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Officer's alleged theft spree fleshed out

Trib Total Media, Inc., Trib Live | News,
BYLINE: Paul Peirce, Tribune-Review
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Braddock, PA

A Braddock police officer used a credit card he lifted from a suspected john during a prostitution sting to treat a girlfriend to a swanky restaurant at Seven Springs Mountain Resort near Champion in August, according to testimony during a preliminary hearing on Thursday.

James Jerimiah Scuffle, 30, of Plum was ordered to stand trial in Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court by Ligonier District Judge Denise Snyder Thiel on multiple charges of robbery, official oppression and receiving stolen property after listening to the testimony of the alleged john -- customer of a prostitute -- and state police investigators.

Trooper Patrick Nied, under questioning from James Lazar, Westmoreland County assistant district attorney, described to Thiel three photographs introduced as evidence from Scuffle's own cell phone. The photographs were various poses of the couple cuddling and posing inside human-sized wine bottle cutouts around the Somerset County resort, and outside of Helen's Restaurant, where the stolen card was used.

State police investigators extracted the dated photographs from Scuffle's telephone after it was confiscated in his Oct. 4 arrest. Scuffle, who is suspended without pay, is facing trial in Westmoreland for the burglary of a Donegal Township campground and the theft of cocaine from the police evidence room.

"I learned from talking with the marketing manager at Seven Springs there was a wine and food festival going on there at the time," Nied told Thiel.

The alleged john, Joseph P. D'Auria, 22, of Homestead, said Scuffle arrested him about 9 p.m. Aug. 27 on suspicion of prostitution. D'Auria, who testified with the assistance of a sign language interpreter, said Scuffle immediately took his wallet after handcuffing him during the traffic stop and then placed it back in his pocket.

D'Auria repeatedly denied in his testimony that he was picking up a prostitute, but said he didn't know what to do when she kept pounding on his window at a traffic light along Braddock Avenue. He said he let her in the car because he thought she may be in danger.

"It was a poor decision," he said.

D'Auria said Scuffle took him to the police station but then let him go.

"You seem like a good kid ... we're going to let you go with a disorderly conduct citation," D'Auria quoted Scuffle as telling him.

After D'Auria was released, he said he checked his wallet and discovered that $200 was missing.

"That was my rent money. I had to pay my rent after (Aug. 27)," he said.

D'Auria said he returned to the police station and met again with Scuffle, who let him look through the patrol car. The golf course employee testified he looked through the back seat floor once, and then Scuffle told him to grab a flashlight from the front seat and when he looked in the back seat again with the flashlight a $20 bill had suddenly appeared.

"I had already looked there and I thought, 'hmmm.' Then (Scuffle) said maybe the rest (fell out of the wallet) and blew out the window as we were going to the police station," D'Auria said through the interpreter.

D'Auria said a couple of days later he got his credit card bill and noticed a charge for $90 in gasoline at an East Pittsburgh service station, plus more than $110 charged at Helen's Restaurant. He checked his wallet and realized his credit card was missing.

"I don't use that card. I've never been to that restaurant. ... I'd never spent that much on a dinner," D'Auria said.

D'Auria said he contacted police again when he saw news reports of Scuffle's arrest. Lazar said Scuffle never filed a complaint against D'Auria.

The theft from D'Auria was among seven separate criminal cases Thiel heard yesterday that state police filed against Scuffle. The preliminary hearing with more than a dozen witnesses lasted nearly eight hours.

Thiel also heard testimony from another former girlfriend, Billie Jo Fosnaught of West Deer, who testified that Scuffle gave her a camouflage-colored 12-gauge shotgun he had confiscated from a Braddock police case to sell for cash to purchase drugs in July.

"I told him I needed money," Fosnaught, a recovering heroin addict, testified.

Trooper James McKenzie and officers from five eastern Allegheny County fire departments and the Eastern Area Pre-hospital Services Emergency Medical Services group testified about more than $40,000 worth of emergency equipment including bunker gear, boots, special coats and traffic vests, ropes and gloves authorities recovered from Scuffle's home in Plum in October. Scuffle is a former member of the Renton and Edgewood volunteer fire departments, according to testimony.

Nied also testified about a small amount of cocaine police discovered inside a Braddock police evidence envelope inside Scuffle's personal vehicle. During a hearing Oct. 11, Fosnaught and another alleged heroin addict, Roxann Sheesley, 22, also of West Deer, testified Scuffle took crack cocaine from the police evidence room to buy their silence.

Both women testified at that hearing that they helped Scuffle burglarize the Laurel Highlands Campground in Donegal Township on April 20, 2011.

As a result of the hearing yesterday, Thiel ordered Scuffle to stand trial on one count each of robbery, tampering with evidence, possession of a controlled substance, two counts of receiving stolen property, official oppression, forgery and access device fraud, and four counts of theft.

He remains free on $100,000 bond.

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