Jeffrey Thomas

Somerset County District Attorney Jeffrey Thomas discusses drugs and drug dealers coming into the region during a visit to The Tribune-Democrat on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020.

Jeffrey Thomas has a new role as Somerset County district attorney that puts him in charge of a criminal caseload that has topped 1,000 annually in recent years.

And the next case he prosecutes personally will be his first.

But to the Windber attorney, the switch from defense law to his new job is a straightforward transition.

“(Becoming district attorney) is a change of mindset a little bit,” Thomas, 34, said in an interview with The Tribune-Democrat. “But the way I see it ... my job is to catch bad guys, put them in jail and try to make our county as safe as we possibly can.”

He added: “On this side, you get to do good. The wonderful thing about being a prosecutor, is that you’ve got one client – the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – and all they want you to do is the right thing.”

Thomas won the Somerset DA job in November, grabbing 60% of the vote to unseat two-term incumbent Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser.

He is a former U.S. Army National Guardsman who has worked as a private attorney with Silverman, Tokarsky & Forman since 2015.

Thomas campaigned that he’d take a harder line on the fight against drugs. He said he’s kept that in mind as he’s begun finalizing his staff and meeting with county officials and partners in the criminal justice system.

Changes, partnerships

Methamphetamine and opioids such as heroin have both brought havoc to Somerset County.

Thomas said he recognizes that it will take a broad, regional effort to change that – and that includes making sure “the right people” are hitting the streets and investigating drug crimes at the county level.

Thomas said he hired Mike Volk, a former state trooper who has been credited for busting numerous trafficking incidents on the Pennsylvania Turnpike over the years.

“I’ve never met someone like Mike,” Thomas said. “He just has a personal aversion to drug dealers – the guy just hates drugs.”

Volk will serve as the county’s drug task force coordinator, working alongside a staff that includes Chief Detective John Loiodic, Thomas said.

The group already has met with the state Office of Attorney General to see what else can be done to broaden investigative efforts.

He said he’s also been in contact with Cambria County’s new district attorney, Greg Neugebauer – “and I think there’s a lot of things we can do to make a real difference across county lines.”

Drug trafficking doesn’t stop at those borders and neither should local investigations, Thomas said.

He’s hopeful the two will be able to sit down soon to discuss ways to make that work.

“Greg is going to do a wonderful job,” Thomas said. “And I think we can do some really good things together.”

Specialized courts

As one step in a wide-ranging effort to combat drug issues in Somerset County – an adult “treatment court” – was launched in 2017 to direct qualified nonviolent offenders into regimented treatment programs with court oversight.

Defense attorneys, prosecutors, treatment and education providers – as well as law enforcement officials – partnered on the approach. A treatment court team oversees cases.

Thomas said Assistant District Attorney Sara Huston will continue serving as his office’s representative.

“(President) Judge Gregory Geary is in charge of it ... and there’s a team of folks who do a great job,” Thomas saaid. “Does it work for everybody? No. But there are some success stories.”

Thomas said he recognizes there are a great number of people in the community – including those in recovery – impacted by the drug epidemic.

“If there are ... avenues to help people, I’ll support that,” he said. “But my primary focus is to take bad guys off the street.”

During last year’s election campaign, Thomas called for the county to create a veterans court – a move he acknowledges would mean time to implement and additional expenses.

But he said he plans to gather data from Cambria County to share with Geary in a pitch to convince the county the idea is worth exploring.

Cambria County launched its veterans court in 2013, linking individuals on the wrong side of the law with support – experts in legal, mental health, physical and substance abuse – to help them overcome their roadblocks and get to the factors that led to their mistakes.

The program also connects participants with peer mentors – fellow veterans – who work to keep them focused and on the right track.

Five years into the program, Cambria officials were estimating the vets court was saving the county more than $350,000 annually – and reducing recidivism rates.

If Somerset County can help guide veterans back toward productive lives – and save on prison costs – “it would be a double-win,” Thomas said.

Kendrick case looms

A case involving a state prison inmate accused of fatally beating SCI-Somerset corrections officer Sgt. Mark Baserman in February 2019 is currently moving toward trial.

Paul Kendrick, 22, could face a death-penalty sentence if convicted of first-degree murder – a decision made by Lazzari-Strasiser last year that Thomas said he supports.

He said he reviewed the surveillance video of the February attack.

“We have to support our correction officers ... and law enforcement,” Thomas said, noting there should be consequences for taking a life.

“Unfortunately, there’s a moratorium (on executions) in Pennsylvania. The governor won’t sign death warrants, which I personally don’t agree with.”

He worries the moratorium will weaken the state’s highest deterrent to murder – “but that’s the decision (Gov. Tom Wolf) has made.

“As an elected official, my job is to follow the law,” he said.

The Kendrick case is currently scheduled for the February trial list.

But with Kendrick last month obtaining a new lawyer – longtime Cambria County Public Defender Ken Sottile – it’s likely the case won’t proceed to trial for six months or more, Thomas said.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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