prosecute a Sunbury man accused of raping his former girlfriend.
The issue recently arose after it was revealed the victim currently dates the arresting officer in the case, that she is a cousin to Point Township Police Chief Joshua Van Kirk and that District Attorney Tony Rosini did nothing about those conflicts.
While admitting Point Township Officer Wade Lytle made a mistake by becoming romantically involved with the alleged victim after he filed multiple rape-related charges against Benjamin Scott Scheller, 34, of 129 Reagan St., Rosini said Monday the victim is still willing to prosecute the case and there are others, beside Lytle, who could be called to testify at trial to support the charges.
Scheller, who is represented by Attorney Michael Rudinski of Williamsport, has been incarcerated at Northumberland County Prison since the charges were filed March 13 in connection with Nov. 27 incidents at the victim's Point Township home.
Rudinski told The Daily Item he knew about the relationship between Lytle and the victim before it became public and planned on revealing it at trial. He is seeking to have all the charges dismissed against his client because of the conflict, the newspaper reported. Efforts to reach Rudinski for further comment Monday were unsuccessful.
Lytle, who has been a full-time officer with the department since the end of 2009, was placed on administrative leave with pay by Point Township supervisors Oct. 30 after informing Van Kirk on Oct. 18 that he had a romantic relationship with the victim, who is a cousin of the police chief.
At a Nov. 5 meeting, the supervisors voted 4-1 to terminate his employment in the township. Chairman Randy Yoxheimer and Supervisor Jim Neitz made and seconded the motion, and it passed with Supervisor Justin Dunkleberger voting against it.
Lytle formerly served as a Sunbury police officer and deputy sheriff for Northumberland County.
In a faxed media release from the township supervisors, they said they would not comment publicly regarding the specifics of any personnel matter in order to protect the rights of employees and others associated with a particular matter, and to protect the township from liability for a breach of those rights.
According to the release, the supervisors state, "As always, Point Township's chief of police and its board of supervisors has and will continue to deal with personnel issues in a matter that best protects the township and its citizens, as well as the integrity and reputation of its police department as a whole."
The supervisors maintain they have responded to the issue appropriately an in complete conformance with all applicable ethical and professional standards.
Lytle has a right under Pennsylvania's Police Tenure Act to demand a public hearing before this board regarding the action taken and a right to appeal the board's decision in the Northumberland County Court of Common Pleas, according to the release.
'Major failures' claimed
During a 15-minute impromptu press conference Monday morning at the county administration center, Clausi and Bridy called for the state Attorney General's Office, U.S. Attorney's Office or the Federal Bureau of Investigation to take over the investigation and possibly investigate the alleged wrongdoing. They cited what they described as "conflicts of interest" and "major failures" by those charged with protecting the safety and welfare of county citizens.
Clausi said Commissioner Richard Shoch wasn't invited to the press conference because of his position as Point Township solicitor, which he claims presents another conflict of interest in the case. Shoch did not return a call seeking comment.
Rosini and Van Kirk maintain that no conflict of interest exists and that the investigation is being handled properly. The district attorney, who has been at odds with Clausi over personnel cuts in his office and other issues during the past few years, took offense with the commissioners "interfering" with the investigation and making public statements that could compromise the prosecution of the defendant.
"We don't throw away the case because the arresting officer did something wrong after the charges were filed," he said. "His mistake in becoming romantically involved with the victim after filing the charges doesn't affect the integrity of the investigation."
Rosini added, "The commissioners shouldn't be interfering with the criminal justice system. They are making statements without knowing the facts. It's up to the court to review this case, not politicians."
He said there is a legal standard that must be met to turn over cases to the Attorney General's Office. "There is no conflict with anybody in my office prosecuting this case and Chief Van Kirk has told me the victim is not a close relative," Rosini said.
"I have a large family," Van Kirk said Monday. "The victim is a cousin, but we don't have a close relationship. I hardly ever see her."
He said Rosini told him no conflict exists according to the Pennsylvania Ethics Act, and the chief said the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association confirmed his actions were appropriate.
"I want to assure the public that this case is being handled properly and efficiently as possible," he said. "The public needs to be patient because there have been some inaccurate statements printed about the case. I am doing my best to protect the integrity of our department."
In reading a prepared three-page statement at the press conference, Bridy said, "Their failures have resulted in the potential for serious consequences for many people, including all of the citizens of Northumberland County, due to the potential of legal proceedings drawing the county once again into potentially costly litigation."
At the beginning of the press conference, Clausi said the county could be facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
"We aren't here to mix mud, but we need to protect the taxpayers," Clausi said.
Clausi and Bridy said they plan to direct county solicitor Frank Garrigan or assistant solicitor John Muncer to send letters to the Attorney General's Office and U.S. Attorney General's Office to get an opinion on whether it's proper for the district attorney's office to continue to prosecute the case.
In continuing to read the statement, Bridy said, "We believe it is necessary for an independent investigation of the charges and of those involved in the decision making process."
Questions that need answered are who knew what and when did they learn of it, and when they learned, what did they do or fail to do? Bridy said.
He and Clausi contend Rosini should have referred the case to the state police after being informed of Lytle's relationship with the victim and Van Kirk's family connection.
"The district attorney's failure to act on this conflict is a major reason for the mess we now find ourselves in," their statement reads.
Clausi and Bridy both said they feel compassion for the alleged victim, but also respect the defendant's rights for a proper investigation.
"Our concerns as commissioners are over the need to protect the public safety of the citizens of Northumberland County and assure that all of our citizens receive equal justice," Bridy said.
Rosini said, "I think Mr. Bridy misunderstands our obligations in the prosecution of a criminal case. We are not permitted to hold a press conference to discuss evidence. We are required to disclose information which may affect the credibility of a witness to the defense before the trial. The information which has not been reported, and the evidence we are aware of, indicates the relationship between the victim and investigating officer began about five months after the investigation was completed and charges were filed."
He concluded, "This case involves allegations of violent acts, including the brandishing and firing of a weapon inside a home, physical assault and restraint and a rape. We believe the evidence which supports the criminal charges was developed long before any relationship between the officer and victim began."
Details on assault
Scheller is charged with rape, sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault, terroristic threats, unlawful restraint, two counts of simple assault and false imprisonment.
He is accused of brandishing a silver, semi-automatic handgun, zip-tying the victim to a chair and sexually assaulting her.