Accusations multiply in contentious cell-phone case

Attorney contends Coatesville police fabricated a search-warrant request

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

COATESVILLE — The seizure nearly a year ago of a female city police officer’s cell phone has escalated into a convoluted legal battle involving allegations of sexual impropriety, blackmail, falsified court documents, and evidence-tampering.

Many Coatesville officers and residents want the case resolved, but that’s not likely anytime soon: the Attorney General’s Office, which began an investigation in late March into possible criminal activity, ordered testimony from some of the parties earlier this month, and the city’s solicitor, John Carnes, appealed a county court judge’s decision to Commonwealth Court last week.

According to court records, the case started when Officer Amy W. Nicholl complained about “offensive comments” made about her by other members of the department. In an Aug. 19 interview with Lt. Rita Shesko, Nicholl said she was told to turn in her cell phone or the department, which did not own it but paid for its service, would seize it through a search warrant, records said.

Nicholl said she reluctantly relinquished the phone, which allegedly contained “inappropriate” texts from Chief M. Julius Canale as well as sex videos featuring her and Lt. Chris McEvoy, a member of the department with whom she was having an affair, records said.

Shesko, who announced this week she would end her month-to-month employment with the department and take retirement, testified that Canale told her to give the phone to Coatesville Det. Gerald Pawling “so that data from the phone could be looked at,” court records said. On Aug. 22, Pawling signed  a search warrant to examine “all electronic stored data” on the phone for possible violations of harassment and criminal coercion. The search warrant affidavit states that an officer who is identified in other court documents as Sgt. Chris Strunk threatened to expose Nicholl’s affair with McEvoy unless she slept with him.

The affidavit, which the city asked to have sealed because of its graphic content, states that the information was reported to supervisors by another officer,  listed in other court records as Claude Simpkins. Calling Nicholl “a victim,”  the affidavit further said that Canale and Shesko needed the cellphone data “to corroborate the allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment in the workplace.” A “cursory examination” by Pawling recovered explicit photos and messages, but a fuller analysis was needed to provide investigators with evidence that criminal activity occurred, the affidavit said.

Nicholl responded by hiring attorney Dolores M. Troiani – who won a confidential settlement for another woman in an unrelated, 2006 sex case that also involved McEvoy. Troiani filed an emergency petition seeking the return of the phone. She argued that the city had no right to seize it since Nicholl purchased it.

On Nov. 7, Chester County Court Judge Phyllis Streitel ordered the city to return the phone to Nicholl in its original condition, and she unsealed the search warrant. She also urged city representatives to expedite their investigation to avoid having “a detrimental effect on the overall work of the Coatesville Police Department. “

Obtaining the phone and the search warrant prompted new allegations from Troiani, who accused the department of fabricating the blackmail story to obtain the search warrant. She said her client had a consensual relationship with McEvoy and was never threatened by anyone. Investigators concocted the story so they could excise any incriminating messages, Troiani said.

Further proof of the conspiracy, Troiani argued, was that the phone’s original SIM card, which would have contained the communication, went missing.

In a Feb. 22 letter to Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan, Troiani suggested that the D.A.’s Office had been duped into obtaining the search warrant under false pretenses, actions that constituted a crime as well as “an affront to all officers who understand and abide by the law.” The Attorney General’s Office began investigating the case on March 27. Hogan said he could not comment.

During a June 9 hearing before Streitel, Shesko, who was subpoenaed by Troiani, testified that Pawling, who had custody of the SIM card, told Shesko he lost it. Pawling was also subpoenaed, but his attorney, Daniel R. Bush, advised him to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege, explaining that his client had also been ordered by the Attorney General’s Office to testify before a grand jury on June 12.

“I’m 100 percent confident that Gerald Pawling did nothing remotely illegal with respect to any of this,” Bush said in a separate interview. He also said Pawling’s decision to accept the city’s early-retirement option had “absolutely nothing” to do with the Nicholl case.

Troiani argued to the judge that her client’s privacy was being invaded because copies of sex videos had been shared with multiple people by Chris Gerber, Coatesville’s special counsel. She asked the judge to order the city to return the SIM card if it were located and to return any copies of its contents.

On June 19, despite Carnes’ insistence that the city’s workplace investigation would be compromised, Streitel agreed that any copies of the phone’s data should be returned. Carnes immediately appealed that decision.

Attorney Joseph P. Green, who represents McEvoy, said his client just wants to get back to work. McEvoy was placed on administrative leave on Aug. 22.

“There’s never been a Coatesville police officer who wasn’t allowed to continue to protect the city and its citizens during an internal personnel investigation,” Green said.

None of the seven City Council members or Canale returned phone calls or emails seeking information about how many officers are on the street. Six, including Canale, Shesko, Pawling and Strunk, took the early-retirement option; however, Shesko and Canale were offered temporary contracts to assist with the transition to new leadership.  Nicholl and McEvoy are both being paid but are not working.

Troiani said she is preparing a civil lawsuit.

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