HAZLETON POLICE CHIEF HARRY DEFENDS ACTIONS IN SEARCH FOR MURDER SUSPECT;
DENISE FERENCE SAYS COPS DAMAGED HOME, CHIEF'S SUSPENSION MAY BE IN ORDER
WOMAN, CHIEF SEE HOME RAID DIFFERENTLY
By SANDRA SNYDER firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday, October 08, 2000 Page: 3A
If there is one thing the main parties agree upon in the wake of the
ill-advised Sept. 27 raid on a West Hazleton home, it's that someone could
have ended up dead.
On who might have been the killer, though, Denise Ference and Hazleton
Police Chief Edward Harry are about as far apart as their individual accounts
of what transpired in the wee hours of that chilly fall morning.
Ference, a 38-year-old single mother of four who lives at 531 Winters Ave.,
said the police officers who entered her home ``locked and loaded'' and
looking for a homicide suspect easily could have killed her oldest son,
18-year-old Matthew Storaska, instead. Harry, however, said the homicide
suspect, Thomas John Wills, arrested Thursday in Ohio in the 1995 slaying of
Oliver Surkala - if he was where police were led to believe he was - easily
could have killed mother and son both.
On Wednesday, Ference said she is still reeling from the callous treatment
the Hazleton police department's Special Operations Group subjected her to,
and she suggested a reprimand and even suspension might be in order for Harry.
She also said she has been referred to a civil-rights lawyer.
``I've been consumed with this since it happened,'' Ference said while
sitting inside her rented half-double, which now gives her a constant creepy
feeling. ``I can't think of anything else, and I want someone to stand up and
Harry, who said his special unit was called in to assist the West Hazleton
and state police in the raid, said he has taken all the responsibility he can
and his officers faced a ``damned if we do and damned if we don't'' situation
when they acted on Wilson Carl Shafer's tip that Wills was inside Ference's
He explained his justification for what Ference called a clearly
uncalled-for invasion on the sanctity of her home.
``We have a guy that calls us and says, `Guess who I just served breakfast
to? T.J. Wills,' '' Harry said of Shafer. He said Shafer told him Wills was no
longer in his house but had moved across the street to Ference's home, where
he had been staying for a few days. Shafer, Harry said, also called the home a
``big drug house,'' an accusation that still upsets Ference, who said she does
not use drugs and that she has warned her children she better never learn that
they do either.
Ference also said West Hazleton's police chief knew the Hazleton police
were making a mistake and she thought he told them that at the time of the
``I knew T.J. Wills would not be in the house. If I would have been there
at the time, I would have told them that,'' Chief Tom Wallace said. ``I know
her (Ference) personally, and I would have told them that.''
Wallace said he wasn't informed of the raid until 7:45 a.m., after
Ference's house was entered. He said his officers as well as others should
have informed him of plans earlier, but, in any case, he arrived at the home
at 8 a.m. He noted that West Hazleton police did not enter the house and that
once they got the information that led to the raid, the informaton went to
state police at Frackville, who also were on the scene with the Hazleton unit.
SUBHED: He said/she said
The way Harry sees it, police had no choice but to enter the home. The way
Ference sees it, they had no right.
As for how the raid was conducted, the two differ on several major points.
Ference said she and her son, who both work nights, had stayed up late on
Sept. 26 and 27 watching a movie. She said she tired before him and went to
bed between 4:30 and 5 a.m., leaving her son on the couch. About 6:45 a.m.,
she said, she was awakened by banging on the door. She said she was groggy
from little sleep and not wearing her corrective lenses when she opened the
door to see swarms of darkly clothed men and a fake-looking shield that bore
the word ``police.''
``They never said they were the police though,'' she said, recalling that
the men instead spoke in hushed tones - as if they didn't want anyone else to
hear - and uttered statements such as, ``Get her out of the house.''
``Right away, thoughts went through my head,'' she said. ``You know how you
hear about people impersonating police all the time? I really thought they
were here to murder us. They stormed in, and the next thing I knew there were
just guns and hands everywhere.''
SUBHED: Another version
Harry begs to differ.
First off, he said, ``we didn't storm the house.'' Police set up a
perimeter, he said, and decided to go in after peering through a front window
and seeing Ference's son, who he said fit Wills' general description, seated
on a living-room couch.
``We rang the doorbell and knocked on the door several times,'' Harry said.
``Denise Ference opened the door, and we asked her to come out on the porch.''
Harry said she twice refused, then shut the door, prompting a number of
``Is he (Wills) in there?
``Is she hiding the guy?
``Is he threatening her?
``Is Wills holding the son against his will?
``Is the son hiding Wills?''
At that point, Harry said, police entered the home - with Ference's
permission, which he said was not necessary anyway - and pulled her out onto
the porch. Ference denied giving any entry permission.
Harry said previous reports that Ference was wearing a nightgown were
misleading because the woman was wearing a large and bulky terrycloth robe
that covered her knees.
``It's not like she was indecent or anything,'' he said.
When police ordered her around, though, Ference said, she was a bit
disoriented, explaining, ``I was more worried about keeping my housecoat
closed. I wore a sheer thing to bed that night.''
Standing on the porch barefoot, Ference said, she repeatedly told the
police she did not know Wills and repeatedly was told she would go to jail.
Harry said Ference was indeed told she could go to jail, but only if the
police entered the home and found Wills, which would be proof she was lying.
Ference said she asked who told the police Wills was in her house and when
she learned the accusation came from her neighbor, Shafer, whom she also
doesn't know, she began pointing at other houses and yelling, ``I saw him
(Wills) go there. Let's pull everyone out of bed!''
Police eventually got to her son, she said, who had been upstairs when they
entered the home, and Harry said it was standard procedure to approach him
with weapons locked and loaded.
As for herself, Ference said, she didn't know what the police wanted her to
``They told me to get down on my stomach. One was pushing me down; one was
pulling me up. It seemed very disorganized. I felt like a rag doll, like I
didn't know what they wanted me to do.
``I remember one of the men dragged me down off the porch steps. I had a
rifle in my face.''
Ultimately, Ference said, she and her son were placed in a squad car while
police went into the home and ransacked several rooms.
Harry denied that, saying the officers went through the place slowly and
Eventually, Ference said, she was taken to state police headquarters in
Hazleton and vigorously questioned, particularly about saying she did not know
Wills, who is her age and from the area.
SUBHED: The aftermath
When she returned home, Ference said, she and her son were stunned to see
the damage police had done. A sealed-off hallway door had been kicked in, and
the frame on the couch that sat on the other side of that door was broken.
Mattresses and box springs were torn off beds, and boxes, some containing
china, were overturned in the attic. A hope chest containing much personal
memorabilia also was overturned, Ference said.
``I can understand if they opened it to see if anyone was inside it,'' she
said, ``but ...''
She said the police tore only her son's bedroom apart but left untouched
the rooms of her 11-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, who spend weekends
``What were they looking for? Why?'' she asked. ``Because he's a
Ference also disputed the notion her oldest son looked anything like the
picture of Wills that was shown on local television stations. She went through
a litany of differences, the most obvious being the ages of her son and the
suspect, who are 20 years apart. Wills, she said, reportedly was covered with
tattoos and her son, who was wearing a tank top when police watched him
through the window, had none. Also, she said, Wills had a mustache in original
pictures, but in ones shown in the wake of a raid the mustache was
mysteriously missing. Ference believes the police may have altered the
pictures to make their mistake look like one anyone could make.
Harry had his own explanation, though, for thinking Ference's son might
have been Wills: ``You have officers looking through a window at night, the
only light being from a TV. Basically, we're looking for height and weight,
and they were similar.''
SUBHED: A question of credibility
What had and still has Ference most upset is that police blindly took
someone else's word that she was harboring a killer.
Was that word reason enough for police to act as they did?
``You have to consider him credible because he is identifying himself,''
Harry said of Shafer. ``There's a difference in the credibility of an
anonymous caller and a person providing his name.
``Let me put it this way: If we choose to ignore that information and Wills
is in that house and hurts Denise Ference, we're in trouble.''
SUBHED: Another confrontation
At this point, Ference said, there isn't much Harry can do to allay her
anger, and the apology she previously said she wanted would be too late.
Harry said he did try to apologize to Ference, but she did not answer the
door the morning after the raid when he visited her home. He said he figured
she was sleeping and returned to his office intending to try again later. In
the meantime, she called and left him a nasty voice-mail message that she said
went something like this: ``Mr. Harry, this is Denise Ference. I'm the woman
you drug out of her home and humiliated yesterday. If you are the man you
think you are and the hero you want to be, you will return my phone call.''
Harry said he did return that call, but Ference would not let him explain
anything, saying he had missed his chance. He said she swore at him, which she
denied. Both agreed that she hung up on him, and Harry said he did not try to
contact her again because she told him she had been in touch with a lawyer.
Any further comment from him to her would come through a lawyer as well, he
Ference did admit to cursing at Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta's secretary
when she called his office and could not speak to him but said she was angry
and regrets that now.
It is that unresolved anger Ference wants everyone who has heard her story
to understand. Above all, she said, she wants the public to know that what
happened to her can happen to anyone, and she said she has been told she is
not the only one who has been victimized by overzealous police.
Still, she worries she may now have made herself ineligible for local
police protection and may have a bull's-eye on her back.
``What's going to happen if I need the police now? And what if someone has
a gripe against me? Will they be out to get me? Will they be asking, `What've
you got on her?' '' she wondered. ``I really feel like I should pick up and
move out of town.''
Steve Mocarsky, a Times Leader staff writer, contributed to this report.