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Allegheny County settles jail sex assault lawsuit with former inmate

Theresa Clift
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The Allegheny County Jail in Downtown Pittsburgh.
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Joshua Reber of Upper St. Clair

Allegheny County has paid a $32,000 settlement to a woman who says a guard sexually assaulted her several times while she was an inmate at the Allegheny County Jail in 2015.

Melissa Behanna, 35, of Washington County said jail officials knew Joshua Reber was sexually assaulting inmates when he worked as a corrections officer at the jail in 2015 and ignored complaints by inmates.

Behanna, who was serving a sentence for possession of drug paraphernalia, was transferred from the Washington County Jail to the Allegheny County Jail in February 2015 because of overcrowding, according to a federal lawsuit Behanna filed in January 2017 against Allegheny County and 16 jail officials.

The Tribune-Review does not typically name victims of sexual assault unless they wish to be identified. Behanna, via her attorney, gave approval to be named in this story. She gave her name for previous news reports in other outlets.

When Behanna arrived at the jail in February 2015, Reber, 37, of Upper St. Clair was engaged in a sexual relationship with at least one other inmate, according to the complaint.

A few weeks after that inmate was released, Reber encountered Behanna in a double-occupancy cell and moved her to a single-occupancy cell, the complaint says. He made sexually suggestive remarks and groped her, the complaint said.

Early one morning, Reber came to her cell, physically restrained her and forced her to perform oral sex on him, the complaint says.

He then moved her to a cell that was not monitored by a camera, despite her objections, and assaulted her at least two other times, the complaint says.

He forced her to perform oral sex on him once, and performed oral sex on her once, said Jonathan Gesk, Behanna’s attorney. The relationship was not consensual.

“Reber had a known modus operandi of singling out specific inmates to victimize, transferring them to single cells that were not subject to surveillance video, and then perpetrating rapes, sexual assaults and sexual harassment of the victims,” the complaint says.

Jail employees called Reber “pod father,” referencing his many sexual relationships with female inmates, the complaint says.

The complaint says jail officials knew inmate grievances were not being delivered to the appropriate office in a safe and secure manner, which created an “intentionally ineffective system” for inmates to communicate their concerns.

About two years ago, the jail started accepting complaints or requests through a confidential hotline, Warden Orlando Harper said via a message from Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs.

When Reber was on military leave in June 2015, he called to check on Behanna, the complaint says.

In July, Behanna was transferred back to Washington County Jail.

After investigating the complaints, on Dec. 1, 2015, the state charged Reber with institutional sex assault, according to court documents.

The next day, Reber was terminated from his job with the county.

In October 2016, Reber pleaded guilty to two lesser charges of official oppression , and prosecutors withdrew the institutional sexual assault charges in exchange.

In December, the county made the settlement payment to Behanna and all defendants were dismissed from the federal case except Reber. The case is still ongoing. The settlement was included in a monthly summary released this week of executive actions by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Allegheny County is no longer involved with the case, nor is the county representing Reber in any additional lawsuits, County Solicitor Andrew Szefi said via Downs.

Two other women filed similar lawsuits against Reber and the county in federal court in January 2017. Those cases are ongoing.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669, [email protected] or via Twitter @tclift.

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