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Bucks County Man Facing Death Row Retrial as Shapiro Blocks Executions

Many convicted killers sitting on Death Row are understandably worried about their ultimate fate. Condemned prisoners in Pennsylvania, however, likely rest easier knowing that Gov. Josh Shapiro has no intention of signing any death warrants while in office.

That includes any potential death sentence handed down to Alfonso Sanchez, a Bucks County man facing a double-murder trial for the second time since 2008.

Sanchez was first sentenced to death by lethal injection in 2008 for the double killing of Lisa Marie Diaz and Mendez Thomas, Jr. His trial found he had killed the two as part of a drug-fueled dispute over money.

Then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, signed Sanchez’s execution warrant in 2015. But Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub granted Sanchez a retrial in 2017, finding prosecutors had not provided important DNA evidence at his earlier trial. Specifically, that one of the victims had the skin of Sanchez’s accomplice under her fingernails.

The retrial was set to occur in 2020 but was delayed until this week due to the COVID pandemic.

Shapiro’s office told DVJournal the governor’s position on executions has not changed. The governor said in February he would “not issue any execution warrants during his term” and urged the General Assembly to officially abolish capital punishment in the state.

The Bucks County District Attorney’s office confirmed to DVJournal that it would seek a renewed death sentence for Sanchez. DA spokesman Manuel Gamiz said the governor’s opposition to the death penalty would not change the district attorney’s intent.

“It’s speeding along,” Gamiz said of the trial. “We’re hoping to have a resolution soon.”

In addition to the 2008 conviction, court records also indicate that Sanchez reportedly attempted to arrange the killing of key trial witness Jessica Carmona from prison.

“He tried to finish the job,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Matthew Lannetti said at the retrial on Monday. “He tried to have people kill [a witness] so she couldn’t sit in that witness box and tell you what happened that night in that apartment.”

Joseph McGettigan, a former prosecutor in Delaware County and Philadelphia as well as a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, told DVJournal that “individuals who willfully, intentionally and without justification take another human life under some circumstances, should forfeit their own.”

McGettigan said that as a prosecutor, he led “probably half a dozen cases” where a jury imposed the death penalty, “but because of the various appeals process, none of the persons who I tried and saw sentenced to death have been executed.”

“Although one has died,” he added.

McGettigan argued Shapiro “has never been a prosecutor, although he was attorney general. He’s never been a trial lawyer. He’s never, to my knowledge, had contact with the victims of a horrendous murder.”

“It’s easy for him to espouse these progressive views that the death penalty isn’t warranted,” he said. “But I think the world would be a safer place if some people were executed for the heinous crimes they commit.”

The last prisoner put to death in Pennsylvania was Gary Heidnik, who was given a lethal injection at State Correctional Institution at Rockview. Heidnik shocked the state and the country when investigators discovered he had held captive, raped, and murdered half a dozen women using a pit dug in the basement of his North Philadelphia house.

Heidnik’s crimes partially inspired the Buffalo Bill character in the Thomas Harris novel “The Silence of the Lambs” and its subsequent film adaptation.

Though Pennsylvania is unlikely to resume executions for at least the next four years, one Pennsylvania man, Kaboni Savage, still faces the death penalty for crimes committed in the state.

Savage ordered the firebombing of a rival’s Philadelphia family home in 2004 while in federal custody in the city. The attack killed six people, including four children ranging from 15 months old to 15 years old.

Convicted in 2013, Savage was handed 13 death sentences. He remains incarcerated at ADX Florence, an ultra-maximum security prison in rural Colorado.

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DAs, ATF and HIDTA Announce Game-Changer to Fight Gun Violence

From a press release

The district attorneys for Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties announced Wednesday that a new device obtained by Montgomery County will be used to dramatically cut down on gun violence by more rapidly tracing ammunition used in crimes more.

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, Chester County District Attorney Deborah Ryan, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub, ATF Philadelphia Field Division Special Agent in Charge Eric DeGree and Liberty MidAtlantic High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Deputy Director Brian Michael announced Wednesday the acquisition of an ATF NIBIN machine.

The machine acquired by Montgomery County with federal funds will be used by all four suburban Philadelphia counties to dramatically upgrade law enforcement’s investigations, prosecutions and deterrence of gun crimes. NIBIN, which stands for the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, is a network database of fired cartridge casings (FCCs) from crime guns across the United States. Because each firearm leaves its own signature on bullet casings when a gun is fired—a unique set of scratches, grooves and/or dents—the NIBIN system can quickly compare these individual bullet casing “fingerprints” against its six million FCC database and create a list of high-probability matches.

From there, those hits are confirmed by a firearms examiner and then become investigative leads for detectives to use. Detectives will systemically look at the NIBIN leads and evidence of each case to determine the connections and suspects. Two types of FCC evidence are inputted into NIBIN: FCCs recovered at the scene of violent crimes and FCCs obtained from seized firearms that are test fired.

Those FCCs from Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties will be transported to the Montgomery County Detective Bureau’s Forensic Lab within 48 hours and then inputted into NIBIN. The results will then be sent back to the originating county for detective review and follow up. The quicker any resulting hits are obtained, the more useful the investigative lead is in terms of solving the crime at hand as well as interrupting the shooting cycle and disrupting the organizations operating in gun trafficking and gun violence.

“This is a game-changer in combatting gun crimes and gun violence. With this NIBIN portal, Montgomery County and the surrounding counties are in position to be able to quickly respond to gun crimes that are linked together in a timely manner and disrupt the shooting cycle by these trigger pullers,” said Steele. “We in Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties have not been immune to regional gun crimes and gun violence spilling over into our counties and all of us, along with our federal partners, are committed to responding vigorously and stopping this gun violence that threatens the safety of our communities.”

The funding for the NIBIN machine came from the Liberty Mid-Atlantic HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), a federal program that fosters initiatives and inter-agency cooperation to curtail drug trafficking in the Delaware Valley. Crime data shows that gun traffickers are frequently involved in drug trafficking and drug traffickers are often heavily armed with illegally obtained firearms.

“The Liberty Mid-Atlantic HIDTA is proud to make investments in technologies for our region’s local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that enhance their capabilities to thwart the illegal firearms trade, drug trafficking and the violence that so often comes with both,” said HIDTA’s Brian Michael. “We are confident that the acquisition of the NIBIN system for this multi-county collaboration will succeed in accelerating investigative successes when gunfire breaks out and will lead to safer communities in Philadelphia and its suburbs.”

The ATF launched the national NIBIN program in 1997, and the number of NIBIN sites has grown steadily since, now numbering 293 systems around the country. There are seven in Pennsylvania, including two in the region housed in the Philadelphia Police Department and in Berks County.

“NIBIN sites help to combat violent crime, promote public and officer safety, and identify/target shooters before they can re-offend. Since ATF launched this national program in 1997, the NIBIN system has identified more than 722,000 NIBIN leads in the ongoing efforts to find serial shooters and stop the shooting cycle,” said SAC Eric DeGree. “Thanks to the Liberty Mid-Atlantic HIDTA, investigators in four counties will be able to utilize a new NIBIN site housed in Montgomery County.”

Montgomery County has also created a new Gun Violence Reduction Task Force made up of more than 100 detectives and police officers from Montgomery County police departments. Task Force members, who were being sworn in and trained Wednesday, will work alongside the Montgomery County Detective Bureau’s Violent Crimes Unit in investigating gun trafficking organizations and gun crimes throughout the county, including running down NIBIN-generated leads.

“We are working at being at the forefront of investigating and prosecuting gun trafficking in the region, and we’ve obtained some significant sentences in our county for these crimes that are an extreme threat to the safety of our communities,” said Steele. “Now we have at our disposal cutting-edge technology in NIBIN and more law enforcement boots on the ground to take it to the next level in fighting gun crimes. This is just the next big step—but not the last—in our overall goal to make communities in Montgomery County and surrounding counties safer.”

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DelVal Cops Tout Arrests in Local Gun Trafficking Ring

Delaware Valley law enforcement agencies announced arrests in a major gun trafficking ring that involved an alleged criminal enterprise involving nearly 100 firearms.

At a press conference on Wednesday, District Attorneys Kevin Steele (D-Montgomery County) and Matthew Weintraub (R-Bucks) were joined by acting Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry, Abington Police Chief Patrick Molloy and members of state police and ATF.

Steele said Larry Williams, 40, of Philadelphia led a crime ring of straw purchasers who bought at least 94 firearms and tried to buy 23 more but were stopped by alert gun dealers. Twenty-nine guns were recovered by police.

Montgomery County detectives began the investigation in June 2022.

“They were obtaining significant amounts of guns in short periods of time and then reselling them to juveniles,” said Steele. “Or felons who were unable to obtain guns and then used them in other crimes.” He said those prohibited from owning guns would include people with a record of domestic violence or mental illness. “Or to provide guns to drug traffickers.”

County detectives have investigated 750 straw purchase cases since last fall.

The Williams group was the largest snared by law enforcement in an investigation that began with Abington’s police department and led to an investigation by county detectives. Steele said investigators used the Electronic Record of Sales (EROS), cell phones, records, and social media to track the straw purchasers.

It ultimately led them to Larry Williams.

“Williams couldn’t buy a firearm because of his past indiscretions,” said Steele. “He recruited other defendants who lived in Philadelphia to buy firearms.”

Steele said Robert Cooper III, 23, purchased 41 guns and tried to buy eight others in less than two months. Zair Stenson, 26, bought 36 firearms and tried to buy seven others; Malik Rowell-Jernigan, 24, purchased eight firearms and tried to buy three additional guns; Kevin Lester-Logan, 24, bought three guns; Daynell Jones, 40, bought three firearms; Zakayla Deshields, 22, bought three firearms and Shadiid Smaley, 23, attempted to purchase five firearms.

Many of these purchases happened at gun shows in Oaks, Allentown, and York, Steele said. Williams would point out the guns he wanted to his associates. Then, using cell phones and payment apps, they would quickly resell the weapons.

Guns trafficked by the organization have been used in a robbery in Connecticut, as well as shootings in Philadelphia and other crimes.

“It takes collaboration,” Henry said of the various agencies involved in the gun cases. “If this case doesn’t say it, I don’t know what case does. Guns have no borders.”

“Guns far too often end up in the hands of dangerous individuals,” she said.  “There could have been even more weapons if not for the flag raised by firearm dealers…they did the right thing.  This case really shows there are still many ways to flood the streets with firearms.”

“We are working tirelessly around the clock to be sure (people) are safe,” she said. “The numbers are upside down. The numbers don’t work…But for the grace of some gun dealers that are tracking these sales and reporting them. That’s like locking the barn door after the horse left the barn.”

“We recovered almost 30 guns. That leaves another 65 guns that are out there. And sadly, you never fully exhale. I’m always waiting to get that call that this illegally purchased gun was used to do some terrible damage to our citizens,” Weintraub said.

Asked by the Delaware Valley Journal what percentage of illegal possession of gun charges get dismissed through plea bargains, Steele said he did not have those numbers. But many of the straw purchase cases have gone to trial.

“And those are significant sentences,” he said. “These charges aren’t going away on people…Brad Fox was a police officer here that was killed by a man using a straw purchaser, and [the shooter] told that straw purchaser that he would kill a cop if he got stopped, and he did.”

The Brad Fox law, signed by former Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012 and named for a murdered Plymouth Township police officer, requires a mandatory five-year sentence for straw purchasers.

DVJournal asked why the U.S. Attorney’s Office is stepping in and handling so many gun cases, mainly in Philadelphia, Steele said, “I think we’re handling a lot. We’ve had 750 investigations along those lines. Welcome to Montgomery County.”

“We have legislation to do these investigations,” he said. “We’re all working together. And especially the collar counties of Philadelphia. We’ve been really, really active as a team, and we’ll continue to do that.  You’re going to hear more about that teamwork going forward. Matt’s got Bucks. I’ve got Montgomery. And that’s our focus.”


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Thirteen Arrested for Gang-Related Thefts of 93 Guns

From a press release

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub, Special Agent-in-Charge EricDeGree of ATF’s Philadelphia Field Division; and Springfield Township Police Chief Michael Pitkow announce the arrests two adults and 11 juveniles on charges related to three burglaries and one attempted burglary of federal firearms licensed dealers, i.e. gun  stores, in Montgomery and Bucks Counties.

In total, 93 firearms were stolen. Just 33 firearms have been recovered by law enforcement, leaving 60 firearms on the streets and unaccounted for.

In adult court, two adults and two direct-filed juveniles, all from Philadelphia, were charged: Angel Mason, 40, of Poplar Street, Elijah Terrell, 16, also of Poplar Street, Donte Purnell, 22, of Olympus Place, and Liv Hall, 18, of Parish Street. Nine juveniles from West Philadelphia, who ranged in age from 14 to 17 years old, were charged in Juvenile Court and their names were not released.

The three burglaries and an attempted burglary of gun stores occurred between Sept. 24, 2022, and Nov. 20, 2022. All were overnight burglaries that occurred between 2 and 4:30 a.m. In each successful burglary, a group of the defendants gained access to each gun store, smashed glass display cases and grabbed numerous firearms before fleeing. The details of each burglary are:

· Sept. 24, 2022 (4:22 a.m.): Founding Fathers Outfitters, Lafayette Hill section of Springfield Township, Montgomery County: 26 firearms stolen, 6 recovered to date by law enforcement, including one used in a shooting incident in Philadelphia and one found on a suspect involved in a Sept. 29, 2022 homicide in Philadelphia. Also of note regarding this burglary, the burglars drove a 2020 Kia Forte that had been stolen in Philadelphia just prior to the burglary.

· Nov. 12, 2022 (4:20 a.m.): Target Word Gun Shop, in Chalfont, New Britain Township in Bucks County: 32 pistols, 8 rifles and one suppressor stolen, 10 firearms recovered to date by law enforcement through search warrants.

· Nov. 20, 2022 (2:15 a.m.): Attempted Burglary of Continental Armory in Hatboro in Montgomery County; burglary was interrupted when an individual heard breaking glass and called 911.

· Nov. 20, 2022 (2:41 a.m.): Tanners Sports Center in Warwick Township in Bucks County; 27 firearms stolen, 16 recovered by law enforcement, including one used in an armed robbery in Pennsauken, N.J. on Dec. 14, 2022. The getaway vehicle fled at speeds over 100 mph.

The joint investigation into these gun store burglaries was led by the Montgomery County Detective Bureau, Bucks County Detective Bureau, the ATF—Philadelphia Field Division and Springfield Township Police, with critical participation by Philadelphia Police, Hatboro Police, New Britain Township Police, Warwick Township Police. The investigators also  received assistance from the FBI, the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General and the Delaware State Police.

Through the use of numerous investigative techniques including interviews, physical surveillance, video surveillance, social media analysis and cellphone data and records, the investigation found that several members of a known, neighborhood-based juvenile street gang in Philadelphia—called “54th Street”—were responsible for the three completed gun store burglaries and one attempted gun store burglary in Montgomery and Bucks counties. The evidence found that the group also planned and had not yet executed two additional gun store burglaries. Criminal activity commonly associated with “54th Street” includes, but is not limited to, car-jackings, robberies, burglaries and gun violence, especially directed at rival groups.

The completed gun store burglaries resulted in 93 stolen guns. Detectives found that those stolen firearms were rapidly distributed and illegally transferred between members of the corrupt organization and to others, which led to the use of these stolen guns to commit crimes.

Of the 33 recovered stolen firearms, several have been recovered by law enforcement during the commission of crimes.

· Sept. 26, 2022: a Glock 17 firearm stolen two days earlier was recovered by Philadelphia Police in the possession of Ellijah Terrell on scene of an armed robbery at 5500 Poplar Street in Philadelphia;

· Oct. 5, 2022: an H&K 9mm firearm stolen during the Sept. 24, 2022 burglary was recovered by Philadelphia Police when they executed a search warrant related to a Sept. 29, 2022 shooting at 54th Street and Willows Avenue where a 16-year-old died of a gunshot wound to the head and a 14-year-old was also shot but survived,

· Dec. 14, 2022: a firearm stolen from the Tanner Sports Center burglary was recovered by Pensauken, N.J. Police after it was used by juvenile in an armed robbery.

“These defendants brazenly broke into gun stores and stole nearly 100 firearms, then sold and transferred them widely throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. With 60 firearms unaccounted for, we still don’t know the extent of the damage by this corrupt organization’s criminal activities, including shootings and murders,” said Steele.

“These arrests have made our communities safer and came about because of the excellent joint investigation with our numerous local, state and federal law enforcement partners.”

“DA Steele took the word that I would use to describe this organized criminal rampage right out of my mouth: ‘Brazen,” said Weintraub. “Together, we fight hard every day against lawless criminals that steal and use crime guns to terrorize our communities, regardless of whose borders they cross. And we will not rest. More to come.”

One of the key partners in this joint investigation was the ATF. “Burglaries of federal firearms licensees are a top priority for ATF, and we are eager to hold the responsible parties accountable for their actions,” said ATF SAIC DeGree. “The theft of firearms from FFLs and their diversion into the illegal firearms marketplace is a very serious crime that affects all the citizens of the Commonwealth. We will continue to work alongside our local, county, state and federal partners to seek justice for anyone who violates the federal firearms laws.”

Charges vary by defendant, but all include felony charges related to operating a corrupt organization, conspiracy, criminal use of a communications facility and firearms trafficking charges. Other charges against defendants include burglary,  criminal trespass, robbery, theft, receiving stolen property, aggravated assault, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer and possessing an instrument of crime.

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Republicans Retake County Row Offices in Bucks

Bucks County incumbent Republican District Attorney Matthew Weintraub easily won re-election Tuesday, 58 percent to 41 percent over Democratic challenger Antonietta Stancu. And that may be just the beginning of the good news for the Bucks County GOP.

In the unofficial tallies, Republicans appear to have won some of the county row offices as well, with Fred Harran leading Democrat Mark Lomax in the sheriff’s race, 53-46 percent. Coleen Christian holds a similar lead over Democrat Judi Reiss for county prothonotary.

Pamela Van Blunk bested incumbent Democrat Neale Dougherty for controller 53 to 46 percent and GOP candidate Dan McPhillips prevailed over Robin Robinson 54 percent to 46 percent for recorder of deeds.

“It had been an honor to serve the citizens of Bucks County these last four years,” said Dougherty. “Working with the incredible team of caring and dedicated professionals here in the controller’s office has been a privilege. Congratulations to my opponent, I wish her all the best going forward.”

In Delaware County, Democrat candidates have pulled ahead for the county row offices, with incumbent Sheriff Jerry Sanders topping challenger Larry Weigand 51 percent to 48 percent. However, mail-in ballots were still being counted there Wednesday morning.

Two Democrats in the county council race, incumbent Councilman Kevin Madden and newcomer Richard Womack were ahead of Republicans Joseph Lombardo and Frank Agovino.

GOP Chairman Thomas McGarrigle noted the Republicans had been ahead Tuesday night, but the mail-in ballots are breaking Democratic. In many municipal races, like Upper Darby and Collingdale, Republicans are doing well. McGarrigle also chided county officials for their clumsy handling of the elections.

“You look at the county, it’s clear they can’t govern and the residents of Delaware County have seen that,” said McGarrigle, noting the Republicans ran clean, fair, and efficient elections there for 150 years.

“This is the fourth election these individuals have run and we’ve had problem after problem,” McGarrigle said. “We took them to court because 5,000 plus ballots were mailed out after the deadline.”

In Chester County, where mail-in votes were also still in the counting process Wednesday morning, it remains a nail-biter.

Republicans were hanging on to a lead in some of the county row offices including Jeanna Nicholas at 50 percent to incumbent Patricia Maisano at 47 percent and Controller Margaret Reif at 49 percent to challenger Regina Mauro at 50 percent.

“I would like to thank and congratulate all of our candidates, campaign workers, and volunteers from the top to the bottom of the ticket for the work they have done during this election cycle,” Chester County Democratic Chairwoman Charlotte Valyo said in a statement.

“Our candidates ran positive, fair campaigns focused on issues, facts, and accomplishments. The ballot counting in Chester County will continue today. Mail-in ballots that were received by mail or in drop boxes after 7:00 p.m. Friday, October 29 until 8:00 p.m. Tuesday, November 2 are still being processed.

“The initial results for the state judicial and county-wide races are very favorable. Mail-in ballots cast during an election are primarily cast by Democratic voters. If this trend continues, I see a victory for the voters of Chester County.”

Montgomery County’s row offices were not up for grabs in this election, but the county had municipal and school board races, as well as judicial contests.

Early Wednesday morning, Montgomery County GOP Chairwoman Elizabeth Havey Preate said, “The county has not completed the count as they had expected. But it appears Republicans had a great night winning in several blue townships across Montgomery County.”

Statewide there were several judgeships on the line, including a seat on the state Supreme Court.

Reports Wednesday morning showed Republican Judge Kevin Brobson beat Judge Maria McLaughlin for that post.

While Republican Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel predicted a “red wave” will sweep the country next year, Temple University political science department chair Professor Robin Kolodny said the most important factor for the 2022 midterms is likely how the redistricting maps are drawn.

“Probably the most important issue right now for the midterm elections is how the new maps will look in certain key states. Expect some surprising court decisions in some places,” she said.

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