Brenda DelBene was stocking blueberry Pop-Tarts when a masked man stuck an AK-47 assault rifle in her face.
"Look away, look down and get on the ground," said the gunman, who fled with about $500 and two cartons of Newports.
The Sept. 9 holdup of the BP convenience store in Penn Hills hardly seems remarkable. No one was hurt, and the take was modest.
But Robert E. Harper -- the man charged with the robbery -- was no ordinary criminal.
Harper should have been in jail to await sentencing for other armed robberies. But he was on the streets because he bought his freedom with information in a grand jury probe of drug dealing at the Allegheny County Jail.
Twice he was granted house arrest with electronic monitoring at the request of jail officials and District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr.'s office. Common Pleas Judge David Cashman approved the requests.
Harper was supposed to quietly wait at home for sentencing for six armed robberies that began in December 2000 -- just six months after he was released from prison for a 1990 robbery and assault.
Instead, while on house arrest Harper committed 16 armed robberies and shot two people, police said.
Typically, criminals like Harper would not be eligible for house arrest because of their violent pasts, said Joel Reisz, who coordinates the electronic monitoring program for the county bail agency.
"For a judge to let him go, that's a big loophole," said DelBene, who left her job at the Penn Hills BP two days after the robbery. "The legal system needs to wake up. It sounds like he thinks this is a game. But it could have cost someone's life."
This is a cautionary tale for police, prosecutors and judges, who must weigh the risks and rewards of making deals with violent criminals. It is also a story about mistakes and missed opportunities.
Harper's crime spree could have ended two months before his final arrest Nov. 24. But an oversight allowed him to walk free. Harper, wearing an ankle bracelet, had been hauled in by police Sept. 25 on a robbery charge from Clairton. He left the county jail that night on $10,000 bond because a county bail investigator sitting in on his arraignment didn't report Harper's arrest.
"That was a failure on our part. The monitoring office should have been notified," said John Young, manager of the county Bail Agency. "Our procedures need to be streamlined, and I plan to re-educate and re-emphasize with our staff the policies."
Harper, 31, of Braddock, has been charged with the 16 robberies, including one in which a bartender at a Primanti Bros. restaurant was shot in the hand, police say. Terrified victims in the other holdups were ordered at gunpoint to hand over cash. Police worried at the time that the robberies were becoming progressively more bold and violent.
"I think if I had sneezed by accident, I would never have seen my two grandkids again," said DelBene, 39, of Penn Hills.
Cashman, the judge who twice approved Harper's release on house arrest, is one of many who say that making deals with informants like Harper is a necessary evil.
"Do I feel bad about the new victims? I certainly do. It's unfortunate," Cashman said. "But I would do it again."
The Nov. 24 arrest that finally put Harper away began with a minor traffic violation and ended with charges of drug possession, fleeing and eluding, resisting arrest and reckless driving. He then began to confess to the robberies, police said.
Harper now sits in the county jail, bouncing in and out of solitary confinement. He will face up to 300 years in prison June 13 when he appears before Cashman for sentencing on the six armed robberies that began in December 2000.
Harper continues to seek favors in exchange for information about drug dealing at the jail, court records show.
While prosecutors so far have little to show in terms of drug arrests, a county grand jury uncovered a sex-for-favors scandal that resulted in the arrests of 14 jail guards.
In January, guards found marijuana and tobacco hidden in a rolled-up sock in Harper's cell. Harper, then segregated from other inmates, told an internal affairs investigator he would identify his supplier, according to a criminal complaint. Harper has not been charged for having the contraband in his cell.
Harper was placed in the general population and watched, according to court records. Another inmate saw Harper get drugs from Katie Thelma Farmer, 58, of Coraopolis, a friend of Harper's wife and a nurse at the jail, the records state.
Authorities confronted Harper, and he asked for a favor from an investigator, according to the criminal complaint against Farmer. "If I tell you who she is, if I lay out the whole thing, will you get me out of the hole?"
Farmer, who faces a preliminary hearing on Monday, denies the drug charges.
"They're not true," she said flatly in a recent telephone interview.
Warden Ramon C. Rustin said Farmer's arrest shows that "some of Harper's information is good." Rustin took over supervision of the jail in October, 10 months after Cashman freed Harper for the first time.
But Rustin said he "would never recommend he be released on home detention" based on what he knows now.
The jail's internal affairs investigators, working with the District Attorney's Office, pushed for Harper's release from the Uptown lockup, Rustin said.
Rustin declined to make Harper available for an interview. Harper's attorney, Patrick Thomassey, declined comment.
Under The Radar
On Dec. 12, 2003, Cashman granted house arrest for Harper on the condition he wear an ankle bracelet and remain in his Braddock home. Cashman said the request for house arrest came from someone at the jail, although he does not remember who.
Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said his office knew of the release request and did not object. He declined further comment.
Bracelets like the one Harper wore send signals to a box connected to the person's home phone line. If the bracelet is moved out of range of the box, or it is removed, a call automatically goes to the county office, Reisz said.
A computer at the office then checks the detainee's records to determine where he should be.
From December 2003 to February 2004, Harper was allowed out of his house - -- while still wearing the bracelet -- only for pre-approved medical visits. He's a diabetic, according to court records.
The county does not use satellite technology to monitor a defendant's movements. Probation officers try to verify the location by calling bosses and doctors.
Cashman revoked Harper's house arrest in February 2004 and ordered him to jail because officers could not verify that Harper went to see his doctor as scheduled, Reisz said.
Harper stayed in jail for two months, then Cashman released him May 4 -- again on house arrest with electronic monitoring. This time, Cashman granted Harper work release -- again at the request of jail investigators and the District Attorney's Office.
It wasn't long before the robbery spree began, police say.
Between Aug. 31 and Sept. 25, police say, Harper hit a dozen stores, gas stations and restaurants in the North Side, Shadyside, Lawrenceville, Hazelwood, Greenfield, Carrick, Penn Hills, North Versailles, Ross and Clairton.
Chief county probation Officer Robert Galardy, whose department shares responsibility with the Bail Agency for monitoring defendants on house arrest, said normal steps were taken to verify Harper was at work. These steps include checking pay stubs, calling employers and doing some surveillance, Galardy said.
"These obviously didn't work on Mr. Harper," he said. "It's not jail. We have to rely on the selection of people with reasonable risks. But a person who is determined to beat the system might succeed."
Of the roughly 700 people on monitored house arrest, 76 are awaiting trial, officials said. About 2 percent of all detainees in the program are arrested for violating the terms of home confinement, said Galardy, who called that statistic proof that "reasonable precautions" usually work.
"We have very few big problems like Mr. Harper," he said.
The first clue Harper was violating the terms of his house arrest came Sept. 23, when the electronic monitoring office received a signal indicating he had blown his 11:30 p.m. curfew.
That same day, Stephen Wells of Wilkinsburg was shot as he stood on his porch. Wells was shot in the leg, hand and arm in what police characterized as a dispute involving a woman. In November, Wells identified Harper's photo as that of the man who shot him, police said.
On Sept. 24 -- a Friday -- court monitors called Cashman to alert the judge of the curfew violation. But Cashman and his staff were out of the office, Cashman said.
On Saturday, Sept. 25, Pleasant Hills police chased a car after responding to a gas station robbery in neighboring Clairton. They arrested Harper, his wife Sheila Harper, 34, and friend Shawn Wygant, 32. Harper was charged with conspiracy, attempted robbery, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, threats, trespass and a weapons offense.
Next he was hauled in to Night Court, wearing the ankle bracelet, and released on $10,000 bond.
Cashman, who said he didn't learn about it until he returned to work that Monday, called Harper's release "perplexing."
Harper remained a fugitive for nearly two months, at one point robbing three stores in two days, police say.
Finally, on Nov. 24, narcotics detectives saw Harper blow through a red light in Homewood. He was arrested after a chase and a struggle.
On Dec. 17, he confessed to 15 robberies, according to criminal complaints.
Pittsburgh police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., whose department charged Harper with nine robberies, said police sometimes have to take chances with informants.
"That's who we get information from in drug cases, people who are involved with it," McNeilly said. "It's disappointing that he betrayed the trust investigators placed in him."
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