Illustration by © Bram Janssens

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of reports by BeaverCountian.com special features contributor April Johnston that will take you deep inside a city under siege.

Rob Sealock woke shortly after 2 a.m. on July 2. The mask to his CPAP machine, which he uses at night for his sleep apnea, had shifted, causing air to leak out, and the left side of his face felt unusually numb. He sat up and reached for his shirt, crumpled next to the bed, with his left hand.

He missed.

Then he missed again.

And again.

Cursing, he finally grabbed the shirt with his right hand and marched directly to the bathroom to look in the mirror. He didn’t like what he saw. The left side of his face was sagging, as if he’d just received a dose of novocaine at the dentist. He looked down at the left hand that hadn’t wanted to obey him. Its fingers curved into a C and refused to straighten.

He rushed back into his bedroom and woke his wife.

“I think I’m having a stroke,” he told her.

An ambulance took Sealock to the hospital, where doctors ran tests and declared him extremely lucky. The blood clot on his brain had broken in his favor, and he was unlikely to experience any lingering effects. They prescribed blood thinners, ordered him to quit smoking and suggested he reduce his stress.

Sealock immediately filled the prescription and tossed his Marlboro Reds. But stress? That he couldn’t avoid. Because just a month before he ended up in the hospital, in an emergency city council meeting, he was named acting chief of Beaver County’s most beleaguered police department.

And he was due back at work, where that department was down four officers, violent crime was on the uptick, a spring murder had made national news and allegations of corruption had already brought down two chiefs.

Police work in Aliquippa is notoriously difficult. What patrolmen in other Beaver County departments may see once in a career, Aliquippa police are likely to see several times a year.

And the spring and summer of 2018 have been particularly volatile.

It began on April 15, when 37-year-old Antwaiin Lawson was found in the 200 block of Fifth Avenue with a fatal gunshot wound to the head. Less than a month later, on Mother’s Day, 33-year-old Rachael DelTondo was gunned down in her parents’ driveway. Her death, which had already made national news, whipped into a firestorm when reporters revealed DelTondo had spoken with state police and the state attorney general’s office in connection with investigations into the Aliquippa Police Department.

Both murders remain unsolved.

Then on July 18, 32-year-old Terrell Henson was shot to death during a botched home invasion.

Police also responded to a teenager brandishing a loaded AK-47 on June 20, a brawl – which began on Irwin Street and ended in front of the police station – on July 4, stabbings on July 15 and July 26 and a bank robbery on July 23.

“It wouldn’t be that different from any other year, except this all happened within three months,” Sealock said.

The turmoil inside the police department, much of it related to the DelTondo murder case, has been equally demoralizing.

The leak of sensitive police documents – including an incident report detailing the night police found DelTondo and then-17-year-old Sheldon Jeter Jr. parked in a car with steamed-up windows – sparked a state police investigation into the department last fall. A statewide investigating grand jury convened a few months later to hear testimony about alleged corruption in Beaver County, including the city of Aliquippa and its police department.

Though charges have yet to be filed, the looming investigations have already taken their toll. In June, Aliquippa Council voted unanimously to place Chief Donald Couch on paid leave after Councilman Matthew Mottes announced he had firsthand knowledge that Couch was a target of the state police investigation.

Assistant Chief Joseph Perciavalle stepped up to acting chief but was on the job just two days before he, too, was placed on paid leave. Beaver County Detectives charged him with distributing an obscene image to the 17-year-old daughter of Aliquippa Police Sgt. Kenneth Watkins, who had been placed on paid leave back in May because his daughter was identified as a witness in the DelTondo case. She was with DelTondo just before the murder.

With Couch, Perciavalle and Watkins on administrative leave and a captain out sick, the department is down to 12 officers. Full capacity is 18.

Sealock has been trying to hire new officers, but it’s a difficult task. Few officers want to work in Aliquippa for $14 an hour when they can get better paying, less taxing police work elsewhere in the county.

A recent search yielded just seven applicants. Two passed the police test. One immediately got hired by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Sealock hired the other one. Meanwhile, four crews of three officers have struggled to cover 21 shifts a week.

In July alone, the department worked 106 overtime shifts. One officer worked 12 double shifts in 13 days. Even Sealock took five doubles in a row.

“We’re so busy I forget my schedule sometimes,” said Patrolman James Mark Cillo, who logged 196 hours on his last paycheck. “When you’re up for a day and a half straight, it wears you out.”

“I tell my wife, when I go to work, expect me to work a double,” Patrolman John Lane added. “A lot of us have accepted it. You have to do what you have to do to survive.”

In 1979, two Aliquippa police officers were accused of stealing five handguns and $2,500 in cash from Sol’s Sporting Goods on Franklin Avenue. The supposed theft touched off rumors of a police burglary ring and Beaver County District Attorney Edward Tocci threatened to convene a grand jury to investigate corruption and poor leadership.

It’s been almost 40 years, but it remains a stain on the department.

“People still bring that up to us,” Sealock said. “We’ve had to live with that. And the soon-to-be shitstorm that’s coming from the grand jury – we’ll have to live with that, too.”

Sealock has no way of knowing who, or how many, from the city of Aliquippa and the police department will be indicted, but he fears that when charges are handed down, the fallout will be swift and mighty. State police raided the Aliquippa City Building back in March and Mayor Dwan Walker has refused to meet with investigators. Councilman Mottes’ claim that Couch is part of the probe led to his downfall. And with the national media spotlight already pointed in Aliquippa’s direction thanks to the DelTondo case, any indictments seem ripe for intensive coverage.

“It worries me because I feel like we’re going in the right direction now and maybe it’s going to set us back,” Sealock said. “I hope we’ll still have the respect of the residents, but there are some who will say, ‘if one’s bad, they’re all bad.’”

Cillo has already sensed a shift, particularly when he’s out in the cruiser, patrolling the streets.

“It’s more apparent since the DelTondo murder,” Cillo said. “We get more F yous.”

But, somehow, despite the unsolved murders and the violent summer, the corruption allegations and the punishing hours, the morale in the department is up. Many of the officers like the way Sealock is running things.

His first directive as chief was to recuse the department from the DelTondo case. He’s also ordered his officers to call state police in on any high-profile cases so that the department’s limited resources can be used elsewhere. It was state police who solved the July 18 shooting of Terrell Henson.

The moves have earned praise from the community, including DelTondo’s mother, Lisa.

But it was Sealock’s response to Beaver County District Attorney David Lozier’s insinuation that DelTondo may have been murdered by a police officer that resonated among his officers. Sealock immediately halted street patrols and required that any calls be answered by at least three officers.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” Sealock said. “(Lozier) put a target on our backs.”

The emergency measures have since been lifted, but the good will has remained.

“Guys want to work their asses off for him,” Cillo said. “He’s been on the street for 20 years. He knows what we go through. He’s doing everything he can for us.”

Lane agreed.

“It’s a massive change,” he said. “It’s hard when you come to work and you feel like you wear your vest to protect you from the people in here (rather) than the people out there. You were always thinking, ‘Is this the day I’m going to get fired?’”

Along with reporting for BeaverCountian.com, April Johnston also writes and produces Nebby, a podcast about Pittsburgh.

52
Reader Comments

avatar
Photo and Image Files
 
 
 
Audio and Video Files
 
 
 
Other File Types
 
 
 
20 Comment threads
32 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
30 Comment authors
DoTellDotellVeritasWaiverednblackmercbenz Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest top voted
Notify of
G.A.M
Guest
G.A.M

“One immediately got picked up by the Drug Enforcement Agency.”

Could you explain that? Poorly worded at best.

John Paul
Site Founder
John Paul

Thank you for the comment. The article has been updated to clarify that the other applicant had been hired by the DEA.

Ghetto girl
Guest
Ghetto girl

WTF Dwan, why aren’t you cooperating with the investigation?! If you’ve got nothing to hide it shouldn’t be a problem for you, right? It’s all fun and games when you’re grandstanding for a photo op or attending community gatherings but you didn’t win a popularity contest. You were ELECTED to run the city and fulfill all your campaign promises so do your fucking job! Haven’t heard publicly a word from you yet backing your police officers for the jobs they’re doing since all this shit went down. Real classy but then again, you have none.

Rob, really sorry to hear about your health issues and glad you’re ok. Hate to think where this city would be if something happened to you now! Thank you again for taking on all this BS. The shit that occurred 40 years ago has nothing to do with your dept today other than the fact that you guys are still being paid the same hourly rate…smh! Pitiful! Council needs to make cuts elsewhere and find you guys more money. Staffing has been a problem for how long now, 15-20 years? You guys deserve combat pay for what you’re dealing with.

There are citizens that support our officers and appreciate you guys showing up for work every day, myself included. I hope you all can continue to do so even though it’s wearing you down and pray for everyone’s safety.

I WON DEE-WON
Guest
I WON DEE-WON

ALL I worry about is MY Alighetto flag and the up and coming “Little Thugs” football team! They WILL make me proud! Kill on Thursday…Play on Friday! GO QUIPS!!!

Chantae hines
Guest
Chantae hines

Wow…. Go play in traffic with flip flops on…

Bruce
Guest
Bruce

Coming from a coward.

mercbenz
Member
mercbenz

Ghetto Girl.. well said! Truth is Dewan should have acted on the massive payroll theft that he ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY knew was going by Couch and Pudik for at least 4 years. All that money paid to these 2 idiots would have covered decent pay raises to the dedicated officers of our police force who actually have and still do work their butts off.

BUT instead.. our Mayor And his Bro both chose to ignore it. To make it look like they are doing something they put in time clocks that all of the long time honest employees have to use!

AND best of all.. he has openly said at council meetings and other public functions that he would personally fire ANYONE he found who was steeling from the city. He forgot to add to that statement “anyone except couch and Pudik”.

I WON DEE-WON
Guest
I WON DEE-WON

Can you say “Kick Back”!?
That is the ONLY thing that makes sense.
GO THUGS!

Society Is In Trouble
Guest
Society Is In Trouble

Well said mercbenz ! but watch out lil couch may attack you on here, only if he can put the bowl or pipe down long enough ! Maybe he will get drug tested at work, no wait that’s right you are color blind ! maybe its medicinal ? So, Dewanna always knew about the double and triple dipping done by Couch and Pudick. I know pretty much everyone is glad Couch is gone, well maybe Lynn and Mark miss you, but you helped out when the house ” caught on fire ” Pudick, well he got put on a crew and all of a sudden has to have surgery ! Oh shit you have to work hard again, see you later, go to New Orleans, you will fit in perfect there. So with Donny off, I wonder who will pay Dewanna’s bills ? RICO, RICO, RICO

mercbenz
Member
mercbenz

@Society.. the only surgery Poudick needs is to have his head surgically removed from Couchs ass. Its been up there so long I doubt just lubing it up helped at all.

If Poudick is off… why does he have a city vehicle at his home??? He can drive his own personal vehicle while he’s all drunked up on his insurance!

ricimer
Guest
ricimer

No it does not feel good to have a target put on your back. Chief Sealock do you have the same sympathies for the citizens of Beaver County who have had a target put on there backs by the Sheriffs Dept. And the Aliquippa police.

BCShitHole
Guest
BCShitHole

What does he have to do with the Sheriff’s Department?

ricimer
Guest
ricimer

BC Shithole where you from ?

DoTell
Member
DoTell

@ric.. they obviously don’t know that the quip cops and sheriff dept is basically the goon squad!

Melissa
Guest
Melissa

Said it from the start, Robbie’s a good man and many of us support him 100%. Keep your chin up, Chief

24-7
Guest
24-7

I personally would like to say “THANK YOU” to the men of the APD. I really do appreciate that you men are still willing to protect me and my family in this ungrateful cesspool of a town. My hat off to you men! Again, THANK YOU! Just remember, most of us are with you! It is a shame that you must live with the stigma of the most corrupt police dept in Beaver County from 20-50 years ago. Those are the guys that should have been investigated. And anybody that is old enough to remember knows exactly who I’m talking about. The list is long, but the names still keep coming up to this day. Godspeed.