When Rich Skalko gets his name in the paper, it’s usually because his K-9 partner, Meadville Police Department’s Officer Izon, has tracked down a much-wanted suspect or otherwise performed in some sort of heroic manner.

This time, however, it’s Patrolman Skalko himself who is being saluted for his sharp eyes. And ears.

As the result of what Chief Dave Stefanucci describes as “some interesting police work,” a Farrell man on the run for 10 days after escaping from a Youngstown, Ohio, hospital following a car chase, a crash and a fight with Sharon police that left three patrolmen injured is in custody in Mercer County.

The incident came to light when Chief Dave Stefanucci decided to give the Tribune a call instead of simply giving Skalko an “atta-boy” note and letting it go at that.

The story begins almost a decade ago, when Kevin Washington Jr. was arrested and taken to the Warren, Ohio, police station for allegedly kidnapping a Warren woman. According to an account published in the Sharon Herald, “despite wearing handcuffs and leg irons, Washington managed to escape, records show. He used the corner of a wall outlet cover plate to loosen the screws on a ventilation grate, then crawled through the vent and walked out the back door.

Arrested at a Sharon home several days later, Washington entered a no contest plea in February 1999 and was eventually sentenced to serve eight years at an Ohio correctional institution.

The next escape

Fast forward 10 years.

Sharon police say Washington, now 49, ran a stop sign at around 7 p.m. on Sept. 14. When police attempted to pull over the vehicle, it sped away.

Based on an interview with Sharon’s chief of police, the Herald reported that at one point during the police chase that followed, a policeman driving toward Washington’s car was forced to drive onto the sidewalk to avoid a head-on collision. A short time later, Washington lost control of the car and it smashed into a tree.

When Washington got out of the car, police ordered him to the ground, the report continues, but he refused. Even when backup police and an off-duty officer in the area arrived to help take him into custody, he continued to struggle. “Police used pepper spray, restraint techniques and an electronic device to shock Washington, but none of those were effective,” according to the report.

Eventually, police got Washington, who is reportedly 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighs in at around 300 pounds, into handcuffs. A policeman had to ride along when the suspect was transported to the Sharon Regional Health System hospital because he was uncooperative with ambulance personnel; after police were called to the hospital because a number of people who gathered there on Washington’s behalf became disorderly, he was taken to St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown for treatment, where he was listed in stable condition Monday night.

According to the Herald, one policeman had hurt his wrist, arm and shoulder in the melee, two others had to be treated for cuts and scrapes on their hands and arms and five officers who were exposed to Washington’s blood will have to be tested periodically in coming months to make sure they didn’t contract any communicable diseases.

At around noon on Tuesday, Sharon police were notified by hospital authorities that Washington was missing.

“We’re looking for him,” the chief told the Herald Tuesday afternoon time.

Putting eyes and ears to work

Fast forward again, this time to Friday.

Washington was featured in Friday’s edition of the Pennsylvania State Police Intelligence Bulletin. “We get these bulletins all the time from the FBI and state police,” Stefanucci explained. “I always wonder of these guys ever read them, but apparently Skalko did.”

As Stefanucci tells the story, Skalko was working the 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift, patrolling the city in a marked police vehicle. “He was listening on his radio to a Vernon Township traffic stop thinking, ‘That sounds like him — I wonder if they’re going to do anything,’” Stefanucci explained.

When they didn’t, Skalko compared the information he’d heard with what he’d read about Washington in the bulletin and gave Vernon Township Police Department Sgt. Tracy Labow a call.

To make a long story short, Stefanucci continued, Washington had identified himself with a different first name and date of birth. While Vernon police had seized the vehicle at the stop, they had released Washington and the driver. Fortunately, the suspects had mentioned they were headed for Arch Street in Meadville.

With the help of Labow, who was off-duty and on his way home when he stopped to meet Skalko and check the picture of Washington published in the bulletin, city police learned that both Washington and the driver were apparently in a Meadville bar.

“If we were going to fight with him, we were going to fight with him on the sidewalk, not inside,” Stefanucci said.

When the suspects came out, Labow identified Washington as the suspect from the traffic stop. With his sidearm drawn and pointed at Washington and Izon on lead in a heel position at his side, Skalko approached him. “He did a great job of police work,” Stefanucci said.

Taken into custody without incident, Washington was taken to Meadville Police Department and eventually to Crawford County jail, where he was held overnight. After Sharon detectives picked him up Wednesday, he was arraigned on 18 charges and taken to Mercer County Jail in lieu of $200,000 bail.

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