Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan said the progress she’s been part of inside and outside of the courtroom are things she wants to continue if reelected.
Callihan, who’s seeking a third term, said the focus throughout her last four years in office has been the growth of opioid abuse throughout Cambria County.
“I think the No. 1 thing on the voters’ minds right now is our drug problem,” she said.
Callihan was one of the founders of the Cambria County Drug Coalition, which was established in 2016 to create cohesion between agencies already making efforts against the county’s drug crisis.
“I think we’ve made many strides in our war on drugs,” Callihan said, mentioning warm hand-off protocols now in place at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, so that overdose patients transported there have the choice to seek treatment.
“You strike when the iron is hot, where they’ve just had a near-death experience, that’s a critical point in their lives,” Callihan said.
Callihan’s effort to provide Narcan, an overdose-reversing nasal spray, to all of the county’s local police departments, has resulted in less overdose fatalities, while her decision to shift oversight of the Cambria County Drug Task Force to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office in 2017 has allowed two agents to be stationed in Cambria County.
“We now have resources we did not have prior to that partnership,” she said.
Recently, the task force and local police have made less arrests for heroin and more for cocaine and meth.
“There’s a resurgence of crystal methamphetamine,” Callihan said.
While a heroin high can be similar to sedation, Callihan noted that highs from crystal meth can keep users up for days and cause delusions, violence and uncertain behaviors for officers detaining them.
Callihan said awareness that heroin is most often laced with fentanyl and can be deadly, along with state regulations that limit and track opioid prescriptions may be an explanation for the change.
“I think all of those things happening at once is making an impact,” she said.
When Callihan first started working in the Cambria County District Attorney’s Office in 1996, she recalls the office handling two or three homicides each year.
In 2013, Cambria County saw 11 homicides, the same number of homicides recorded in 2017.
“With drugs comes violence,” Callihan said.
In addition to drug-related homicides, Callihan said the county has seen a spike in gang violence related to drugs that has resulted in shootings and homicides, several of which are unsolved.
“It’s something none of us feel good about,” Callihan said of the county’s four unsolved murder cases.
The biggest obstacle to the investigation of unsolved murders is witness reluctance, Callihan said.
“This culture that there should be a code of silence and that you never talk to the police has been hard to break,” she said.
Callihan said if her office is unable to get cooperation from a witness, they’re taking a hard stance on any related gun violations that may apply.
During her tenure as district attorney, Callihan said her office has earned seven first-degree or second-degree convictions leading to life sentences in homicide cases.
Callihan was the lead prosecutor on two of those cases in her latest four-year term. David Leon Johnson was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 2015 fatal stabbing and strangling of Allison Vaughn and, last month, Larry Fason was sentenced to life behind bars for the 2017 death of Angela Lunn.
Video surveillance has been crucial in many of those cases, Callihan said, whether it’s from local businesses and residents or through her office’s assistance in purchasing surveillance cameras for the West End Improvement Group and the Moxham Renaissance organization.
Outside the courtroom, Callihan said she’s passionate about protocol writing and is currently working to establish a countywide protocol for response to human trafficking incidents.
That protocol will look similar to how the county’s Sexual Assault Response Team handles its cases and a human trafficking response team will include police, victim advocates and someone who’s able to connect victims with housing, counseling and additional resources.
“Human trafficking is going undetected more than we believe,” Callihan said.
Callihan’s office earned its first-ever human trafficking conviction in 2017 and the suspect in that case, Barshay Dunbar, was sentenced to a minimum of 13 years in state prison in 2018 for allegedly running a prostitution ring out of a Richland Township hotel.
When it comes to the debate surrounding recreational marijuana, Callihan said she’s against legalization in the light of what she said hasn’t been a smooth transition to allow for medical marijuana in Pennsylvania.
Callihan’s biggest concern about the potential legalization of recreational marijuana is how it could further increase Cambria County’s number of impaired driving arrests.
Cambria County sees an average of 800 DUI arrests each year, Callihan said, and, since 2010, 68% of those arrests are related to drug-impaired driving.
If reelected, Callihan said she’d also like to put a county humane officer in place, especially considering Pennsylvania’s new animal abuse laws passed in 2017.
Callihan acknowledged that she has not been endorsed by the county’s Fraternal Order of Police lodges, but noted she only sought endorsement from Lodge 101 near Northern Cambria and did not earn it.
She said she did not seek endorsement from FOP Lodge 86 or FOP Lodge 62 because she has consulted with both entities recently about criminal matters, personnel or misconduct issues.
“I didn’t seek it because I wanted to maintain my impartiality,” she said.
“I think it’s hard for me to take on an endorsement and then be across the table (from them during an investigation or inquiry).”
Callihan said the lack of those endorsements does not signify a weak partnership with area police.
“I feel that that’s not indicative of the relationship I have with the police chiefs,” she said. “My day-to-day relationship with the police is strong.”
Whether it was her role in the drug coalition, human trafficking training, the formation of the Cambria County Child Advocacy Center, which opened in 2015, or the establishment of the county’s SART in 2010, Callihan said she’s proud of what she’s accomplished.
“I’ve tried to be a DA that works beyond the courtroom,” she said.