York prosecutor runs for DA, helped start heroin task force

Liz Evans Scolforo

York County chief deputy prosecutor Dave Sunday is a firm believer that the best way to fight crime is to attack it at its roots, before it has a chance to flourish.

The philosophy drove him to co-found the York County Heroin Task Force — now called the York Regional Opiate Collaborative — with Coroner Pam Gay and led him to work with the county's Agency on Aging to create the York County Elder Abuse Task Force, which focuses on protecting senior citizens from scammers and educating the community about the problem of elder abuse.

York County chief deputy prosecutor Dave Sunday makes a point while appearing on a panel with York County Coroner Pam Gay during a public hearing called "Heroin and Opioid Addiction, Treatment and Recovery" at the Yorktowne Hotel Tuesday, August 18, 2015. The hearing was sponsored by Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency of the state general assembly.
(Bill Kalina photo)

It's also why he's involved with Better York and the CeaseFire crime-reduction initiative adopted in York City, he said. CeaseFire pressures local criminals and gang members to stop shooting people by offering them support to reform, but also uses the threats of incarceration and special police attention for them and their ilk if the gun violence doesn't stop.

"People love to sit on the sidelines and criticize. It's easy," Sunday said. "The difficult thing ... is having the courage to put yourself in a position where you can fail, but you know that based on your convictions it's the right thing to do."

Each of these projects is an example of thinking outside the box, according to the prosecutor.

"If it doesn't work, we'll move on and try something else," he said, noting that fear of failure often keeps people from even trying possible solutions.

Sunday, 41, said his commitment to making York County a safer place, combined with his leadership skills, his dedication to follow-through and his world experience, make him the best candidate to be York County's next district attorney.

Chased drug runners: Raised in south-central Pennsylvania, including Mechanicsburg and Harrisburg, Sunday enlisted in the Navy in 1995 after graduating from East Pennsboro High School in 1993 and briefly attending community college.

He was deployed in '96 to the Persian Gulf on the USS Doyle for six months, right after Saddam Hussein expelled United Nations weapons inspectors from Iraq, he said, then was part of three counter-narcotics tours in Central America and South America.

"We chased drug runners in the Caribbean," Sunday said, and trained officials in countries including Panama and Columbia in counter-narcotics tactics. The four years he spent on Navy deployment taught him about leading under pressure, he said, and changed his life forever.

After returning home, the 22-year-old Sunday took a night job at UPS to pay for college and received a bachelor's degree in finance in 2002 from Penn State Harrisburg.

Meanwhile, his star was rising at UPS, which hired him full time as corporate finance analyst, then promoted him again to finance and accounting supervisor for central Pennsylvania, he said.

"I was responsible for managing a $200 million budget," Sunday said. "It was during that time period I started going to law school at night. I had been at UPS for eight years at that point, but I was growing to love the law, and I wanted to explore that."

Worked at the UN: He left UPS and was one of 20 law students selected for legal clerkship positions at the United Nations.

"I was assigned to the peace-keeping department, working on military, logistical and legal issues," he said. "It was a unique experience. I enjoyed meeting people from all over the world."

It was at the UN that Sunday met and fell in love with one of his fellow legal clerks, Lishani Senaratne. They married and moved to southcentral Pennsylvania in 2006 to raise a family, Sunday said.

He graduated from Widener University School of Law in 2007, then was hired as law clerk for York County Common Pleas Judge Joseph C. Adams, who is now the county's president judge.

The Sundays live in Carroll Township with their 2-year-old son, Bodhi. Prior to Bodhi's birth, Lishani Sunday also worked as a York County prosecutor.

Former District Attorney Stan Rebert hired Sunday in 2009, shortly before Tom Kearney was elected to replace Rebert.

New duties: Sunday said his private-industry and leadership experience "propelled me into positions of authority very quickly," and made him the go-to prosecutor for complex financial fraud cases because "not many prosecutors can read a balance sheet."

A short time later, Sunday started being assigned murder cases and has so far prosecuted a dozen of them, he said, getting convictions in 11.

"Very quickly I recognized that many citizens of York City felt unsafe," Sunday said. "I realized there's a lot of pain and suffering going on out there that's unnecessary, and it really started to fuel my fire to do something about it. Once you start working a lot of homicide cases, you realize what the driving factors behind violence are — things that we're now addressing that weren't always addressed."

Dave Sunday

He helped restructure the York County Drug Task Force after being put in charge of the DA office's felony drug unit several years ago and helped create a policy and procedure manual for task-force detectives.

Federal court: In 2013, he was appointed special assistant U.S. attorney for Pennsylvania's middle district federal court and assisted in prosecuting gang and gun cases there, he said.

Sunday said he oversaw the prosecutions of the drug dealers busted during Operation Sunrise, prosecuting more than 100 members and associates of the Latin Kings gang that is operating in York.

He also served as the DA's office liaison to federal court during the massive prosecution of South Side gang members.

"I love my job," he said. "There are so few jobs that exist ... where you can affect people's lives in a positive way every single day."

Heroin crisis: Sunday said he's most proud of his work in co-founding the heroin task force. He said that in 2014, he started noticing an increase in the number of heroin-dealing cases at the same time Coroner Gay was seeing heroin and opioid-related deaths increase substantially. They began doing research and quickly realized the scope of the problem, he said.

"This crisis has been building for 20 years," he said, noting that opioid-related deaths in York County jumped from 17 in 2013 to 62 in 2014. "It's one of the most vicious crises this county has ever seen. This is woven into the fabric of our community."

Sunday and Gay recruited people and agencies, created a multi-prong attack strategy and started holding community forums to hear from residents — more than 100 at this point.

They equipped every police office in York County with the heroin antidote naloxone (brand name Narcan), and their efforts have made it easier for addicts to get into treatment, he said.

Hundreds saved: "Since April 2014, over 200 lives have been saved as a result of Narcan being in the hands of police officers," Sunday said. "And right now we're in the process of tripling the number of (treatment) beds in York County."

Sunday said district attorneys must be able to convert ideas into actions.

"I had a vision for a multi-disciplinary private/public partnership to work in our community to turn around this heroin crisis, and I followed it through to the point where we now have an executive director and an executive board," he said. "And we have funding. And we have a thriving group of over 75 people working together all over York County."

For more information, visit the Dave Sunday for District Attorney Facebook page, or his website at davesundayforda.com.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.