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Threats part of landscape for prosecutors

A few slain; judges, agents targeted, too

Sunday, December 14, 2003

By Torsten Ove, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In the late 1980s, federal agents in Pittsburgh started dismantling the Pagans motorcycle gang by putting some low-level members in prison.

In 1987, a few began cooperating and revealed that the gang had put out a contract on the lead prosecutor and an FBI agent. The idea was to disrupt the investigation before the highest-ranking Pagans, men such as Merle King, were indicted.

Federal marshals shadowed the prosecutor, who doesn't want to be identified, around the clock for a month. But his wife had no protection.

"I believed that I was unduly endangering my wife, and I requested to be reassigned," he wrote recently to the Virginia-based National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, a lobbying group for prosecutors that collects such stories.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Conley took over and faced the same threat.

"There never was an attempt, but there were security precautions taken for myself and my family," said Conley, now in private practice. "We took it seriously. I had been threatened a number of times, but those were people screaming in a courtroom. This was different."

The incident and others like it point out a sobering reality in a profession where the goal is to put bad people behind bars: Some of them want you dead.

Every prosecutor in the country was reminded of the potential for violence on Dec. 4 when the body of Baltimore Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Luna turned up in rural Lancaster County. He had been stabbed 36 times with a penknife and drowned in a creek.

Initially, agents and police wondered if he was slain by someone connected to one of his cases, in particular, the violent heroin dealers who pleaded guilty the day his body was discovered.

That seems increasingly unlikely as new details emerge, including revelations that Luna traveled regularly to Lancaster, had a credit card his wife didn't know about and reportedly frequented Web sites looking for sex partners.

Some investigators also point out that the method used to kill Luna -- multiple stabbings with a small knife and then drowning -- points to a crime of passion and not a hit by an organized drug gang.

In talking to current and former prosecutors, however, it's clear that even if Luna was killed as a result of his job, it's not likely to intimidate many people in the court system.

Luna, 38, is the second federal prosecutor in modern times to be slain. The first was Thomas C. Wales, an assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle gunned down at his home two years ago. The FBI is still investigating his death.

While killings are rare, threats to prosecutors, agents and judges are fairly common, but they don't make much of an impact.

"I always thought I scared them a lot more than they scared me," said Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, a former assistant district attorney and an assistant U.S. attorney for 12 years. "These people didn't scare me. It's a lot of punk stuff. They think they're tough."

Everyday threats

Most prosecutors who have been around long enough have been threatened by someone.

"Depending on the threat, you accept it as the nature of the business," said Conley, whose career includes stints as a prosecutor in the offices of the U.S. attorney, the Allegheny County district attorney and the state attorney general. "It's part of the job."

Getting killed, however, almost never is. It happens often in such places as Mexico and South America, but in the United States, it's front-page news.

No one has kept accurate statistics on slain prosecutors, but the National District Attorneys Association in Alexandria, Va., is trying to compile a number for a memorial. The best estimate is about eight to 10 killings over the past 30 years or so.

The last state prosecutor killed was Fred Capps of Louisville, Ky., who was gunned down in his home in June 2000 by a man he was to prosecute later that day. Mortally wounded, Capps returned fire and killed his attacker.

Perhaps the most infamous killing of any court officer came in May 1979, when U.S. District Judge John Wood Jr., known as "Maximum John" for his tough sentences, was shot behind his San Antonio home as the member of the El Paso-based Chagra drug ring were about to go on trial on drug charges.

The killer, Charles Harrelson, father of actor Woody Harrelson, was convicted and sentenced to two life terms.

Jimmy Chagra, accused of hiring Harrelson, was acquitted of conspiracy to commit murder, but in 1984, he pleaded guilty to a charge of plotting to kill Assistant U.S. Attorney James Kerr, who was shot at but not hit in San Antonio.

These kinds of incidents capture headlines, naturally, but the everyday threats go largely unnoticed outside of courthouses.

State prosecutors are threatened hundreds of times a year across the United States, according to the NDAA. In 2001, the last year for which statistics are available, 81 percent of district attorney's offices serving 250,000 people or more reported a work-related assault or threat on a staff member.

NDAA board member Kevin Lyons, the state's attorney in Peoria, Ill., said prosecutors were threatened routinely. A few years ago, sheriff's deputies accosted a man outside the Peoria courthouse with a loaded sawed-off shotgun sticking out of his backpack.

His intended target: Lyons.

"He wanted to kidnap the state's attorney," Lyons said. "Many of these people are so angry or mentally unstable, and I think he was a little of both."

'Said he would kill me'

Good statistics on threats to federal prosecutors are hard to come by. But, according to the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, they happen enough that some assistants have received permission to carry guns.

On the day before Luna was killed, the group turned over a list of threats to a U.S. House civil service committee on retirement benefits. The list is a compilation of anecdotes, all anonymous, from federal prosecutors.

"Some of them are pretty scary," said Dennis Boyd, NAAUSA executive director. "The one I remember is when an [assistant U.S. attorney] got a call from someone saying they knew where his daughter got on the bus, what time she got on the bus, what she looked like."

The threats range from planned hits by organized criminals to weird mailings from lunatics.

One prosecutor wrote that a drug defendant on pretrial release in 1993 who may have been involved in the deaths of five witnesses or family members of witnesses was plotting to kill him, an informant and two drug agents. According to a co-defendant, the suspect described the area around the prosecutor's house and the children in the neighborhood.

The prosecutor was forced to install a remote starter for his car, upgrade his home security system and tell his wife and three young children what was going on.

A Chicago prosecutor said the subject in a bankruptcy fraud case sent her a cake in the shape of a coffin -- with her name on it. He also left messages on her answering machine in the middle of the night.

"A visit from the FBI telling him to desist or he would be prosecuted for his behavior quieted him down," she wrote. "After having it tested, the U.S. marshals ate the cake."

Threats against federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh are rare but not unknown.

In August, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tina Miller said she was threatened by Richard Carroll, 37, who is charged with sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl.

"He said he would kill me, the child victim and Sharon Dorsch, and that he would shoot us in the head," Miller said in court.

Dorsch, 42, is Carroll's girlfriend and also a defendant in the sexual abuse case.

Miller said Carroll, who may suffer from a bipolar disorder, had become obsessed with her, mentioning her name more than 1,000 times and insisting that she is making up the charges against him.

The U.S. attorney's office and the marshals don't discuss security precautions, but seven marshals were in court for that hearing.

'Spare no expense'

Judges and federal agents also face threats. Federal judges receive about 500 a year, according to the marshals, who conduct threat assessments and provide protection.

That happened in Pittsburgh most recently when John M. Matvia, a disturbed North Braddock auto body mechanic, walked off his job at Mascari Auto Center in McCandless in April 2001 and called the FBI, threatening to kill then-U.S. District Judge Donald E. Ziegler and other judges he felt had wronged him. He was convicted and is serving probation in North Carolina.

In the late 1990s, Pittsburgh FBI Agent Judy Sykes was targeted for death by William Baker III, a Coraopolis cocaine kingpin whose 15-member ring was taken down by the FBI and the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS.

After agents raided Baker's house in 1998, he told a confidential source that he was willing to pay a man $25,000 and 6.6 pounds of cocaine to "have the bitch taken care of."

The FBI and IRS had been building a case against Baker, but when they learned of the solicitation in September 1998, they arrested him at his mother-in-law's house in Homestead.

"We told Mr. Baker if anything did happen to the agent, he would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," FBI Agent Phil Akins said at the time. "We told him if there was a hit out on our special agent, that this would be the time to tell us and we'd stop it." The message got through.

A few people get worried about these threats, but most just shrug.

Several veterans in the Pittsburgh U.S. attorney's office who have put away mobsters, drug gangs and other hard-core criminals are unconcerned enough that they remain listed in the phone book.

"I always looked at it this way: If they walk up to you and threaten you, they're not going to do it," said Downtown defense attorney J. Alan Johnson, a former U.S. attorney. "If they're going to do something, they're just going to do it. They aren't going to warn you first."

In the early 1980s, when the late U.S. District Judge Gerald Weber was on the bench in Erie with two other judges, marshals warned him that notorious contract killer Richard Henkel had escaped from his prison cell and had vowed to kill the judge.

Weber, whose ghost is still rumored to be roaming the corridors of the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh, was a colorful character known for plain speaking.

"Gerry said, 'I don't need any damned protection,' " recalled lawyer Philip Ignelzi, a former assistant U.S. attorney who was a law clerk at the time. "The marshals said, 'But judge, there's a specific threat against you from Henkel.' He said, 'If he's going to do it, it's a good time. There are three of us walking around here in robes. He might get the wrong guy.' "

Part of this cavalier attitude is explained by the fact that few criminals are willing to risk carrying out a threat, particularly at the federal level, because they know the heat will be relentless and fueled by anger.

When Wood was killed in San Antonio, Ignelzi said, "They went after those people with a vengeance."

La Roche College Professor Larry Likar said that was because the criminal justice system had to be protected.

"There's the idea of possible intimidation of the system," said Likar, a former supervisory FBI agent in Pittsburgh whose squad handled threats to court officers. "Every stop will be pulled out on that. We just cannot have that happen."

Likar agreed with Johnson, however, that most were idle threats.

Another inhibiting factor is that prosecutors work in offices with lots of other prosecutors. The U.S. attorney's office in Pittsburgh, for example, has 45. Killing one is hardly going to stop a case, and most criminals realize that.

"They're not Rhodes scholars," Ignelzi said, "but most of them are bright enough to figure out that if you take one out, someone is going to take [his] place."

Authorities aren't about to reveal their security plans in any detail, but for the most part, prosecutors don't need marshals living with them or squiring them around town.

"Unless there's a reason you need it, most assistants don't have it," Ignelzi said. "But if there's a hint of a threat, they will spare no expense."

Torsten Ove can be reached at or 412-263-2620.

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