Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Philly man faces trial on homicide charge in fatal "street racing" accident

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2012 

She was her middle child, and the loudest of them all. The one charged with caring for her 16-year-old brother with muscular dystrophy if anything happened to her parents. The child who had recently finished U.S. National Guard boot camp.
“Her smile could light up a room,” Joan Doyle of Clemmons, N.C., said Thursday. “She was full of life.”

Doyle was in a Bensalem courtroom, her second time ever in Pennsylvania, to attend a preliminary hearing for Aurelio Xhepaj of Philadelphia, who is accused of street racing when he lost control of his car Sept. 3, killing her daughter, Michelle Price, 19, and severely injuring himself and a third person in his car.
Aurelio Xhepaj
That passenger was Mary Logan, 20, who testified Thursday that she and Price were picked up by Xhepaj, 19, of Memphis Street in his 2000 Volvo S80 that night. They planned to get something to eat at a Chinese restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia.
But when they found the restaurant closed, they headed north on Route 1 toward the Neshaminy Mall in Bensalem, she said. Logan testified that she was in the front passenger seat listening to music and Price was in the backseat sending text messages.
At a red light at the Bensalem border, their car pulled up beside a white Crown Victoria in the center lane of Route 1 — also called Roosevelt Boulevard and Lincoln Highway. The driver, who they didn’t know, started revving its engine, Logan testified.
“Like it wanted to race,” she added.
Xhepaj started revving his engine, too, Logan said. When the light turned green, the race started, she said.
The Crown Victoria “flew” down Route 1, she said, far faster than Xhepaj’s car. But he kept his foot on the gas — at one point she said she looked at the speedometer and it was past 80 mph, she added.
Twice, she told Xhepaj to slow down, but he didn’t respond, she testified.
When the Volvo nearly clipped a red car, Xhepaj swerved to the left and hit a guardrail, triggering the fatal accident shortly before 10:30 p.m., she said. The police investigation found that Xhepaj’s car was traveling at least 73 mph when it hit the guide rail, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Michelle Price
Logan said the car flipped at least four times, smashed into a utility pole and concrete pillar and caught fire.
She and Xhepaj were ejected out of the car, but Price was trapped in the backseat. Logan said she tried to find Price after she was ejected from the car.

Could you see her in the car? Bucks County prosecutor Michael Martin asked.
Yes, she replied
Was she moving? Martin asked
Logan was seriously injured in the accident, suffering a broken collar bone, several fractured vertebrae and a shattered left thumb. Her medical treatment is ongoing, she said.
Under cross examination by defense attorney Daniel Alva, Logan said she lost sight of the Crown Victoria not long before the crash. She also said she looked at the speedometer “because we were going really fast.”
You saw the 80? Alva countered.
Yes, Logan replied, though she said she couldn’t tell exactly how fast the car was traveling.
Witness Al Costantini, an off-duty Upper Southampton police officer, also testified that he was driving north on Route 1 near Southampton Road the night of the accident when he saw a “small black sports car” drive past him “like I was standing still.”
Costantini estimated that he had been traveling at 50 to 60 mph when the car passed him.
Next, the officer testified, he saw a white Crown Victoria speed past him on the left side.
At a traffic light, both cars were side by side and appeared to be “jumping,” which occurs when a driver has his feet on the brake and gas simultaneously, Costantini said. The cars took off at a high rate of speed when the light turned green, he said.
Costantini said he quickly lost sight of both cars, and saw a flash of light. He eventually came across the wrecked black car on the side of the road near and pulled over.
The off-duty officer testified that he saw Xhepaj and Logan, who told him her friend was still inside the car, which had started to catch fire. When Costantini said he saw someone trapped, Price’s mother let out a loud sob.
Price was declared dead at the accident scene. She died of severe blunt force trauma to the head and body, according to her autopsy, police said.
Following the hour-long hearing, Bensalem Judge Joseph Falcone held Xhepaj, who had one arm in a sling, for trial on all charges including criminal homicide, homicide by vehicle, two counts each of aggravated assault by vehicle, recklessly endangering another person and related misdemeanors and summary offenses including illegal racing. He remains free after posting 10 percent of his $150,000 bail.
Alva had argued that Falcone should dismiss the homicide charge, which is the equivalent of third-degree murder, saying prosecutors failed to show his client showed malice.
Alva didn’t dispute that Xhepaj was likely speeding, but denied he was street racing. He also pointed out that the Volvo model is hardly a hot rod, calling it one of the safest cars around.
“What about the revving of the engines?” Falcone asked the defense attorney.
“That is evidence of too much testosterone,” Alva replied. “One car took off, the other couldn’t catch up. This is not murder.”
The prosecutor, though, countered that just because Xhepaj had an “inferior” car doesn’t mean he didn’t race the Crown Victoria. He also ignored Logan’s request that he slow down, Martin said.
“Anyone in this area was in danger,” Martin added.
After the hearing, Doyle expressed relief that the criminal homicide charge was not dismissed. She said that her daughter was a popular, record-holding high school varsity basketball player who had more than 400 people attend her memorial service.
Price had been in Philadelphia visiting Logan, whom she met in boot camp, for about two weeks before the accident, Doyle said.
The North Carolina resident recalled how she was crying uncontrollably at the airport the day she put her daughter on the Philly-bound plane.
She told Michelle that she felt like she was never going to see her again.

State: Suspects in elder abuse case should not have been working at assisted living center

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2012

One of two Philadelphia women charged with abusing an 83-year-old resident of a Lower Southampton assisted living center shouldn’t have been working there, and the second woman should not have been unsupervised while working with residents, according to state regulatory officials.
Irene Rodriquez, 22, and Regina Battles, 20, were terminated by Arbors at Buck Run last month after a police investigation into the abuse allegations revealed hidden-camera video documenting multiple incidents of abuse and mistreatment, police say.

Regina Battles (left) and Irene Rodriguez
“It’s a fact that the staff shown in the video did not have much of the required training,” state Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Anne Bale said.
Battles was hired as a direct care staff employee at Arbors in February, and Rodriguez was hired in late June, according to DPW and police documents. But neither completed state-required training, testing and orientation.
Rodriguez never should have been hired, since she does not have a high school diploma or equivalency degree, another state requirement for direct care staff, according to DPW.
Neither Battles nor Rodriguez completed an 18-hour training course or passed a direct care competency test, which is required before providing unsupervised assisted living services, according to DPW.
Rodriguez also did not complete training in general fire safety and emergency preparedness, a requirement prior to — or during — the first day of work, according to the state. She also didn’t receive state-approved training in resident rights, mandatory abuse and neglect reporting requirements, safety management techniques and person-centered care required of direct care staff, according to DPW.
“The primary benefit of this training is to prevent resident abuse and mistreatment of the kind suffered by (the resident),” the agency wrote in its license revocation notice.
The women were arrested and charged Tuesday with neglect of a care dependent person, a first-degree misdemeanor, as well as reckless endangering, simple assault and harassment.
The DPW, which oversees assisted living centers, revoked Arbors at Buck Run’s operating license Dec. 7 following two inspections at the Buck Road center, which houses 58 residents, including some with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The inspections were prompted by the police investigation.
The Courier Times was unsuccessful in attempts to reach Mark Miller, senior vice president of operations at Arbors, which is managed by Capital Health Group LLC in Media. The center’s executive director, though, told police that both women denied the abuse allegations, “but (the women) did not seem too upset by them,” according to an affidavit of probable cause.
Videos from the hidden camera placed in the room by the woman’s daughter show Battles and Rodriguez roughly handling the resident while assisting her into and out of bed multiple times between Oct. 16 and Nov. 13, according to court records.
The videos captured the resident’s face during some of the alleged abuse incidents, and she is clearly seen crying and in fear, the court documents show.
In one video, Battles is captured allegedly grabbing the woman’s right leg and pulling it sharply toward her three times, court records show. The victim is seen covering her face with her hands and forearms during this action, according to the documents.
Another video showed Battles and Rodriguez supporting the victim “face down” on the side of her bed, court records show. The victim is placed on the floor before being picked up and placed “roughly” into the bed, according to the affidavit.
The elderly woman, who is now at another nursing home, was a resident there from Dec. 2, 2011, until Nov. 19, when she was taken to Abington Memorial Hospital.
Hospital staff noted injuries to her toes and X-rays were taken of her feet. Photos were taken the same day of the woman’s feet and legs, bloodied scabs on her toes and a bleeding, bandaged wound on her leg, police said.
The latest incident isn’t the first time this year Arbors got in trouble with the state.
DPW issued it a provisional operating license — described as a state-issued warning label — between February and May, after a December 2011 inspection prompted by a complaint revealed numerous violations, including issues with patient care, record keeping and staff training. A second-level provisional license was issued in April after the original problems continued unfixed, according to DPW.
Arbors’ full operating license was reinstated in May after the problems were brought up to state standards and the center passed its annual inspection.
Bale said the agency reviews a sample of staff and resident records as part of its required annual inspection of assisted living centers. If issues are found, the state will review all records and fix errors. The fixes are then reviewed during additional monitoring visits.
“If a facility has a history of record-keeping issues, this would be something we would look at more closely during an inspection or at additional follow-up inspections,” she added.
A lapse of a month or two between a state inspection and the issuing or change in an operating license isn’t unusual, according to DPW. The lag time is reduced when the charges are severe and the evidence strong, such as the case following the Nov. 30 and Dec. 3 inspections at Arbors, which found gross incompetence, negligence and misconduct, according to DPW.
The center, which was also fined nearly $7,000 after the abuse allegations, has 30 days to file an appeal of the revocation and can continue to operate through the process, though it will be subject to closer state monitoring and inspections, Bale said. As of Thursday afternoon, no appeal had been filed, Bale said
If, after 30 days,Capital Health does not file an appeal, the state agency would help relocate residents to other appropriate residential centers, Bale said.

Bensalem teen hit by car dies

Posted: Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Bensalem teen hit by a car while walking to his school bus stop Thursday morning died early Saturday after he was removed from life support.
The 54-year-old Philadelphia woman who police say struck and fatally injured 17-year-old Ryan Viola could face jail time — not necessarily for the accident — but for her driving record.

The investigation into the early morning accident is ongoing, police said. They confirmed that the driver, identified as Lisa Ann Murray of the 5500 block of Torresdale Avenue, has an expired Ohio driver’s license and a suspended Pennsylvania driver’s license.
The car police say struck and killed Ryan Viola, 17.
A preliminary police investigation shows Murray had a green light and stopped after striking Ryan, who was crossing Bensalem Boulevard against the traffic light. He was in a marked crosswalk headed to his bus stop shortly before 6:30 a.m. Thursday.
No charges had been filed against Murray as of Saturday. 
Ryan died about 3 a.m. Saturday at Aria Health Torresdale campus in Philadelphia where he was airlifted after the accident, said Bensalem police.
He was a senior and honor student at Bucks County Technical High School in Bristol Township, where he was in the electrical occupations program.
The posted speed limit on that part of Bensalem Boulevard is 40 mph. No crossing guard is assigned there until 6:45 a.m. and police said crossing guards usually aren’t on duty for high school students.
Police had no information about why Murray’s license was suspended and PennDOT doesn’t reveal suspension information citing confidentiality laws.
There are many reasons a driver’s license may be suspended — from failure to pay child support, to passing a school bus with flashing red lights and stop arm extended, to accumulating too many points on a driver’s record.
In Pennsylvania, driving with a suspended or revoked license is a summary offense, similar to a traffic ticket. But habitual offenders risk higher fines, mandatory jail time, PennDOT penalties and difficulty finding car insurance once a license is restored.
Last year, police issued more than 3,700 citations for driving while under suspension or revocation in Bucks County and more than 6,200 in Montgomery County, according to data from Pennsylvania State Police. A large number of those drivers had been cited two or more times.
Last year alone, at least 20 residents of Bucks or Montgomery counties were cited five times for the offense and at least 13 were cited six or more times, according to the data.
The Pennsylvania Legislature sets the maximum number of violations an individual commits before a mandatory jail sentence is imposed for driving under a suspended or revoked license. Under the current law, drivers face 30 days to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for a sixth or subsequent conviction for driving with a suspended or revoked license.
But drivers could face jail time after just a second conviction for certain traffic offenses, including driving while suspended or revoked, under a different section of the vehicle code. It imposes a penalty of $200 to $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail.
The penalties for a DUI-related license suspension are harsher. The first offense carries a $500 fine and mandatory minimum 60-day jail sentence, depending on the person’s blood alcohol level.
A conviction for driving while suspended also adds one year to the license suspension and, once the driver’s license is restored, a five-point penalty is assigned to the individual’s record, according to PennDOT. For adults, six points on a driving record could lead to a suspension.
The license suspension is longer — two years — for drivers designated by PennDOT as “habitual offenders,” meaning they have accumulated three separate convictions for specific offenses, including driving on a suspended license, within five years, PennDOT said.
One way defendants get around the charge is persuading the police officer or prosecutor to change it to a lesser offense or withdraw it in exchange for a guilty plea. The move is seen as a way to avoid higher fines, jail time and longer suspensions.
This year, Bucks County has seen a number of high- profile pedestrian traffic accidents involving drivers with suspended licenses.
Last week, Jonathan Simmons, 27, of Bristol Township pleaded guilty in Bucks County Court to the July 22 hit-and-run death of John Rearick.
At the time of the accident on New Falls Road, Simmons had been driving with a suspended driver’s license due to prior traffic violations, and had been cited twice for driving while suspended, court records show.
Bristol Township resident Charles Horrocks, 23, had been charged five previous times with driving with a suspended license since 2009 before the Feb. 19 hit-and-run accident that killed Falls resident Eric Beck, 36.
Horrocks is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in October to homicide by vehicle while DUI and related charges — including his sixth driving while suspended offense — in Beck’s death.
Upper Southampton resident Stanley Stevens, 94, also had accumulated four convictions for driving with a suspended license since September 2011. He died in April after losing control of his unregistered car and striking a parked car, a house and a tree.

Pennsylvania among few states where DUIs never rise to felony charges

Posted: Sunday, December 9, 2012 

Within two days after a Lower Makefield man entered a not guilty plea to his ninth charge of driving under the influence, three other Bucks County men pleaded guilty in Bucks County Court to their fifth, sixth and ninth DUI offenses.
The nine-time offender — Robert Oxenford, 51, of Quakertown — received the least amount of jail time — 15 to 30 months in state prison.
Richard Collins (top left), Robert Oxenford, Steven Perry (Lower left) and William Ellershaw
The other men — five-time DUI offender William Ellershaw, 41, of Bensalem, and six-time offender Steven Perry, 45, of Yardley — were each sentenced to one to three years in prison. Ellershaw will do his time in state prison, where he is serving a sentence for an unrelated crime.
The amount of time the men received is not unusual. In Pennsylvania, no matter how many times a person is convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the longest prison sentence a judge can impose is five years — and even that is rare, according to the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office.
That’s because Pennsylvania is one of only seven states and the District of Columbia where multiple charges of DUI alone never rise to a felony offense, which allows stricter punishment.
In most states, after a third or fourth DUI conviction, an individual faces felony charges, though time limits can be set for the subsequent offense, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some states also can charge a DUI as a felony under certain circumstances, such as a blood alcohol content that exceeds a certain elevated level, typically 0.16, if children are in the vehicle, or if the individual has a restricted, suspended or revoked driver’s license.
Drunken driving is the most prevalent crime in Bucks County, accounting for nearly a third of all prosecutions going through the criminal court system. Last year, 2,566 individuals were convicted of DUI, according to PennDOT records, down from 2,871 in 2007.
Last week, 41-year-old Richard Derik Collins entered a not guilty plea for his ninth DUI charge. This one stemmed from a traffic stop in Bensalem on Aug. 31. Pennsylvania State Police say his blood alcohol content was 0.202 at the time, 2½ times the legal limit.
The plea came while Collins was serving the last of his four years of probation for a DUI in 2007. That DUI caused a two-car accident that injured three people. Along with the probation, he was sentenced to 18 to 36 months in prison and a $2,500 fine.
First-time offenders made up the majority of those convicted of DUI last year, accounting for 1,659 individuals. Another 109 people in the county were convicted of DUI four or more times, down from a five-year high of 146 in 2007.
Over that five-year period, the number of individuals with four or more convictions has generally reached fewer than 110 each year.
Pennsylvania’s 2004 overhaul of the DUI law imposed stiffer fines and longer jail sentences. It was designed to hit hardest the repeat offenders and people with high blood-alcohol content levels.
The three-tiered penalty system puts drivers into categories that depend on how much alcohol has been consumed and imposes mandatory minimum sentences. The mandatory minimum jail sentence after a second DUI conviction is 90 days; for three or more convictions, it’s one year. The one-year minimum also applies to defendants whose DUI are drug-related, whose BAC are higher than 0.16 or who refuse blood tests.
But the five-year maximum jail sentence for DUI is rarely imposed since it applies only to offenses graded as first-degree misdemeanors, said Bucks County Deputy District Attorney Robert James, who oversees DUI prosecutions.
About 25 percent to 30 percent of DUIs in Bucks would be graded as first-degree charges, James said. They typically involve repeat offenders who have the highest BAC rate or drugs in their systems, he added.
Collins, Ellershaw, Perry and Oxenford each have a first-degree misdemeanor among their charges, according to online court records.
More typically, sentences in Bucks are in the range of 90 days to two years, one to two years or “sometimes,” three years, James said.
Loopholes in the state DUI law — specifically a 10-year look-back period when determining a prior offense for sentencing purposes — also gives some repeat offenders a break on grading and mandatory minimum sentences.
As a result, most offenders with second or third DUI convictions, even within 10 years, served less prison time than individuals convicted of their first DUI, James said. That happens because most second- and third-time offenders are sentenced to 90 days to one year, but given house arrest, he said. A first DUI conviction carries a mandatory three-day jail sentence.
James supports changing state law to allow a DUI to be elevated to a third-degree felony offense for habitual offenders, which increases the maximum jail sentence to seven years. James said that every month, he typically has four or five defendants with four or more DUIs in Bucks County Court.
Felony charges now apply only to DUI defendants who either kill someone — homicide by vehicle while DUI, a second-degree felony that carries a three- to 10-year jail sentence — or injure someone — aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI, a third-degree felony.
But to make a felony DUI offense an effective deterrent, the state Legislature would also have to remove the 10-year look-back provision and increase mandatory minimum sentences, he said.
Under current law, any DUI conviction that occurred 10 years before the current DUI offense cannot be counted toward grading of the crime — a first-degree versus a second-degree misdemeanor — or toward mandatory minimum sentencing.
“With DUIs, it’s not at all uncommon for there to be offenses outside 10 years,” James added.
That is what happened with the three DUI defendants who pleaded guilty and were sentenced last week.
Oxenford’s, Ellershaw’s and Perry’s latest DUI convictions counted as a second offense since the previous conviction occurred within 10 years.
Collins, though, wouldn’t get that break if convicted, since his latest DUI arrest is his third since 2005, meaning the one-year mandatory minimum is in play.
Such loopholes are why some people believe that felony charges for DUI aren’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to preventing recidivism.
Bucks County Rep. Katharine Watson, R-144, is among those who believe there is no therapeutic benefit to be derived from making DUI a felony.
“The theory behind the current DUI law, rewritten and passed in 2004, is (that) elevating repeated DUI offenses to a felony charge doesn’t address or resolve the problem,” Watson said. “The PA law, unlike many other states, stresses treatment. It is not meant to be punitive.”
Watson added that the court orders and monitors the treatment program, ensuring the offender is “jailed” for any noncompliance actions.
Mother’s Against Drunk Driving believes that a mandatory car ignition interlock for first-time DUI offenders is the best preventative measure. The device is designed to prevent the starting of a vehicle if a certain level of alcohol is detected on the driver’s breath. Pennsylvania requires an interlock system after the second and subsequent DUI conviction, and New Jersey requires it for defendants convicted with high BAC levels.
MADD favors felony charges for repeat offenders.
“MADD does support felony charges for three or more DUI convictions because it’s an important tool to give the judicial system more options on sanctions,” the organization’s president, Jan Withers, said. “Otherwise their hands are tied.”
Withers added that in Maryland, where she lives, most DUI offenders — even repeat offenders — don’t receive prison time. “It’s amazing,” she added.
George Geisler believes that DUI courts that operate like special drug or veteran courts are a better option. He’s the law enforcement director for the Pennsylvania Driving Under the Influence Association, a professional organization working to address the DUI problem.
Research suggests that 60 percent of habitual DUI offenders have mental health issues, Geisler said, which is something that DUI court addresses by providing closely supervised and mandatory behavior treatment. Only 13 of 67 Pennsylvania counties have DUI courts for repeat offenders, and they have a high success rate, he said.
“The criminal justice system is not getting the repeat offenders the help they need so they don’t repeat offend,” Geisler added. “The treatment is the key to preventing re-offending.”

Lower Makefield man headed to trial on ninth DUI charge

Posted: Wednesday, December 5, 2012

For the ninth time, a 41-year-old Lower Makefield man stood before a district judge on a drunken driving charge Tuesday.
This time, police said Richard Derik Collins’ blood alcohol content registered a .202, police say. That’s more than twice the legal limit for a licensed adult driver and above the legal limit for a driver with a DUI-suspended license such as Collins.
Still, he pleaded not guilty before Bensalem District Judge Leonard Brown, who held him for trial on all charges, including DUI at the highest rate and driving with a blood alcohol content of .02 or greater with a DUI-suspended license, as well as related summary offenses.
The most serious charges are first-degree misdemeanors, which each carry a maximum penalty of five years in jail.
The lone witness at the hearing was Pennsylvania State Trooper Frederick Williams Jr., who testified that he was running speed checks on Aug. 31 along northbound Interstate 95 in Bensalem when he clocked a pickup truck driven by Collins traveling at 74 mph. The posted speed limit is 55 mph.
After pulling over Collins just north of the Street Road exit shortly after 7 p.m., the trooper said he smelled a “moderate” amount of alcohol in the truck’s cab. Williams said that he asked Collins to produce his driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance, but Collins said he couldn’t provide it.
Instead, Collins gave the trooper his name and birth date, which, when Williams checked, showed his driver’s license was DUI suspended in Pennsylvania, he said. The trooper added that he smelled a strong odor of alcohol and that Collins’ movements were slow and sluggish.
Williams had Collins get out of the truck and perform three standard field sobriety tests, and he showed signs of impairment during all of them, according to a probable cause affidavit.
The trooper placed Collins under arrest and he was taken to a local hospital to have blood drawn.
Pennsylvania state police filed the most recent DUI-related charges Sept. 12. Court records show that Collins was convicted of DUI in 1993, 1994, twice in 1995, 1999, 2005 and 2008.
He also had a DUI conviction prior to 1993, when arrest and convictions became available through online court records, according to Bucks County Deputy District Attorney Robert James.
Bucks County prosecutor Lindsey Vaughan presented the court a certified PennDOT driver history that showed Collins had two previous convictions for driving with a DUI-suspended license in September 2004 and December 2007.
Under cross examination by defense attorney David Knight, Williams said he couldn’t recall if Collins told him how much he had to drink that day. He did remember Collins said he was driving home from his job at a garage in Philadelphia.
Knight asked the trooper if he pulled over Collins that evening for speeding only, and not for driving issues. Yes, Williams said.
“You did not notice any other erratic driving,” Knight said. The trooper agreed that he didn’t notice any erratic driving.
Collins remains in Bucks County prison on a detainer, according to online county prison records. That means he must stand before a judge for any chance of getting released.
Collins is serving his final year of probation stemming from his last DUI-related conviction for fleeing the scene of a two-car crash in 2007 on Route 413 in Middletown that sent three people to a hospital.
In November 2008, he pleaded guilty to charges related to that incident including drunken driving, aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI, hit and run, driving without a license and related offenses. He was sentenced to 18 to 36 months in prison, four years of probation and a $2,500 fine.
At his sentencing, Collins apologized and said that he has not touched alcohol since the crash. His attorney also told the judge that his client completed an intensive alcohol rehabilitation program after his arrest.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Police: Pickpockets targeting Panera Bread restaurants

Posted: Monday, October 15, 2012 

A typical meal at Panera Bread doesn’t cost nearly $3,000.
But that is what one local customer at the popular chain restaurant ended up paying after her wallet was stolen in August at the restaurant in Lower Southampton.
The story the victim told police about how her wallet was snatched sounds familiar, not only to Lower Southampton police but also law enforcement from the Philadelphia and New Jersey regions who have experienced Panera pickpockets.
One local detective said he’s been told that the thieves are professionals targeting Panera restaurants. But a spokeswoman for the St. Louis company said say its corporate office and franchisee, which operates bakery-cafes in Bucks and surrounding counties, are not aware of any organized rings targeting its customers.
Dawn Johnson 
Since November, pickpockets have hit customers at the Panera in the 200 block of Street Road at least five times, according to published reports.
Middletown police said one report of a wallet theft at the Panera Bread in Langhorne Square had been reported so far this year and that no suspects have been identified. Bensalem police said they don’t have a problem with pickpockets at the Panera on the 2600 block of Street Road near Parx Casino. The Courier Times was unsuccessful in reaching police in Warrington and Willow Grove, where other Panera Bread restaurants are located.
Across the Delaware River in Burlington County, N.J., a number of pickpocket incidents have been reported at Panera Bread. A location on Centerton Road in Mount Laurel has been hit five times since November, according to police reports.
What victims frequently report is that the chairs they were occupying and on which their purses were hanging were bumped by someone — usually a woman. Victims also report wallets stolen out of unattended purses.
In at least two Lower Southampton cases, the suspects moved a table toward a victim’s chair until it was against it, then reached into the targeted person’s purse and took the wallet, said Detective Eric Landamia said.
The next thing the customer knows, thousands of dollars in charges appear on their missing credit or debit cards within hours after they were stolen, police said.
The pickpockets almost never make a purchase at the restaurant. Rather the suspect sits at a table as if waiting for someone, Landamia said. In some cases, the thieves work in pairs.
Lower Southampton police last month issued an arrest warrant for Dawn Tamika Johnson, 40, of Philadelphia, in connection with the August theft, but arrests are rare. Most of the time the suspects escape in rental cars registered under phony names, according to police.
Johnson is charged with 38 felonies including 16 counts of identity theft and 13 counts of access device fraud in the Aug. 14 theft.
Johnson allegedly bumped her chair into the victim’s chair several times while the two were seated at neighboring tables at the Panera Bread, according to a probable cause affidavit. The woman later discovered her wallet, containing four credit cards, was missing.
Dawn Johnson

The woman then found out that 16 transactions had been attempted using her stolen credit or debit cards -– all on Aug. 14 during a two-hour window, according to police. Seven transactions totaling $2,781 went through, according to court documents. The transactions were made at Lowe’s, Target, Finish Line, Macy’s and Walmart in Bensalem and Philadelphia.
Police identified Johnson as a suspect after viewing surveillance footage from some of the stores where the victim’s credit cards were used.
The recent theft mirrors a pattern also seen at the Lower Southampton restaurant.
Police said a wallet theft attempt was foiled Feb. 28 after the suspect was caught in the act by the victim’s son. The suspect had dropped her purse near the victim’s and, while retrieving it, reached in the other woman’s purse and took out a wallet. After she was confronted, the suspect returned the wallet and left the restaurant.
The next day, a customer of the same restaurant reported that her wallet had been stolen by two women and her stolen credit cards used at four stores, for a total of $2,477 in purchases, police said.
Four days later, pickpockets hit the same restaurant, stealing a wallet from a purse hanging on the back of a chair and running up $3,500 in unauthorized charges, police said.
Those theft cases remain unsolved, police said.
“Apparently it’s a full time job for most people,” Landamia added. “You almost have to get them in the act.”

Beaten blind dog reunited with family

Posted: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 

It was a bittersweet reunion Tuesday between Dusk and her family.
The 7-year-old black pup with a white muzzle will be back in the fenced-in yard she fled four days earlier.

But she will be going home with little hope of regaining her ability to see after someone likely beat her in the head so hard her eyes popped out of their sockets.
“We’re happy to have her back,” Marie Waligorski said. “We never expected to get her back this way.”
The reunion took place at the CARES specialty veterinary clinic in Middletown, where Dusk was treated after police found her Friday morning in the parking lot of a business in the 5300 block of Emilie Road -- about 300 feet from her Bristol Township home.
Jessica Finnell took in the injured Dusk
Since Friday evening, Dusk had been living with Jessica Finnell, a Bucks County emergency dispatcher who handled the first 911 call about the dog, whom she called Lady. Finnell suspected the dog was not a stray. She was well-behaved, appeared well fed and was housebroken.
When Finnell returned the dog Tuesday, she said it was clear that they were her family.
“She was excited, tail-wagging. She seems happy that they were there,” Finnell said. “I’m happy for her. I miss her like crazy, but I’m happy she is back in her home and can have some of her normal life back.”
At home, Dusk prefers spending most of her time in the backyard, where she has a dog house, said Waligorski’s son, William Schilling, who adopted Dusk as a puppy when living in Tennessee.
The family’s backyard is fenced-in, between 4 and 6 feet high, he said. When Dusk managed to scale it, they built the fence higher, Schilling said.
What the family didn’t know -- until after they reviewed footage from home surveillance cameras  -- is that Dusk recently started jumping over the fence again -- usually about 2 a.m., and returning before 7 a.m., when the family woke up, Schilling said.
When Dusk didn’t come to the door for her food Friday, the family realized something wasn’t right, Schilling said. They looked for her Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the neighborhood, but the trail went cold, Schilling said.
Waligorski said she hasn’t slept since Dusk went missing.
“She is a terribly sweet dog,” her son added.
The family didn’t know that Bristol Township recently added Saturday hours for animal control calls, so they didn’t call until Monday. That same day, Waligorski was online and saw a story about an injured dog found in Bristol Township, near her home.
When Waligorski saw the photo of the dog, she knew immediately it was Dusk, Schilling said.
After meeting with the family, reviewing video and pictures of the dog and checking the county dog license number, township Animal Control Officer Tom Morris confirmed Tuesday that “Lady” is “the same dog.”
That someone could intentionally hurt a 40-pound dog is unimaginable, the family said.
“It’s so crazy to know it was so close to home. It’s something you don’t really imagine happening,” Schilling said. “It’s really hard to take it all in that someone could really do that to a creature that has been nothing but loving.”
The CARES vets put Lady’s eyes back into their sockets, but her left eyelid had to be heavily stitched to keep the eye from falling out again, Finnell said. There is zero chance she’ll regain her sight in that eye, Finnell said she was told.
There is also little chance she will see again out of her right eye, Finnell said, adding that's what she was told by a CARES ophthalmologist who examined Dusk on Tuesday
But the surgeon who also examined the dog on Tuesday said its jaw is lining up and she might not require plates to hold together her fractured skull while it heals.
Finnell said the vet who first examined Dusk on Friday said the animal had multiple skull fractures but no road rash or abrasions that would suggest being hit by a car. Rather, the vet said, it’s more likely someone hit the dog in the head with a baseball bat.
Finnell said she will continue handling the online ChipIn account she opened Sunday to raise money for Dusk’s ongoing medical care. As of Tuesday afternoon, nearly $2,500 had been raised, according to the website.
“I will give them whatever is needed, as it is needed, and if there are funds left in the account after her care I’ll donate to a (similar) cause,” she said.
Meanwhile, Morris is determined to find the person responsible for beating Dusk. He visited nearby businesses to review video surveillance tapes Tuesday.
“When I find the person or persons who did this, I am definitely going to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law,” he added.
A Bucks County SPCA humane officer said the agency is not involved in the case, which is being handled by Bristol Township police.

For the love of a Lady

Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The first time that emergency dispatcher Jessica Finnell overheard the 911 call during her shift last Friday morning she thought, that can’t be right.

Another dispatcher for Bucks County Emergency Services took the report from a man who said he found a dog with both eyes hanging out of the sockets. Finnell’s job that day was notifying police about it.
But the call had to be a mistake, she thought. Either that or the dog had to be dead.
She later learned from police that the 40-pound mutt with a black coat and white muzzle was alive, and alone.
Not for long though.  
Don’t let them put her down, she told the Bristol Township animal control officer who retrieved the dog from the parking lot on the 5300 block of Emilie Road and took it to the CARES specialty veterinary clinic for treatment.
“I’ll do whatever I can to help her,” she said.
That included taking the newly blind dog into her Warminster home.
“She is phenomenal,” Finnell said Monday night, as she knelt on the living room floor of her apartment where she fussed over the dog she has named Lady. “She is amazing. She is unbelievable. I totally fell in love with her.”
The vet estimated Lady is 7 years old and she shows signs of having been nursing, though it is unclear how recently, Finnell said. Lady is well-behaved and housebroken.
“I don’t know what happened with her, but she is perfect,” Finnell added.
At CARES, a veterinarian was able to put Lady’s eyes back into their sockets, but her left eyelid had to be heavily stitched to keep the damaged eye from falling out again, Finnell said. There is little chance she will see out of the eye again. The right eye isn’t much better, either.
At the moment, the vet believes she is completely blind, Finnell said.
The vet found multiple skull fractures, but no road rash or abrasions that would suggest the animal was hit by a car. Finnell was told by the doctor it’s likely someone hit Lady in the head with a bat, which can pop out the eyes.
Bristol Township covered about $300 worth of medical expenses for Lady. That’s the cost covered for a stray. The money covered some initial care, the stitches, the eye relocation, some pain medication and some antibiotics. But additional medical care will likely be necessary.
Lady may need plates to hold her skull together until it heals, Finnell said. She also will need a CT scan and ultrasound of her abdomen to rule out other internal organ damage. Her left eye may need to be removed.
Finnell will be taking her back to CARES on Tuesday to see an ophthalmologist and surgeon.
She has started a fund through ChipIn, a website, to cover Lady’s ongoing medical care and more than $1,200 was raised in the first 24 hours. Next, she plans to look into opening a dedicated bank account for Lady as well. She can hardly keep up with the emails she has received from people asking about Lady.
“Thanks for caring so much to take care of her. Although she was so unfortunate to have experienced this, I am sure what you do for her from this point out will far exceed the damage,” one woman wrote on the comments section of the ChipIn website promoting Lady’s cause.
“It’s a sad testament that such evil people exist in this world. Thanks so much, Jessica for the love you have shown to Lady! You’re both in my prayers!” another woman wrote.
The newspaper was unsuccessful Monday in reaching either Morris or police to see if they have developed any leads or information into who might have beaten Lady.
Meanwhile, Finnell, a single mom of two who works 10- to 12-hour shifts, is adjusting to a new routine with a new family member. She hasn’t had a pet in the house since she was a child.
The first two days Lady mostly rested, but on Monday she started exploring the house, even went outside for a walk, Finnell said. She is eating and drinking without any problems. A representative with the Blind Dog Rescue Alliance contacted Finnell with advice for helping Lady adjust to a newly sightless life.
Finnell is emphatic that she wants to do what is in Lady’s best interest, even if it means giving her up to someone with more experience caring for a sick and blind dog. Though she isn’t sure she could bear letting her go. Since coming home with Finnell, Lady is often at her side.
“I would love to have you,” she said, looking at Lady.
“Me, too,” 7-year-old Arianna said.
“Me, too,” Finnell’s youngest, 2-year-old Madison, added.
Lady and her guardian Jessica Finnell