May 16, 2014

SLED completes probe of arrest of Chester firefighters; no decision on prosecution

Chester Sheriff Alex Underwood arrested West Chester Fire Chief Andy Martin and his brother after an argument and pushing match at a wreck scene Feb. 14.

A state probe into the February arrest of two longtime Chester County volunteer firefighters who scuffled with Sheriff Alex Underwood and deputies at a crash scene is finished, but no decision has been made about whether the case will go to trial.

The arrest of West Chester Fire Chief Andy Martin and his brother, Tommy Martin, outraged the county’s fire chiefs, who have unanimously supported the Martins.

In the Feb. 14 incident, police allege the Martins argued with deputies and Underwood, then became physical by pushing and pulling officers – including Underwood. Underwood claims the Martins were the aggressors.

The Martins and their lawyer say the sheriff and his officers were out of line by showing up at the scene. The Martins and the other fire chiefs were outraged that both men were forced to spend a night in jail after their arrests a day later.

Much of the incident was caught on police dashcam video. Each side says the video supports its account of the encounter, but now it is up to state prosecutors to decide if the confrontation merits criminal prosecution against two volunteer firefighters with a combined 83 years of public service.

The State Law Enforcement Division’s investigation is finished and has been sent to the state Attorney General’s Office, said Mark Powell, spokesman for the attorney general. No timetable is set for the review by prosecutors, he said.

SLED agents have interviewed several firefighters, deputies and workers with Chester County’s fire coordinator’s office in the two months since the investigation began. Efforts to reach SLED officials were unsuccessful Friday.

Now state prosecutors will have to decide whether to set the case for trial in Chester magistrate court or to dismiss the charges.

Dan D’Agostino, the lawyer for the Martins, declined to comment because he has not been given a copy of the SLED report.

On Feb. 14, a tractor-trailer truck ran off S.C. 9 about 10 miles west of Chester, toward the end of a winter storm. Andy Martin, as incident commander, asked deputies and state troopers to close the road. When they declined, saying they wouldn’t close the road until a tow truck arrived, Martin made a statement on his emergency radio about the upcoming 2016 election.

Minutes later, Underwood, who would be up for re-election that year, and his top deputies showed up. The argument and scuffle ensued.

Efforts to reach Underwood were unsuccessful on Friday. He has said assaulting police officers will not be tolerated. He and his deputies acted properly, he has said, and the Martins believed they were entitled to special treatment.

The fire chiefs have filed court documents stating that state law clearly shows firefighters are in command at crash scenes, and that any interference with firefighters is illegal.

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