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Rest stop scammer case moved to Westmoreland County

All charges against seven men accused last month of scamming thousands of dollars from customers at four rest stops in Pennsylvania – including the welcome center on Interstate 70 in Washington County – are being consolidated into a single case in Westmoreland County.

The seven men, all of whom are from out of state, were arrested by police at multiple locations April 19 after numerous motorists called authorities on back-to-back days to report they were bilked out of money and jewelry by grifters who allegedly robbed the victims after making far-fetched claims about sharing their wealth.

In addition to the Pennsylvania Welcome Center in Donegal Township, state police investigated additional scams at a truck stop along I-70 near Smithton in Westmoreland County, at a travel plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Somerset County and at a rest stop on Interstate 81 in Dauphin County.

A preliminary hearing for the case in Washington County was scheduled for Monday morning before District Judge John Bruner, but all charges against the men were withdrawn so they can eventually be consolidated with the cases filed in Westmoreland County.

Deputy Attorney General Patrick Schulte, who is handling the prosecution of the cases, said the charges were withdrawn in Washington, Somerset and Dauphin counties so the charges can be tried through the single case in Westmoreland County.

“While it’s technically a withdrawal, it will be added to the incident in Westmoreland County,” Schulte said in a phone interview Tuesday.

The men facing charges are Darrell Marshall Noel III, 38, Robert Thomas Chandler, 44, Adam Smith, 38, Danny Williams, 48, John Henry Black, 38, and Robert Dennis Murphy, 70, all of whom are from Cincinnati, along with Wendell Compton, 54, of Knoxville, Tenn. They face numerous felony and misdemeanors counts, including robbery, theft and receiving stolen property, among other charges.

“All four cases are essentially being consolidated, and the mechanical way we have to do that is withdraw them … and they will be listed on that docket (in the Westmoreland Court County Court of Common Pleas),” Schulte said. “While they’re temporarily withdrawn, they are not gone forever. They will be reappear in (a consolidated) docket.”

The men are accused of going in small groups on April 18 and 19 to the various rest stops, where they told unsuspecting motorists that they had extra money they were willing to give away, police said. In some cases, they told the victims that if they pulled out their wallet, they would give them double the amount of cash. However, the suspects stole the cash or, in some cases, took jewelry from the victims, according to court documents.

The men were eventually tracked down by police and arrested at multiple locations in Westmoreland County. Police said all of the vehicles had radio equipment to help the men communicate with each other.

All of the defendants waived their cases to court in Westmoreland County during preliminary hearings before District Judge Charles Christner on May 15, according to online court records. Schulte said he expects the cases to be consolidated in Westmoreland County by next month. The seven men are all being held without bond at the Westmoreland County jail.

Montour Trail tunnel to reopen by Memorial Day

By Memorial Day, runners, walkers, and bikers might be able to once again zoom through the Greer Tunnel, located in Peters Township on one of the most scenic stretches of the Montour Trail – but only temporarily.

The 110-year-old tunnel was closed in March when structural deficiencies were found in its deteriorating ceiling.

Volunteers erected a temporary scaffold-and-plywood shield to safeguard trail users from debris detaching from the ceiling.

Now, the tunnel is undergoing major renovations that are expected to run through the end of 2023.

The renovations include shoring up the east portal and installing a 100-foot tunnel liner to stabilize the 235-foot-long concrete structure.

The projects are estimated to carry a price tag upwards of $600,000, and costs have been rising steadily.

“Safety is the No. 1 priority. We definitely regretted having to close the tunnel as the spring season was closing in, but there was no question we had to close it to strengthen and reinforce the portal,” said Julian Wolfe, vice president of the Montour Trail Council. “We’re hustling to get it open for Memorial Day weekend.”

Wolfe said once those temporary repairs are completed and the tunnel is reopened, it will remain open until the liner installation project begins, likely in late summer or early fall.

The Montour Trail Council aims to minimize disruptions during the renovation, but it has not determined whether the tunnel, at mile post 28.7, will be closed or if it will be open with limited access through the tunnel Fridays through Sundays.

“As soon as we move forward with the ceiling liner, (the tunnel) will close again, and then it is to be determined if it’s going to be closed permanently or if we can operate on a schedule that will permit access on weekends,” said Wolfe.

Wolfe said the renovation project accounts for “a significant chunk of our budget.”

The Washington County Redevelopment Authority has made a sizable contribution for repairs, and the MTC has launched an online campaign to raise $350,000.

An estimated 30,000 people use the trail each month – more than 360,000 annually – according to a 2021 study, with most of them hiking and biking the more than 60-mile-long marvel of a pathway between April and December.

In 2017, the Montour Trail was named Pennsylvania’s Trail of the Year.

The Montour Trail runs along the former Montour Railroad, which was built in 1877 and fed the area’s steel mills. At its peak, the railroad carried seven million tons of coal per year. The railroad ended in 1984, and the steel rails and any railroad ties worth salvaging were removed, according to the MTC.

The MTC was formed in 1989 to oversee the construction, maintenance and operation of the Montour Trail, which is one of the nation’s longest non-motorized suburban rail-trails.

The trail connects with Pittsburgh International Airport, the Panhandle Trail, and the Great Allegheny Passage that stretches over 330 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.

The all-volunteer organization relies on volunteers, friends’ groups, and community organizations to keep the trail in excellent condition.

“Our president, Ned Williams, always refers to the trail as ‘a jewel necklace around Pittsburgh’ because if you look at it on a map, it hangs below Pittsburgh, south and west, like a necklace,” said Wolfe. “It is a jewel.”

To donate, visit or use the QR codes located at several trailheads along the Montour Trail.

Car seats and baby formula are regulated. Is social media next?
The U.S. surgeon general is warning there is not enough evidence to show that social media is safe for young people
  • Updated

The U.S. surgeon general is warning there is not enough evidence to show that social media is safe for children and teens – and is calling on tech companies, parents and caregivers to take “immediate action to protect kids now.”

With young people’s social media use “near universal” but its true impact on mental health not fully understood, Dr. Vivek Murthy is asking tech companies to share data and increase transparency with researchers and the public and prioritize users’ health and safety when designing their products.

“I recognize technology companies have taken steps to try to make their platforms healthier and safer, but it’s simply not enough,” Murthy told The Associated Press in an interview. “You can just look at the age requirements, where platforms have said 13 is the age at which people can start using their platforms. Yet 40% of kids 8 through 12 are on social media. How does that happen if you’re actually enforcing your policies?”

To comply with federal regulation, social media companies already ban kids under 13 from signing up to their platforms – but children have been shown to easily get around the bans, both with and without their parents’ consent.

Other measures social platforms have taken to address concerns about children’s mental health are also easily circumvented. For instance, TikTok recently introduced a default 60-minute time limit for users under 18. But once the limit is reached, minors can simply enter a passcode to keep watching.

It’s not that the companies are unaware of the harms their platforms are causing. Meta, for instance, studied the effects of Instagram on teens’ mental health years ago and found that the peer pressure generated by the visually focused app led to mental health and body-image problems, and in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts in teens – especially in girls. One internal study cited 13.5% of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17% of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.

The research was revealed in 2021 by whistleblower Frances Haugen. Meta sought to downplay the harmful effects of its platform on teens at the time, but put on hold its work on a kids’ version of Instagram, which the company says is meant mainly for tweens aged 10 to 12.

“The bottom line is we do not have enough evidence to conclude that social media is, in fact, sufficiently safe for our kids. And that’s really important for parents to know,” said Murthy, who’s been traveling around the country talking to parents and young people about the youth mental health crisis. “The most common question I get from parents is whether social media is safe for their kids.”

Policymakers need to address the harms of social media the same way they regulate things like car seats, baby formula, medication and other products children use, Murthy said in a report published Tuesday. Parents – and kids – simply can’t do it all.

“We’re asking parents to manage a technology that’s rapidly evolving that fundamentally changes how their kids think about themselves, how they build friendships, how they experience the world – and technology, by the way, that prior generations never had to manage,” Murthy said. “And we’re putting all of that on the shoulders of parents, which is just simply not fair.”

While Murthy is calling for more research, he says there is ample evidence now that social media can have a “profound risk of harm” on the mental health and well-being of children and teenagers.

One critical factor is children’s brain development. Adults can suffer from the harmful effects of social media. But children and adolescents are at a “fundamentally different stage of brain development, where the pathways in their brains, their social relationships, their self-esteem and identity are all under development,” Murthy said. “And in this case, they’re even more prone to be influenced by social cues, social pressure and social comparison – and those three things exist in overwhelming abundance on social media.”

In fact, frequent social media use may be associated with “distinct changes” in the developing brain, and could could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments, according to a study cited in the surgeon general’s report.

How and how often they use social media, as well as extreme, inappropriate and harmful content they see could have profound effects on kids’ and teens’ mental health.

And research shows they are using it a lot. al. Up to 95% of youth ages 13 to 17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center.

A systematic review of 42 studies found a “consistent relationship between social media use and poor sleep quality, reduced sleep duration, sleep difficulties, and depression among youth.” On a typical weekday, nearly one in three adolescents report using screen media until midnight or later.

What they see on social media also matters. From being bombarded unrealistic body images to a culture of “hyper-comparison” to bullying, hate and abuse, Murthy said he’s worried that its effects on young people’s mental health are showing up in the “disturbing mental health statistics that we are seeing in our country, which are telling us that depression, anxiety, suicide, loneliness are all going up.”

Murthy’s report doesn’t tell young people to stop using social media altogether. There are benefits, too. It’s where teens can find a community and have a space for self-expression. LGBTQ+ youth, in particular, have been shown to benefit from social media through connecting with peers, developing an identity and finding social support.

“For every family, it may not be feasible to stop your child from using social media or there may be benefit,” Murthy said. “But drawing boundaries around the use of social media in your child’s life so there are times and spaces that are protected, that are tech free, that can be really helpful.”

Murthy’s own children are 5 and 6, but like many parents, he’s already thinking about their future on social media.

“We are planning to delay the use of social media for our kids until after middle school,” he said. “And you know, that’s not going to be easy. But we’re hoping to find other parents and families that we can partner with to make this a little easier, because we know there’s strength in numbers and sometimes making changes on your own is hard.”

Debt ceiling talks grind on, but Republicans say there's a 'lack of urgency' from White House
Debt ceiling talks showed few signs of outward progress as negotiators for President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy are trading more budget-cutting ideas
  • Updated

WASHINGTON – Debt ceiling talks showed few signs of outward progress Tuesday as negotiators for President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy traded more budget-cutting ideas but Republicans warned of a “lack of urgency” at the White House to resolve the standoff in time to avert a potentially chaotic federal default.

With barely a week to go before a deadline as soon as June 1 the Democratic president and the Republican speaker were staring down a financial crisis. Failure to strike a deal would be unprecedented, and certain to throw U.S. financial markets into turmoil, inflicting economic pain at home and abroad. Markets lowered Tuesday with no deal in sight.

“We’re not there yet,” McCarthy said at the Capitol, reiterating he won’t bring any bill forward “that doesn’t spend less than we spent this year.”

Behind closed doors, McCarthy urged his slim House Republican majority to “just stick together” despite their own factions as he negotiates the strongest deal possible for conservatives, said lawmakers exiting the private session.

But McCarthy did not expect a deal by day’s end. He told reporters the teams are eyeing “creative” ways of rolling back spending that all sides can accept.

“I believe we can still get there – and get there before June 1,” McCarthy, R-Calif., said.

Dragging into a third week, the negotiations over raising the nation’s debt limit, now at $31 trillion, were never supposed to arrive at this point – a crisis in the making.

From the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said it was “ridiculous” to suggest Biden wasn’t acting with urgency. “He wants to see this done as soon as possible,” she said.

The White House insisted early on it was unwilling to barter over the need to pay the nation’s bills, demanding that Congress simply lift the ceiling as it has done many times before with no strings attached.

But the newly elected speaker urged the president at an Oval Office meeting in February to come to the negotiating table on a budget package that would reduce spending to reduce ballooning deficits in the post-COVID era in exchange for the vote to allow future debt.

Both men said after a crucial meeting late Monday at the White House – after the president returned from the Group of Seven summit in Japan – that talks were productive.

But with time short to strike a deal, frustrations emerged as negotiators labored to come up with a compromise that could be approved quickly by the Republican House and the Democratic Senate and be signed into law.

Negotiations are focused on finding agreement over a 2024 budget year limit. Republicans have set aside their demand to rollback spending to 2022 levels, but say that next year’s government spending must be less than it is now. But the White House instead is offering to freeze spending at current 2023 numbers.

Agreement on that topline spending level is vital. It would enable McCarthy to deliver spending restraint for conservatives while not being so severe that it would chase off the Democratic votes that would be needed in the divided Congress to pass any bill.

“We are holding firm to the speaker’s red line,” said a top Republican negotiator, Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana. “Which is that we will not do a deal unless it spends less money than we’re spending this year.”

With talks perhaps done for the day, Graves said there were still “significant gaps” between his side and the White House.

The White House continues to argue that deficits can be reduced by ending tax breaks for wealthier households and some corporations, but McCarthy said he told the president at their February meeting that raising revenue from tax hikes is off the table.

The negotiators are now also debating the duration of a 1% cap on annual spending growth going forward, with Republicans dropping their demand for a 10-year cap to six years, but the White House offering only one year, for 2025.

Typically, the debt ceiling has been lifted for the duration of a budget deal, and in this negotiation the White House is angling for a two-year agreement that would push past the presidential elections.

Another main Republican negotiator, Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, who joined the speaker at the Oval Office Monday evening, said, “What I sense from the White House is a lack of urgency.”

But on the Senate side, Republican leader Mitch McConnell said, “Look, I think everybody needs to relax.”

Traveling in his home state of Kentucky, McConnell said of the back and forth, “This is not that unusual.”

However, time is growing short. The House speaker promised lawmakers he will abide by the rule to post any bill for 72 hours before voting, making any action doubtful until the weekend – just days before the potential deadline. The Senate would also have to pass the package before it could go to Biden’s desk to be signed.

McCarthy faces a hard-right flank in his own party that is likely to reject any deal, and that has led some Democrats to encourage Biden to resist any compromise with the Republicans and simply invoke the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling on his own, an unprecedented and legally fraught action the president has resisted for now.

On Tuesday, the leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus Rep. Scott Perry said: “We all want to stick together. But again, it’s sticking together around the right thing.”

He and others are skeptical of the June 1 deadline that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said is when “it is highly likely” the government will be unable to pay all the nation’s bills.

Treasury said Tuesday it is keeping in close contact with federal agencies on their planned spending as it monitors cashflows.

As the negotiators focus on the $100 billion-plus difference between the 2022 and 2023 spending plans as a place to cut, other priorities Republicans are pushing as part of the deal remain on the table.

Republicans also want to beef up work requirements for government aid to recipients in the Medicaid health care program, though the Biden administration has countered that millions of people could lose coverage.

The GOP additionally wants new cuts to food aid by restricting states’ ability to waive work requirements in places with high joblessness. But Democrats have said any changes to work requirements are nonstarters.

GOP lawmakers are also seeking cuts in IRS funding and, by sparing defense and veterans accounts from reductions, would shift the bulk of spending reductions to other federal programs.

The White House has countered by keeping defense and nondefense spending flat next year, which would save $90 billion in the 2024 budget year and $1 trillion over 10 years.

All sides have been eyeing the potential for the package to include a framework to ease federal regulations and speed energy project developments. They are all but certain to claw back some $30 billion in unspent COVID-19 funds now that the pandemic emergency has officially lifted.

Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Chris Megerian, Darlene Superville and Fatima Hussein contributed to this report.