A Westmoreland County judge accused the district attorney’s office of misconduct in its handling of three criminal cases against a Unity man named as a potential suspect in the disappearance of a former girlfriend missing since April 2018.
In a blistering 26-page opinion made public Wednesday, Common Pleas Court Judge Tim Krieger said county prosecutors acted improperly and deliberately slow-played the cases against Thomas Stanko, 51, to use them as leverage to extract information from him about the disappearance and suspected murder of Cassandra Gross.
“If the court’s impressions are accurate, it goes without saying that these actions were an abuse of prosecutorial discretion and misuse of power of the office of the district attorney,” Krieger wrote.
Krieger’s opinion was in response to an appeal filed by the district attorney’s office challenging the judge’s ruling in July, when he found that prosecutors violated Stanko’s speedy trial rights by failing to secure his appearance in court to answer charges in three pending cases. Stanko has been in federal custody since February 2019 as he awaits trial on gun charges.
District Attorney John Peck issued a statement Wednesday afternoon in response to the judge’s opinion.
“I profoundly disagree with the court’s decision in the Stanko cases. The district attorney’s office will pursue an appeal from these decisions as we have done in the past where the office disagrees with the court’s decision,” Peck said.
The state’s speedy trial law requires cases go before a judge or jury within six months after arrest for those in jail, and a year for defendants not in custody.
Federal charges were filed in early 2019. A year earlier, Stanko was charged in state court, accused of possessing a stolen all-terrain sports vehicle, violating terms of a drunk driving sentence in 2018 and assaulting a man during a Youngstown bar fight in 2017.
The federal case involved 17 guns state police said they found on Stanko’s Unity property and at a storage unit he rented in August 2018. He has a previous felony conviction which prohibits him from possessing a firearm.
Stanko pleaded guilty to two federal weapons offenses in November and continues to be held in federal custody. He is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Mark R. Hornak on March 23.
Stanko has never been charged in connection with Gross’ disappearance and has denied he has information about her whereabouts.
Court hearings in the state criminal cases were routinely postponed over the next several years after federal authorities took custody of Stanko in early 2019. County prosecutors claimed they were unable to reclaim jurisdiction and were rebuffed in repeated efforts to have him transferred back to Westmoreland County.
Krieger wrote those efforts were minimal at best.
“The commonwealth rather clearly allowed the defendant to remain in the custody of another jurisdiction while it stood idly by,” Krieger wrote.
Meanwhile, prosecutors continue treat Stanko as a suspect in Gross’ disappearance. During a court appearance last year, one prosecutor suggested homicide charges could be filed against him.
Peck said police believe Gross, who would have turned 55 last May, was killed and on Wednesday said the investigation was ongoing.