Ex-officer Starr receives probation

Former Altoona Police Department officer Matt Starr walks in front of the Blair County Courthouse prior to his sentencing hearing on Tuesday. He was sentenced to five years’ probation for convictions on six theft-related felony offenses. / Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Former Altoona police Sgt. Matthew S. Starr was sentenced Tuesday to five years’ probation for convictions on six theft-related felony offenses.

Senior Judge Stewart Kurtz, who presided over a three-day trial in February for the 41-year-old Altoona man, decided against imposing jail time for Starr’s convictions of dealing in proceeds of an unlawful act, deceptive business practices, theft by unlawful taking, theft by deception, criminal attempt at theft by deception and theft by failing to deposit funds.

The judge said he recognized Starr’s acceptance of responsibility, as offered in writing and reiterated in court prior to sentencing.

The judge also recognized Starr’s lack of prior record, financial and personal obligations to his four children, that his gambling behavior was “anything but normal “ and that the offenses resulted in a single restitution claim of $3,000.

Starr was a city police officer for 17 years.

Kurtz, who reviewed a pre-sentence report, said that before the offenses associated with the convictions, the former officer’s conduct was nothing less than honorable.

“I think he’s entitled to recognition for that,” the judge said.

The judge’s decision generated relief in court for Starr and his supporters, including his father, former Altoona Police Chief Peter N. Starr. The state’s sentencing guidelines identify nine to 18 months’ incarceration as the standard range penalty for a conviction of dealing in proceeds from an illegal act.

Defense attorney Robert S. Donaldson said he was pleased the judge recognized his option of imposing less than a standard-range sentence.

“I think it also helped that there were 45 letters submitted in Starr’s support,” Donaldson said, “and that he will have a long supervision period.”

Starr, upon leaving court and heading for the third-floor probation office where he was required to check in immediately after sentencing, deferred comments to Donaldson.

Deputy Attorney General Megan Madaffari, upon leaving court, said she was disappointed with the judge’s ruling. In court, she pointed to Starr’s course of actions and recommended incarceration for the former police officer.

“This wasn’t just one bad mistake,” Madaffari told Kurtz.

Trial testimony and court documents indicate that Starr, in 2015, arranged for the city to use grant funds to buy a firearms training system from Outdoor City Guns. But it was Starr who actually owned the system that the retailer sold to the city. Starr, because he was employed by the city, couldn’t make the sale. But he profited from the transaction because the retailer accepted the city’s check of $7,654, then gave that amount to Starr, minus a $200 transaction fee. Starr had purchased the system for $1,290.

In a pre-sentence court document, Madaffari also pointed to Starr’s creation of a GoFundMe campaign in June 2016 for a friend’s ill family member. Starr, then a police officer, lied about the availability of the money, which he had been depositing into his own bank account.

Starr also solicited money from August 2016 to January 2017 for equipment that could be used in fire investigations. But he instead he deposited that money into his own account.

From 2015 to 2017, investigators confirmed that Starr was regularly gambling at the Rocky Gap Casino in Maryland and that there were times when he immediately went to the casino after receiving solicited funds.

Starr, in court, told the judge his actions developed after a nasty divorce resulting in child support payments exceeding $1,500 a month. He said he was “strapped financially” and denied permission to pursue a second job.

But after making those statements, Starr blamed himself.

“I made a decision to go to the casino. … I made several bad decisions,” Starr said in court.

After Kurtz rendered the sentence and set a $500 fine on the conviction of dealing in proceeds from an illegal act, commonly referred to as money laundering, Madaffari pointed out that the offense carries a mandatory $100,000 fine.

“I’m not going to impose a $100,000 fine,” Kurtz said. “He has no ability to pay $100,000.”

Madaffari said the state’s statue doesn’t address a defendant’s ability to pay, but Kurtz said that he wouldn’t change his mind. Madaffari has the option of asking for reconsideration and appealing to a higher court.

Kurtz also included a condition in the sentencing order demanding Starr undergo psychological examinations for gambling and alcohol addictions and follow recommended treatment. While Starr indicated that he had had previous treatment, Kurtz said he wasn’t certain that it was sufficient.

Starr also told the judge that his life has been a nightmare for two years and that he has been trying to make amends with family and friends.

He said he has 25 years of public service. That includes time he worked a firefighter and emergency medical technical in addition to working as a police officer.

“I can guarantee you,” Starr told the judge when asking for leniency, “that you’ll never see me as a defendant in this courthouse again.”

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