New lawsuit filed in Pa. prison sex abuse case

A former CO is among nine defendants named in a new lawsuit related to the ongoing prison sex abuse investigation

By Terrie Morgan-Besecker
The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.

LACKAWANNA COUNTY, Pa. — A former Lackawanna County Prison guard charged with having sex with a female work release inmate is among nine defendants named in a new civil lawsuit related to the ongoing prison sex abuse investigation.

Scranton attorney Matthew Comerford, who represents two other women in a separate lawsuit, filed the new claim against Jeffrey T. Staff, the county and seven other current and former prison employees.

The suit comes 10 days after Staff, 42, 459 Wyoming Ave., Apt. 4, Wyoming, was bound over to Lackawanna County Court on one count of institutional sexual assault for allegedly having sex twice with Comerford’s client.

The Times Tribune does not identify victims of sexual assault.

Staff denies the allegations. His criminal attorney, Corey Kolcharno, questioned the woman’s credibility at his preliminary hearing. Contacted Monday, Kolcharno said the lawsuit reaffirms his suspicion the woman’s claims are financially driven.

“She is an opportunist,” Kolcharno said. “Because the case was bound over for court, she sees the potential for financial gain... This is a strong motive not only to fabricate testimony, but to lie.”

Staff was among seven former guards arrested Feb. 14, based on a statewide grand jury investigation. The federal lawsuit closely mirrors allegations in the indictment.

The suit alleges Staff had sex twice with the woman at his mother’s Scranton home, including some time between April 2010 and April 2011, when she was on work release. On the other occasion, she was off work release, but still under court supervision.

The woman claims two other employees, Sgt. Isaac Hebron and Sgt. Kate Fanning, knew about the incidents. Rather than report them, Hebron and Fanning threatened to retaliate against her if she continued the sexual relationship with Staff or told anyone about it.

The lawsuit also alleges the woman was sexually abused by former guards John Shnipes Jr. and Joseph Black. Neither Shnipes nor Black were criminally charged in her case, but they faced or are facing charges of abusing other women.

A former Archbald councilman, Shnipes, 42, 115 Simpson St., Archbald, was arrested Feb. 14 and charged with abusing four other inmates. Black pleaded guilty in 2015 to abusing five inmates and was sentenced to 45 months to eight years in state prison.

In the lawsuit, Comerford alleges Shnipes repeatedly asked his client to expose her breasts. On one occasion, he put his hand on her buttocks, the suit says, after she bent over to pick up a ball in the jail’s recreation area.

The suit alleges Black forced her to “manually stimulate” him on one occasion. She also claims she witnessed Black having sex with a cellmate on multiple occasions. Black promised her cigarettes, coffee and candy in exchange for not reporting the incidents.

The suit says after information on Black’s case became public, Staff feared his misconduct would be exposed. When the woman was jailed again in 2016, he asked her not to reveal the relationship. She assured him she would not. As she walked away, he grabbed her buttocks and stated he missed her.

The lawsuit is the third Comerford filed on behalf of women who allege they were sexually abused at the prison. In April 2016, the county paid $750,000 to settle a lawsuit he filed on behalf of another woman. The other lawsuit filed in July 2016 remains pending for two more women.

Like the other suits, Comerford alleges prison officials knew for years that guards were sexually abusing inmates, but did nothing to stop it or protect them.

The latest lawsuit names the county, Staff, Black, Shnipes, Hebron and Fanning as defendants, as well as former wardens Vincent Mooney and Robert McMillan and Thomas Staff, former director of the prison’s work release program and father of Jeffrey Staff.

The charges

Charges against the seven former Lackawanna County Prison guards:

  • George R. Efthimiou, 50, 1121 Loomis Ave., Taylor, one count of institutional sexual assault. His preliminary hearing was rescheduled to April 25, because prosecutors plan to file new charges against him.
  • Mark Johnson, 54, 2213 Golden Ave., Scranton, will go to trial on two counts each of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and institutional sexual assault and one count each of indecent assault and harassment.
  • George T. McHale, 50, 513 Florin St., Scranton, was charged with one count of institutional sexual assault and two counts of indecent assault. A magisterial district judge postponed ruling on whether to forward his charges to county court pending a decision on whether the charges fall outside the statute of limitations.
  • John Shnipes Jr., 42, 115 Simpson St., Archbald, a former Archbald councilman, will go to trial on six counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, four counts of aggravated indecent assault, and two counts each of institutional sexual assault and harassment.
  • Jeffrey T. Staff, 42, 459 Wyoming Ave. Apt. 4, Wyoming, will go to trial on one count of institutional sexual assault.
  • Paul J. Voglino, 45, 4 Rear Orchard St., Carbondale, two counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. His preliminary hearing is set for 11 a.m. April 25.
  • James J. Walsh, 51, 209 Mosswood Road, Roaring Brook Twp., will go to trial on four counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.

©2018 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)

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