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GIRARD Prisoner's escape fuels dispute



Published: Thu, July 19, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The prisoner walked off when he was left in the justice center lobby.

By TIM YOVICH

VINDICTOR TRUMBULL STAFF

GIRARD -- An escape from the Girard Justice Center has fueled the ongoing dispute between the city administration and court over the center.

Judge Michael Bernard and Mayor James Melfi have been at odds about the cost of the center, which opened this year, and how much, if anything, the court will pay for it.

The first floor of the two-story building houses the police department, while the court is on the second floor.

Late Tuesday morning, Lee Branch, 48, of West Ravenwood Avenue, Youngstown, was sentenced to 180 days in the Trumbull County Jail for a probation violation.

Branch was on probation to the court for three theft charges filed by Liberty police.

After sentencing, bailiff Andrew Pecchio said Liberty police were called to pick up Branch and take him to the county jail. When they hadn't arrived before lunch, Branch was taken by the public elevator from the court to the first floor lobby.

Pecchio said he left Branch in the lobby and told two deputy bailiffs who work security at the center's front door that Liberty police would pick him up. Pecchio then left. About 11:45 a.m., Branch walked away.

Court: Liberty police Sgt. Janet Virostek, who was assigned to prisoner transport duty Wednesday, explained that normally a township officer would be in court for sentencing.

Branch, however, surrendered to the court Wednesday morning and was sentenced. Liberty police were not notified until afterward.

Virostek said it took about half an hour for her to get to court. By that time, Branch was gone.

Branch remained on the loose this morning.

Key cards: Judge Bernard blamed the escape on Girard police for their continuing refusal to take prisoners from other jurisdictions into custody and on the city administration for not providing security key cards for entry beyond the lobby.

The judge declined to respond to questions.

Judge Bernard had ordered the city provide 28 key cards to the court by last Friday. The city didn't comply.

Pecchio said that if the court had a card, he could have taken Branch down a private elevator that leads directly from a holding cells in the court area into the police department.

"We do not guard prisoners," Pecchio said of the bailiffs' responsibilities. "What am I supposed to do with the guy?"

Security: Melfi said he was "appalled" that a prisoner could walk away from the center and blamed lax security on the part of the court for the escape.

Of the judge's order to provide the cards, Melfi said he can't comply because the cards system isn't fully operational.

Police Chief Anthony Ross and Capt. Frank Bigowsky said the police department has twice asked for a meeting with the judge to discuss security, but has not received a response.

"We have to know what he wants to do," Bigowsky said.

yovich@vindy.com




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