7 months ago
Steve Huff’s guest columnist today is Ellen Killoran. Ellen is a writer and reporter for Crime Online.
Just after 10:30 p.m. on Mother’s Day, Rachael DelTondo returned to her parents’ home in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. She’d had a night out with friends — their last stop was Hank’s Frozen Custard in New Brighton for ice cream.
Moments after DelTondo got out of her friend Lauren Watkins’s car, the former teacher was gunned down in the driveway of the home. Three months later, police haven’t made any arrests, but authorities are certain that it wasn’t a random attack.
Why was she targeted? A beautiful and popular high school teacher until her suspension in late 2017, DelTondo had admirers, and one may have become obsessively jealous. But she also appears to have made some enemies — possibly within the Aliquippa Police Department.
Rachael DelTondo’s case is the first in the Rust Belt town to capture this level of national attention. It has put alleged corruption within the Aliquippa PD in the spotlight and the already beleaguered force is steadily losing the trust of the townspeople it is meant to protect and serve, even as underpaid officers are routinely working double shifts to fill in gaps left by internal turmoil.
Aliquippa, with a population of just over 9,000, has a reputation for being a rough town; there have been two more homicides since DelTondo was killed . Now the District Attorney’s office has taken over the murder investigation after a new acting Aliquippa Police Chief recused his department from the case — something the victim’s mother Lisa DelTondo had been demanding for weeks.
Though the Aliquippa PD was initially transparent with the media — some thought they were too transparent — authorities haven’t shared any meaningful updates on the case since the beginning of the summer. The last big “lead” in the investigation widely believed to be a false alarm, one that nonetheless sparked fiery tensions between the local police and the D.A.
Rachael DelTondo’s story begins earlier than the night of her murder. On that night the 33-year-old Aliquippa native was out with Watkins, 17, and Tyrie Jeter, age 26.
Jeter is the older brother of Sheldon Jeter Jr. Two years before DelTondo’s death, she was was found in a parked car with the younger Jeter, who was only 17 at the time. He didn’t attend the school where Rachael worked. When police discovered them in the early morning hours of February 6, 2016 and questioned the teacher and the student, both insisted nothing nefarious was going on; they were just friends and they were just talking.
According to police documents obtained by the Beaver Countian, DelTondo begged officers to not publicize the incident, fearful of how her fiance Frank Catroppa, a powerful businessman, might react. A week later, on Valentine’s Day, the longtime sweethearts called off their engagement.
Over a year and half later the incident would come back to haunt DelTondo publicly.
In late October 2017, an anonymous email was sent to Rachael DelTondo’s employer, Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, several media outlets, her friends, and multiple state and county agencies. It contained the police report about finding her in a “suspicious vehicle” with the 17-year-old . As reported by the Beaver Countian, the document was unredacted and it included home addresses and social security numbers. It reportedly alleged a police cover-up, and the incident report appeared to have been created in April or May of 2017 — over a year after police found DelTondo and Sheldon Jeter, Jr. in her car with fogged-up windows.
Shortly after the report was leaked, DelTondo was suspended with pay from her teaching position. The Aliquippa Police department reiterated that they found no evidence of wrongdoing, and that no charges had been filed in relation to the February 2016 incident.
The teacher and Jeter Jr. stayed friendly over the years. At times that friendship may have turned romantic. Raven-haired and beautiful, Rachael DelTondo had no shortage of male attention. She has also been romantically linked to Tyrie Jeter, who was with her the night she died.
Police obtained text messages between the Jeter brothers and between Jeter Jr. and DelTondo. The texts suggested that the younger brother had wanted to join the group for their night on the town and felt left behind or unwanted.
Search warrants also revealed a text exchange between Lauren Watkins and DelTondo in which Watkins reportedly told Rachael to “go for a walk” after she dropped her off, and that she would be back later to pick her up. Watkins then reportedly dropped Tyrie Jeter off at home before driving back in the direction of where she had left her friend.
She tried calling just after 11 p.m. By that time Rachael DelTondo was already dead.
Police reportedly said Sheldon Jeter, Jr. “showed no emotion” when he was told of the death, and he is among several people police have repeatedly questioned in connection to the murder.
The timeline in the text messages between Lauren and Rachael explains why Lauren was at the murder scene shorty after her friend was shot, but it doesn’t account for why her father, Aliquippa Police Sgt. Kenneth Watkins, was there, too — he was not on duty.
Sgt. Watkins has been placed on paid leave since DelTondo’s murder, reportedly because of his daughter’s relationship with the victim. But fellow officers accused him of contaminating the crime scene.
Sgt. Watkins was also one of the two officers who found DelTondo and Sheldon Jeter Jr. in the steamed-up car in February 2016. The nature of Sgt. Watkins’s relationship with the victim from that point forward is unknown. Police reportedly searched through the social media accounts of both Sgt. Watkins’s daughter Lauren and his wife Stephanie seeking possible clues into the homicide. And the day after DelTondo’s murder, the Beaver Countian revealed that DelTondo had been working as a witness for state police and as a source for Beaver Countian reporting in their ongoing investigation of corruption within the City of Aliquippa. It is unclear whether the investigation was directly related to the leaked incident report involving DelTondo and the younger Jeter.
Sources told the Beaver Countian that the victim’s “mother became irate at Aliquippa Police as they arrived to the scene last night, shouting that she believed their actions helped lead to her daughter’s death.”
The Aliquippa PD has buckled under the weight of the homicide investigation and insinuations of wrongdoing within the department. Less than a month after DelTondo’s murder, Aliquippa Police Chief Don Couch was placed on leave, an abrupt decision made in early June at a city council meeting. The reasons for his temporary departure are not entirely clear, but the dismissal is believed to have something to do with the ongoing investigation into the department.
Joseph Perciavalle was installed as acting police chief immediately after Couch’s dismissal, but the very next day he was arrested and charged with distributing sexually explicit material to a minor — Sgt. Kenneth Watkins’s daughter Lauren. Perciavalle later told the Beaver Countian that he felt he had been unfairly targeted by people “trying to ruin his name” and had accidentally included Lauren Watkins in a group text message exchange in which he shared a video of a partially nude woman urinating while on a swing set.
Perciavalle was later arrested again: This time he is accused of illegally wiretapping a conversation between himself and former Aliquippa Police Chief Couch. The exact nature of this conversation is not clear.
Acting Chief Robert Sealock was appointed shortly after Perciavalle’s arrest, and wasted little time in recusing the Aliquippa PD from the DelTondo homicide investigation. His decision was met with gratitude by Lisa DelTondo.
Beaver County District Attorney David Lozier confirmed to Real Clear Life that his team of eight Beaver County Detectives is actively investigating DelTondo’s murder with assistance from the FBI, state police, and the Aliquippa Police Department — a resource for evidence collected earlier in the investigation. Lozier said that the D.A.’s office has a good relationship with Aliquippa PD, and that they are in constant communication, working together daily on the DelTondo case and many others.
But multiple local media reports, including several in the Beaver Countian, have portrayed tensions between Aliquippa PD and the D.A.’s office as more than strained, particularly following an odd turn of events involving a letter purportedly written by a witness to DelTondo’s murder and given to an inmate in Beaver County Jail, claiming that an Aliquippa police officer was involved in Rachael’s killing. The Beaver Countian’s reporting indicated that investigators have ultimately agreed the letter did not have credibility, and cast Lozier as something of a lone wolf for having given credence to the claims made in the letter in interviews with local media.
“Lozier put a target on our backs,” Acting Chief Sealock told the Beaver Countian, referring to an increased sense of police distrust among Aliquippa residents. In the interest of safety, Sealock said he had assigned additional officers to regular patrols, further straining his already cash-strapped department.
Sealock has suffered for the turmoil within his ranks, and in early July was rushed to the hospital with a blood clot in his brain. According to a report in the Beaver Countian, Sealock’s doctors said he was lucky the clot broke before it could do serious permanent damage. They recommended he take better physical care of himself, and reduce his stress. Easier said than done.
Over the phone, Lozier seemed comparatively breezy. He said he hadn’t read the recent report in the Beaver Countian detailing Sealock’s struggles as acting chief, because he doesn’t read the Beaver Countian at all.
“The Beaver Countian lacks an editorial board, and they lack editorial and publication standards,” Lozier said, while conceding that it has the “potential to be a very good source of information.”
Questioned about his characterization of his relationship with Aliquippa police in light of Sealock’s comments, Lozier said he “understood” the “tensions about the letter.”
Still, he maintained the he “will not say that [the letter] is a complete fabrication at this point,” pending an ongoing forensic investigation, about which he declined to share details.
Lozier also declined to comment about Sheldon Jeter Jr., the young man who appears to have had a fraught history with Rachael DelTondo, and who remains free, despite a police determination that Rachael’s death was a “crime of passion” and that the victim knew her killer.
“We know where everyone is,” Lozier said in response to a question about how his department is monitoring potential persons of interest.
Sheldon Jeter Jr.’s Attorney Michael Santicola has maintained that his client is innocent, insisting that DelTondo’s murder was connected to an unspecified police cover up. To clear his client of suspicion, Santicola seems to have counted on the since-discredited claims made in the purported witness letter.
If Sheldon Jeter Jr. isn’t responsible for Rachael’s death, then who is? Unless the local reporters who have diligently been following this case completely missed something, the pool of potential suspects seems rather shallow.
Lozier indicated that the Beaver County D.A.’s office would alert the media if anyone was officially named a suspect or persons of interest were cleared.
Asked if anyone police had spoken to in the earlier stages of the investigation had indeed been ruled out, Lozier said, “We haven’t identified a person of interest to the media.”
In answering a question no one asked, it’s easy to wonder if Lozier was hinting at something new.