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Pandemic masks ongoing child abuse crisis as cases plummet

By SALLY HO and CAMILLE FASSETT Associated Press
LANSFORD, Pa. (AP) — Ava Lerario lived in a home marked by both love and chaos, even before the walls of the pandemic started closing in on her fractured family.
Sandwiched between two brothers, the 9-year-old was her father’s princess, and she loved to snuggle up with her mom to read. She sometimes lugged her favorite stuffed animals all the way to the bus stop, where she never hesitated to share toys or books, or befriend a new or lonely kid.
But neighbors noticed she and her brothers didn’t play outside. Protective services visited their home at least twice, in 2019, over reports of potential abuse of Ava’s younger brother. Her father, Marc Lerario, had an explosive temper. Her mother, Ashley Belson, struggled with drug addiction and considered leaving him.
But she didn’t dare take Ava. If she left with his favorite — the one who shared his strawberry blond hair and could calm him with a smile — Ashley feared he’d kill her.
In the end, Ashley wasn’t the only one who died.
An Associated Press analysis of state data reveals that the coronavirus pandemic has ripped away several systemic safety nets for millions of Americans — many of them children like Ava. It found that child abuse reports, investigations, substantiated allegations and interventions have dropped at a staggering rate, increasing risks for the most vulnerable of families in the U.S.
In the AP’s analysis, it found more than 400,000 fewer child welfare concerns reported during the pandemic and 200,000 fewer child abuse and neglect investigations and assessments compared with the same time period of 2019. That represents a national total decrease of 18% in both total reports and investigations.
The AP requested public records from all 50 state child welfare agencies and analyzed more than a dozen indicators in 36 states, though not every state supplied data for total reports or investigations. The analysis compared the first nine months of the pandemic — March to November 2020 — with the same time period from the two previous years.
And there are signs in a number of states that suggest officials are dealing with more urgent and complex cases during the pandemic, according to the analysis, though most child welfare agencies didn’t provide AP thorough data on severity.
A loss in reports means greater potential for harm because “there has not all of the sudden been a cure for child abuse and neglect,” said Amy Harfeld, an expert in child abuse deaths with the Children’s Advocacy Institute.
“Children who are experiencing abuse or neglect at home are only coming to the attention of CPS much further down the road than they normally would,” Harfeld said. “When families aren’t getting what they need, there are consequences for everyone.”
With many children out of the public eye, the U.S. system of relying on teachers, police and doctors to report potential abuse and neglect to Child Protective Services — known by various names across states — has been failing. During the pandemic, it became too late for many: the diabetic 15-year-old Wisconsin girl who died of medical complications despite 16 CPS reports in her lifetime, the 8-year-old Nevada boy who mistakenly drank a chemical substance stored in a soda bottle, the Phoenix teen beaten by his father with a bat.
School personnel are the top reporters of child abuse; they’re the most important eyes and ears for child welfare agencies across states. Teachers, administrators, counselors, coaches, nurses and other adults working in school settings are trained to identify warning signs and mandated by law to report any potential issues of child abuse or neglect.
The AP found that child abuse and neglect reports from school sources fell sharply during the pandemic as the U.S. pivoted to online learning — by 59%. For comparison, there was a 4% decline of reports nationally from nonschool reporter sources. In many states, school reports remained below pre-pandemic numbers even when in-person instruction resumed in some fashion.
“The pandemic and the resulting isolation reminds us that we cannot rely solely on a system that only responds after a child is hurt,” said Kurt Heisler, who oversaw the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System during the Obama administration. “What happens when we don’t have mandated reporters in front of children? It reminds us that we need another way to support and reach these families.”
The issue has affected other parts of the world, too, as Japan saw a record number of child abuse victims and the U.K. reported a significant increase in the number of maltreatment-suspected deaths and serious injuries.
Ava’s school, Panther Valley Elementary School in Nesquehoning, closed March 13. Ava lost her refuge, where she won Student of the Month honors every year and was known for singing and dancing her heart out during school band concerts. As the pandemic spread, few people understood the tumult inside the family’s home in the former coal mining town of Lansford.
School wasn’t a priority for the family then. The youngest, Marc Lerario Jr., has a severe form of autism, which made learning difficult even in the best of circumstances. Ashley, the breadwinner, lost her waitressing job as her restaurant shuttered amid coronavirus restrictions. The family applied for food stamps and relied on savings, said older brother, Brian Belson, now 17.
Before the pandemic, Marc Lerario seemed to be turning a corner, despite his record of a dozen assault charges — including domestic violence incidents against Ashley. He quit smoking and drinking, worked out, and watched movies or played video games with the family, Belson said. But in April 2020, Marc’s grandmother died of COVID-19 at a nursing home outside Philadelphia. He was hours away and never got to say goodbye, and he spiraled into depression.
That month, when the first economic stimulus checks came through, Patti Burt prayed the financial lifeline would ease some of the burdens her daughter, Ashley, was likely facing: “I said, ‘God, I hope they’re happy.’ I knew inside that Ashley was not happy, she was in pain.”
Ashley’s drug use escalated while Marc, unmedicated for bipolar disorder, slipped into extreme bouts of paranoia. School officials say it doesn’t appear Ava ever logged on for virtual school.
And on May 26, her body was found nestled in her fluffy bedding at home. Police say her father put a bullet in her head while she slept. Officials say he also fatally shot Ashley, his partner of more than a decade, and then himself. Ashley was found with high levels of meth in her system on a blowup mattress in the living room that Marc set up to stand guard against the invisible monsters of his paranoia, authorities said.
Ava’s brothers were home that morning and found the bodies.
Despite Marc Lerario’s criminal record, the prior report on child welfare in the home, and the children’s absence from remote learning, no red flags were raised to law enforcement or other officials.
Principal Robert Palazzo knew that in a high-poverty area, nearly everyone would be affected by the pandemic. He worried for teachers, some of whom work second jobs, and students in the online-only model. Palazzo describes a survivalist mentality – teachers and others helped who they could first.
Nearly a quarter of families didn’t participate in virtual school, so it wasn’t unusual that even enthusiastic, high-achieving learners like Ava might never log in to the district’s platforms, he said. Some parents, frustrated by technology and access issues, chose to go it alone, and Palazzo didn’t blame them. The usual truancy rules, in which the school must report to CPS any unexplained absence of more than six consecutive days, didn’t apply based on new state guidelines. Palazzo said the school called all 550 students at the start and made at least five attempts to reach Ava’s family about absences, via a letter, phone calls and email.
“We had everything in place that we should have had in place,” Palazzo said. “When we close the school doors, it changes everything.”
Months before the pandemic, the family was reported in two calls to CPS on the same October 2019 day. The reports involved injuries to the youngest child, Marc Jr. A social worker interviewed Junior at school with a teacher present, and abuse was denied in two home visits. It’s not clear whether the allegations were substantiated, but older brother Brian said his parents didn’t hurt Junior.
Pennsylvania’s Office of Children, Youth, and Families has acknowledged missteps by authorities in Ava’s case. Social workers weren’t notified of Ava’s death, with officials learning instead from a Facebook post. The agency noted in a report that it didn’t know there were guns in the home or about any criminal history. Erin James, office spokeswoman, declined to answer specific questions about Ava’s case, citing privacy laws.
A former school psychologist, Palazzo said he has long advocated for Carbon County to adopt the Handle with Care protocols, a national initiative that prompts law enforcement to notify the school if police are called to a family’s home. He said he doesn’t believe anyone at his school knew about the child welfare report involving Ava’s family, and he’s unaware of any intervention on his campus, as Junior attended a different school. He believes teachers could have reached out to Ava if they knew that police or CPS had investigated her family.
Palazzo said he and the rest of the school grapple with the what-ifs: If school had been open, would there have been a chance to save Ava? That motivated school officials to reopen the doors to students as soon as possible.
“We want all kids to have access to school, not only because of reading and math, but because of well-being, because of access to another positive adult in their life,” Palazzo said.
AP’s analysis suggests officials may be dealing with more severe cases of child abuse in several states, based on an assessment of priority response times, families that have previously been involved with CPS, and deaths and serious injuries.
For example, although Maryland investigated far fewer child abuse reports during the pandemic, the state saw about 1,500 more reports involving prior victims than in March through September the previous year. Nebraska, which also had significantly fewer child abuse and neglect reports during the pandemic, had dozens more investigations that required a 24-hour response — assigned to the most urgent priority cases — than in 2019.
Louisiana also acknowledged a decrease in reports and increase in severity, noting the state saw more domestic violence involving weapons, psychiatric issues with caregivers, and serious injuries.
“We serve some of the most vulnerable families in Louisiana, and we know they were hit particularly hard by the pandemic,” said Rhenda Hodnett, assistant secretary of child welfare at the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services.
Many states said the number of reports have recovered some, however slowly, over the past year, but that it is too soon to draw conclusions about the ongoing pandemic’s effects on child welfare. Colorado rejected the notion that fewer reports prove unreported abuse.
“These decreases do not tell us that child abuse and neglect is going unreported,” said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of Colorado’s Office of Children, Youth and Families. “It’s possible that families and communities came together and weathered this storm together.”
AP’s analysis showed that despite far fewer child abuse reports and school referrals, the percentage of reports accepted for further investigation and assessment largely remained steady during the pandemic. This suggests that while the work of social workers was consistent, there are likely untold cases of abuse going unreported, with at-risk children remaining invisible to the system without the attention of an in-person school environment, experts and some state officials said.
Much of a social worker’s typical caseload involves minor maltreatments that more often signal poverty and a lack of resources over nefarious parenting, making Child Protective Services crucial for support of vulnerable families. Within the system, state laws and processes vary widely, making child abuse trends notoriously difficult to track even in normal times. Experts aren’t sure how the loss in child abuse reports during the pandemic can or will be recovered.
Critics say teachers can overreport minor or unsubstantiated cases that don’t meet the legal definition of abuse, confusing poverty with neglect as heightened by racial and other biases, and clogging up the system. But AP’s analysis shows the rate of substantiated cases of abuse also generally remained steady among completed investigations between 2018 and 2020, even with a diminishing number of teacher referrals.
“Even if teachers were saying ‘I’m going to report because I think this child seems dirty,’ we do that so the child can get the attention and some intervention can happen,” said Laurel Thompson, of the School Social Work Association of America and the retired director of student services for Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, one of the country’s largest districts. “Whether it’s abuse or neglect or poverty, it is still a child in need.”
Lansford police Chief Jack Soberick was the first to respond to the scene when Ava died. The lawn was mowed, the house was clean, and the refrigerator had food.
“I don’t believe this would have happened this way if not for the pandemic pushing him beyond the brink,” Soberick said of Marc Lerario. “This is a horrific, horrible main example, but I’m sure similar things to a lesser degree happened not just in Carbon County — throughout Pennsylvania and the nation.”
Soberick said the police department was not aware of Lerario’s warrants, which didn’t appear in federal tracking databases. In 2018, he was charged with choking Ashley in Lansford, but she failed to appear at the court hearing and the charges were dropped. Among earlier arrests: four assault charges at a child’s birthday party in New Jersey in 2009, an assault charge in Maryland against Ashley in 2015, and a guilty plea to assaulting his mother in 2013 in Philadelphia. His mother did not want to comment for this story.
Ava’s death was one of 105 child fatalities investigated for child abuse in Pennsylvania in 2020; that’s 11 more than in 2019. Other states that saw a significant increase in child deaths with suspected maltreatment include Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas, Maryland and Arizona, according to AP’s analysis. Pennsylvania also had 113 more near fatalities — a 67% increase in injuries so serious that they left the child hospitalized in serious or critical condition.
In state officials’ report about Ava’s death, they suggest social workers do criminal background checks upfront when assessing families reported to them, and they urged schools to track attendance during the pandemic to report unresponsive parents for welfare checks.
Ava never had the chance to return to school. Instead, she’s now memorialized in a cafeteria mural, quoting her characteristic enthusiasm: “It’s like a thousand suns out here.”
The state’s fatality review said: “When the victim child was in school, she did have a good relationship with the staff and did reach out for help in the past. If she were in school, that may have continued.”
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Fassett reported from Santa Cruz, California. Associated Press journalist Manuel Valdes in Seattle contributed to this report.
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Follow Sally Ho on Twitter at http://twitter.com/_sallyho and Camille Fassett at http://twitter.com/camfassett

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Pennsylvania Headlines

Appeal mulled in dismissal in fraternity brother’s death

INDIANA, Pa. (AP) — Prosecutors are considering an appeal of a judge’s decision to dismiss charges against an Indiana University of Pennsylvania student accused of the strangulation death of a fraternity brother.
Indiana Borough police accused 20-year-old Brady DiStefano of choking 20-year-old Caleb Zweig of Rockville, Maryland, during the February brawl. Zweig later died.
Defense attorney Thomas Dickey said pathologists didn’t find medical evidence to support strangulation and the ruling of asphyxiation.
Judge William Martin dismissed homicide and aggravated assault charges, saying a forensic pathologist acknowledged a lack of physical evidence supporting the strangulation finding.
District Attorney Patrick Dougherty has said DiStefano was seen with his hands around Zweig’s neck and “There’s no other reason to support why this young man is dead.” The district attorney’s office said Thursday an appeal was being considered.

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National News Pennsylvania Headlines

20 injured in fire at Pennsylvania senior living community

WEST CHESTER, Pa. (AP) — A massive fire at a senior living community in Pennsylvania injured at least 20 people and forced dozens more, many of whom were unable to walk, into the cold night air.
Firefighters were still dousing hot spots Friday, even though the inferno was declared under control just before 1:30 a.m.
The blaze was reported around 11 p.m. Thursday at Barclay Friends Senior Living Community in West Chester, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) west of Philadelphia.
The town’s fire chief would not comment on the extent of the injuries or if there were any deaths. He did say the blaze is under investigation.
The fire quickly spread to multiple buildings and flames could be seen shooting from the roofs and windows of the structures. Residents were forced to evacuate outside into the cold, with temperatures overnight hovering in the low 40s. News helicopter video showed dozens of residents on the lawn or along the street, wrapped in blankets. Many of them had been pushed in wheelchairs or rolled on beds to safety.
Chester County emergency officials said at least 20 people were taken to area hospitals for treatment. The extent of their injuries was not immediately known.
A spokeswoman for Main Line Health, a not-for-profit health system, said one of its hospitals also was prepared to provide shelter to some additional residents of the senior living community.
According to its website, Barclay Friends offers various levels of care including memory care, skilled nursing and post-acute rehab.
Early Friday morning, the local chapter of the American Red Cross said on Twitter that it had multiple teams on the scene and that it was working with county officials and facility staff to assist displaced residents.
A cause of the fire remained under investigation.

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National News Pennsylvania Headlines

Bystander rape-prevention programs face questions

By MIKE STOBBE, AP Medical Writer
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Training programs around the country are trying to teach bystanders to stop sexual assault, and now is when they have to be especially alert. Campus sexual assault reports are so common at the beginning of the fall semester, college administrators call this time of year the “red zone.”
Penn State University sends campus-wide text alerts when someone has been sexually assaulted. During the last academic year, there were 29 campus text alerts about sexual assaults at the university’s main campus, and half of them were issued in the first ten weeks of school.
“Maybe that’s why you showed up today,” said Katie Tenny, as she ran a rape-prevention training session at the school earlier this year. “Maybe you’re tired of the text alerts, knowing that this is happening to people around you.”
Tenny is the leader of a program that seeks to teach people to do or say something to prevent a potential attack. It’s one of the hundreds of bystander intervention programs that have sprung up in recent years at universities, high schools and military bases, designed to involve whole communities in discouraging harassment and sexual assault.
Momentum for this good bystander movement has been building for several years, aided by some widely reported stories of heroic interventions. Though research is still evolving, studies so far suggest it is helping.
But now some assault victims and their advocates fear new obstacles, including a recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Education that it would jettison rules that had pushed colleges and universities to be more aggressive about sexual assaults.
A bystander is present in about 30 percent of cases of rape, threat of rape or unwanted sexual contact, according to an Associated Press analysis of 24 years of data from the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey. In just over one third of those cases the actions of the bystanders helped, often by scaring off the assailant in some way.
That happened last summer in Gainesville, Florida, when two bouncers at a club, one a linebacker at the University of Florida named Cristian Garcia, intervened when they found a man raping a woman in an alley behind the bar. The 19-year-old woman was extremely intoxicated, but said she did not know the man and had tried to push him away. Christopher Lee Shaw, 34, was later convicted of sexual battery and sentenced to 5 years in prison.
Another widely-reported example occurred at Stanford University in January 2015, when two Swedish graduate students came across a man on top of an unconscious woman late one night behind a campus dumpster. Deciding something looked strange, the men, Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson, got off their bikes and walked over. Jonsson yelled at the man “What are you doing?” Arndt recalled in an interview with the AP.
The man ran. Jonsson tackled him and Arndt, who is 6-foot-2 inches and 210 pounds, sat on the suspect’s legs to help pin him down until police arrived.
At the sentencing of the assailant, Brock Turner, the victim, who was not identified, read a letter in court that praised Arndt and Jonsson. “I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed to remind myself there are heroes in this story. That we are looking out for one another,” she said.
Still, experts note many people may choose not to intervene in these kinds of situations, especially if they aren’t 6-foot 2, like Arndt, or play college football, like Garcia.
Even Arndt noted they decided to intervene while on a familiar path at a college campus they considered friendly and safe. It’s possible he might have hesitated to act if it had happened in a strange neighborhood, he said.
In large national survey of students at more than two dozen U.S. college campuses in 2015, 20 percent said they’d seen someone acting in a sexually violent or harassing manner, but the most of them said they did nothing. When asked why not, about a quarter said they didn’t know what they could do.
A program called Green Dot, founded at the University of Kentucky about 10 years ago, teaches student leaders and others to identify potential sexual assaults and safely intervene to prevent them. The program has spread to hundreds of campuses, including Penn State, which calls its year-and-a-half-old Green Dot program “Stand for State.”
Tenny says there are a number of sometimes simple things people can do, like starting a conversation with a potential victim, or getting a friend to intervene.
These programs seem to work, but evidence is limited so far, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Authors of a CDC-funded study of 26 high schools in Kentucky published earlier this year saw just a small reduction in reports of students being harassed or attacked at schools that had the program. Still, the authors estimate 100 fewer incidents occurred each year at each high school with the program.
“Because this problem is so insidious and fairly common, even a small reduction could mean millions of people who are not experiencing sexual violence as a result,” said Sarah DeGue, a CDC scientist who worked on the study.
Some argue bystander training can be misguided, even if it does get results. Most participants in Green Dot trainings tend to be women. Some researchers say Green Dot programs’ main impact may be to help women be more aware of risk and prepare more — which is the same approach as the self-defense classes and rape whistles of 50 years ago, when responsibility for rape prevention was mainly put on the shoulders of potential victims.
“You’re not addressing potential assailants. You’re just saying; ‘If you see something, say something,'” said Anna Voremberg, managing director of End Rape on Campus, a Washington, D.C.-based group.
The bystander intervention movement took off during President Barack Obama’s administration, which took several steps to address long-standing concerns that sexual assaults were under-reported and poorly handled by police and prosecutors in many parts of the country.
Some advocates say the measures are the main reason on-campus sexual assault reports have been rising at Penn State and other colleges for several years. They don’t think rapes are becoming more common, but that more victims have become willing to come forward and report them.
“For me, that’s by far one of the biggest wins. People are trusting the system,” said Samantha Skaller, a recent Syracuse University graduate who led a rape-prevention campaign there.
But last month Education Secretary Betsy DeVos criticized the guidance as unfair to men accused of sexual assault, scrapped it, and announced new instructions.
“Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head-on. There will be no more sweeping them under the rug,” DeVos said in a statement. “But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes.”
Activists said DeVos’s announcement represents a step backward for efforts to teach bystanders and others in the community to think differently about sexual assault. They found it especially troubling that the move came from the administration of Donald Trump, who was accused of sexual assault by several women, though never charged or convicted. Last fall, a recording from 2005 surfaced on which he was heard bragging that he could grab women and get away with it. He later dismissed it as “locker room talk.”
Sofie Karasek, a co-founder of End Rape on Campus, said in a statement that DeVos’s decision is an attempt “to protect those who ‘grab’ by the genitals and brag about it — and make college campuses a safer place for them.”
Still, experts say they believe the momentum for bystander programs will continue. The bystander movement was propelled by a 2013 federal law requiring colleges and universities to hold trainings for students and faculty in how to recognize and prevent sexual violence, and that law remains in place.
Penn State administrators say they will continue its bystander program, hoping both to prevent rapes and repair a reputation damaged by high-profile scandals in 2011 and 2015.
“People realize we need to get moving,” said Tenny, the “Stand for State” coordinator. “There are a lot of people getting hurt.”
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AP data journalist Larry Fenn contributed from New York.

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Pennsylvania Headlines

Judge tosses most serious charges in Penn State frat death; DA plans to refile them

By MARK SCOLFORO

Associated Press

BELLEFONTE, Pa. (AP) — A judge on Friday threw out involuntary manslaughter and felony assault counts filed against members of a Penn State fraternity in a pledge’s alcohol hazing-related death, ordering 12 of the frat brothers to stand trial on lesser counts.

But a prosecutor says she will seek to have involuntary manslaughter charges reinstated against eight members of a Penn State fraternity.

District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller says she may also seek to refile felony charges of aggravated assault. Defense attorneys say they will oppose such efforts.

District Justice Allen Sinclair dismissed charges altogether against four of the members of the now-shuttered Beta Theta Pi fraternity. Fourteen fraternity brothers are now headed to trial in the case. Two had previously agreed to waive a preliminary hearing.

Charges remaining range from alcohol violations and hazing to reckless endangerment.

“Obviously now the teeth have really been taken out of the commonwealth’s case,” defense attorney Michael Engle said.

The decision followed a hard-fought, unusually long, seven-day preliminary hearing in which the defendants and a platoon of defense attorneys wedged into the courtroom fought against allegations that a night of hazing and heavy drinking caused the death of Tim Piazza on Feb. 4.

Parks Miller had argued that members of the fraternity pressured Piazza and other pledges to drink heavily, plying them with wine, vodka and beer after a ceremony to mark their decision to pledge the organization.

That pressure included running them through a speed-drinking “gantlet” and directing them to collectively drain a large bottle of vodka.

The security video recorded Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore engineering student from Lebanon, New Jersey, appearing intoxicated and being led to a couch after 11 p.m. A few minutes later, he fell head-first down a set of basement stairs and had to be carried back up in an unconscious state.

For several hours members of the fraternity appeared to take half-hearted and even counterproductive measures to tend to their injured friend, pouring liquid on him and strapping on a loaded backpack to prevent him from rolling over and choking on vomit.

In the early morning hours, Piazza was pictured stumbling from the couch to other areas on the vast house’s first floor, including falls into a door and onto a stone floor.

He somehow ended up back in the basement the next morning and was again carried back upstairs to a couch. It took another 40 minutes for fraternity members to call an ambulance.

Authorities said Piazza had ingested a dangerous amount of alcohol and suffered severe head and abdominal injuries. He soon died at a hospital.

Defense attorneys argued that their clients’ roles were minimal or their actions did not amount to criminal behavior. They argued the students had little reason to anticipate tragic results from a night that also included an alcohol-fueled social mixer with a sorority group.

“Yes, there’s excessive drinking on college campuses,” defense attorney Theodore Simon said Thursday. “That does not transform it into criminal behavior.”

Parks Miller said many of the defense arguments would be more suitable for a jury to consider. She disputed a suggestion that defendants would not have known of the danger because no one had died during the fraternity chapter’s long history.

“As far as this idea, àWell, nobody died before,’ do they really think they get a free death before someone is held responsible?” Parks Miller told the judge.

Engle argued that “the voluntariness of the drinking” is an important factor when considering Piazza’s fate.

“What we have is evidence from this record that this tragic death was simply not foreseeable here,” Engle said.

He challenged Parks Miller’s approach to charging the men as accomplices, arguing that would require a principal actor that was not established.

“You’ve heard over and over again, all of these individuals are accomplices, but as a matter of law, these individuals can’t be accomplices with one another,” he told the judge.

Parks Miller said the speed-drinking gauntlet was designed by the group “for maximum devastation.”

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Pennsylvania Headlines

Sunoco reaches settlement on natural gas pipeline

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — State officials, environmental groups and the owners of a cross-state natural gas pipeline in Pennsylvania have reached an agreement to allow drilling to continue while providing protections to the public.
In the settlement, made public Tuesday, Sunoco Pipeline LP agreed to re-evaluate 47 high-risk sites associated with the Mariner East 2 pipeline. The drilling plans for those sites will then be submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for approval. The re-evaluations will be posted online.
Sunoco also agreed to send the plans to homeowners who have private wells near the drilling areas and offer opportunities to have their water tested.
Democratic State Sen. Andrew Dinniman told The Philadelphia Inquirer the settlement has the stipulations he requested after horizontal drilling for the pipeline tainted the wells of some residences in West Whiteland Township in July.
The agreement came a day before a scheduled hearing before the stateás Environmental Hearing Board on a petition to halt all Sunoco Pipeline drilling. Judge Bernard Labuskes Jr. postponed the hearing, but kept a temporary ban on 39 drilling operations until the board reviews the settlement.
The planned $2.5 billion pipeline will carry propane, butane and ethane from the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation to an export terminal near Philadelphia. Horizontal drilling is used to tunnel beneath waterways and other obstructions.
Sunoco did not comment.

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Pennsylvania Headlines

SWAT team OK after suspected fentanyl exposure during raid

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Eighteen members of a SWAT team are OK after they were exposed to a deadly chemical during a raid early Wednesday, Pittsburgh police said.
As the SWAT team entered the West End home, a table covered with powered drugs was overturned, sending what authorities believed to be a dangerous synthetic opioid called fentanyl wafting into the air, according to a criminal complaint.
As the drugs became airborne, a number of the officers began to report the dizzying and numbing side effects associated with an opioid overdose. The SWAT team was later medically cleared at a hospital and a hazmat team was called in to deal with the large amount of opioids.
Four people who were arrested at the home were charged with intent to distribute fentanyl, the powerful synthetic painkiller that can be deadly if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. A criminal complaint says authorities found baggies and other drug packaging materials in the home.
Acting U.S. Attorney Soo Song said the operation was a raid of three homes in an ongoing drug investigation that involves various federal law enforcement agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Homeland Security officials. Song said in a statement that Wednesdayás incident underscores the danger of fentanyl exposure in law enforcement.

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Pennsylvania Headlines

Pennsylvania liquor stores to increase prices on 422 items

HARRISBURG (AP) — Pennsylvania’s system of state-owned liquor stores said Wednesday it will deploy its new authority to decide what prices to charge by increasing the cost of 422 items at the end of this month.
The Liquor Control Board said 393 of the increases will amount to $1 per bottle, and the vast majority will be less than 10 percent.
A 2016 state law gave the agency authority to raise prices for 150 of the top-selling brands of wine and the 150 most popular brands of spirits.
The agency has not increased prices since the early 1990s. The changes won’t affect the use of sales prices and discounts that the stores regularly offer.
The higher prices drew criticism from a lobbyist for the Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association of producers and marketers. David Wojnar, the council’s vice president for government relations, said consumers would prefer more retail outlets to higher prices.
“The legislature and the PLCB should work together to better serve Pennsylvania consumers instead of trying to pick their pockets,” Wojnar said.
PLCB communications director Elizabeth Brassell said the decision was made in the past few days by marketing and merchandising director Dale Horst, after consulting with executive director Charlie Mooney and the board.
The higher prices followed a review of costs in neighboring states, comparison with prices of competing products and analysis of what the market will bear.
Brassell said the agency considered raising prices on 496 items but narrowed the list after negotiating “cost concessions and considerations” with suppliers.
Before the 2016 law was enacted more than a year ago, the liquor board used a standard 31 percent markup.
The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association predicted higher prices will lead more customers to buy wine and liquor from stores in neighboring states. The association said lawmakers should “rein the state monopoly in” or privatize the system.
“They’ve kind of cemented our philosophy that they can’t operate an effective cost structure,” said the association’s president, John Longstreet. “In business, when you have excessive costs, you look for a way to reduce your costs, you can’t always pass along your cost to consumers.”

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Pennsylvania Headlines

Town evacuated after freight train derails, catches fire in PA

In this aerial image made from a video provided by WPXI, smoke rises in the air after dozens of cars of a freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in Hyndman, Pa., Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. County officials ordered all residents of the small Pennsylvania town to evacuate after the derailment. (WPXI via AP)
In this aerial image made from a video provided by WPXI, smoke rises in the air after dozens of cars of a freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in Hyndman, Pa., Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. County officials ordered all residents of the small Pennsylvania town to evacuate after the derailment. (WPXI via AP)
A fire burns at the site of a freight train derailment, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, in Hyndman, Pa. A freight train carrying hazardous materials partly derailed early Wednesday, setting train cars and a garage on fire and prompting emergency officials to evacuate nearby residents. (Steve Bittner/The Cumberland Times-News via AP)
A fire burns at the site of a freight train derailment, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, in Hyndman, Pa. A freight train carrying hazardous materials partly derailed early Wednesday, setting train cars and a garage on fire and prompting emergency officials to evacuate nearby residents. (Steve Bittner/The Cumberland Times-News via AP)

A fire burns at the site of a freight train derailment, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, in Hyndman, Pa. A freight train carrying hazardous materials partly derailed early Wednesday, setting train cars and a garage on fire and prompting emergency officials to evacuate nearby residents. (Steve Bittner/The Cumberland Times-News via AP)
A fire burns at the site of a freight train derailment, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, in Hyndman, Pa. A freight train carrying hazardous materials partly derailed early Wednesday, setting train cars and a garage on fire and prompting emergency officials to evacuate nearby residents. (Steve Bittner/The Cumberland Times-News via AP)
HYNDMAN, Pa. (AP) — Nearly three dozen cars of a freight train carrying hazardous materials careened off the tracks in a small Pennsylvania town Wednesday, igniting fires in some rail cars and a garage and forcing emergency officials to evacuate the whole town.
No injuries were reported.
At least 32 cars on the CSX freight train derailed about 5 a.m. in Hyndman, about 100 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, said CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle. The train was traveling from Chicago to Selkirk, New York.
At least one car containing liquid petroleum gas, and one containing molten sulfur leaked and caught fire, Doolittle said. A residential garage struck during the derailment also caught fire, officials said.
It was not immediately known what caused the train to run off the rails, and the fire continued to burn hours after the derailment.
The only confirmed structure fire was at the garage, but video from the scene seems to show more extensive damage.
Aerial footage of the derailment shows a number of cars stacked nearly perpendicular to the tracks while others landed in a burning, zig-zag pattern in a residential area where some structures seemed crushed and other ablaze.
Hyndman resident Jim Shaffer told the (Cumberland) Times-News he was awakened by the sound of crashing rail cars.
“It woke me up. It was louder than a thunderstorm,” he said. “I heard the cars banging into each other. Then I heard the fire whistle.”
Bedford County 911 coordinator Harry Corley said officials ordered everyone within a 1-mile radius of the derailment to leave hours after the derailment. The order encompasses the entire town of Hyndman, and residents have been directed to two local churches for help with lodging and food.
In a statement Wednesday night, CSX said it was unclear how long the residents would be evacuated or how long cleanup would take.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, in a phone interview from an evacuation center several miles away from the train, said some neighbors have refused to leave their homes.
“But everyone knows where they are and they’re safe at this point,” Wolf said Wednesday afternoon.
Only a few people were in the churches, as most evacuees chose to go to hotels or the homes of friends or relatives, he said.
Wolf said officials were conducting air and ground studies to determine possible health effects.
He said area residents have “a lot of uncertainty and everyone’s hoping for the best, praying for the best.”
Asked about the risk of a propane explosion, Wolf said, “There’s always that possibility. I think, from what I hear, the potential of that happening has diminished somewhat.”
A number of roads are closed, and some flight restrictions are in place.
Federal investigators arrived at the scene late Wednesday afternoon but weren’t able to assess the situation because the fires were still burning.
The National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Terry Williams said he expects them to get a better sense of the scene by Thursday.
Amtrak suspended train service between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., providing buses to take passengers between the two stations.
“CSX apologizes for the impact that this incident is having on the residents of Hyndman,” Doolittle said.
Hyndman is a town of just over 800 residents near the Maryland border.
“CSX’s top priority is to work cooperatively with first responders and other officials to protect the public’s safety, and CSX personnel are on the scene assisting first responders, providing information about the contents of the train and expertise on responding to railroad incidents,” Doolittle said.

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DA: Evidence but no remains found in farm search for 4 men

By MARYCLAIRE DALE and ANTHONY IZAGUIRRE, Associated Press
Police have recovered “important” evidence but no human remains as they methodically search a large Pennsylvania farm this week for clues to the disappearance of four young men believed to be victims of foul play.
A county prosecutor said Wednesday the search will remain focused on the 90-acre property owned by a family in the construction and concrete businesses, whose 20-year-old son was briefly held on $1 million bail on an old gun charge.
“We’re going to continue digging and searching that property until we’re satisfied that they are not there,” Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said at a morning news conference.
At least some of the missing men are friends, but it’s unclear how well they knew the property owner’s son, Cosmo DiNardo, if at all. DiNardo was released Tuesday evening to his parents’ home in Bensalem while FBI agents sifted through mounds of dirt from a deep pit they dug on the farm about 20 miles away, and police cadets combed the vast cornfields nearby.
“We have recovered several important pieces of evidence at this site, and at other locations,” Weintraub said Wednesday as the search resumed for a fourth day. “This is just really, really rough on everybody involved because of the heat, the magnitude, the scope — and the stakes are incredibly high, life and death.”
The missing men are 22-year-old Mark Sturgis, 21-year-old Tom Meo, 19-year-old Dean Finocchiaro and 19-year-old Jimi Tar Patrick. Patrick disappeared last Wednesday; the other three vanished Friday. Sturgis and Meo worked together, while Finocchiaro was a mutual friend.
Weintraub has described DiNardo as a person of interest in the case. He was arrested Monday on a charge that had earlier been dismissed, accused of possessing a shotgun despite a previous mental health commitment.
DiNardo’s social media posts suggest an avid interest in hunting, fishing and Air Jordan sneakers, which he appeared to sell online. He had enrolled in a nearby college at one point as a commuter student, with hopes of studying abroad in Italy, according to an article on the college website. He had a few other brushes with the law since turning 18 over traffic violations and other minor infractions.
Weintraub sought the high bail for DiNardo on the gun charge because he now considers him a flight risk. The father, Antonio DiNardo, posted $100,000 Tuesday to bring his son home.
Neither DiNardo’s parents nor his lawyer have commented this week.
The farmland being searched is in the town of Solebury, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Philadelphia.