The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

December 3, 2013

Suspended Hartleton police chief found guilty of extortion

By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item

Update, 5:30 p.m. Tuesday: Zerbe was found guilty of theft by extortion, a felony, following more than three hours of deliberations.

Zerbe was found not guilty of other charges. Misdemeanor charges were dropped earlier in the day.

Update: 1 p.m. Tuesday:

LEWISBURG - Attorneys for the prosecution and defense have rested their cases, made final arguments, and now will wait for a verdict from the jury.

Testimony in the theft and conspiracy case against suspended Hartleton Police Chief Donald Zerbe ended late this morning and the jury is expected to begin its deliverations this afternoon.

Update: 11 a.m. Tuesday:

LEWISBURG - Hartleton’s suspended Police Chief Donald Zerbe took the witness stand in his own defense this morning, testifying in Union County Court that he was looking for a way to help motorists, aid the borough’s playground fund and keep the department’s officers out of court.

Zerbe, 68, of Laurelton, faces three third-degree felony counts — two of theft and one of conspiracy — and two misdemeanor charges of obstruction and official oppression in the case, which is being tried in front of Judge Michael Hudock.

Zerbe said this morning he established the playground fund in 2005. He wanted to help motorists who violated the law keep their insurance, while still benefiting the playground. He also called it a money management issue because when one of his four part-time officers had to go to court, they were paid for two hours, even if they spent less time there.

Updates on this case will be filed throughout the day.

 

LEWISBURG – Four witnesses testified Monday morning for the prosecution as the theft trial of suspended Hartleton Police Chief Donald “Larry” Zerbe got under way in Union County Court.

Among them were James Anderson of State College and Jaime Carpenter of Spring Mills, whose Oct. 8, 2012, speeding citations led to the investigation that uncovered thealleged fines-for-playground scheme.

Both witnesses said they were pulled over driving west on Route 45 and cited by Hartleton Police Officer Matt Trapane, who along with their citation documents gave them business cards with Zerbe’s name and phone number.

Anderson testified Trapane told him sometimes Zerbe would arrange donations he “offered to some people” instead of the citation. Anderson said he was cited doing 53 mph in a 35-mph zone on his way back to work in State College.

Telling his co-workers about the “donation” offer, his manager overheard him, asked him about it, then called the state police, Anderson said. Later that day he called Zerbe, who told him to send $150 donation to the fund. The original fine had been $155.

Carpenter testified that she too was pulled over westbound on Route 45 by Trapane and cited $137 for doing 48 mph in a 35-mph zone. She said Trapane handed her Zerbe’s card and told her to “give the chief a call” about how to handle a donation for the fund instead.

Carpenter said she did call Zerbe, who told her to send the citation and a check. This made her “leery,” she said, and led her to called District Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Mensch’s office, where she learned the citation had not been filed.

Also testifying was Roberta Wagner, an office administrator in Mensch’s office who spoke with Carpenter. Wagner said she looked up 33 cases of possible “fines for the playground” deals, 18 of which were citations filed then withdrawn and 15 citations that were never filed.

The state police investigation found that between 2008 and 2012, a total of 33 drivers had taken the donation route. Of those, 18 citations were filed and withdrawn, and 15 citations were not filed at all.

Under questioning from Zerbe’s attorney, Hank Clark, Wagner said officers do not usually give a reason for withdrawing a citation because it’s within their individual discretion to do so. However, Clark noted that during that same timespan, more than 1,500 citations had been issued in Hartleton borough for speeding.

The last witness of the morning was Wendy Stiers, Hartleton borough secretary and treasurer, who said the playground fund has been in place since 1972. Stiers said she did not know where checks for the fund had been coming from, but once she learned of the investigation, she refused to deposit any more.

The trial continues this afternoon.