Deputy also Steelers' security fixer

BySteve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada ESPN logo
Thursday, January 22, 2015

PITTSBURGH -- Bleeding from a stab wound that perforated his bowel, 6-foot-7, 325-pound Steelers offensive tackle Mike Adams was slumped in a chair, drunk and disoriented, when police arrived at a Cambodian restaurant on Pittsburgh's South Side just after 3 a.m.

"I gotta tell you this: I'm a Pittsburgh Steeler," said Adams, placing his hand on officer Juan Terry's shoulder.

Terry told him: "I don't care. I'll leave 'Occupation' blank if you want."

Later, when he filled out his report, the officer indeed left Adams' occupation blank. But Pittsburgh police extended an even greater courtesy to Adams and his team that June 2013 morning: Another officer on the scene called Lt. Jack Kearney -- the longtime point man on messy Steelers business, known in some circles as "The Cleaner."

Kearney is both a high-ranking Allegheny County sheriff's officer and, since 2001, the head of security for Pittsburgh's iconic NFL franchise. In that role, he answers to president Art Rooney II, who oversaw Robert Mueller III's recent investigation into the Ray Rice domestic violence incident alongside New York Giants president John Mara.

Kearney earned his colorful nickname by using his authority to smooth over and manage a variety of thorny legal issues involving the Steelers, according to an "Outside the Lines" examination of court documents and police records, and interviews with law enforcement officers, lawyers and players. Sheriff's deputies are prohibited by policy from holding off-duty positions with "any potential for a conflict-of-interest," but on numerous occasions, Kearney has acted on the Steelers' behalf: expediting gun permits for players, providing damage control on a domestic violence case and delivering 24-hour assistance that sometimes blurs the lines between law enforcement agent and protector, according to multiple sources in and out of the sheriff's office.

In one case, U.S. marshals believed the Steelers, with Kearney as security director, tipped off a player who had been implicated in a Las Vegas prostitution ring, touching off a day-long manhunt that delayed the player's arrest, federal officials told "Outside the Lines." After the marshals complained, Kearney's supervisor told him to "keep in mind his primary jobs" but concluded he had not violated department regulations.

In the Adams case, the Steelers' top rookie in 2012 had been stabbed during a drunken melee, but details of the crime initially were few, and whether he was an innocent victim or played some role in the altercation was unclear.

Police reports and court documents show that Kearney went to the hospital and met with Adams -- a conversation that occurred hours before detectives interviewed the player for the first time. Shortly after, Kearney moved Adams' truck -- which would become a potential piece of evidence -- to the Steelers' practice facility. In his role as a sheriff's deputy, he then led the investigation to locate one of the suspects. When the case went to trial, defense attorneys believed Kearney was so compromised that they appealed to the judge to prevent him from wearing his sheriff's uniform to testify.

The three defendants were acquitted of all major charges. During closing arguments, the defense suggested that Adams changed his story significantly after speaking with Kearney in the hospital. One of the defendants, Dquay Means, who spent 11 months in jail awaiting trial, is suing Adams for "malicious prosecution." On Wednesday, Adams was deposed in that case.

Beth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board, said Kearney's position as head of security allows the Steelers to use his publicly endowed law enforcement powers to protect the team's "property" -- the players -- and "minimize the risk, and the harm, for the owner."

"That's not what we're paying for," said Pittinger, whose board investigates complaints about the Pittsburgh Police Department but does not have jurisdiction over the Sheriff's Office. "We're paying for law enforcement to provide and maintain order in our communities, to keep people safe, and free from harm. We're not here to subsidize the operations of billion-dollar entities."

Attempts to interview Kearney underscored his tangled interests.

Kearney initially referred an "Outside the Lines" interview request to the Steelers, who declined to allow him to speak as a team employee. The Steelers referred a decision about whether Kearney could be interviewed as a law enforcement agent to William P. Mullen, the Allegheny County sheriff. After Mullen granted Kearney permission, Kearney did not respond to several interview requests.

Mullen defended Kearney's dual roles in a series of emails.

"Lieutenant Kearney has an excellent history as a member of the Allegheny County Sheriff's Office," Mullen wrote. "Unless facts and circumstances exist to the contrary, which are completely unknown to me, there is no reason for me to believe Lieutenant Kearney permits his secondary employment to affect his performance as an Allegheny County Sheriff's Office employee."

The Steelers declined to make Rooney available.

"Jack Kearney has assisted the Steelers with security for players, coaches and other staff since 2001," the team said in a statement. "His services are provided on a part-time basis, with the majority of his time coming during the football season. We are not aware of any conflicts in regard to his time on Steelers matters, nor are we aware of any conflicts of interest."

Allegheny County Sheriff's Office regulations prohibit employees from moonlighting more than 30 hours a week, performing off-duty tasks on their shifts or accepting gifts and gratuities without approval, among other restrictions. On mandatory off-duty employment forms approved annually by Mullen, Kearney indicated that he may be called upon to perform tasks for the Steelers any day of the week.

After winning the championship in 2009, the Steelers awarded Kearney a Super Bowl ring, which he proudly showed around the sheriff's office, several deputies recalled. Mullen said he considered Kearney's Super Bowl ring "part of his salary, which is paid by the Steelers." Kearney is not required to report his Steelers salary to the Sheriff's Office.

The Ray Rice incident opened up a window into how NFL teams use close connections with local law enforcement to keep players on the field and minimize the bad publicity associated with criminal matters. Many teams employ law enforcement veterans -- retired and, in some cases, active-duty -- to help manage security and advise players on how to stay out of trouble.

NFL teams say the arrangement can often help prevent problems before they start, preparing players for a world in which their wealth and fame make them easy targets. But it also sets up the potential for conflict when police are called to scenes involving players.

That happened in August 2014, when a San Francisco 49ers defensive end, Ray McDonald, was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. The investigation was complicated by a San Jose police officer who moonlighted for the 49ers and was at the crime scene even before officers answered the 911 call. The San Jose Police Department subsequently suspended all off-duty employment with the 49ers. At the time, the team employed 17 officers, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

"Outside the Lines" learned about Kearney as part of its ongoing coverage of issues related to the Rice case. Although numerous deputies and local police moonlight for Pittsburgh professional sports teams, mostly by providing event security, Kearney's responsibilities appear to be much broader.

According to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, the league does not have a policy on local security, nor would he comment on the Steelers' arrangement with Kearney. "Team security resources are a team matter," Aiello wrote in an email.

During a 2010 probe into allegations that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sexually assaulted a 20-year-old college student in Georgia, investigators learned that the player was accompanied that night by a Pennsylvania State Police trooper who also worked for the player. A prosecutor decided there was not enough evidence to press charges against Roethlisberger, but the state police said the trooper no longer could work for the quarterback.

Kearney, 54, earned more than $100,000 from his job with the Allegheny County Sheriff's Office last year, according to records obtained through Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know law. The Sheriff's Office is primarily responsible for providing security at judicial proceedings and apprehending fugitives. Mullen noted that deputies generally do not investigate criminal matters, which also keeps Kearney -- a deputy for three decades -- at arm's length from criminal investigations.

Kearney is well connected politically in Pittsburgh and has close ties to the Rooney family. Kearney once testified that his family "has been friends with the Rooneys for probably 50 years." He said he was handed the security position when the owner summoned him to his office, told him the NFL was asking teams to hire security directors and sent him down the hall to negotiate his salary. At the time, Kearney said, there was no written agreement reflecting the terms of his employment.

On his most recent off-duty employment form, Kearney listed his Steelers duties as: "Various, including training camp mgr., travel and logistics."

In interviews, Kearney was described as a highly competent law enforcement officer with a long track record of chasing down fugitives -- even at Steelers games -- and enhancing court security. But several current and former deputies and lawyers expressed concerns that his activities on behalf the Steelers, while not rising to the level of criminal misconduct, frequently interfered with his responsibilities as a sheriff's deputy.

"He's a guy who comes and goes as he pleases," said one veteran deputy, who asked not to be identified because he feared that he would be punished for speaking out publicly. "He'll tell people to handle something, then disappear on Steeler business."

Former Steelers said they appreciated Kearney's efforts to look after them. Max Starks, a Steelers offensive lineman from 2004 to 2012, said Kearney asked players to keep him informed about their whereabouts and to call him first "if anything was to happen." Starks said Kearney once advised him that a warrant had been issued for his arrest for unpaid parking tickets, which Starks then paid.

"He cared about making sure the guys were safe, and I thought that was one of the coolest things," Starks said.

In 2008, Kearney helped defuse a crisis involving former Steelers wide receiver Cedrick Wilson's girlfriend, according to the player. Following an argument with Wilson, the girlfriend secluded herself in his home with a gun, fired two shots into a wall and engaged in a standoff with police. Wilson wasn't home when the shots were fired. He said he was driving to Memphis, his hometown, when Kearney contacted him and persuaded him to turn around.

"Jack pretty much advised me to come back, like this was an issue of mine that needed to be dealt with," Wilson said.

Two months later, though, Wilson confronted the same woman at a Mexican restaurant. Police said he punched her off of a barstool; she later said she was merely pushed. The Steelers cut him within hours of the incident. That night, according to two sources, Kearney tried to contain the damage by asking people familiar with the incident not to divulge that Wilson had been with other Steelers players before the incident occurred. Attorney Michael DeRiso, who represented Wilson's girlfriend, confirmed that Kearney contacted him between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., but declined to say what they discussed.

Kearney sometimes expedited gun permits for Steelers players, said Gail Carter, a retired deputy who oversaw the permitting process for the sheriff's office for several years before her retirement in 2009. By calling ahead and ushering the players through, Kearney would reduce their wait times from as much as two weeks to about 15 minutes, Carter said, adding that she still conducted background checks on the players, who paid for the permits. The presence of Steelers players stirred up excitement around the office, but Carter said she and her colleagues were also sometimes resentful because the players usually arrived at the end of their shift, forcing them to stay longer.

"Jack was a lieutenant, so if he told me to do something, I wasn't gonna say no," Carter said. "You did what he told you to do."

Kearney clashed with federal marshals in 2007 after they sought to execute an arrest warrant on a Steelers linebacker. Investigators believed the player, Richard Seigler, was running a Las Vegas prostitution ring and sought the marshals' assistance, according to Jon Gallagher, the supervisory deputy of the marshals fugitive task force for Western Pennsylvania.

The marshals contacted the Steelers to arrange Seigler's arrest at the team's training facility, Gallagher said. A team public relations staffer notified Kearney, even though the marshals had advised that staffer "not to disclose this information to anyone," Mullen wrote to "Outside the Lines," citing the marshals' arrest report.

The following morning -- despite the arrangement -- Seigler was nowhere to be found. Kearney gave the marshals Seigler's address, Mullen wrote, but a daylong stakeout yielded nothing. Kearney then provided the marshals with another address in the same apartment complex and Seigler -- with Kearney present -- was taken into custody.

Gallagher said some marshals believed the Steelers, instead of following the agreement, had tipped off Seigler, turning what was lined up to be an easy arrest into a daylong search that required additional resources and manpower.

"Initially, we reached out to the Steelers organization and we just wanted to pick him up over at the training facility or whatever was easiest, just arrange the arrest," said Gallagher. "Someone within the organization contacted Seigler, and he never reported over to the organization on that day."

Kearney, while testifying in an unrelated matter, acknowledged that the marshals complained about his conduct.

Asked if the complaint stemmed from the marshals' belief that "there was some difficulty or delay ... which was attributable to you," Kearney replied: "No. My belief was that the Marshals Service was mad because I arrested someone they couldn't find." Gallagher stated it was the marshals, not Kearney, who made the arrest. Charges against Seigler were later dropped.

A Sheriff's Office investigation "found that Lieutenant Kearney did not give preferential treatment to Richard Seigler," Mullen wrote.

Former Allegheny County Sheriff's Office chief deputy Joseph A. Rizzo, testifying in an unrelated case, stated that he agreed with Kearney's assessment and chose not to discipline him. He said he instead wrote a letter "to remind Lt. Kearney to cooperate, to keep in mind his primary jobs when he is in the sheriff's office, when he is working with the Steelers."

For years, Kearney's dual roles have been an open secret in Pittsburgh -- and an occasional source of unease inside the Sheriff's Office and among the criminal defense bar. Several current and former deputies and attorneys contacted for this story declined to speak publicly, citing fears over Kearney's influence.

But the Adams case made clear the conflicts that many believe are unavoidable.

On June 1, 2013, after the bars emptied out on Pittsburgh's East Carson Street, the Steelers tackle became embroiled in a confrontation near his Ford F-150 Raptor truck, which was parked near a corner. The player's blood alcohol content was between .185 and .195, well over twice the legal limit. A man of his size would need to consume 28 or 29 drinks to reach that level, an expert later testified.

As the confrontation escalated, someone stabbed Adams in the right abdomen. People fled in all directions. Adams made his way to a nearby restaurant, Cambod-ican. That's where police found him a few minutes later, a blood-drenched towel pressed against his stomach.

"I witnessed the male victim ... sitting in a chair holding his right stomach area," Terry, the Pittsburgh police officer, wrote in his report. "There was a lot of blood coming from his right side."

As Adams was loaded into an ambulance, Sgt. Stephen Matakovich, another officer on the scene, tried to alert Kearney. He first sought to reach the security director several times on his cell phone. Unsuccessful, Matakovich finally called Kearney at home, reaching him around 5 a.m. Kearney later testified that he believed he was the first person the police contacted.

Asked why police would notify him, Kearney testified: "I guess proper procedure, to make sure that I knew or someone from the organization knew."

Pittinger, the executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, called it "inappropriate" for police to contact Kearney. "It seems to me that those officers were like, 'Holy cow, what do we do now? Let's call Jack,' " she said. "Steeler security, even if it wasn't a deputy sheriff, should never have been contacted by the city cops. It just seems unseemly. It seems shady. It seems suspicious."

Matakovich, approached by a reporter at his precinct this week, declined to say why he called Kearney. "You can stand there as long as you want, I ain't answering," he said.

Kearney drove to Pittsburgh's UPMC Mercy Hospital, where Adams was undergoing surgery to repair a 4- to 5-inch-deep wound that penetrated his large intestine. Kearney met with him about two hours later, not long after the surgery ended, according to Kearney, who testified that his purpose for visiting Adams was "just making sure he was all right and everything was going to be OK with him."

Shortly after he was stabbed, Adams told police he had been minding his own business, standing near his truck on the crowded street after eating a sandwich, when three men surrounded him. One asked if the truck belonged to him, Adams said. Another remarked: "I should shoot you." When he turned around, Adams said, one of the men stabbed him in the stomach.

After his two-hour meeting with Kearney at the hospital, Adams' story changed.

When detectives investigating the case arrived that afternoon, Adams said one of the men had pulled a gun out of his waistband, pointed it at his head and said, "I want your car or I will shoot you in the face and kill you in front of all these people." Another man punched him in the face, Adams told the detectives. A third man stabbed him before all three men fled.

As Adams now described it, the case was an attempted carjacking that had turned into an attempted homicide. The truck was potentially a key piece of evidence. It supposedly contained, among other things, a sandwich wrapper that was part of Adams' narrative. The truck's exact location was also important, as it related to potential witnesses and security cameras. One of the assailants, according to Adams, had hopped up and down on the sideboard.

"Given the fact that our clients were steadfast in their position that Mike Adams pulled up in his vehicle, it would have been nice to know exactly where that car was," said Randall McKinney, who represented one of the defendants.

Mullen, a former deputy chief of the Pittsburgh Police Department, defended Kearney's decision to move the vehicle on Adams' behalf. At that point, he wrote, hours had passed and "the crime scene was released by the investigating supervisor."

That afternoon, shortly after interviewing Adams, another Pittsburgh police officer, Detective Thomas Leheny, felt compelled to call Kearney to discuss the case.

"I told him that I was at UPMC Mercy Hospital and I met with Adams," Leheny testified in court. "You have to understand, Mr. Kearney works for the Steelers, and he's also a law enforcement officer, so I felt as though I should share with him what Mr. Adams told me."

The police didn't question Kearney for another seven months, when the prosecutor asked Leheny to conduct a pre-trial interview. The "supplemental report" ran just three paragraphs. Kearney confirmed that he had visited Adams in the hospital and moved the player's truck. Inside the vehicle, Kearney noted, was a sandwich wrapper and a Coke, a detail that seemed to corroborate part of Adams' story.

"Lt. Kearney had nothing else to add concerning this case and was excused from this pre-trial meeting," Leheny wrote.

But after assisting Adams that night, Kearney, who leads the sheriff's fugitive squads, became an investigator on the case. One of the three suspects, Jerrell Whitlock, 26, had eluded authorities. Kearney, acting in his role as head of the investigations unit for the Sheriff's Office, began to pursue Whitlock as a fugitive.

As the investigation hit a roadblock, Kearney turned to the U.S. Marshals, said Gallagher, who leads the marshals' fugitive task force for Western Pennsylvania. The marshals, assisted by local law enforcement, tracked Whitlock to a Gainesville, Florida, motel, immobilized him with a taser and took him into custody with his girlfriend, according to the arrest report. He was handed over to an Allegheny County sheriff's deputy and extradited to Pittsburgh, where Kearney announced Whitlock's arrest in front of local television cameras.

By the time the case went to trial last April, at the Court of Common Pleas for Allegheny County, defense attorneys offered an alternate story about how Adams had gotten stabbed: Drunk and stumbling that morning, Adams knocked over a $16 plate of shish kebab that one of the defendants had purchased from the Cambodian restaurant. When he refused to pay, a brawl ensued. Adams was stabbed, but no one could say who had done it. That story was partly supported by at least one witness.

Kearney's conflicted role was central to the defense, even to the point of his dress in court.

In an exchange at the beginning of the trial, the defense lawyers tried to persuade Judge Anthony Mariani to prevent Kearney from testifying in his sheriff's uniform.

"I don't think he should wear a lieutenant sheriff's outfit in this jury trial because he wasn't working in that capacity," said Fred Rabner, one of the attorneys. "I think it would be misleading to the jury, and I think it's not appropriate."

Mariani, who said he had known Kearney for 30 years, seemed amused that he was being asked to "tell Lt. Kearney how to dress."

"There are three very skilled defense lawyers in this room who I'm sure will make it clear through cross-examination that although he's a lieutenant in the Sheriff's Office, in this particular case he was acting as head of security for the Steelers," Mariani said, denying the motion.

"He'll probably come in wearing a Steelers shirt," Mariani added. "That's what he always has on."

Producer Justine Gubar of ESPN's Enterprise and Investigative Unit contributed to this report.

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