Upset Leechburg residents are struggling to come to grips with the imminent release from jail of suspended police Chief Michael Diebold, who pleaded guilty last week to soliciting sex from a police officer posing as a teenage girl.
With a population of a little more than 2,000, the small town has been struggling with the Diebold saga since he lost part of his arm during a fireworks mishap in the summer of 2017. He rehabbed and rallied back, marrying his girlfriend, Danielle Reinke, the mother of his then-infant son.
Diebold recovered from his injury, added a family and attained near-hero status.
But that was wiped out just six months later, in January, when he was arrested in a sting at the Lower Burrell Sheetz, where he had gone to meet what he thought was a 14-year-old girl.
Instead, he was met by state Attorney General’s Office agents, who arrested him.
The public waited this year for his trial to learn more details about his fall from grace, but that didn’t happen because Diebold cut a deal with prosecutors that netted him just nine months in jail — the time he spent locked up awaiting trial.
He is scheduled to be released Jan. 27.
The guilty plea and Diebold’s plans to live in town took Leechburg residents by surprise and drew mostly angry responses.
“If I was him, I would not move back to town, especially after everyone helped him after he blew his arm off and turned around and did what he did,” said a middle-aged borough resident exiting Sprankle’s market last week.
Like many residents, the man didn’t identify himself, not wanting to speak out publicly against the suspended police chief.
A friend of Karen Diebold, Mike Diebold’s mother, who asked not to be identified, said, “I don’t know how to proceed. It’s going to be a slow healing process.”
The Rev. Gary Lyon, pastor of Cross Roads Community Presbyterian Church in Leechburg, said judicial decisions, including Diebold’s sentence of nine to 23 months, can be difficult — and this one, for some people, is “hard to sit with.”
“There are some people who don’t want to be out in the community sharing and talking about it,” Lyon said. “Some people on social media want to make it a public matter. It’s one of the realities of Leechburg.”
Doug Corbett, 58, of Leechburg spoke up and said, “Nine months doesn’t pay for the crime. He was in an entrusted position. Where is the justice in that?”
Regardless of talk in the small town, attorney Chuck Pascal, a Leechburg councilman, said, “We’re going to handle this like we would handle any other person on parole.”
But it’s not going to be easy, Pascal and Lyon admit.
“The Bible tells us we need to forgive, and people don’t like to hear this,” Lyon said.
“That is what we are going to be working on,” he said. “How we respond will tell us something about who we are, especially the people of faith.”
For Pascal the attorney, the path forward is clear: Diebold should be afforded the opportunity to “reintegrate into society the same as anybody else convicted of a crime. We shall not make more out this than it needs to be.”
It’s in the community’s best interest that Diebold work again and have a support system because he is less likely to become a reoffender, according to Kathy Fox, a criminologist and professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, where she studies the reintegration of serious criminal offenders.
“The research shows the (offenders) can be supervised in communities, so that should make the community feel better — although there are no guarantees,” she said. “There will be lots of eyes on him, I am sure.”
If Diebold would violate his conditions for release, “they will put him back in prison in a heartbeat,” Fox said.
“I think, if I was in the community, I would make sure that he was getting treatment such as sex offender therapy, which I’m sure would be part of his condition for release.”
The disdain for Diebold is evident on the Facebook page, “The LEECHBURG Beat,” where numerous posts complain that nine months served, most of it while waiting for a trial, was not enough and that “no one wants him around.”
The sense of betrayal comes in layers, Pascal and Lyon said.
“I get why they are angry,” Pascal said.
Diebold lost trust as a police chief with the statutory sexual assault charges.
But then there’s the nearly $17,000 residents gave to Diebold and his family through a GoFundMe account after his fireworks accident.
“A lot of people are angry for the money they gave him,” said Diana Blumeraitis, as she looked down in disgust at the bar she tends at Dizzy’s Place on Market Street.
This is the same town that raised $20,000 on its Pink Day breast cancer fundraiser in September and, most recently, $5,000 for a family who lost everything in a fire, she pointed out.
A friend of both the Diebold and Reinke families who didn’t want to be identified said, “Here, they were having spaghetti dinners, selling T-shirts, showing that ‘we are one for all’ and we take care of our own. Then, when Mike was arrested, everyone was dumbfounded. He blew everyone’s mind.”
The relatively short jail time, according to Blumeraitis, “put the icing on the cake.”
According to Diebold’s mother, Karen Diebold, her son will live with her on Siberian Avenue, about a block away from David Leech Elementary School.
Tiffany Nix, superintendent of the Leechburg Area School District, had no comment on the Diebold case, except that the district would respond quickly to any concerns raised by parents.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary Ann at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.