Monday, June 22, 2015

Lower Southampton daycare case highlights loophole in child protection law

Posted: Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A former Lower Southampton day care worker accused of roughing up a toddler might be able to work with children again, according to the state agency that oversees child care services.
Also, future employers — and parents — might not be able to find out that Nataliya Manzyk was once accused of dragging and throwing across the floor a child she was supervising.

The situation highlights a loophole in the state law that is designed to protect children, according to two Pennsylvania child advocates.
Nataliya Manzyk
Earlier this month, 38-year-old Manzyk, of Lower Southampton, was placed in a special probation program, called Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, that is typically reserved for nonviolent first-time offenders.
If she successfully completes ARD, Manzyk — who was charged with simple assault, child endangerment and harassment — can petition to have her criminal record expunged, meaning her arrest won’t show up in a criminal background check. A person accepted into the ARD program doesn’t plead guilty.
The newspaper wasn’t successful in reaching Bucks County prosecutor Megan Stricker, who handled the case, for comment on why Manzyk was accepted into ARD. But Chief of Prosecution Matt Weintraub said the outcome was a plea bargain that resulted from some “factual issues” with the case.
“This is the best result we could achieve,” Weintraub said.
After the child’s parents reported the alleged Jan. 7 assault, police watched surveillance video of Manzyk grabbing the child from behind and throwing him across the floor at the Sunshine Daycare in the 500 block of Harding Avenue, according to court documents.
Police allege Manzyk was also seen on surveillance video dragging the toddler “an extensive distance” across the room by the hood of his sweatshirt. The force of being dragged injured the child’s neck and cheek, police added.
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which oversees child care services, was notified about the abuse complaint, according to online inspection records. Not only was Manzyk terminated, but an unidentified assistant in the same class was also terminated for failing to report it as required under state law, according to the reports.
As part of her agreement with the court, Manzyk cannot work in the day care field during the two years she is on supervised ARD, her attorney, Louis Busico, said. She also must complete 10 hours of community service.
Busico said he requested the DA consider his client for the probation program, calling her an “excellent candidate.” He added that the District Attorney’s Office did a thorough investigation into Manzyk’s background and circumstances surrounding the case before concluding she was appropriate for ARD.
“They did their homework and concluded this was the appropriate result,” Busico added. “She is an outstanding mother and wife, with no criminal history. She is exactly the kind of person the ARD program was designed for.”
A Human Services spokeswoman confirmed that if Manzyk completes ARD and petitions to erase her criminal record, she would pass the state-required criminal background check for people who work with children. But if the child abuse report against her had been substantiated, it would show up on a child abuse clearance report notifying a potential employer that she was identified on a physical abuse report, Diana Fishlock, DHS deputy press secretary said.
All child care center workers in Pennsylvania are required to undergo a criminal background check, child abuse clearance and FBI fingerprint check.
The general public, though, has no way of knowing if a child care worker has been indicated as involved in substantiated child abuse because the disposition of the case is confidential, Fishlock added. Access to the information is restricted to authorized personnel, such as a potential employer, under the state’s Child Protective Services law.
That lack of information disturbs Diana Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association, a nonprofit statewide organization that advocates for early childhood care and education programs. She was equally stunned to learn that a day care worker accused of abuse would be eligible for ARD.
“I’ve never heard of that process being applied to what would be considered child abuse,” she added. “And given a heightened awareness of child abuse here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I am surprised.”
Barber recommended parents who are looking for daycare or early childhood education programs review the state inspection records of a center before signing up their child. The inspection records and complaint and citation histories are available online through the state’s Child Care Provider Search engine.
The Manzyk case demonstrates why criminal and child abuse checks are performed for child care workers, added Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee. But, she added, if all other elements of the law work the way they should — and an investigation found someone perpetrated child abuse — that information should appear in a child abuse screening.
“There are some loopholes, which is why we have to be careful to not think background checks are panacea to knowing what we need to about the people caring for children,” Palm added.

Bristol man who crashed into house won't be charged in woman's death

Posted: Monday, June 15, 2015
A 20-year-old Bristol man will not be charged in the death of a 93-year-old woman who died soon after he drove his pickup truck into a Bristol Township house in December, police said Monday.
Ronald Simmons, though, was charged Monday with risking a catastrophe, driving under the influence of marijuana and related offenses in connection with the Dec. 26 hit and run on the 60 block of Redbrook Lane in the Levittown section of the township. Simmons was not charged with the death of Jennie Russo, who died hours after the accident of natural causes, authorities said.

Ronald Simmons
Police said Simmons’ pickup was traveling northeast on Rolling Lane when it left the road and struck a curb before plowing into the southwest part of the house and entering Russo’s bedroom. He then backed up the truck and left the scene, they added.

Russo, who was on hospice care, was asleep in her hospital bed about 5 feet from the wall that was struck, according to the affidavit.
She wasn’t struck by the pickup, which did push a dresser into her bed, and knocked religious statues from the walls, according to her son Ronald Russo. An autopsy later found that Russo died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a thickening of the lungs, police said.
After striking the house, Simmons drove the truck about 66 feet across the front yard and hit a posted sign, before leaving the area, the affidavit notes. One of the truck’s steps broke off and became wedged in the dirt, the court records show, and several red paint chips and vehicle parts were left behind.
The truck parts, along with more paint chips, two lens covers, tinted plastic, a fender cover and a piece of red plastic molding found by Ronald Russo and his wife were instrumental in tracking down the truck and Simmons, the affidavit said.
Simmons’ truck was found parked in front of a home in the 500 block of Bath Street in neighboring Bristol. The damage to the vehicle matched the evidence at the scene of the crash, police said.
According to police, Simmons said he had looked down to grab a water bottle that had lodged under his brake pedal when he struck the curb. He said he couldn’t stop fast enough to avoid hitting the side of the house, court documents note. Simmons also told police he left the scene because he was “scared,” police said.
Blood tests results showed the presence of the active ingredients in marijuana, the court documents note.
Simmons was arraigned before District Judge Robert Wagner Jr. on three felonies — risking a catastrophe and two counts of criminal mischief — and misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence, accidents involving death or personal injury, recklessly endangering another person and related offenses. He was released on $750,000 unsecured bail. Reached on Monday, his attorney, Jason Rubinstein, described his client as a “good kid and hard worker who made a mistake.”

Recent videos written, filmed and produced by Jo Ciavaglia

Family of a missing Virginia man hold vigil on the shore of the Delaware River where the man went missing in the Delaware River

Lower Southampton mom accused of providing teens with condoms and beer and filming a sexually provocative encounter.

Warminster woman charged in double DUI-related deaths of Falls couple

Warminster man killed after he was struck by a truck after exiting car

Cops: Suspect gives no motive in Bensalem fatal stabbing

Posted: Monday, June 15, 2015
A 28-year-old Philadelphia man admitted to stabbing to death his girlfriend’s ex-husband Sunday in Bensalem, but he hasn’t said why he did it, according to police.
Tyrone Lester, who turns 29 on Wednesday, was arraigned Monday before District Judge Joseph Falcone and is charged with criminal homicide and possessing an instrument of crime. He was taken to Bucks County prison without bail.
Lester is accused of stabbing Miguel Feliciano, 23, of Philadelphia, in the neck multiple times in the parking lot of K Building of the Salem Crossing apartment complex in the 3500 block of Street Road shortly after 7 p.m.
Tyrone Lester
Bensalem Lt. William McVey on Monday said that police do not believe anyone else was involved in the attack. Police are encouraging anyone who might have witnessed the stabbing to contact them.
Feliciano was at the apartment complex as part of a custody exchange with his former wife, who lives there with their child and her mother, police and neighbors said.
One neighbor, who did not give his name, said Feliciano and his ex-wife had been divorced three years and Feliciano was planning to remarry soon. Police could not confirm that information.
One witness told police he saw Lester get out of his black Jeep with a hunting-style knife in his hand and confront Feliciano in an “aggressive manner,” before repeatedly stabbing him, according to the police. The witness saw Feliciano losing “a large amount of blood” before stumbling away, the affidavit of probable cause states.
Minutes later, Lester was spotted driving on Street Road, where he was pulled over, police said. He was taken into custody with a large amount of blood on his clothing and skin, police added.
Police said Lester admitted using a black bayonette-style knife to stab Feliciano. Online court records do not show any other arrests for Lester in Pennsylvania.

Cops: Falls church firebomber was a suspect from the beginning

Posted: Thursday, June 11, 2015
The tale that John Serina Jr. told about how he discovered a burning cross outside a Falls church struck its pastor as odd. Falls police also found holes in the story that the 33-year-old township man offered.
Serina claimed he was walking his dog around 5 a.m. April 19 when he spotted the burning cross outside the Restoration Church in the 400 block of Pinewood Drive, according to police. He ran back to his home, which is three houses away, grabbed a trash can and started filling it with water, he claimed.
John Serina Jr.
By the time he returned, though, he said firefighters were on scene extinguishing two fires outside the church and one inside. Fire investigators later determined that someone set fire to the wooden cross in front of the church as well as a playhouse in the fenced playground. A bathroom inside the church was also damaged after a homemade firebomb was thrown through a broken window.
The fires resulted in $65,000 in damage to the small church, part of the Mid-Atlantic Division of Converge Worldwide, a Baptist denomination, church officials said.
The firebombing was the first act of what would become a mysterious vandalism spree throughout the Pinewood section of Levittown resulting in at least another $10,000 in damage, and culminating Thursday with the arrest of Serina, a convicted felon who police developed as a suspect almost from the start, according to Falls Police Lt. Hank Ward.
“It’s a big relief on our end,” Ward said at a news conference Thursday announcing the arrest.
Tullytown police arrested Serina shortly before 2:30 a.m. Thursday after he allegedly fired a pellet gun three times at a man walking in the Pinewood section where it borders Tullytown. The pellets did not hit the man, but did damage a parked car, Ward said. The man provided police with a good description of the suspect’s car.
Serina is being held at Bucks County prison on a detainer for a parole violation. He is expected to be formally arraigned Monday on charges including arson.
Serina had been on the Falls police radar since the church fire. He was the one who reported the fire to authorities and he was among the first people on the scene, Ward said.
Restoration’s pastor, Ross Manders, on Thursday recalled speaking with Serina the day of the fire and listening to his story about how he discovered it.
“He just kept saying the same story over and over again about how many great things we had done to the community listing them off one by one, and no one ever should have done something like this to a church,” Manders said. “Myself and a couple others immediately suspected that he possibly had something to do with it, only because his reaction was so over the top.”
Falls police also thought the man’s story about discovering the fire was strange.
“We interviewed him that day and his story really didn’t make sense,” Ward said.
Almost a month after the fire, police say the owners of about 20 vehicles parked in the Pinewood section reported their tires were slashed overnight. Police allege 30 tires were damaged on cars parked mostly along Poplar Lane and Pinewood Drive. During the tire slashing investigation, police obtained surveillance video from a homeowner that purportedly captured the suspect.
The video quality was too grainy to get a good image of the suspect, but it did reveal he had an unusual “physical feature” that led police to suspect Serina, Ward said. He declined to provide more information about the feature.
On Wednesday police developed information that made them suspect Serina might strike again that night, so they had extra patrols near Pinewood, Ward said.
“We were hoping that he would do something last night .... He did do something stupid last night and we caught him,” he added.
Serina confessed to slashing the tires as well as several vandalism acts — mostly graffiti — at Walt Disney Elementary School in neighboring Tullytown and the Pinewood Pool, Ward said. He also reportedly confessed to the arson at Restoration Church.
Falls police say they’ve had numerous contacts involving Serina over the years, including one in December 2008 when he was arrested for kidnapping two juveniles at gunpoint, an incident during which shots were fired, Ward said. Serina was convicted and spent five years in state prison and is still on parole, he added.
Exactly why Serina went on the vandalism spree remains a mystery, Ward said.
“He didn’t say why. He didn’t have a good explanation,” he added. “He was just going over his life and his unhappiness in life.”
Meanwhile, Manders says that he would like to visit Serina in prison, and that he holds no bitterness toward him.
“He is a sad and very unhappy person. That is not any way to live a life, that is not the life we were intended to live as human beings,” Manders said. “I want to offer him an explanation of how he was created to be. To give him some hope. To tell him there is forgiveness in this world and, we, as a church body forgive him for what he has done, even though it’s been a huge headache.”

More Information
Recent crimes that Falls police allege John Paul Serina Jr. is responsible for:
  • April 19: Arson at Restoration Church in Pinewood section of Levittown
  • May 16: Vandalism, nearly 30 tires slashed on parked cars in the Pinewood section of Levittown
  • May 21: Vandalism at Walt Disney School and Pinewood Pool involving graffiti
  • June 9: Vandalism at Walt Disney School and Pinewood Pool involving graffiti
  • June 10: Vandalism at Pinewood Pool involving graffiti
  • June 11: Fired a pellet gun three times at a man walking in Pinewood section of Levittown; man was not injured but the pellets struck and damaged a car.

Monday, June 1, 2015

No jail time for underage driver in crash that killed 3 Council Rock South boys

Posted: Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The New York teen responsible for the deaths of three Council Rock South students in a rollover accident last year during Labor Day weekend must write a 2,000 word essay and letters of apology to the victims’ families plus perform 300 hours of community service.

But 16-year-old Julia Ware, of Pleasantville, will not serve time in a juvenile detention or other residential treatment center.
Instead she will remain on indefinite probation, will not be able to drive, and continue with weekly mental health counseling, according to Wayne County Judge Raymond Hamill, who presided over the girl’s hearing in juvenile court Tuesday.
In his decision, Hamill accepted the recommendations of the county’s Juvenile Probation Office, which included requiring Julia to pay in excess of $44,000 in restitution to the three families as well as pay for counseling for the families. Julia’s parents were ordered to pay $2,500 in restitution. Her essay will focus on the impact her crime has had on the families as well as herself.
The judge told the court he didn’t believe Julia belonged in a state juvenile detention center with serious and repeat offenders.
The father of Ryan Lesher, one of the three boys who died, disagreed.
“She got off too easy,” Ed Lesher said after the proceedings.
Joe Keffer, whose son Cullen also died in the accident, believes Julia has learned a “valuable life lesson.”
“She understands that she hurt a lot of people and created a lot of sadness and misery,” he said after the hearing.
Shamus Digney, Cullen Keffer and Ryan Lesher
Julia’s attorney, John Stieh, said the emotional and repentant teen in the courtroom was a sincere reflection of his client.
“Maybe she is not behind bars, but she is in a dark, dark place and it’s a nasty place that she has put herself in, in her own head, and she is going to be in that dark, nasty place for I don’t know how long,” he said after the hearing.
The court ruling followed an emotional hour of testimony from family members of two of the three boys and of Julia Ware, who read an emotional statement telling the court she wished she had died in the accident.
“I wish I didn’t feel everyone labels me as a killer,” Julia said. “I made a mistake I cannot fix. I want you to know how sorry I am.”
Tuesday’s court appearance was a disposition hearing, the equivalent of a sentencing in adult court. Last month, in the same courtroom, Ware admitted to five charges, including three counts of felony homicide by vehicle related to the Aug. 30 accident that killed Shamus Digney, Cullen Keffer and Ryan Lesher, all 15, and injured two others.
Sadness hung heavy inside the standing-room-only courtroom, where even the judge became emotional. He told the court he read every victim impact statement, several times.
“The pain in this courtroom is palpable,” Hamill added.
Lisa Lesher read her victim impact statement directly to Julia, telling her that she cannot understand the devastation her actions caused in the Council Rock community.
“You have no idea how many people were affected,” Lesher said, her voice often choked with emotion.
She described her youngest of four sons as a two-sport athlete who worked with special needs children. He was scheduled to attend all honors and advanced placement classes his sophomore year.
“But the best part of him is his huge heart,” Lisa Lesher said. “You robbed our family, our friends, our school and our community. He was the light of our lives and you snuffed that light out. We have a life sentence without our Ryan.”
Morgan Digney, sister of Shamus Digney, told Julia that her younger brother lived every day like it was his birthday and asked that she find a way to honor his life and the lives of the two other boys.
“We don’t hate you,” she said, adding that her family didn’t want to see another life destroyed.
Wayne County Probation Officer Fran Dente, who oversaw Julia’s case, said the 10th-grader had no prior criminal history and is not a discipline problem at home or school. She made honor roll recently in school.
Julia has also taken responsibility for her actions, Dente said.
Julia’s aunt, a family friend and her mother all spoke on her behalf, as well, calling her a sweet girl who is haunted by her actions on the day of the accident.
“I know Julia is so sorry,” said her aunt, Ingrid Gori. “Julia’s life has been changed forever. Our hearts are broken for you.”
The three also mentioned how Julia’s father — Michael Ware — has not been a financial or authoritative presence in her life, describing him as the “fun parent” to be around. Ware and Britta Cleveland have been divorced 14 years.
“He never did grow up,” Cleveland said in her statement to the judge.
Ware, 53, of Scarsdale, is awaiting trial on three counts of involuntary manslaughter, endangering the welfare of children, false reports and related charges in connection with the fatal accident. He is free on $100,000 unsecured bail while awaiting trial, which hasn’t been scheduled yet. It could get underway in July. He did not attend Tuesday’s hearing for his daughter.
Authorities say that Ware allowed his daughter to drive his 2001 Chevy Suburban with another underage friend and the three boys to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. He asked Julia to bring him back a breakfast sandwich, authorities said.
Julia’s mother told the court that not a day goes by that she doesn’t feel guilty or selfish that her daughter survived the crash. She told the court she called the Council Rock High School South grief counselor and asked if there was anything she could do for the families.
Cleveland said that her daughter is not the same girl since the accident. She spends a lot of time in her room alone and has trouble sleeping. She is nervous riding in the backseats of cars.
“She has admitted she wishes she died in the accident,” Cleveland said.
In her statement Tuesday, a tearful Julia said that she couldn’t imagine what the families are feeling. She dreams about the accident. She has flashbacks at school or when she is with friends. Her life now is surreal, she said. She fears for her future.
She said she wants to start a charity in honor of Ryan, Shamus and Cullen.
“I know I shouldn’t have been driving,” she said. “I know there is nothing I can do to bring them back.”
Julia, who was charged as a juvenile and initially faced 12 offenses, also admitted to two misdemeanor counts of accidents involving death or injury as an unlicensed driver. The seven other offenses were dropped in exchange for her admission last month.
Juvenile court proceedings are typically closed to the public, but Julia’s case fell under an exception since she was at least 14 at the time of the accident and her crimes would have been graded as felonies in adult court.
The Pennsylvania State Police, who handled the accident investigation, said that day wasn’t the first time Julia got behind the wheel of a car without a license. A day earlier, Julia’s father allowed her to drive from their suburban New York City home to a vacation home on Lake Wallenpaupak, according to court documents.
State police say Michael Ware lied about Julia taking the SUV without his permission. The police investigation found Ware gave his daughter permission to drive the day of the accident and at other times, authorities said.
Witnesses interviewed after the accident told troopers they saw a dark SUV speeding down a hill in the 3000 block of Goosepond Road, near St. Mary Church Road, before hearing a loud crash.
The accident scene is near the resort community of Wallenpaupak Lake Estates, where both the Ware and Lesher families have vacation homes. Ed Lesher was staying with the four boys at the home for the Labor Day weekend.
Ryan Keim, who was injured in the accident, told investigators that Julia was “flying” and he and his friends told her to “slow down,” court documents note.
The teen girl passenger told police she and Julia went to Dunkin’ Donuts around 9:30 a.m. and then returned to the Ware house, before going to the Lesher home to pick up the boys and drive to a nearby barbecue restaurant. On the return trip, as the SUV rounded a turn, the front passenger side tire went off the road and onto the grass, then the vehicle flipped and landed on the driver’s side, the passenger told police.
Michael Ware appeared at the accident scene shortly afterward and told state police he was in the house cleaning when his daughter took the SUV without his knowledge, according to court documents. He reportedly told police he had allowed her to drive the vehicle only on private roads in the resort under his supervision.
Initially, Julia backed up her father’s story, telling authorities she took the vehicle without his permission to the nearby barbecue restaurant, the affidavit said.
Two months after the accident, an attorney representing the female teen passenger notified state police that his client told him Michael Ware let Julia drive the SUV to Pennsylvania once they were outside New York City, according to the affidavit. The teen also claimed Michael Ware walked the two girls to the car before they left for the restaurant the day of the accident.
Julia, through her attorney, later submitted a written statement that indicated she had her father’s permission to drive the SUV to Dunkin’ Donuts and then the barbecue restaurant.
Julia also said that when her dad showed up at the accident scene, she overheard him tell police he didn’t know Julia took the car so “she (and the teen girl passenger) thought they were supposed to say they had the car without permission so as not to get him in trouble,” court documents allege.

Montgomery County man accused of abusing pet boxer in Falls

Posted: Thursday, May 28, 2015 
Over six months last year, Rocky the boxer, allegedly changed from a playful and social pet to a withdrawn, accident-prone one that would flinch every time one of his owners came near him.
Falls police say they know why.
A Montgomery County man had been abusing the dog, which belonged to his ex-girlfriend, authorities said.
The same man was convicted in 2003 of kicking to death three of his ex-girlfriend’s puppies. A fourth beaten puppy survived.
Christopher George, 43, of Norristown, on Wednesday was arraigned on a charge of cruelty to animals, a third-degree felony, and released on $25,000 unsecured bail by District Judge Jan Vislosky. Authorities say the dog suffered 23 broken ribs.
The Courier Times was unsuccessful in immediately reaching George’s attorney, Ellis Klein, for comment Thursday.
In court documents, police allege that George’s then girlfriend claimed George often appeared angry at the 5-year-old dog after she moved in with him in Falls following a burglary at her home. The two dated for about six months before she ended the relationship in December.
The girlfriend alleged George would often get angry at Rocky if he laid on the furniture, eventually banishing him to the kitchen, according to a probable cause affidavit. After George discovered Rocky shredded a sheet of tinfoil, he moved Rocky to the basement, the affidavit notes.
The first suspicious signs of abuse, authorities believe, appeared in October when the girlfriend found Rocky’s paws were bleeding at the nail beds and he had a cut on his nose. George told her Rocky must have gotten into something in the basement, she said.
The girlfriend made an emergency appointment with the vet, but George made her cancel it claiming he had no money for the bill, the affidavit alleged. A few weeks later, Rocky appeared to have trouble walking up stairs and the girlfriend found he had a bruised foot.
George claimed the injury happened when he tripped over Rocky after the dog ran in front of him, the affidavit alleged.
In November, George claimed he left Rocky in the fenced backyard of their Falls home but, when he returned, the dog was gone.
Two hours later, a Falls animal control officer called the girlfriend, who had reported the dog missing, to let her know a boxer matching Rocky’s description was seen on Cabot Boulevard, which was about 5 miles from the couple’s home.
She went to the area near Norfolk Southern Rail Yard and found the dog in the middle of the road. She said George, a truck driver, typically parks his work truck there at the end of the day, according to the affidavit.
A veterinarian diagnosed the pet with subcutaneous emphysema, a puncture wound at the top of the head and blood in his urine, the affidavit noted. The vet ordered that Rocky’s physical activity be limited, but after Thanksgiving the girlfriend noticed Rocky was again swollen on both sides and soon found out that George allegedly had been constantly exercising the dog.
Two days before Christmas, Rocky was back at the vet for oral surgery. George allegedly was “adamant” about picking up the dog afterward.
She checked on the dog when George fell asleep, and found a new cut above his eye and a cut on his mouth, the records noted.
The next day, the girlfriend found Rocky outside, bleeding from his head and unable to stand without leaning against a fence, according to court documents. George claimed Rocky bit him on the arm so he put the dog outside, though it was raining heavily, court documents alleged.
She immediately took the dog to the vet, who told her it appeared the dog was abused, court documents alleged. The girlfriend immediately moved Rocky to a friend’s home.
Bucks County SPCA humane officer Nikki Thompson, who assisted with the Falls abuse investigation, confirmed that George pleaded guilty in Bucks County Court to kicking the dogs belonging to an ex-girlfriend more than 10 years ago.
Noel, a schnauzer, Shamus, a boxer, and Bella, a bulldog, died from their wounds. The fourth dog, also a boxer, was given up for adoption, according to news accounts.
George was sentenced to six to 12 months of house arrest, records show.
At his sentencing hearing in that case, George told the judge he lashed out at the animals because he didn’t know how to deal with problems in his relationship and stress from work.
“It kills me to realize this happened,” he said, according to press accounts. “I just want to move on and get help. The smart thing would have been to get out of the environment that I was in at the time.”

Bensalem police bust suspected international credit card fraud, ID theft ring

Posted: Wednesday, May 27, 2015 

Four alleged members of an international organized crime group committing identity theft and credit card fraud across the United States are in custody after setting up shop in a Bensalem motel, police said.

They were caught after a Michigan man complained that a motel room at the Comfort Inn on the 2700 block of Lincoln Highway was rented using his credit card number without his authorization, according to Bensalem police.
The man told Michigan authorities that the $1,133.51 charge was for a standard double room reserved online for May 20 to May 29, according to a probable cause affidavit. They in turn, contacted Bensalem police.
Police went to the motel room and spoke to two people — Diana Kurlovica, 23, and Artjoms Volincevs, 21, both from Latvia, who claimed that a third man who provided the ID when the room was rented had just left, the affidavit said.
Police said neither of the suspects were in the country legally; their visas had expired. Volincevs’ passport had no stamp on it, and Kurlovica’s passport was only stamped in Canada, court records show. And both changed their stories several times about why they were in Bensalem and how they got here, said police, who eventually found out they came from Chicago in a rented vehicle.
What was inside the room led investigator Detective Stephen Clark to believe that the two men were part of an ID theft and credit card cloning ring. Four recently purchased laptop computers, four cellphones, several thumb drives and other electronics, a Barclaycard statement from a Philadelphia resident, a dozen gift cards, Green Dot preloaded credit cards and several boxes of newly purchased, high-end items such as watches and sunglasses were in the room, police said. Also some unopened boxes of pizza were found.
Clark has prior experience investigating similar rings, which often involve individuals from other countries setting up shop in a hotel room and using laptops to obtain personal information from victims. In several cases, Clark said, thieves used a victim’s credit card to rent a hotel room and order food, the affidavit shows.
After Volincevs and Kurlovica were taken into police custody, two more Latvian nationals — Saulius Savickas, 30, and Dovydas Bielskis, 31 — tried to get in the same motel room, police said. They, too, were taken into custody and no visas for them were found, police said.
After a search warrant was obtained for the hotel room and any vehicles the four used, authorities said they discovered numerous pre-paid gift cards, eight cellphones, four computers, numerous Western Union transactions with money wired to Russia and other bank statements and credit card information.
Bensalem police contacted Homeland Security and spoke with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and learned they uncovered part of the major organized crime group in Latvia that conducted ID theft and credit card fraud nationally, authorities said.
ICE agents claim the group opens fictitious businesses in the U.S. to illegally wire money back to Latvia, according to court documents. The ring would obtain Vanilla or Green Dot gift cards, load them using a victim’s credit card and then withdraw the funds from an ATM, the court records show.
All four suspects, who have no fixed addresses, are charged with four felonies: conspiracy, unauthorized use of an access device, identity theft and corrupt organizations. Each was arraigned Wednesday before District Judge Joseph Falcone and sent to Bucks County prison in lieu of 10 percent of $200,000 bail.

Cops: Warminster woman was drinking wine, taking Rx before double fatal

Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2015

A 28-year-old Warminster mother of two was drinking wine after taking legally prescribed drugs that interact with alcohol as she sped along Street Road before she was involved in a three-car accident that killed a Falls couple, police said.

Lower Southampton police allege they found three empty plastic bottles and a full bottle of Sutter Home wine inside the 2004 Chevy Suburban that Kerri Millard was driving after it was involved in the head-on collision March 19.
Sharon Vince, 64, and her friend Charles Rishel, 79, — who family members said were driving home from church — died as a result of the injuries they sustained in the accident.
On Thursday, Millard was arraigned before District Judge John Waltman on two counts each of homicide by vehicle and homicide by vehicle while DUI and related offenses, including six counts of reckless endangering stemming from the crash. If convicted of homicide by vehicle while DUI, she faces a mandatory minimum three-year prison sentence.
Blood tests taken after the fatal accident found Millard’s alcohol level was .083, which is slightly above the .08 legal limit for driving in Pennsylvania, plus she tested positive for four legally prescribed medications for treating anxiety, depression and alcohol dependence, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Kerri Millard
The drugs in Millard’s system — including bupropion and topiramate — shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol, according to online drug resources.
Millard, a mother of two children under age 6, had a previous DUI arrest in 2008 that was expunged after she successfully completed a probation program for first-time nonviolent offenders.
She broke down crying during the arraignment, sobbing softly while friends and family members sat in the court galley — along with family members and friends of Vince and Rishel.
The fatal crash has left the mother of a 2- and 5-year-old “completely devastated,” said attorney Blake Jackman, who represented Millard at the arraignment.
“She remains paralyzed by grief and sends her heartfelt condolences to the families who’ve lost their loved ones,” he said.
Lower Southampton police allege Millard was driving west on Street Road shortly before 8 p.m. when she left the right lane and hit the curb. She continued driving along the shoulder and grassy roadside until she hit another curb and a concrete block, court documents allege.
The SUV then veered left, crossing both westbound lanes and a concrete divider and entering one of the eastbound lanes of Street Road, near Philmont Avenue and Old Street Road, where she crashed into the 2002 Honda Accord that Vince was driving. Rishel was her front-seat passenger.
The force of the collision caused the Accord to rotate clockwise and strike a Toyota Sequoia traveling in the outside eastbound lane of Street Road. None of the four people in the Toyota was hurt. The Accord and Suburban ended up on an embankment.
Millard had to be extricated from her vehicle, police said. An officer reported the odor of alcohol on her breath and bloodshot eyes.
She admitted drinking “multiple” small bottles of wine in the time leading up to the crash, according to the affidavit, which stated that she also told police she had taken several legally prescribed medications before the accident.
An accident investigation by the Bucks County Vehicular Crimes Task Force determined Millard was driving at 62 mph seconds before the accident. The posted speed limit on that portion of Street Road is 45 mph.
At Millard’s arraignment, Jackman argued for unsecured bail or what he called a reasonable monetary bail of no more than 10 percent of $75,000, which he said her family could post.
Kerri Millard
Millard is not a flight risk, Jackman said, adding that she hasn’t touched alcohol or taken her prescribed medication since the accident. He said she’s also receiving treatment for substance abuse.
“It’s clear if there was any time she’d be a flight risk, it was before today,” Jackman said. “Punishing her on the front end is not what bail is for.”
Assistant District Attorney Greg Shore countered that Millard’s previous arrest for DUI didn’t stop her from committing the crime again.
“And here we are again with two dead bodies,” he said. “Put bluntly, this is not about punishments. It’s about protecting the community. She was literally drinking and driving.”
Waltman agreed with the prosecution and set Millard’s bail at 10 percent of $200,000. She was taken to Bucks County prison after the hearing.
Outside the courtroom, Jackman said that he plans to file paperwork seeking a bail reduction at Bucks County Court on Friday.