Search warrant: Old Forge chief blocked domestic violence investigations for police friends
By Borys Krawczeniuk
May 17, 2012
Already charged with indecent assault of a 15-year-old girl, suspended Old Forge police Chief Lawrence A. Semenza is also under investigation for interfering with investigations of domestic violence cases – including one at his home, according to a search warrant issued Wednesday.
Investigators found a report on a response to the chief’s home was missing a narrative of what police found because the chief ordered the narrative deleted, according to an affidavit written in support of the application for the search warrant.
In some cases, Semenza halted domestic violence investigations because suspects were friendly to the borough or the police department, according to the affidavit written by Lackawanna County Detective Chris Kolcharno.
“Interviews revealed Semenza arrived at the police station or on (the) scene of these cases and informed his officers no arrest would be initiated due to the suspects in these cases being favorable to the borough and/or police department,” Kolcharno wrote.
County detectives sought a search warrant partly because borough Acting Police Chief Kim Buggey refused to give them a thumb drive that contains a copy of the deleted narrative, a statement her lawyer later characterized as unfair.
Semenza, suspended police Capt. James Krenitsky and former Old Forge volunteer firefighter Walter Chiavacci were charged in the last two weeks with indecent assault of a 15-year-old girl between 2004 and 2007 and other counts. The Citizens’ Voice does not identify victims of sexual abuse.
Semenza was due in court for a preliminary hearing Wednesday, but it was pushed to next week over protests from his attorney to hold it because the chief wants to fight the sex-abuse allegations.
The search warrant affidavit shows Semenza is now also under investigation for obstructing the administration of law or other governmental function since 2008.
Lackawanna County Judge Vito P. Geroulo approved the search warrant, which state police and county detectives executed Wednesday morning at Old Forge Town Hall.
Investigators went there with permission to seize computers, records, documents and other materials, including computer disks, cellphone SIM cards and removable storage devices.
They also sought computer photographs, slides, emails, address books and “records bearing on the reporting system of police department operations.”
A previous search warrant seeking records from the police department was issued and executed on May 7, but it remains under a court-ordered seal. The Times-Tribune filed a Right to Know Law request with the borough days after the records seizure in an effort to obtain the search warrant.
The borough is refusing to release the search warrant because it remains under seal, said attorney Gerard M. Karam, appointed by the borough council Tuesday solely to deal with matters related to the investigation. The court order trumps the state Right to Know Law, Karam said.
The borough has also been “directed by the district attorney’s office not to show it to anybody,” he said. Karam said only one person saw the search warrant, a borough police officer, whom he declined to name.
The search warrant authorized Wednesday was not sealed and reveals the investigation by county detectives and state police began May 2.
The roots of investigators’ desire for a second search warrant began Tuesday when three county detectives went to Old Forge Town Hall to observe Buggey retrieve reports from a borough computer to satisfy a Right-To-Know request by a local television reporter.
The request was for all police reports in the last seven years for any response to the chief’s home.
Karam said he asked detectives to observe the retrieval so no one could later raise questions about why the reports were opened.
As she retrieved the reports, Buggey, appointed acting chief when Semenza was suspended, told detectives a report on a police response to his home March 18 lacked the narrative. She deleted it because Semenza told her to, but kept a copy on a separate storage drive, she told detectives.
Buggey told detectives state police have the original report and its narrative, according to the affidavit, but Kolcharno called her later Tuesday and asked her to bring the thumb drive to the district attorney’s office. When another detective called to arrange the visit, she said she spoke to Karam, who told her not to go to the DA’s office with the thumb drive, according to the affidavit.
Karam denied in an interview advising Buggey against turning over the thumb drive, saying he suggested to Buggey that she should keep the thumb drive in a safe place until she consulted with her own lawyer, but never told her not to turn it over.
District Attorney Andy Jarbola agreed the borough and Karam have cooperated fully and were not seeking to prevent investigators from obtaining the thumb drive. He said Karam was right to advise Buggey to consult with a lawyer first.
“At this stage, I would not call her a target (of the investigation),” Jarbola said. “I would say she was acting under duress because her superior was giving her orders.”
Attorney Jack Brier, Buggey’s lawyer, said she turned over the thumb drive to investigators Wednesday and did not initially only because of Karam’s advice to consult a lawyer.
“She’s cooperating 100 percent on everything,” said Brier, a former county assistant district attorney.
Brier said Buggey turned over the investigation of the domestic incident at Semenza’s house to the district attorney’s office after consulting with Krenitsky. The next day, state police called her to begin an investigation, but never filed charges against Semenza because the alleged victim, the chief’s wife, refused to cooperate, Brier said.
“She followed the instructions of her leader (to delete the narrative) and she protected the evidence,” Brier said of Buggey. “She protected the evidence so she would not get in trouble.”
Jarbola declined to comment on possible future arrests, but said he expects additional charges to be filed.
Efforts to reach Buggey and Semenza were unsuccessful.
Source: Citizen’s Voice