Prosecutors always 'on alert'
SUNBURY - Judges, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials in Northumberland County have been threatened in the past, but the killings of two Kaufman County prosecutors in Texas in a span of eight weeks have heightened their awareness about safety in the workplace and at home.
Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland, 63, and his wife, Cynthia, 65, were found shot to death inside their home in Forney, Texas, Saturday. McLelland was the 13th prosecutor killed in the United States since the National Association of District Attorneys began keeping count in the 1960s.
On Jan. 31, one of McLelland's lead prosecutors, Mark E. Hasse, 57, was shot and killed as he walked to his office at the county courthouse.
The killings have prompted a broad investigation by local, state and federal agencies, including the Texas Rangers, the FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Rosini, who described the recent killings as "horrible," said, "I've had threats on my life over the years and it's important to be conscious of your surroundings. It's one of the risks of being in the profession. But the recent killings certainly bring it home more for people involved in the court system. It's a stark reality that things like this can happen, but you can't let it change your life around to the point where you are scared all the time. Most people are venting and aren't serious, but you must always be aware that someone is out there who may act upon their threats."
Rosini is in his 17th year as district attorney.
"The shootings have definitely had a chilling effect on people who work in the criminal justice system," commented Northumberland County President Judge Robert B. Sacavage. The judge said it's tragic when police officers on the front lines are killed, but it's even scarier when prosecutors and members of their families are gunned down.
"Personally, it's caused me to pause and reconsider safety factors," Sacavage said. "We've actually beefed up security in various areas at the courthouse over the years. Since the 9/11 disasters, there have been many more precautions taken. But no matter how much security is in place, you still worry. The recent killings in Texas have certainly heightened my awareness in the workplace and outside the courthouse."
Sacavage said it's vital today for more citizens to report any suspicious behavior to law enforcement officials. "What we need here is good, old-fashioned participation by the public to help detect threats of any kind," he said.
Over his long career in the court system, Sacavage said defendants have threatened to kill him. He said bomb threats also have been received at the courthouse.
But Sacavage, who is very active in the Mount Carmel community, said the recent shootings have made him more concerned about his safety after work than when he's sitting on the bench or in chambers at the courthouse.
Sacavage has been a county judge for 18 years. He was a district attorney for 12 years and also served as county solicitor for four years. He has been an attorney for 37 years.
Deputy Court Administrator Kevin O'Hearn, who is a member of the county's Safety and Security and Emergency Planning Committee, said the group meets once a month to review all concerns involving safety and security throughout the county. He said the committee establishes short- and long-term operation plans for emergencies and conducts various drills throughout the year, including fire drills, at all county buildings.
O'Hearn, who shares the same sentiments, said additional cameras have been installed inside and outside the courthouse in recent years for employees' safety. He said counties receive grants for security upgrades through the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC), which oversees the state's unified judicial system.
He said the county judges - Sacavage, William H. Wiest and Charles H. Saylor - are each assigned one deputy sheriff during their legal proceedings. "They (deputies) not only provide security to the judges and public, but they also maintain order in the court," O'Hearn said.
He said additional deputy sheriffs are provided during high-profile court cases such as murder trials.
Chief Deputy Sheriff Randy Coe said his department is always looking at ways to improve security at the courthouse.
"Since the killings in Texas, we have been briefing our employees on security measures they can take at home and developing better communication between different law enforcement agencies in the county," Coe said.
In addition to Coe and Sheriff Chad Reiner, there are five deputy sheriffs in the county.
Ronald Yeager, director of county security who co-chairs the Safety and Security and Emergency Planning Committee with county chief clerk Gary Steffen, said his department does "everything possible" to protect all county officials and employees during the work day.
Yeager said there are six-full time security guards in the county, including himself, and three part-time guards.
Yeager provides security at the county administration building. One full-time security officer and one part-time employee are assigned to the courthouse daily, where they "screen" the public with metal detectors upon entering.
The security director said approximately 4,000 people go through the screening devices each month. On average, he said approximately 100 items that can be used as weapons are taken from people each month.
He said a full-time security guard is assigned to each of the three buildings at the Human Services Complex that houses various county offices. In addition to the full-time guards, a part-time officer rotates among the three buildings.
Yeager said there is a full-time security guard employed at the Northumberland County Career and Arts Center in Shamokin during the day Monday through Friday. He said a part-time officer also is assigned to the center from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday while classes are conducted at Luzerne County Community College on the fourth floor of the building.
The security director said all the county buildings, except for the career and arts center, have one entrance and exit for the public. He said the center has a top and bottom entrance/exit. He said employees sometimes utilize side entrances at the various buildings.
Other than the prison, he said the only time he could recall a county facility being "locked down" for security reasons was when Richard C. Curran, of Shamokin, shot and killed his former wife, Tina Curran, 31, of Mount Carmel, Aug. 24, 2005, at a loading dock at Shamokin Area Community Hospital, where she worked as a nurse.
Yeager said the county Children and Youth Services Office was "locked down" as a precaution because Richard Curran was involved in cases with the agency.
Curran is serving a life sentence for the murder.
As for the murders in Texas, Yeager said, "Those types of killings have been very unusual over the years. Law enforcement officials usually aren't targeted. We know it's an inherent part of our job, but when people start targeting family members as well, that takes it to a whole other level. You are going to make enemies in the law enforcement profession, but your job has nothing to do with your family and it's very sad when they are victimized as well."
Yeager is in his 12th year as county security director. He retired from Shamokin Police Department after a long career that included a stint as chief.
Northumberland County Commissioner Chairman Vinny Clausi said it's very sad when law enforcement officials are killed for upholding the law and believes anyone guilty of such a heinous crime should get the "electric chair."