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Fatal abduction-chase yields two probes |

Fatal abduction-chase yields two probes

| Thursday, April 29, 2004 12:00 p.m

Lingering questions about how police handled a kidnapping and car chase that ended with the fatal shooting of a Sheraden woman have led to two investigations.

Pittsburgh police Wednesday formed a three-member review board to determine whether city officers followed proper procedures during the April 18 incident that ended when Andrea Umphrey was killed in Monroeville. Her ex-boyfriend, Alvin Starks, who was wounded, is accused of having fired the fatal shot.

The Allegheny County Coroner’s Office has scheduled an open inquest for May 20 to examine how city, state and Monroeville police handled the situation. The inquest also will seek to determine how and why Starks was able to keep his gun even after Umphrey, 35, got a protection-from-abuse order against him in February.

“We need to look at the (protection-from-abuse) laws and whether they need to be strengthened,” said Timothy Uhrich, solicitor to Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht.

Starks, 30, who was shot in an arm by a Monroeville police officer after the chase, was arraigned yesterday on a charge of homicide in connection with Umphrey’s death. He remains in the county jail on kidnapping and assault charges.

Starks proclaimed his innocence yesterday as he was led out of the arraignment by county sheriff’s deputies.

“I didn’t kill anybody,” Starks said, his left arm wrapped in a foam protector.

Police said Starks abducted Umphrey and their infant daughter at gunpoint from Victorious Faith Evangelist Outreach in Sheraden after he fired his 9mm pistol at others inside the church. He then held officers at bay for an hour before driving away in a minivan and leading police on a 50-mile chase that ended in Monroeville.

Starks was arrested in March for having violated the protection-from-abuse order, which states that he must surrender any guns he owns. Furthermore, police should have seized his weapon when they arrested him but didn’t.

Wecht asked attorney Margaret P. Joy to oversee the inquest because she is an expert in family law and experienced in dealing with protection-from-abuse orders, Uhrich said.

The incident brought some public criticism of the police response. Police union officials, City Council members and the head of the Citizen Police Review Board publicly questioned why Starks was able to drive away from the scene and whether a city SWAT team — which was disbanded due to budget constraints last year — would have helped. Some officials have questioned why police did not block roads.

City police commanders also had “a lot of questions that we need more answers to,” police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. said yesterday.

McNeilly said he has decided to follow a recommendation by the deputy chief to form a critical-incident review board to look into the kidnapping-car chase.

Such internal reviews usually are created when officers or civilians are critically injured or killed during a city police incident. The board’s findings could lead to discipline for officers or to policy changes.

Uhrich, the solicitor to Wecht, said many of the questions will be examined at the inquest.

“It may have gone longer than it should have,” Uhrich said of the chase. “We’ll look at what could have been done … how things could have been done better.”

Officer Michael Havens, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said yesterday that he believes officers did all they could, “given the policies and equipment and manpower at the scene.”

“As far as blocking the roads, he could have driven up onto sidewalks or yards. And we can’t use police cars to block or ram vehicles,” Havens said.

McNeilly said the policy prohibiting using cars to block other vehicles predates his administration. The policy will be examined this year during an annual review of all police procedures.

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