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Vandergrift man found dead in jail

VANDERGRIFT: A man arrested Friday by borough police at his Longfellow Street home was found dead less than an hour after being placed in a holding cell in Vandergrift’s police station, Westmoreland County’s deputy coroner said Sunday.

The death of Robert E. Reefer Jr., 41, was ruled a suicide, Deputy Coroner Dennis Johns said. The cause of death was asphyxiation due to hanging, he said.

“We have no other reasons to believe anything else,” Johns said.

Reefer’s sister, Janette Gamble of Howell Street, said it wasn’t like her brother to kill himself. She said her brother loved life and was going to be in a wedding Saturday.

“I had to pick out his wedding clothes for the funeral,” she said.

Gamble said has questions about how and why her brother died in the cell.

“There are bruises all over his entire body,” said Gamble, a funeral director who works for John A. Lefdahl Funeral Home in Indiana, Pa., which is handling arrangements for Reefer.

“Nobody’s saying nothing,” Gamble said. “There’s no explanation.”

No signs of abuse were found by Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht, who performed an autopsy on Reefer at the request of the Westmoreland County coroner’s office, Johns said.

Reefer did have a small, superficial abrasion on his forehead, caused when authorities were cutting him down after he was found hanging in the cell, Johns said.

The autopsy procedure itself, which involves incisions on the torso, may have been responsible for the apparent bruising Gamble said she saw, Johns said.

Gamble, when told what Johns had said, responded with, “I am a funeral director. I have seen bodies after autopsies. I have seen strangulations. These bruises are not from that.”

Reefer of 115 Longfellow St. had become involved in a dispute Friday afternoon with neighbors, who called police, Johns said.

Police Chief Joseph Caporali said borough officers responded to the call at 4:52 p.m.

“Whenever they arrived there, I guess Mr. Reefer was causing a disturbance,” Caporali said.

The dispute was about neighbors working on a car in the street who were using an acetylene tank, he said. Reefer had several times approached the tank with a cigarette lighter, Caporali said. Acetylene is a highly flammable gas used in torches.

Police warned Reefer to stop what he was doing and go inside his home, but he refused and was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and public drunkenness, Caporali said.

A police report said Reefer had been drinking alcoholic beverages at the time of the incident, Johns said. Toxicology tests are being performed by the state police crime lab in Greensburg to determine if Reefer was intoxicated, Johns said.

Reefer was known to Vandergrift police and Friday wasn’t the first time he’d been placed in the borough’s holding cell, Caporali and Gamble said. However, police usually just kept him overnight and released him the next morning, they said.

Friday, Reefer was placed in the middle of three holding cells at the police station at 5:16 p.m., Johns said. Caporali said Reefer was placed there to sober up as usual and probably would have been sent home in the morning. A summons would have been mailed to him to appear before a district justice on the charges, Caporali said.

Reefer was the only person in any of the cells, which are separated from the main police station office by a short hallway, Johns said. A door leading to the hallway is usually open when a prisoner is in a cell, but Caporali said he didn’t know if that was the case Friday.

Caporali said a sergeant and an officer were on duty, but not necessarily in the station at all times while Reefer was in the cell. One of the two checked on Reefer at 5:35 p.m. and found no problems, Caporali said.

The sergeant checked on Reefer at 5:55 p.m. and found him to be OK, Caporali said.

At 6:15 p.m., the officer found Reefer hanging in his cell, Caporali said.

Vandergrift ambulance was called before it was determined that Reefer was dead. Johns said he pronounced Reefer dead at 8:40 p.m. at the scene, saying the delay was caused by him having to travel about 25 miles from his home in Derry.

Johns and Caporali said a county detective was at the scene. Caporali said it is standard practice for an outside agency to investigate incidents such as Reefer’s death when they involve a local police department.

Michael Brajdich, chief of Westmoreland County detectives, did not return a telephone message left at his home Sunday evening. There was no answer at the detectives’ office.

Reefer hanged himself with his shirt, which he passed through a latticed cell door window about 5 feet off the floor, knotted and then tied around his neck, Johns said. Reefer than bent his knees, causing the shirt to shut off the flow of blood and oxygen to his body, and leading to his death, Johns said.

Twenty minutes was more than enough time to cause death, Johns said.

Mayor Jack Jewart said he was out of town when the incident occurred and he found out about it when he returned Saturday. Jewart said he hadn’t talked to Caporali or police about the hanging and couldn’t comment on it.


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