A Chartiers Township man at the center of one of the highest profile civil cases in the history of Washington County has gone from federal court to county court in his attempt to obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon.
Twenty-three years ago, Gary P. Fender won an equal share of his former live-in girlfriend Sylvia Trapuzzano’s $8.2 million Super 7 lottery jackpot in the so-called “Lottomony” jury trial in Washington County Court.
In January, Fender sued Washington County Sheriff Samuel Romano in U.S. District Court, Pittsburgh, claiming he is being denied his civil rights by Romano’s refusal to process his application for the gun permit based on 15-year-old police reports. His attorney, Peter N. Georgiades of Pittsburgh, said Friday the federal suit was settled, “except for a carve-out for state court,” but that documents have not yet been signed so he can’t discuss it.
Georgiades said Fender gave up drinking in 2001 and now works as an addiction counselor. “He’s got an excellent reputation,” his attorney said. “In the late 1990s, he will be the first to tell you he was an alcoholic, and his life was going down the tubes.”
In 1998, the office of a previous sheriff notified Fender he was to surrender his concealed weapons license, according to Romano’s solicitor, Christopher Blackwell. On two occasions last year, Fender stated, he reapplied at the sheriff’s office for the gun permit and was told Romano would not act on the applications because of “an unspecified objection” from Chartiers police Chief Jim Horvath to Fender holding such a permit.
Fender stated his attorney wrote to Romano at the end of last year asking the sheriff why he would not process an application for the gun permit.
Blackwell on Thursday produced a Jan. 31 letter replying to Fender’s attorney, stating, “You are correct in assuming that the license was revoked and any application for a new license denied pursuant to the ‘character and reputation’ provisions” of state law.
Georgiades also cited what he called “third-hand” reports to township police a decade and a half ago that Fender had been overheard in a bar saying he had a gun and was going to use it to “get” his wife and her relatives. These records “do not take into account substantial changes in (Fender’s) circumstances and therefore cannot reasonably stand as evidence of the applicant’s reputation or character at present,” his attorney wrote in the county court case.
In his Jan. 31 letter, Blackwell informed Fender’s attorney, “This office has a second police report which indicates that Mr. Fender was extremely intoxicated at Beechie’s Place and indicated he was armed (and) had armor-piercing bullets.”
In April, U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab ordered Fender’s quest for a firearm concealed-carry license go through state court because Pennsylvania law regulates the licensing of guns.
In the petition filed last week in Washington County Court, Georgiades claims Romano “failed to conduct a full or complete investigation …” and refused to process Fender’s application as a new application, “instead insisting (Fender) had made a request to have his license reissued, procedure which does not exist under Pennsylvania law.”
He also claims Romano made the determination “upon dated, hearsay accusations, without making any effort to confirm current validity or applicability” of statements made by third parties that have injured Fender’s reputation.
Last month, Chief Sheriff’s Deputy James D’Alessandro notified Fender by letter that his office had recently contacted Horvath and again asked his opinion about issuing Fender a license to carry a firearm. The letter said that Horvath “indicated that given (Fender’s) history of problems with what appeared to be severe problems with alcohol, including making death threats against a police officer and members of (Fender’s) family, that he was not in favor of (Fender) being issued a license to carry a concealed firearm.”
Romano, according to the letter, agrees with Horvath and decided not to issue the firearms license.
The sheriff is aware of Fender’s latest lawsuit.
“This has gone on a little bit too long,” he said. “I wasn’t even sheriff.” Romano, who was elected sheriff in 2005, was a deputy for 15 years before he ran for the top job.
Neither does the name of the defendant in the “Lottomony” case play a role in the gun permit matter, the sheriff said.
“My sister is married to Sylvia’s brother,” Romano said Friday. “There is no relationship between me and Sylvia Trapuzzano at all.”
If a firearms license is revoked, the person who wants to contest the revocation has the right to go before a judge. Taking this step is “not real common,” Romano said, but it has happened before.
“That’s what we told Mr. Fender to do, and he wouldn’t do it.”
Blackwell said of Fender, “That’s the case he should’ve pursued 10 years ago. We won’t contest the filing here. We want the court to review it, and we’ll do whatever the judge wants us to do. When local law enforcement asks us to take his permit away, we do.”
Blackwell also provided incident reports from 1998 from both the Wheeling (W.Va.) and Chartiers Township police departments.
In 1998, Fender was charged by Wheeling (W.Va.) police with driving drunk while behind the wheel of a silver Corvette.
Three days later, an officer of the Chartiers Township Police Department warned Wheeling police that Fender had left his home in the Houston area and was en route in a white Cadillac “to kill the Wheeling police officer that had arrested him for DUI.”
Fender’s then-wife, Sandy, said her husband had with him a 9mm pistol and ammunition and he “had been on a drinking binge all day.”
An hour and a half later, Fender’s vehicle was seen parked at his home.
Georgiades said Fender has no conviction in Wheeling for DUI, and he called the report of threat against police “hearsay. It’s not that an officer heard this. Somebody called them up and told them this. I think this makes a big difference. No police talked to Gary Fender at the time. Gary Fender never went to West Virginia to try to kill anybody.”
A 1998 supplemental report from Chartiers Township police states that they contacted James D’Alessandro at the sheriff’s office about the threats with a gun and relayed their concerns about him having a firearms license. Fender was sent a certified letter informing him of the revocation, a copy of which Chartiers Township police received.
Washington County Court records show Gary and Sandra Fender divorced July 6, 2004.
“A judge will decide if it’s legal to deny a firearms permit based on third-hand reports made in 1998, one of which is demonstrably not accurate,” Georgiades said. “We know what he did. He didn’t do anything. This should not be held against him. For the last decade, he’s been dry. What has happened here on its face is illegal.”
No hearing date has been set on Fender’s latest court action.
Pennsylvania law allows a sheriff to deny a license to carry a firearm based on the findings of criminal background checks, or “if there is reason to believe that the character and reputation of the individual are such that they would be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety,” a Pennsylvania State Police website indicates.