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GIRARD Escapee from court surrenders



Published: Tue, July 24, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The man, who had been on probation for theft charges, came to court Monday afternoon.

By DENISE DICK

VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF

GIRARD -- The man who walked away from municipal court last week, sparking the latest episode in an ongoing dispute between the city administration and court over the justice center, has surrendered.

Lee Branch, 48, of West Ravenwood Avenue, Youngstown, walked away from the justice center July 18 after being sentenced to 180 days in the Trumbull County Jail for a probation violation.

He had been on probation for theft charges filed by Liberty police.

Surrendered: Branch surrendered to the court Monday afternoon. He was taken to Liberty police and then transported to the jail to fulfill the sentence.

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

Bailiff Andrew Pecchio has said that after the sentencing he took Branch from the second-floor courtroom in the Girard Justice Center to the first-floor lobby.

Pecchio has said he had Branch sit on a bench and told two deputy bailiffs to keep an eye on him because Liberty police were to pick him up. Branch walked away before Liberty police arrived.

Judge Bernard has blamed Branch's escape on Girard police, saying they continually refuse to take prisoners from other jurisdictions into custody and on the administration for not providing security key cards for entry beyond the lobby.

Police and the administration countered the court never asked Girard officers to take custody on Branch and didn't notify city police of the escape.

Support for police: Melfi sent a letter to Girard police Chief Anthony M. Ross Monday, saying he supports the officers.

"What is most upsetting is the audacity of the municipal judge in placing the blame of this negligence by his department on the shoulders of Girard police," the mayor said in the letter.

Melfi questioned why Branch wasn't handcuffed, why the bailiff left Branch to go to lunch and why Branch was allowed to go out the front door to smoke.

"And finally and even more astonishing, why wasn't the Girard police dispatcher, just several feet away, notified of the alleged escape?" Melfi said in the letter.

Judge Bernard declined to comment late this morning.




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