By PETER H. MILLIKEN
Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains, who was shot a week before he took office more than 16 years ago, advises people working within the justice system to be aware of their surroundings and to take all threats seriously.
“I think everybody needs to be a whole lot more wary, a whole lot more concerned about people who act out their frustrations,” agreed Judge R. Scott Krichbaum of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, whose life has been threatened.
“You have to be careful where you’re going. You have to be careful to probably not announce everywhere you’re going and what your complete schedule is” to avoid being ambushed, he added.
Gains and Judge Krichbaum offered their advice in the wake of the spate of fatal shootings of those involved in the justice system.
In recent weeks, two Texas prosecutors, Colorado’s prisons chief, a West Virginia sheriff and a Jackson, Miss., detective all have been gunned down.
After he refused to accept $25,000 in cash from an organized crime representative, Gains was shot in the abdomen by Mark Batcho, who is serving 28 years in the Ohio State Penitentiary for shooting Gains and former county Prosecutor Gary Van Brocklin. Gains was shot in his Boardman residence on Dec. 24, 1996.
“I was actually targeted because I was refusing to play ball with these people” in organized crime, he said.
Mob boss Lennie Strollo and mobster Bernard Altshuler recruited Batcho and other thugs to do the shooting.
“People are made unhappy every day by decisions made by judges and decisions made by prosecutors, and there’s a very real threat of harm, a very real threat to the safety of any of us and our families,” Judge Krichbaum observed. “People act out their frustrations now, much more so than they used to,” he added.
“This potential threat, as you know, in light of what happened to me, comes with the nature of the job,” Gains said. “If somebody wants to kill you, they’re going to get you.”
“None of us are immune from some type of retribution, and it just goes with the territory.”
As for his surviving being shot: “That was through a fluke. That was an act of God, you know. Don’t forget, the revolver jammed. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” Gains said.
“On that night, of course, I let my guard down because I actually became convinced that what I was hearing on the street was not accurate,” he said of threats that had been made against his life.
Altshuler, Jeffrey Riddle and Lavance Turnage received life prison terms after a federal-court jury convicted them of a racketeering charge, which included the attack on Gains. Riddle and Altshuler died in prison late last year.
To this day, Gains said he experiences numbness on one side because of the shooting and cannot feel the vibration of his cellular phone on that side. The shooting also sometimes still haunts him in his dreams, he said.
“It feels like yesterday for me,” he said, despite the passage of time.
After the shooting, Gains said he installed a home- alarm system at his expense and got in the habit of varying his routines and driving routes. He also said he answers his home door with a pistol in his hand, and always carries a cellular phone and usually a portable police radio.
“I’m constantly looking in the rearview mirror to see if I’m being followed, because I had been followed before,” he said.
Unlike many of his colleagues in the justice system, Gains keeps a listed home telephone number, and it was on that phone line that he received an 11:30 p.m. tip as to who shot him, he said.
For the first three weeks after the shooting, county sheriff’s deputies stood round-the-clock guard inside Gains’ residence and a deputy chauffeured Gains. “It really infringes on your life,” he said of such security, explaining why he canceled it. A sheriff’s vehicle was parked in his home driveway for two additional weeks, he recalled.
Police supplied him with a bulletproof vest after the shooting, but he wore it only twice. “It’s bulky, and I just chose not to wear it,” he explained.
“Vary your routine. Take any threats seriously. Be aware of your surroundings,” including the constant presence of the same people or car nearby, which should be reported to local police with the license number, Gains advised prosecutors, judges and law enforcement personnel.
DEATH THREATS ON JUDGE
Although he wasn’t shot, Judge Krichbaum has been the target of at least two death threats; and a third man who had appeared before him challenged him in a Boardman restaurant to a fist fight outside.
“I don’t know that anything particular can be done to beef up security. We all are citizens of the community. We don’t live in a bubble,” Judge Krichbaum said, noting that Ohio’s common pleas judges are elected political figures.
“We’re a part of the public, part of the fiber and the essence of this community,” he added.
Although they are protected on the job by courthouse security, judges are engaged in the same walking, driving, shopping, movie- and church-going, and golf-playing as other citizens, he noted.
“There are risks that way for any of us. I don’t know that we can be completely protected,” he observed.
Kenneth Favors pleaded guilty to intimidation and retaliation after threatening to kill Judge Krichbaum and his wife, Sharon, in two collect telephone calls from the county jail to their residence in April 2005.
Visiting Judge Thomas P. Curran sentenced Favors to four years in prison the in 2006, but granted him judicial release after seven months in April 2007.
“That’s always been a very sore spot for me. I think he should have been put in the penitentiary for as long as he could have been (10 years), and I think it should have happened a lot faster than it did,” Judge Krichbaum said.
When Favors later violated his probation by assaulting a woman with a vacuum cleaner without provocation, Judge Curran sent him back to prison in July 2007 to complete his full four-year term.
Timothy Franken, then chief trial lawyer in the county prosecutor’s office and later a common pleas judge, said he thought Favors made the threats against Judge Krichbaum because Judge Krichbaum had sent him to prison before and he feared Judge Krichbaum would send him back.
In another case, Judge Curran released Richard Clark Jr., then 19, on a personal recognizance bond after nearly five months in jail that began when Clark told two courthouse sheriff’s deputies in April 2007 that he would kill Judge Krichbaum. Clark later pleaded guilty to retaliation, and Judge Curran put him on three years’ probation.
Clark was angry at Judge Krichbaum because sheriff’s deputies detained his aunt for slamming Judge Krichbaum’s courtroom door while exiting after he had resentenced Clark’s uncle.
Judge Krichbaum said he was challenged to a fight by a man who was arrested and brought to a contempt of court hearing in 2008 after refusing to appear as ordered for jury duty. When the judge gave him a choice between 10 days in jail or 10 days on jury duty, the man chose the latter.
That man was never criminally charged in the subsequent restaurant altercation, which the judge said he was able to walk away from.
“You try and recognize where threats can come from, where disturbances can come from, and you try to nip them in the bud. You try to take the precaution ahead of time,” Judge Krichbaum said of the courtroom environment.
Judge Krichbaum said he has allowed jurors to smoke inside the courthouse, rather than putting them at risk of threats if they were to smoke on the courthouse steps.
Gains noted that the county administration building, where the prosecutor’s office is located, had a sheriff’s deputy with a metal detector at the door several years ago, but that security was canceled. “Apparently, the county can’t afford it,” Gains said.
As to whether that security should be reinstated, Gains said: “I don’t know if it’s all that necessary ... We don’t have any intelligence from any law enforcement entity indicating that any of our lives are in danger.”
However, next door, at the county courthouse, sheriff’s deputies guard the front door, where everyone entering undergoes a metal detector and baggage screening.
Carol Rimedio-Righetti, chairwoman of the county commissioners, said she will discuss with Sgt. Salvatore Pascarella of the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office, who is in charge of courthouse security, the possibility of again stationing a sheriff’s deputy full-time with a metal detector at the county administration building door.
In recent months, she said she has asked that deputies make rounds at least three times a day within the administration building, which houses not only the prosecutors’ office, but also, the commissioners’ office, the 911 center and the county’s data processing, tourism, human resources, facilities, purchasing and tax map offices.
“People are angry. Gun accessibility is out there,” Righetti observed. “I want everything protected.”
“For elected officials, I mean there’s always that chance that somebody may try to come after us because of a decision we make,” Righetti said.
However, as for the commissioners, she added: “I don’t think we’re as high profile in that area as the prosecutor is, or the judges are, or the deputies or the police departments.”
Signs soon will be posted in county buildings, saying they are patrolled by sheriff’s deputies, Righetti said.
As with Gains, Judge Krichbaum said he carries a gun.
“I do carry a gun since I was threatened by Mr. Favors,” the judge said.
Gains, a former city police officer, said he carried a pistol before he was shot because of the threats he had heard but had left it locked in the glove compartment of his car the night of the shooting.
“I’ve got two investigators, who, obviously, are armed,” Gains said, declining to discuss other prosecutors’ office security measures. “I don’t intend to increase anything,” concerning security.
Gains, who undergoes firearms qualification annually at the Youngstown Police Department firing range, said it is important for people who choose to be armed to update and maintain their firearms training regularly.