Former Ambridge Police Officers Sentenced For Beating, Cover‑Up
PITTSBURGH, Pa. ‑ Former Ambridge, Pennsylvania, police officers have been sentenced in federal court to six months in prison followed by one year of supervised release and one year of probation, respectively, for crimes related to the violation of civil rights and destruction of evidence, United States Attorney David J. Hickton announced today.
United States District Judge Terrence F. McVerry imposed the sentence on Richard Heitzenrater, 61, of Ambridge, and Robert Kuzma, 51, of Economy Borough.
According to information presented to the court, on Feb. 20, 2009, Heitzenrater, while a Sergeant with the Ambridge Police Department, violated the civil rights of arrestee David Baker by entering the locked holding cell where Baker was being held multiple times and striking him. Prior to entering the holding cell, Heitzenrater turned off the lights, partially obscuring the view on the police station's digital video recording system. Other officers eventually intervened to remove Heitzenrater from the holding cell.
Then‑Lieutenant Kuzma was informed, from Heitzenrater and others, about the assault upon Baker. The following day, Feb. 21, 2009, Kuzma, the primary person with access to the station's digital video recording system, purged its contents, including the incriminating images from Feb. 20, 2009. Prior to deleting data on the recording system the contents were played back and viewed by Heitzenrater and Kuzma at the police station, as Kuzma consulted the instruction manual. On Feb. 20, 2009, following the assault, Heitzenrater contacted Kuzma on the telephone to ask whether the video recording of the cell could be enhanced, if the lights in the cell had been turned off. As a result of Kuzma's actions, neither the FBI, nor a forensic expert with the Pennsylvania State Police, were able to recover images of the assault from the recording system.
Prior to imposing sentence, Judge McVerry stated that Heitzenrater acted in an "officious, offensive and vicious" manner by assaulting a "literally defenseless victim in a darkened cell,"who was in an "intoxicated stupor." As to Lieutenant Kuzma, Judge McVerry commented that "driven by loyalty" to Heitzenrater, as a sworn officer, Kuzma "should have known better," and that "the public deserves better from public officials and from you."
Assistant United States Attorney Soo C. Song prosecuted this case on behalf of the government.
U.S. Attorney Hickton commended the Federal Bureau of Investigation, together with the Pennsylvania State Police, for the investigation leading to the successful prosecution of Heitzenrater and Kuzma.