Aliquippa Assistant Police Chief Joe Perciavalle, in his 21st month of paid suspension and legal wrangling, learned last week the state had dropped its final criminal charge against him.
City Council is expected to discuss his work status at next week’s meeting. In the meantime, Perciavalle, who is expecting the arrival of a daughter in August, is finding it difficult to celebrate.
“Obviously I’m happy with the outcome, my attorney was great,” he said today. “I feel like I did the day I was first arrested, I don’t know what to think. I’m happy for my wife and family, they’re all relieved.
“But I can’t even go anywhere to celebrate because of this damn coronavirus. This shouldn’t be a moment for me because this never should have happened. I feel like I won one battle, but I’m going into the next. I’m worried they might try something else now.”
Perciavalle was the second police chief appointed and suspended within two days in June 2018 and in the wake of the May 13, 2018 murder of city resident Rachael DelTondo. City Council first put Police Chief Donald Couch on paid leave on June 6, 2018, saying Couch was believed to be the subject of a state police investigation.
County detectives arrested Perciavalle on June 8, 2018 on charges of felony distribution of sexually explicit material to a minor, felony unlawful contact with a minor, and misdemeanor corruption of a minor.
County detectives alleged that Perciavalle sent then-17-year-old Lauren Watkins a text message containing a short video of a semi-nude woman urinating while on a swing.
Both Perciavalle and Watkins said the “meme” video was sent to her by mistake as part of a group text message intended for her father, Aliquippa Police Sgt. Kenneth Watkins, who has since been demoted to patrolman.
The video was discovered when detectives were examining Lauren Watkins’ phone as part of their investigation into DelTondo’s murder. That case remains unsolved.
On July 10, 2018, county detectives filed an additional felony charge against Perciavalle for intercepting a communication, alleging Perciavalle illegally recorded a conversation with Couch on March 2, the day state police served a search warrant on city offices.
District Judge Edward Howe in December 2018 dismissed the two felony charges of disseminating sexually explicit materials and unlawful contact with a minor, but held for trial the misdemeanor corruption of minors charge, as well as the felony wiretap charge for recording Couch.
Perciavalle argued his recording of Couch was lawful, because he had been acting as an informant against Couch and had reason to fear there may be an attempt to intimidate him.
Following the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s ethics guidance in March 2019, the Beaver County District Attorney’s Office recused itself from prosecuting Perciavalle. The Attorney General’s Office then took over prosecution of the cases against him and on May 9 refiled the two felony charges against him that were dismissed by Howe the previous year.
The results were the same, with a second judge dismissing the cases.
Townsend strongly criticized the Attorney General’s Office for refiling the charges against Perciavalle, echoing his client’s assertions that he suffered retaliation against a whistleblower.
The Attorney General’s Office last week dropped the final charge of corruption of minors.
“I want to say how disappointed we were at the way both of these cases played out,” Townsend said. “It took the (Pennsylvania Attorney General’s) office to come in and drill down on exactly what happened here to realize these cases weren’t worth moving forward on.
“I commend them on that. I think it was horrible the way the Beaver County District Attorney’s office treated Joe Perciavelle and the Watkins family. Their actions caused grief and stress to the Watkins family. Lauren lost out on a good family friend for over a year, he missed a lot of important accomplishments in her life. It was terrible the way they were treated.”
“I think the impetus of both of these cases obviously was for the District Attorney’s Office to use the text message case as an excuse to get into his phone because they wanted to stifle any sort of investigation he was doing to uncover the corruption in the City of Aliquippa,” Townsend said.
“Obviously he is very excited and is ready to get back to work. He is anxiously awaiting to see when the day will be that he can put his uniform back on and go back to doing what he was doing.
Aliquippa Councilman Matthew Mottes said he expects the board to act next week. “If he’s been cleared of all wrongdoing then he should be back.”
BeaverCountian.com investigative reporter John Paul contributed to this report.