Former police officers leak confidential information on ‘vulnerable’ cases, grand jury says

DA Parks Miller talks grand jury report

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller holds a press conference in regard to charges recommended against two State College police officers Friday, Dec. 29, 2017 at the Courthouse Annex in Bellefonte.
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Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller holds a press conference in regard to charges recommended against two State College police officers Friday, Dec. 29, 2017 at the Courthouse Annex in Bellefonte.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller used her last workday in office Friday to release a grand jury report alleging criminal behavior by former State College police officers.

The grand jury report alleges that former officers Erich Kessinger and Ken Ferron were involved in leaking information to assist defense attorneys and their clients. The grand jury recommended more than 100 combined charges for Kessinger and Ferron.

Former officer Thomas Dann was allegedly involved in leaking information and was named several times in the report, but the grand jury did not recommend that he face charges.

The officers involved were not only accessing State College police cases, but also other police departments’ cases “to help a private detective help criminal defendants and criminal defense attorneys basically get a head start and defeat the cops and re-victimize victims,” Parks Miller said at a press conference at the Courthouse Annex.

The grand jury recommended that Kessinger — who was terminated several years ago and became a private detective — be charged with 20 felony counts of unlawful use of a computer, four felony counts of unlawful duplication, 12 felony counts of criminal use of a communication facility, 20 misdemeanor counts of obstructing administration of law, 20 counts of unlawful access to stored communications and 12 counts of detective act licenses.

Recommended charges against Ferron — who retired during the grand jury investigation — include 13 felony counts of unlawful use of a computer, 13 misdemeanor counts of obstructing administration of law, 13 counts of unlawful access to stored communications and two felony counts of unlawful duplication.

“The majority of these cases are the most vulnerable ones — rape cases, assault cases, sexual assault,” Parks Miller said.

There were at least a dozen pending criminal cases involved in the leaks, several of which were Penn State police cases.

At the time the information was shared with Kessinger for defense attorneys and defendants, it was “confidential and privileged” and should not have been given to those individuals, Parks Miller said.

She said victims were approached by Kessinger, and in some instances they were, “by their own words, harassed and intimidated.”

Charges are forthcoming. Pennsylvania State Police will continue the investigation and not stop until everyone responsible is charged, she said.

According to the grand jury report, Detective Christopher Weaver testified that the State College Police Department first became aware that someone inside the department was “illegally disseminating confidential and privileged police information to outside parties” during its 2015 investigation of Justin Alexander, who was sentenced in 2016 to two years of probation after pleading guilty to falsely imprisoning a 19-year-old woman.

During the grand jury investigation, a state police trooper interviewed a witness, the victim’s next door neighbor, who was approached by a man in casual clothes who asked to speak to him about the incident.

“The man identified himself as a private investigator and began asking questions about the victim; what type of person she was; her background; whether she drank a lot; whether she has sex a lot; and whether she has a lot of boyfriends,” the report said.

Weaver told Alexander’s attorney, Andrew Shubin, that hiring Kessinger to confront the woman during an active investigation was similar to hiring someone to do Alexander’s harassment for him, according to the report. Weaver testified that Shubin apologized and agreed that Kessinger’s contact was “inappropriate.”

Weaver also testified that he suspected that Kessinger got information from within the police department.

According to the report, Weaver further testified that Alexander wouldn’t and couldn’t have information about the victim at that point, such as her name and address, when they were complete strangers. The information shouldn’t have been readily available to anyone outside the police department.

There was a “significant chilling effect” on the victim, and the police department suffered a loss of her trust and that she even considered backing out of the prosecution, Parks Miller said.

An internal investigation revealed that Dann allegedly provided Kessinger with information on the case and withheld information from the department that would have identified the suspect. Dann was charged in 2015 and sentenced in 2016 for stealing drugs from the department’s evidence room.

Dann allegedly admitted to providing information to Kessinger, “whatever he asked for,” from the fall of 2014 through April 2015, per a state trooper’s testimony.

A full-scale audit of the computer records management system reveal additional unusual computer activity by both Dann and Ferron, according to the report.

The officers were able to access other police departments’ cases, as well, because State College, Patton Township, Ferguson Township and Penn State police departments share the records management system, according to the report. Departments share access to their reports with the expectation and trust that it will be done for only legal, ethical and investigative reasons, State College Lt. Keith Robb testified.

Parks Miller said the grand jury spent more than a year looking at these cases and hearing from many witnesses.

The grand jury’s report was delayed in being released due to then President Judge Thomas Kistler’s recusal as the grand jury judge. He was charged with DUI in October by State College police. Another judge had to take over for him and read the report and recommendations and make sure she agreed that the charges were supported by the evidence in the report.