Judge unseals memos accusing APD

Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan on Wednesday unsealed two memos written by a former city detective implying that top Altoona Police Department officials wanted to cover up a Memorial Day 2010 bar assault by off-duty patrolmen.

Police Chief Janice Freehling on Wednesday afternoon said the memos written by Craig Zahradnik were his “fairy tale version” of what happened.

And Detective Sgt. Ben Jones produced an email on Wednesday from a deputy attorney general in which she stated she believed that Zahradnik had an “axe to grind” and lacked credibility.

Freehling said that within two days of the incident at Pellegrine’s Lounge in 2010, she had contacted now state police Maj. Timothy Mercer and asked that state police take over the investigation, which they did.

Cpl. Joseph Cigich of the Rockview barracks was assigned, and after a statewide grand jury investigation, former Altoona officers Duane Eichenlaub and Eric Kriner were charged with assault and with playing a role in getting colleagues to leave their names out of an official police report.

The case took 32 months to resolve; four officers lost their jobs; and the Altoona Police Department received a “black eye” that rankles Freehling, Deputy Chief Robert Seymore, Detective Anthony Alianiello, who is in charge of the city’s detective division, and Jones, who did the department’s internal investigation.

Kriner entered guilty pleas to simple assault and obstruction of justice in December, and Eichenlaub was found guilty in January of aggravated assault, two counts of simple assault, conspiracy to hinder a police investigation, tampering with public records and obstruction of the administration of justice.

Kriner will be sentenced in March and Eichenlaub in April.

“You don’t expect to have officers exhibit this type of behavior on duty or off duty. We put our trust in officers to do the right thing, not assault the public,” she said.

But she and the other top police officials said they did not cover up the Pellegrine’s brawl, they took action internally and they cooperated with state police.

A July 18, 2011, memo that Zahradnik sent to Cigich contends he was told not to talk to anyone about the bar brawl and police involvement in it and was told if he did, it would be a “career-ender.”

He concluded that memo by stating that Freehling stopped him as he entered a room in the police department and told him: “Craig this [the Pellegrine’s brawl] is bad enough and it’s gonna cost the City enough money, I’m giving the State what I am giving them and that’s it, we’re not helping them anymore, if they figure it out on there [sic] own then so be it.”

“It’s absolutely not true ” Freehling said, explaining she never made such a statement.

To show that city police continued to cooperate with state police on the investigation, Jones on Wednesday produced an inch-thick packet of emails between he and Cigich and he and the Attorney General’s Office.

He then produced a email dated Sept. 7, 2011, two months after the Zahradnik memo, in which he discussed the Pellegrine case with Deputy Attorney General Jonelle H. Eshbach, who was part of the investigation.

Jones commented in his email, “I understand that Craig Zahradnik has been making noise about us as a department being complicit in some type of cover-up as well.”

Jones wrote, “I am willing to sit down and talk to you about that if need be, because those assertions are absurd at best!”

While the two were communicating about the details of investigation, which Jones did not want released, he, with Freehling’s approval, produced Esbach’s assessment of the Zahradnik memo.

Eshbach, who was on the team that prosecuted Jerry Sandusky last year, concluded, “As far as Zahradnik, I don’t believe him. I understand he will want to get with whichever camp[s] will listen to him and try to attack your department but obviously he has an axe to grind and I don’t give him any credibility at this point. You guys did what you had to do; you were cooperative and on the level. I have nothing that leads me to conclude otherwise.”

The “axe to grind” that Eshbach referred to involved Zahradnik’s domestic problems and his retirement from the city police department, a subject that police officials would not address Wednesday.

According to Mirror records, Zahradnik had been investigated for terroristic threats in 2010 in connection with reported threats against a male friend of his then estranged wife.

Last September, he was charged with stalking his now former wife, court records show. The stalking incident received a great deal of publicity in October, and Zahradnik is awaiting disposition of the charges in the Blair County Court of Common Pleas.

Kriner’s attorney, Roger R. Laguna Jr., discovered the Zahradnik memos as he was preparing for Kriner’s trial last year. He indicated to Judge Sullivan he intended to introduce the memos, which include Zahradnik’s initial investigation of the Pellegrine case and the communication with Cigich, to show that Kriner was the victim of “selective prosecution” and that others – the police department’s top echelon – had covered up also.

Sullivan ruled the memos were not relevant to the charges that the officers had beaten Herman “Bo” Lardieri and Earl P. Eshelman, a man who came to Lardieri’s aid in the men’s restroom of Pellegrine’s.

Lardieri allegedly had touched Eichenlaub’s wife inappropriately while in the bar area prior to the restroom brawl.

Lardieri was convicted last year of lying to a statewide grand jury about the incident and is serving a state prison sentence.

Sullivan sealed the memos, he said, to protect the rights of Kriner and Eichenlaub to a fair trial.

At the request of the Altoona Mirror – and after consulting with Kriner’s and Eichenlaub’s attorneys – he unsealed the memos Wednesday morning.

In the memo to Cigich, Zahradnik related conversations he allegedly he had with Freehling, Seymore, Alianiello, Jones and others.

The implication there was a cover-up in stemmed from several comments:

  • That Freehling didn’t want to put Zahradnik’s report of the incident in the police computer system.
  • That he was not to talk to anyone about the incident or possible police involvement. Zahradnick alleges Alianiello stated if he did, it would be a “career ender.”
  • That Freehling indicated her department would not cooperate with state police.

Freehling said the incident report was not placed in the computer system because within a day of the fracas state police were involved and the reports went to the state.

Alianiello denied Zahradnik’s statements attributed to him and said as soon as he found out here might be city police officer involvement, he went to Freehling who called state police.

Freehling said she never made any statements about the financial costs that the city may incur because of the brawl.

“We were concerned about the behavior of off-duty officers and what may have happened, not lawsuits,” Freehling said.

The four officers that addressed the Zahradnik memos have 127 years of police experience, Alianiello, 43 years, Freehling, 37, Seymore, 33, and Jones, 14.

The were all angry Wednesday upon reading the unsealed documents for the first time.

Seymore was upset at the damage he said has been done to the department by the Pellegrine situation. Alianiello said he has given his life to the department.

“Everyone in this room is honest, and if someone has done something wrong, we are not going to cover it up,” said Freehling.

Zahradnik could not be reached Wednesday. Kriner’s attorney was ill Wednesday.

Eichenlaub’s attorney, Lawrence Rosen of Harrisburg, said he didn’t believe the outcome of his client’s case would have been affected even if the memos were available to the defense.

“We did look at it, but we just thought it was not helpful in the long run,” he said.

Cigich referred any statements to the Attorney General’s Office.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.