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December 5, 2013

Hartleton's top cop likely to lose badge following felony conviction

— LEWISBURG — The trial is over, and so likely is the nearly 40-year career of suspended Hartleton police Chief Donald “Larry” Zerbe, who was found guilty Tuesday of theft by extortion in a “fines-for-the-playground-fund” scheme.

Zerbe, 68, of Laurelton, was charged with three third-degree felonies and acquitted of two, theft by failure to disperse funds and criminal conspiracy.

The guilty verdict means he cannot serve as a policeman under Act 120 of the state’s Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission, or MPOETC, which sets certification and standards for police officers of Pennsylvania’s municipalities.

Regulations under Act 120, which established the commission, say it can revoke an officer’s certification when he is convicted of a criminal offense. Even applicants for law enforcement jobs in Pennsylvania who are convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanors are not be eligible for employment as police officers, according to Act 120.

In his testimony Tuesday, Zerbe said he’s served about 39 years in law enforcement, 34 of them as the part-time police chief of the Hartleton Police Department, which was established in the late 1970s and operated from Zerbe’s home. All Hartleton officers are part-time.

Theft by extortion is a third-degree felony that in Pennsylvania could carry a sentence of up to seven years in prison and possibly a fine of up to $15,000.

Now in the penalty phase, Zerbe’s case goes to the Union County Adult Probation Department, which will submit a pre-sentencing report, essentially a summary of a person’s history, said Chief Probation Officer Scott Lizardi.

This will include family background, education, military service, health, employment, finances, everything “to try to paint a picture for the court of the defendant and what that person’s life has been about,” Lizardi said, “and determine what is an appropriate sentence.”

A person’s arrest record — of lack of one — and a personal statement if he’d like to make one also are included. In cases with a victim, that person may submit a victim impact statement and any claims for restitution.

Sentencing guidelines also are included. Two scores — for prior record and offense gravity — are computed to give a range of sorts to determine where a sentence should fall.

The process varies from person to person, Lizardi said.

“A person with a crime-free life who has lived in one location and held one job, it’s pretty simple,” he said, noting most Union County defendants have a long record of offenses, and the probation office submits about 300 sentencing recommendations in a year.

Ultimately, the sentence is up to the judge. A sentencing date for Zerbe has not yet been set.

The theft by extortion verdict means Zerbe is guilty of giving offending motorists an option to donate to the Hartleton Playground Fund in lieu of their speeding citations, which then were never filed with a district judge or were filed and then withdrawn.

In this case, the donation option diverted more than $5,000 in fines into the playground fund instead of into channels that Pennsylvania law mandates.

Pennsylvania classifies extortion as a theft-related offense, according to FindLaw.com, a legal information website. In Zerbe’s case, as a duly sworn police officer, he was accused of issuing citations to motorists then intentionally getting the monetary donation from some for the playground fund in exchange for disposing the citations.

Other charges against others involved in the case could be forthcoming, said Shawn Kofluk, a trooper with the Pennsylvania State Police criminal investigation division who conducted the investigation on and filed the charges against Zerbe. He said Tuesday he wouldn’t rule it out but would not comment further.

The 33 people found to have used the playground fund option are not in trouble, Kofluk said, having followed directions of a sworn police officer.

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