Jury trial for former Altoona sergeant begins

Deputy Attorney General: Starr was gambling money away

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A former Altoona Police Department sergeant is on trial this week in Blair County Court, challenging criminal charges accusing him of creating false time records to receive about $9,000 in pay.

Matthew S. Starr, 41, Altoona, is also accused of claiming donations intended for the police department by depositing checks into his own account. Starr is accused of taking months to provide beneficiaries with proceeds from an online fundraiser, an account he set up to help a man who had a heart attack.

In court Monday, Deputy Attorney General Megan Madaffari told jurors that Starr’s begging, borrowing and stealing created a similar pattern of behavior for one purpose.

“It’s for money that Starr was gambling away,” Madaffari said.

When filing charges in May 2017, state police said Starr’s outstanding debt stood at $463,897.

He is charged with 10 felonies, including theft of proceeds from an illegal act, deceptive business practices, tampering with public records, five counts of theft by deception, one count of attempted theft by deception and failure to make a required deposit of funds.

While defense attorney Robert Donaldson delayed the presentation of an opening statement, he challenged several witnesses Madaffari called in support of the criminal charges.

Altoona Police Chief Janice Freehling testified Monday that she reviewed a log of Starr’s work hours between April 2016 and February 2017. The log showed that Starr often submitted four hours of overtime in addition to eight-hour work days. He also had some two-hour overtime reports.

Because Starr was in charge of the police department’s bicycle patrol unit, Freehling said he was permitted to approve his own time record. The same practice, Freehling said, was in place for the three sergeants supervising daily work shifts, the sergeant in charge of narcotics and the lieutenant in the criminal investigation division.

Donaldson asked Freehling if she questioned Starr about his time reports.

Freehling said no because she decided to turn the matter over to state police and knew that state police “prefer to do their own work.”

Donaldson also asked Freehling about the union contract rule applicable when called to work extra hours. Freehling acknowledged that officers, when called to work, are paid for at least four hours.

“But sergeants don’t call themselves out,” Freehling said.

Monday’s testimony also revealed that the city, in mid-2015, rendered a check for $7,654 for a laser-based firearm training system that Starr recommended buying from Outdoor City Guns.

Store Manager Anthony Biddle said Starr had one of these systems and provided it to Outdoor City Guns, which accepted the city’s check and retained a $200 fee for processing the transaction.

Then the business sent a check to Starr for $7,454.

“It seemed like the city was getting the unit at a good discount,” Biddle said.

Other systems were believed to cost more, based on prices that Starr collected.

FBI Special Agent William Shute also testified Monday about cellphone technology used to track down Starr’s location when he should have been working. Shute said that his research showed seven trips in 2016 and 2017 when Starr traveled between Altoona and Flintstone, Md., where Rocky Gap Casino is located.

Donaldson pointed out that on one of Shute’s examples, Starr would have had to travel 65 miles in 20 minutes.

Shute clarified that it’s possible that the time difference reflects the most southern cellphone tower range in the Altoona area and the most northern cellphone tower range in the Flintstone, Md., vicinity.

“And the person in possession of the cellphone could have been going very fast,” Shute said.