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Sgt. Vojtas' return to Brentwood streets is a crime

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Batten the hatches, lock up your daughters and start planning alternate driving routes. John Vojtas is going back on the streets.

That's Sgt. John Vojtas of the Brentwood police, a star player in two highly controversial deaths whose shadows still linger over the community that employs him.

Vojtas was never found guilty of criminal charges in either fatality, and he certainly has his defenders. But details surrounding the deaths of Judith Barrett and Jonny Gammage raise enough doubt about his fitness for law enforcement that the borough should have canned him years ago.

The standard of "no convictions" may keep Tony Soprano in operation, but you'd hope a police force would set the bar for its officers a bit higher.

Vojtas has been on administrative duty in Brentwood since 1999, when a civil jury found that he drove his ex-fiancee to commit suicide with his abusive behavior and ordered him to pay damages to her survivors.

Now the borough, in its wisdom, has seen fit to reinstate Vojtas to active duty as of Jan. 1. Happy new year, Brentwood! Do you know where your insurance agent is?

What, one wonders, are they thinking? Let's review the record:

In 1995, Vojtas was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter in the killing of Jonny Gammage, an unarmed black motorist who was asphyxiated during a routine traffic stop involving Vojtas and four other suburban police officers. The racially charged case -- all the officers were white, as were the jurors -- provoked widespread outrage and left deep wounds that have yet to heal.

Six months after the acquittal, borough officials rewarded Vojtas for his role in what everybody agreed was "a tragedy" by promoting him to sergeant.

Then, in 1999, Barrett's ghost rose up from the grave.

Barrett, then Vojtas' fiancee and a single mother, died in 1993 of a gunshot wound to the head. The bullet came from Vojtas' service weapon. By the time Allegheny County police arrived at the bus kiosk where Barrett died, Brentwood police had removed all the evidence. The coroner's office ruled her death a suicide, and portions of the case file mysteriously disappeared.

Barrett's family sued, claiming that Vojtas had driven her to kill herself, and that Brentwood officials knew he misused his police power but refused to stop him.

The jurors found that the borough had created a danger by failing to discipline Vojtas, who had a history of domestic violence, but didn't order it to pay damages. They did, however, hold Vojtas liable and ordered him to pay $215,000 to Barrett's survivors. Two years later, the borough's insurance carrier paid the family $125,000 to settle the case. Half went to her daughter and half to her mother, Lillian Barrett, who never stopped asking that Vojtas be fired from the force.

Lillian Barrett died this year and now Vojtas is poised for his return, but maybe that's just a coincidence.

Meanwhile, certain points of testimony from the Barrett case are still crying out for investigation: that Vojtas called fellow officers for a ride on the night of her death but failed to mention that she'd left suicide notes and taken his gun; that he lied in sworn testimony about his use of steroids; and that he produced large amounts of cash without credible explanation of its source and kept large sums in his police locker.

Apparently, these things are of no consequence in Brentwood. Vojtas will soon be out there again with his badge and his gun, empowered to stop cars, enter homes and businesses, answer domestic violence calls, make arrests and generally wield the power of the state in ways that can change any citizen's life forever.

"Tick tick tick," said Fran Nagel, a close friend of Judith Barrett.

"It's only a matter of time until something horrible happens to someone else."

Attorney Jerry McDevitt, who handled the civil lawsuit, said he's been hearing from other officers on the force since word got out of Vojtas' reinstatement.

"They're disgusted," he said. "He's a disgrace to them all. If he lays his hands on anybody, that person's going to own the borough."


Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.

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