First Posted: 5/16/2014
WILKES-BARRE — Crime has not necessarily increased, but violent crime has skyrocketed, resulting in proactive law-enforcement tactics and operational changes within the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office, the county’s chief prosecutor said.
Stefanie Salavantis sat down with The Times Leader Opinion Board Thursday to discuss her office’s accomplishments and her personal disappointments since 2012, when she became district attorney.
“I have an amazing staff,” she said. “We have a 100 percent conviction rate of homicide trials that includes three first-degree murder convictions. It’s still challenging. Everyone is working so hard in the office.”
Salavantis said she has acted to curb the region’s rising violent crime, especially in Wilkes-Barre, where 13 people were killed at the hands of others last year alone.
“It’s the violent crime that has been increasing,” Salavantis said.
With assistance from U.S. Attorney Peter Smith, the U.S. Marshal Service and other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, Salavantis formed the Advance Tactical Anti-Crime Unit in the latter half of 2013 to rid fugitives from public streets.
Teams of federal, state and local police officers have scurried the Wyoming Valley in several operations to capture those who are wanted on a variety of offenses.
Salavantis said she is convinced that ATAC has helped reduce violent crime and is one reason why homicides in Wilkes-Barre have drastically dropped. There has been one homicide in Wilkes-Barre this year when Al-Tariq Peterkin, 31, allegedly stabbed his neighbor, Charles Edmonds, 27, during a fight at 330 S. Hancock St. on April 7.
“The turning point was when two little girls were shot in Sherman Hills and a man killed a baby in New York and was found hiding in Sherman Hills,” Salavantis said. “I said, ‘Something needed to be done.’”
Salavantis met with Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton and Police Chief Gerard Dessoye, had discussions with Smith and the U.S. Marshal Service and formed ATAC.
“Everyone came to the table,” she said of federal, state and local agencies. “It was all positive.”
Salavantis has assigned deputy prosecutor status to a few assistant district attorneys, authorizing them to make crucial decisions on criminal cases. She said the deputy status has saved time as assistant district attorneys don’t have to wait until she or her first assistant, Sam Sanguedolce, are available to respond.
Her one disappointment as district attorney: “I miss being a lawyer. I miss what I did before; being in the courtroom.”
While Salavantis is seen in courtrooms, she usually sits behind her assistant district attorneys in an advisory role.
“In two and a half years, I have yet to go into a courtroom (as first chair prosecutor). That is my biggest disappointment,” she said. “I’m not a good delegator. I have to have my hands in things.”
Salavantis said she is optimistic the state legislature in Harrisburg will pass “Kevin’s Law,” named after 5-year-old Kevin Miller of Dallas who was killed when struck by a vehicle, driven by Thomas Letteer Jr. on Dec. 21, 2012. Letteer fled the scene and was arrested in April 2013. He was recently sentenced to two to five years in prison.
Kevin’s Law will close a loophole in the law that benefits drunk drivers who flee the scene of a deadly crash.
Salavantis said there are state lawmakers that oppose stiffening penalties for fear of increased cost associated with longer prison incarcerations.
“All we need is a change of two words in the law,” Salavantis said.