Police chief defends ill-advised raid

The Times Leader, October 8, 2000

    If there is one thing the main parties agree upon in the wake of the ill-advised Sept. 27 raid on a West Hazleton home, it's that someone could have ended up dead.

    On who might have been the killer, though, Denise Ference and Hazleton Police Chief Edward Harry are about as far apart as their individual accounts of what transpired in the wee hours of that chilly fall morning.

    Ference, a 38-year-old single mother of four who lives at 531 Winters Ave., said the police officers who entered her home "locked and loaded" and looking for a homicide suspect easily could have killed her oldest son, 18-year-old Matthew Storaska, instead. Harry, however, said the homicide suspect, Thomas John Wills, arrested Thursday in Ohio in the 1995 slaying of Oliver Surkala - had he been where police were led to believe he was - easily could have killed mother and son both.

    On Wednesday, Ference said she is still reeling from the callous treatment the Hazleton police department's Special Operations Group subjected her to, and she suggested a reprimand and even suspension might be in order for Harry. She also said she has been referred to a civil-rights lawyer.

    "I've been consumed with this since it happened," Ference said while sitting inside her rented half-double, which now gives her a constant creepy feeling. "I can't think of anything else, and I want someone to stand up and take responsibility."

    Harry, who said his special unit was called in to assist the West Hazleton and state police in the raid, said he has taken all the responsibility he can and his officers faced a "damned if we do and damned if we don't" situation when they acted on Wilson Carl Shafer's tip that Wills was inside Ference's home.

    He explained his justification for what Ference called a clearly uncalled-for invasion on the sanctity of her home.

    "We have a guy that calls us and says, 'Guess who I just served breakfast to? T.J. Wills,' " Harry said of Shafer. He said Shafer told him Wills was no longer in his house but had moved across the street to Ference's home, where he had been staying for a few days. Shafer, Harry said, also called the home a "big drug house," an accusation that still upsets Ference, who said she does not use drugs and that she has warned her children she better never learn that they do either.

    Ference also said West Hazleton's police chief knew the Hazleton police were making a mistake and she thought he told them that at the time of the operation.

    "I knew T.J. Wills would not be in the house. If I would have been there at the time, I would have told them that,'' Chief Tom Wallace said. "I know her (Ference) personally, and I would have told them that.''

    Wallace said he wasn't informed of the raid until 7:45 a.m., after Ference's house was entered. He said his officers as well as others should have informed him of plans earlier, but, in any case, he arrived at the home at 8 a.m. He noted that West Hazleton police did not enter the house and that once they got the information that led to the raid, the information went to state police at Frackville, who also were on the scene with the Hazleton unit.

    He said/she said

    The way Harry sees it, police had no choice but to enter the home. The way Ference sees it, they had no right.

    As for how the raid was conducted, the two differ on several major points.

    Ference said she and her son, who both work nights, had stayed up late on Sept. 26 and 27 watching a movie. She said she tired before him and went to bed between 4:30 and 5 a.m., leaving her son on the couch. About 6:45 a.m., she said, she was awakened by banging on the door. She said she was groggy from little sleep and not wearing her corrective lenses when she opened the door to see swarms of darkly clothed men and a fake-looking shield that bore the word "police."

    "They never said they were the police though," she said, recalling that the men instead spoke in hushed tones - as if they didn't want anyone else to hear - and uttered statements such as, "Get her out of the house."

    "Right away, thoughts went through my head," she said. "You know how you hear about people impersonating police all the time? I really thought they were here to murder us. They stormed in, and the next thing I knew there were just guns and hands everywhere.''

    Another version

    Harry begs to differ.

    First off, he said, "We didn't storm the house.'' Police set up a perimeter, he said, and decided to go in after peering through a front window and seeing Ference's son, who he said fit Wills' general description, seated on a living-room couch.

    "We rang the doorbell and knocked on the door several times,'' Harry said. "Denise Ference opened the door, and we asked her to come out on the porch.''

    Harry said she twice refused, then shut the door, prompting a number of questions.

    "Is he (Wills) in there?"

    "Is she hiding the guy?"

    "Is he threatening her?"

    "Is Wills holding the son against his will?"

    "Is the son hiding Wills?"

    At that point, Harry said, police entered the home - with Ference's permission, which he said was not necessary anyway - and pulled her out onto the porch. Ference denied giving any entry permission.

    Harry said previous reports that Ference was wearing a nightgown were misleading because the woman was wearing a large and bulky terrycloth robe that covered her knees.

    "It's not like she was indecent or anything,'' he said.

    When police ordered her around, though, Ference said, she was a bit disoriented, explaining, "I was more worried about keeping my housecoat closed. I wore a sheer thing to bed that night.''

    Standing on the porch barefoot, Ference said, she repeatedly told the police she did not know Wills and repeatedly was told she would go to jail.

    Harry said Ference was indeed told she could go to jail, but only if the police entered the home and found Wills, which would be proof she was lying.

    Ference said she asked who told the police Wills was in her house and when she learned the accusation came from her neighbor, Shafer, whom she also doesn't know, she began pointing at other houses and yelling, "I saw him (Wills) go there. Let's pull everyone out of bed!''

    Police eventually got to her son, she said, who had been upstairs when they entered the home, and Harry said it was standard procedure to approach him with weapons locked and loaded.

    As for herself, Ference said, she didn't know what the police wanted her to do.

    "They told me to get down on my stomach. One was pushing me down; one was pulling me up. It seemed very disorganized. I felt like a rag doll, like I didn't know what they wanted me to do.

    "I remember one of the men dragged me down off the porch steps. I had a rifle in my face.''

    Ultimately, Ference said, she and her son were placed in a squad car while police went into the home and ransacked several rooms.

    Harry denied that, saying the officers went through the place slowly and methodically.

    Eventually, Ference said, she was taken to state police headquarters in Hazleton and vigorously questioned, particularly about saying she did not know Wills, who is her age and from the area.

    The aftermath

    When she returned home, Ference said, she and her son were stunned to see the damage police had done. A sealed-off hallway door had been kicked in, and the frame on the couch that sat on the other side of that door was broken. Mattresses and box springs were torn off beds, and boxes, some containing china, were overturned in the attic. A hope chest containing much personal memorabilia also was overturned, Ference said.

    "I can understand if they opened it to see if anyone was inside it,'' she said, "but ..."

    She said the police tore only her son's bedroom apart but left untouched the rooms of her 11-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, who spend weekends with her.

    "What were they looking for? Why?" she asked. "Because he's a teenager?"

    Ference also disputed the notion her oldest son looked anything like the picture of Wills that was shown on local television stations. She went through a litany of differences, the most obvious being the ages of her son and the suspect, who are 20 years apart. Wills, she said, reportedly was covered with tattoos and her son, who was wearing a tank top when police watched him through the window, had none. Also, she said, Wills had a mustache in original pictures, but in ones shown in the wake of a raid the mustache was mysteriously missing. Ference believes the police may have altered the pictures to make their mistake look like one anyone could make.

    Harry had his own explanation, though, for thinking Ference's son might have been Wills: "You have officers looking through a window at night, the only light being from a TV. Basically, we're looking for height and weight, and they were similar.''

    A question of credibility

    What had and still has Ference most upset is that police blindly took someone else's word that she was harboring a killer.

    Was that word reason enough for police to act as they did?

    "You have to consider him credible because he is identifying himself," Harry said of Shafer. "There's a difference in the credibility of an anonymous caller and a person providing his name.

    "Let me put it this way: If we choose to ignore that information and Wills is in that house and hurts Denise Ference, we're in trouble."

    Another confrontation

    At this point, Ference said, there isn't much Harry can do to allay her anger, and the apology she previously said she wanted would be too late.

    Harry said he did try to apologize to Ference, but she did not answer the door the morning after the raid when he visited her home. He said he figured she was sleeping and returned to his office intending to try again later. In the meantime, she called and left him a nasty voice-mail message that she said went something like this: "Mr. Harry, this is Denise Ference. I'm the woman you drug out of her home and humiliated yesterday. If you are the man you think you are and the hero you want to be, you will return my phone call.''

    Harry said he did return that call, but Ference would not let him explain anything, saying he had missed his chance. He said she swore at him, which she denied. Both agreed that she hung up on him, and Harry said he did not try to contact her again because she told him she had been in touch with a lawyer. Any further comment from him to her would come through a lawyer as well, he said.

    Ference did admit to cursing at Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta's secretary when she called his office and could not speak to him but said she was angry and regrets that now.

    It is that unresolved anger Ference wants everyone who has heard her story to understand. Above all, she said, she wants the public to know that what happened to her can happen to anyone, and she said she has been told she is not the only one who has been victimized by overzealous police.

    Still, she worries she may now have made herself ineligible for local police protection and may have a bull's-eye on her back.

    "What's going to happen if I need the police now? And what if someone has a gripe against me? Will they be out to get me? Will they be asking,'What've you got on her?' " she wondered. "I really feel like I should pick up and move out of town."

    Steve Mocarsky, a Times Leader staff writer, contributed to this report.