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No injuries to humans, dogs in city house fire

Jimmy Ward was outside on his porch Friday afternoon in Washington when he heard a loud “kaboom” and saw a bright flash.

Figuring it was lightning, he and neighbor William Woods swept the neighborhood, checking roofs, but couldn’t see any obvious damage, even though Ward said he “smelled something.”

“We walked up here, and we couldn’t see anything,” Ward said less than an hour later. “There was no smoke or anything.”

The retired city firefighter was standing on the 200 block of Maple Avenue, near a house where crews from his old department and their counterparts from North Strabane Township were dispatched based on a report that smoke was coming from the roof shortly after 3 p.m.

No one was home during the fire, but city fire Chief Gerald Coleman said there were six or seven dogs in the house at the time by his count. All of the pets were unharmed.

Smoke was billowing from the roof, but Coleman said fire had only been visible in a section of one side of the house. It took about a half-hour to put it out.

“We still had some hotspots to deal with at that point, but in that half-hour, we had the bulk of the fire knocked down,” Coleman said.

Damage from the fire was confined to the attic. Still, Coleman said the two lower floors were affected by water and smoke. He estimated the damage came to $25,000 to $40,000.

The woman who rents the house didn’t want to be interviewed by a reporter.

Woods said he could hear dogs scratching while he was pounding on the locked front door of the house after the smoke started to show.

“I was beating on the doors like crazy,” he said.

He went around and tried the unlocked side door, letting out two dogs, and went in the house to make sure no one was inside.

Woods put the dogs in a shed on the property until he borrowed two leashes from another neighbor. Firefighters later rescued the remaining animals from the basement.

Coleman said he’d spoken to the state police fire marshal about the accounts of the apparent lightning strike he’d gotten from multiple neighbors, including his former colleague. He said the marshal agreed the evidence pointed to lightning as the cause.

Mt. Pleasant Township man proposes memorial for officer killed in 1929

Almost a century ago, Pennsylvania State Highway Patrol officer Cpl. Brady Paul was shot and killed during a roadblock on the Butler Highway. Now, a Mt. Pleasant Township man is trying to get a memorial for him.

Bill Warnock, 81, proposed the memorial to the Mt. Pleasant Township Board of Supervisors in April.

“It’s a part of history, it should be remembered,” Warnock said. “I think it’s sad, he was born and raised here and was killed too young.”

On Dec. 27, 1929, Paul and Patrolman Ernest Moore were alerted by state police of a robbery. They created the roadblock to stop a Chevrolet sedan, whose drivers were on a crime spree throughout six states over the course of several months: Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

That crime spree started in August 1929. Irene Crawford Shrader – who began using the surname Schroeder – of Benwood, W.Va., her 4-year-old son, Donnie, and Schroeder’s boyfriend, Walter “Glenn” Dague of Sand Hill, W.Va., decided to travel through different states to find work. After not having any luck, Schroeder and Dague bought several revolvers from pawn shops in Pittsburgh. They began robbing gas stations and small businesses, until retreating to West Virginia to go into hiding.

They decided to rob the grocery store P. H. Butler Co. in Butler on Dec. 27. Schroeder and Dague entered the store, tied up and gagged the manager and emptied the cash register.

While they were trying to flee, around 11:30 a.m., Paul and Moore set up the roadblock along Butler Road, west of the intersection of Baldwin Road, to stop them. Dague was driving when they were pulled over a the roadblock. Paul asked Dague for identification, while Moore walked around the vehicle.

Dague pulled his revolver out, while Paul tried to scramble away. Paul was shot three times, one in the arm, leg and the fatal shot in his abdomen. He died at 12:55 p.m. at Jameson Memorial Hospital at New Castle. Crawford sat in the back seat and shot Moore through the back window, hitting Moore across the nose and a second time in the head. Moore survived his wounds.

The suspects and the child sped away in their car. Schroeder and Dague were apprehended in Arizona 19 days later.

They were extradited to Pennsylvania to face murder charges, of which both were found guilty, and died in the electric chair at Rockview Penitentiary on Feb. 23, 1931. Schroeder was the first female to be executed in Pennsylvania.

Warnock’s father, Theodore Warnock, was on the jury that convicted Schroeder. Warnock said he was a young boy when his father was on the jury.

“It’s a very interesting story,” Warnock said. “I learned a lot about it from a young age.”

Paul was buried in Mt. Prospect Cemetery in Hickory. There is a memorial stone in New Castle near where Paul and Moore were shot.

Members of the Mt. Pleasant Board of Supervisors did not respond to the Observer-Reporter in time for this publication.

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Charges filed in Greene County courthouse bomb threat case

Charges were filed against a Vestaburg man accused of calling in a bomb threat to the Greene County Courthouse last month.

Gene Michael Luff, 33, of 428 Second St., was charged by Waynesburg police Friday with falsely reporting weapons of mass destruction, a third-degree felony, and terroristic threats causing evacuation, a first-degree misdemeanor.

The entire courthouse was evacuated before 9 a.m. June 20 after a bomb threat was called into the public defender’s office. Borough police Officer Tom Ankrom wrote in the criminal complaint that a secretary in that office had answered the phone about 8:35 a.m. According to the complaint, the caller told her, “I want you to be aware there is a bomb in the courthouse.”

The secretary told police it was a muffled male voice. She gave police a phone number listed on the caller identification. Police said they traced it back to an app “TextNow,” which assigned the phone number that morning at 8:33 a.m. to a user name “geneluff85” and email address,

Police asked Public Defender Harry Cancelmi if anything strange had happened with his office recently. According to the complaint, Cancelmi told them Luff had been in his office the day before with Cancelmi’s client Danny McElroy and Danny’s older brother, Justin McElroy.

Danny McElroy was there for a pretrial meeting, as his jury trial was scheduled at 8:30 a.m. June 20. He’s facing two felony firearms charges.

Cancelmi told police that during the pretrial meeting, Luff allegedly demanded that the trial be continued so that Danny McElroy could find a witness, the complaint said. Cancelmi told police that the conversation became “slightly heated,” and he asked Luff to leave his office, the complaint said.

When police asked Luff about the incident, he allegedly told them that Danny was the one who asked him to leave, the complaint said. Luff allegedly told police that when he left the courthouse that afternoon, he had no further contact or involvement with Danny McElroy’s case.

But on Monday, police said they discovered that to be false. The same secretary found a voicemail on the public defender’s office phone from 7:02 a.m. June 20. It was Luff, calling from his cellphone, asking if Danny’s trial had been continued, police said.

The bomb threat, called in an hour later, had the courthouse evacuated from 8:45 a.m. to about 11:30 a.m. Three bomb-sniffing K9 officers from Pittsburgh were brought in to investigate the threat and eventually cleared the courthouse for resumed occupancy.

Nearby streets, including South Washington and Church streets, were blocked off during the investigation. Law enforcement officers from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office, Greene County Prison and state police also assisted at the scene.

Two who failed to appear for jury duty jailed for contempt

A man and a woman who failed to appear for jury duty were fined and sentenced to 72 hours in Washington County jail, while a second man was ordered to perform 25 hours of community service.

Judge John DiSalle ordered David C. Duerr of Burgettstown to report to the jail June 7, while Jennifer Plunkett of Houston began serving her sentence June 28.

Duerr was fined $500, the maximum set by the Judicial Code. The maximum incarceration for ignoring a jury summons is 10 days’ imprisonment

Both were penalized for failing to report for jury duty April 15.

Duerr’s court file includes notations going back to September 2017 when he said he had just found his summons and asked to be excused.

His service was deferred to November, when he identified himself as a business owner with 48 employees. According to notations in his file, he called a court employee a vulgar name, agreed to serve in July 2018, and slammed down his phone.

Duerr, owner of a small business, said Wednesday that serving on a jury wouldn’t allow him to keep in touch with his employees by phone during business hours if a problem arose, a risk he couldn’t afford to take.

A prospective juror with a hardship has an opportunity to explain his or her situation to the presiding judge, who can excuse a juror from service, said Patrick Grimm, Washington County Court administrator.

Jurors are permitted to use electronic devices in the jury lounge wile waiting to be called for selection, but not when they are inside a courtroom. They can attend to personal or professional matters by phone while on breaks from testimony, but cellphones are routinely collected from jurors during deliberations.

Duerr was sent a final notice stating he had to appear in court in person and explain why he had not complied.

Duerr on Wednesday said of letters about jury service, which are sent by regular, not certified mail, “The only one I got was the one I responded to.” He said he doesn’t recall receiving additional notices.

In January, DiSalle deferred Duerr’s jury duty until April, but put him on notice that he could be held in contempt of court, which would be punishable by jail time.

DiSalle convened a hearing May 30 and found Duerr in “indirect criminal contempt of the jury summons” for failing to respond to his summons and failing to appear for jury duty April 15.

“There are people out there who are available,” said Duerr, who represented himself at the May 30 hearing.

Plunkett, who was fined $25, was also found in contempt for failing to appear for the same trial week beginning April 15.

Phone numbers listed online for Plunkett were each answered with recordings saying the numbers were no longer in service. Court documents listed G. Clayton Nestler as her attorney, and he did not immediately return a call.

The third prospective juror, who performed community service, was the victim of a mixup, said his attorney, C.J. Blackwell.

The lawyer for John Shadek, 56, of Washington, has filed a motion with DiSalle requesting that the charge against his client be dismissed.

Shadek was incorrectly charged under a section Blackwell said dealt with a witness who had been granted immunity from prosecution for failing to appear.

Shadek was among a pool of 200 prospective jurors specially summoned to comprise a panel to sit in judgment on a death penalty case.

Blackwell said Shadek called the wrong number and heard a recording that said his services were no longer needed.

“It was an honest mistake,” Blackwell said, noting that the charge against Shadek was not accompanied by a narrative known as an affidavit of probable cause.

At his first court appearance, no assistant district attorney was present. When the judge heard testimony, Blackwell said he presented evidence from Shadek’s phone records.

Shadek, a machinery operator, is not permitted to use a cellphone during work hours inside a steel building where signals don’t penetrate, Blackwell said.

Shadek’s hearing was in April, and Blackwell filed a log of 25 hours of community service performed in May at the Taylorstown American Legion Post of carpentry work, cutting weeds and mowing, according to court records.

Grimm wouldn’t comment on the specific cases, but he said Washington County Court sends between 5,000 and 6,000 jury duty summonses a year.

Grimm said of jurors who fail to appear, “We occasionally have no-shows, but I wouldn’t call it a widespread problem. Generally, when people realize they failed to appear, they contact us.

“We send a letter that they failed to appear and they’ll be mailed a new summons and questionnaire.

“Sometimes there’s a legitimate reason, or they put the wrong date on a calendar.”

Jury summonses also are sent, at times, to people who have moved or died.

“Our system of government provides for a trial by jury to resolve certain legal matters,” Grimm said. “It’s important as part of our democratic processes and government that citizens serve as jurors when called upon.

“It can be a burden to serve as a juror or be called to serve, but once people actually sit as a jury, overwhelmingly they find it to be a positive experience.”

Jurors who provide an email address are sent a reminder to appear, and if they fail to show up, they get a followup email. The court is considering notifying prospective jurors via text message, perhaps next year.

“I can’t jail anybody,” Grimm said. “Judges make those decisions.”

The next trial term in Washington County Court is scheduled for Monday, July 15.