Feud erupts in Pa. over wounded veteran's sentence
Pocono Record, Stroudsburg, Pa.
STROUDSBURG, Pa. — An unusual feud has spilled out into the public between two of Pike County's top elected office-holders.
Pike County Commissioner Rich Caridi argues that the justice system should offer leniency to a veteran who has multiple drunken driving convictions, but Pike County District Attorney Ray Tonkin accuses Caridi of playing politics in a prosecution.
Tonkin's office has gone to Pennsylvania Superior Court to appeal a decision by Pike President Judge Joseph Kameen, who in March granted a furlough to injured veteran Timothy Flaherty.
The furlough allowed Flaherty, 30, to leave prison and seek out-of-state inpatient treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. He was granted another furlough Sept. 27, this time for outpatient treatment at Common Ground, a veterans transitional residence in Montrose, N.Y.
But on Sept. 13, in a similar case, Kameen denied a furlough request by Edward Siro Jr., 53, of Beach Lake. Siro, a service veteran with multiple drunken driving convictions, asked to be placed in the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Wilkes-Barre for addiction treatment. He remains in prison.
Before addressing the furlough requests, Kameen in each case issued sentences with a mandatory minimum of one year and a maximum of five years in Pike County Correctional Facility.
Pennsylvania law requires a sentence be less than five years for someone to be eligible for furlough, Tonkin's office said in court papers, so neither man should have been eligible for furlough.
Furloughs are ordered by judges and their duration and conditions can be different in each case.
"In the case where the commissioner is now attempting to apply political pressure on me to ignore the law, which protects all motorists, early release was granted. In the other case, early release was denied," Tonkin said in a written response to questions about this story.
"It would be more beneficial for the veterans of our area if the commissioner would spend the same energy and resources to correct his administration's failure to raise the degree of care afforded to veterans who have served our country and returned home to our area," Tonkin said.
He was referring to Caridi, who recently asked members of the media, including the Pocono Record, to write about Flaherty's case.
"The judge made a decision based on a compassionate plea. I take offense that the district attorney is going to Superior Court to embarrass our judge," Caridi said. "Our veterans don't deserve this."
Caridi is himself a veteran and advocates for other veterans.
"None of us asked to be sent to war. This is the result," Caridi said. "Veterans try to get rid of their demons with alcohol."
But that doesn't negate the law, Tonkin said, adding that the appeal is not an attempt to embarrass the court.
"It is obvious the commissioner is more interested in playing politics over a criminal case in an effort to have me ignore the law that has been enacted to safeguard people from the destruction caused by repeat DUI offenders," Tonkin said.
As former warden of the Pike County Correctional Facility, Caridi said he knows prisoners spend a lot of time thinking about suicide. He believes Flaherty would be a suicide risk if he went to prison.
"I am surprised that the commissioner, who serves as the president of the prison board, has so little faith in the professional staff at the Pike County Correctional Facility to prevent suicides by inmates," Tonkin said.
Injured in explosion
Flaherty was first injured in 2006 in Afghanistan. The vehicle he was riding in exploded, and the others in the vehicle died. Details of the incident are unclear, said his grandmother, Mary Flaherty of Blooming Grove.
To the best of her knowledge, Flaherty stopped breathing in the field and was pronounced dead over the radio. But when a helicopter arrived, a medic discovered he was still alive. Flaherty was resuscitated and given a tracheotomy, but it punctured his lung. Flaherty was soon sent to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.
After recovering, Flaherty continued to serve in the Army. He returned to Afghanistan and re-enlisted for six more years with the goal of becoming a parachute jump master.
In 2008, while at Fort Bragg, N.C., Flaherty's parachute collapsed, and he hit his head badly.
He still wanted to serve in the Army, but it was becoming more difficult. He was put into a few special military programs, but nothing seemed to help as the effects of traumatic brain injury, PTSD and addiction took over, Mary Flaherty said.
"You could see there was something terribly wrong with him," she said.
He has been arrested for drunken driving in North Carolina, West Virginia and in Harrisburg, she said.
BAC four times limit
In 2010, Timothy Flaherty crashed his car on Route 6 in Milford, near Interstate 84. He kicked two state troopers in the groin during that arrest and later pleaded guilty to DUI, simple assault and resisting arrest, court records show.
Flaherty was sentenced by Kameen to 15 days to six months in prison and 17 months of probation that would have ended in July 2012.
Flaherty wanted to get treatment at a veterans hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., but the state would not accept Flaherty if he was still under parole supervision, so Kameen released him from parole in September 2011.
Flaherty went to the facility, but then left, according to court papers.
In May 2012, driving with a suspended license, Flaherty struck a vehicle in Milford and continued driving. He then struck another vehicle, injuring the driver, who happened to be a veteran, Tonkin said. When he was tested, Flaherty's blood alcohol concentration was more than 0.3 percent, almost four times the legal limit.
On June 28, Flaherty was charged after driving near Route 6/209 in Westfall Township, near the Best Western hotel, with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.317 percent. It was his fourth DUI conviction in four years, according to court records. One person has already been injured by Flaherty, Tonkin said.
"It could have been any one of our family, friends or neighbors whose life could have been destroyed, if they had found themselves in the path of Mr. Flaherty's vehicle or someone like him driving with a blood alcohol content almost four times the legal limit."
Judge stands by decision
In his answer opinion, sent to superior court, Kameen said he stands by his decision to furlough Flaherty.
"It is clear to this court that (Flaherty) is in serious need of rehabilitation and treatment for his PTSD and substance abuse issues. The Legislature has empowered the courts such as this to retain jurisdiction of DUI cases. We chose to exercise that authority," Kameen wrote.
If a higher court judge sides with the Pike District Attorney's Office, Flaherty will have to go back to Pike County jail.
Mary Flaherty says her grandson is getting the help he needs while on furlough.
"I have seen a tremendous difference in him. I saw him smiling for the first time in a long time. He says, 'I'm getting to be the person I used to be.' Kameen, I think he is great. He sees what is happening to these veterans. It's not going to help to lock them up."
No one is more aware of that than Edward Siro Jr.'s parents in Beach Lake.
From shortly after he was arrested for DUI in October 2012, until he had his day in court in September, Siro was in treatment and didn't drink. For the first time in a long time, he was doing well, Edward Siro Sr. said.
Today, Edward Siro Jr. is serving one to five years in Pike County Correctional Facility.