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Drug kingpin got free rein

Thursday, December 21, 2000

By Ernie Hoffman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Life in the Westmoreland County Prison was like another day at the office, with a few extras thrown in, for convicted drug kingpin Ronald Whethers, according to a scathing report from a state grand jury that was released yesterday.

"Ronald Whethers acted like he was a little warden in the jail," state Attorney General Mike Fisher told a news conference at the State Police Training Center in Unity.

Whethers, already under a life sentence in federal court for drug-dealing and racketeering and awaiting trial on a murder charge in the Westmoreland facility, continued to run a half-million-dollar a year illicit drug operation there with the help of some guards, one of whom is accused of smuggling a cell phone to him, Fisher said.

Whethers was afforded special food, including late-night snacks of chicken wings and french fries and when he felt like partying on the weekend, he'd even order alcoholic beverages brought in, the attorney general said.

"It's certainly not a pretty picture," Fisher said of the prison operation as portrayed in the report, approved by Dauphin County Common Pleas Judge Isaac Garb after a seven-month investigation into Whethers' operation.

The report was especially critical of the actions of several unnamed guards and some prison administrators, including Warden Kurt Scalzott.

As a result, Scalzott's job could be on the line this afternoon, when the county Prison Board meets in Greensburg. Some members said it certainly will be a topic of discussion, but the warden told reporters he will not resign the job he has held since the facility opened in 1993.

The grand jury investigation was prompted by a June 22 raid on the prison. State police and Fisher's agents arrested Whethers, his daughter Rachel, guard Anthony Shawley of Derry and four other persons accused of being part of the drug ring.

Yesterday, state police fanned out with warrants for the arrest of 20 other persons, one of them a guard.

The grand jury -- which heard testimony from prisoners, guards and officials at the prison -- said Whethers used a cell phone or pager to run his drug ring and that he bribed Shawley to smuggle drugs, pagers and several cell phones into prison.

It also said guard Arthur Maljan, 44, of West Newton, another of those charged yesterday, accepted a large amount of cocaine from Whethers in return for doing favors for the inmate.

Fisher said Shawley, Maljan and other guards often smoked marijuana in the prison parking lot after they finished their shifts.

Fisher said the investigation also uncovered evidence of gambling by some guards, but he refused to comment on reports of sexual liaisons between inmates and staffers or other reports about irregularities in the food-service operation at the prison.

Don Svetkovich, president of United Mine Workers of America Local 522, which represents about 130 guards at the Hempfield lockup, defended Shawley and Maljan. "I thought they were good guys," he said.

The grand jury said the illicit drug ring operated undetected for two years because lack of security at the prison provided a "free opportunity to commit crime." Police learned of it when one of Whethers' dealers sold drugs to an undercover state trooper.

Inmates in the prison's D Unit smoked crack cocaine and marijuana, then blew the fumes into a toilet and flushed it to escape detection, Fisher said.

Whethers was allowed to go to the prison medical department when he wished, and there he would meet and talk with other prisoners, according to the grand jury.

"The medical department was more of a social club for Whethers than a place to receive treatment," Fisher said.

Some guards testified that the behavior of other guards disturbed them. They said these guards watched television, played cards and fraternized with the inmates.

Some inmates also were given advance warnings of searches.

Some prisoners testified that guards looked the other way when inmates beat up other inmates or stole things from them.

"Whethers was involved in virtually all of the operation," Fisher said.

Fisher said there was no evidence of criminality among the guards except for Shawley, Maljan and a third person who no longer works at the prison. He said he did not contemplate the arrests of any more guards, but he would not say that the investigation had ended.

Fisher also said that the guards who were not named in the report could face disciplinary action by the county if the courts would approve the release of their names.

Some members of the prison board said some changes could be made today, but others said they would prefer more facts before anybody is fired or new orders are issued.

County Commissioner P. Scott Conner, a prison board member, said many of the grand jury's 14 recommendations were similar to those made after the state Corrections Department inspected the prison in August. And some of those have been implemented already, he said.

But Conner, an outspoken foe of Scalzott, said more changes are needed.

District Attorney John W. Peck, another board member, said he needs more information before proceeding. He also said the board as a whole has never discussed firing Scalzott.

Scalzott said he had not read the entire grand jury report and would not comment on it.

Whethers, now 41, was arrested in 1995 for ordering the June 1993 fatal beating of William Michael Lucas, whose heart and liver were transplanted into then-Gov. Robert P. Casey.

But through a series of appeals and other legal maneuvers, Whethers was able to avoid trial as he waited in the county prison, even though he was convicted in U.S. District Court in the meantime on drug and money-laundering charges.

Finally, Whethers pleaded no-contest on Oct. 26 to third-degree murder and pleaded guilty to drug and racketeering charges stemming from incidents at the prison and from a Fayette County-based drug operation he once headed.

Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 4 in front of Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Richard E. McCormick Jr.

Other highlights from the grand jury report:

County inmates were allowed to work on the locks at the prison and they were given access to maps of the facility.

Witnesses testified that until mid-1999, inmates on work release were permitted to bring cell phones into a locker room they used when leaving and returning to the prison, as long as they were using the phones to contact work.

Outside contractors doing work at the prison were scanned by metal detectors at the front door, but then allowed to take their vehicles to the back of the prison, where they could take anything they wanted from their vehicle into the prison without a further search.

Inmate Rachel Malletz testified that Shawley told her he delivered pills, alcohol, cocaine and marijuana to inmates, just by carrying the items in a bag.

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