York County deputies, paralegals lose jobs; sheriff says office changing direction

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
Richard P. Keuerleber speaks after taking the oath of office as York County Sheriff during a ceremony at the York County Administrative Center Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. Oaths of office were administered to county and court officials. Bill Kalina photo

Four deputies and two civilian employees are no longer working for the York County Sheriff's Office as of this month, when Sheriff Rich Keuerleber began his fourth term in office.

They are the former Chief Deputy M. Scott Hose, Cpl. Taylor Eck, Deputies Katie Blankenstein and Christine Snyder, and civilian staff members Ronda Heilman and Lisa Thorpe.

Eck, who was the handler of sheriff's K-9 Tommi, confirmed to The York Dispatch that he is no longer with the sheriff's office but declined further comment.

Keuerleber said the dog has been assigned a new handler, deputy Sgt. Bienamino Lopez, and is bonding with him. Lopez is Tommi's third handler, the sheriff said.

More:OP-ED: A letter to my 'son,' Tommi

Hose did not return messages seeking comment. Asked about Hose's departure, Keuerleber on Friday, Jan. 10, said he could not comment on personnel issues.

The sheriff declined to answer questions about any of the six former employees, saying he is prohibited from publicly discussing personnel issues.

"Everything is done for the benefit of the organization," Keuerleber said. "We look forward to restructuring and moving in a different direction."

York County Sheriff's Office K-9 Unit's Sgt. Tommi gets a piece of a Mac & Cheese Dog from handler, Cpl. Taylor Eck as York County law enforcement agencies compete with their best hot dog recipes during the second annual Top Dog Contest and Fundraiser at John C. Rudy Park in Springettsbury Township, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

He said he could not discuss specifics, since he has not yet introduced his new ideas to the rank and file. However, he said he generally means implementing new initiatives and setting and achieving new goals.

The York Dispatch on Thursday, Jan. 9, filed a Right to Know Law request with York County seeking the current number of deputies. On Monday, Jan. 13, county solicitor Michélle Pokrifka responded: "Due to the volume of your request, the County of York will require an additional thirty (30) days to respond to your inquiry."

On Friday, Keuerleber said his office is funded for 110 sworn deputies and 11 civilian employees. He said the office is currently down 10 deputies but noted that number will drop to seven in a little more than a week, when three new deputies are hired.

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Scott Hose is the son of Bill Hose, a former three-term York County sheriff who spoke publicly against Keuerleber during election season and criticized the way the office was being run.

Keuerleber maintains that in an organization of more than a hundred people, a certain number will be unhappy or disgruntled.

Political payback? Katie Blankenstein, 29, was a York County sheriff's deputy for 5½ years and said she believes she and others were targeted by Keuerleber and his top supervisors because they or family members supported Shane Becker, a former York County deputy who unsuccessfully challenged Keuerleber for sheriff in November's municipal election.

Before the election, a number of current and former deputies told The York Dispatch that a toxic work environment exists in the sheriff's office.

Keuerleber said that's not true.

York County Sheriff's Deputy Kathleen Blankenstein did a security check on people before they could enter Operation Safe Surrender, held at Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene's York City campus on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017.
(Dawn J. Sagert photo)

Blankenstein said that before the general election, she was approached by a supervisor while on duty who noted that Blankenstein's parents had a "Becker for sheriff" sign in their yard.

"I said I have no control over what my parents do politically," after which the supervisor said, "They will make your life miserable," according to Blankenstein. She said she took that to mean her work life.

"I left because I knew I had to. I didn't have a choice," she said. "I would have worked there for 20 years."

Blankenstein said she has found another law-enforcement job.

She said she tendered her resignation on Jan. 6, first dropping off a copy of her letter at the county's human resources office, then handing a copy to the sheriff and giving two weeks' notice.

But Keuerleber told her that Jan. 6 would be her last day, she said.

"I've never been late; I've never been written up," said Blankenstein, whose most recent job duty was maintaining security in the courtroom of York County Common Pleas Judge Amber A. Kraft. "I stay late; I come in early. I'm a good worker."

She said that later the same day, a high-ranking sheriff's supervisor told her, "I'm sure you're well aware you're not getting sworn in (again)." After a sheriff is reelected, he or she must give the oath of office to all their deputies but has the option not to reswear deputies the sheriff wants to terminate.

"To me that confirmed they were going to look for a reason to get rid of me when I've never done anything wrong," Blankenstein said. She noted she received a "commitment to excellence" award from the sheriff for work she did in 2017.

'No longer happy'? Christine Snyder, 33, was a deputy for a little more than 3½ years and was most recently working security in the courtroom of York County Common Pleas Judge Andrea Marceca Strong. She was called into a conference room and terminated on Jan. 6, she said, despite never being written up.

"Sheriff looked at me and said, 'I'm guessing you know why you're in here,'" Snyder said. "He said to me, 'You are obviously no longer happy here, so unfortunately you will not be sworn back in.'"

Snyder said she's a single mom and the only source of income for her 10-year-old son.

"I'm relying on family now," she said.

Snyder said she did her job well and believes she was terminated partially because of her family's support of Becker and partially because a supervisor didn't like her.

"I am friends with Shane Becker, but I had no hand in his campaign" and didn't publicly support him, she said. "My sister was very vocal about (supporting Becker) on social media. She had signs in her yard, too."

Snyder said she considers the work environment at the sheriff's office to be toxic, but she enjoyed her job and would still be there if she could.

"I'm trying to stay in law enforcement," she said, but "it's a (hiring) process (that can take time), and unfortunately I don't have the time to wait around for that process."

'No longer needed'? Lisa Thorpe, 54, was employed by the sheriff's office for 17 years and was a paralegal dealing with mortgage foreclosures before being let go, she said.

Thorpe said she was called into a conference room on Jan. 6.

"The sheriff was there and said my services were no longer needed," she told The York Dispatch. "I asked for a union rep and was refused. I asked to make a call to HR (human resources) because I didn't understand what I was signing, and I was refused."

Thorpe said she did sign a paper but isn't exactly sure what she signed because she didn't receive a copy and was upset at the time.

"They just said they were letting me go. They didn't technically say I was fired," she said. "My services were 'no longer needed' is what they said."

She said she's never been written up by Keuerleber or his supervisors, one of whom told her the office was "going in a different direction," according to Thorpe.

Thorpe declined to say anything about the work environment at the sheriff's office but confirmed she would still be working there if it was her choice.

More:York sheriff fosters toxic work environment, say former sheriff, ex-deputies

'Different direction': Ronda Heilman, 52, worked in the sheriff's office for 20½ years, starting prior to Keuerleber being elected sheriff, she said.

Heilman worked in the office as a paralegal.

Like Thorpe, Heilman declined to give her opinion of why she was let go or what she thinks of the work environment in the sheriff's office.

Heilman did confirm that her disciplinary file is clean and that she was told the sheriff's office "is moving in a different direction."

Keuerleber said his political rivalry with Becker had nothing to do with why employees have lost their jobs.

York County Sheriff Richard Keuerleber recognizes Cpl. Taylor Eck with the Distinguished Public Service Award for his actions while rescuing a child locked in a car, during the annual Promotion and Award Ceremony, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello photo

About K-9 Tommi: U.S. Police Canine Association executive director Don Slavik told The York Dispatch that trained K-9s sometimes need new handlers.

"It happens all the time," he said, and the dogs adapt.

York County Sheriff's Lt. David Godfrey runs the sheriff's K-9 program and is a certified in-house trainer.

He said that because K-9 Tommi is already trained, the only new expense would be for the dog's new handler to join a national professional K-9 handlers association, which costs about $100 annually.

"Tommi loves everybody and loves to work," Godfrey said. "The transition has been seamless."

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