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.
Then he missed 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.”
“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.