A police chief went to bat for Fayette County's embattled prison chaplain on Wednesday, and one of the residents whose questions initiated the controversy made it clear he never had a problem with the Rev. Terry Sanders' criminal past.
Uniontown police chief Jason Cox said Sanders is an asset to the community and to the jail.
"He's a man of character in many situations," Cox said. "He has acted as a bridge between the police department, the jail and the community."
Cox and several residents attested to Sanders' character after the board's inquiry last month into Sanders' convictions 22 years ago for robbery, theft and drug charges.
The inquiry was sparked when William Jones of Uniontown asked the board whether it had conducted a background check on Sanders, but he was not permitted to discuss his specific concerns during the open portion of the meeting.
The board instead held a closed-door executive session, after which two members said they would look into Sanders' criminal past and review his application to work for the county.
On Wednesday, Jones told the board he never had an issue with Sanders' criminal convictions.
"I do not have a problem with the Rev. Sanders background," Jones said. "The issue is personal."
Jones alleged Sanders failed to allow his wife, Kathryn Jones, a Wiccan, into the jail to minister to inmates.
The board in November directed Brian Miller, warden, to allow Kathryn Jones access to the inmate. Kathryn Jones said she sent Miller emails with three dates for the meetings, but she never heard back from him.
Miller denied receiving the emails.
Jack Heneks, district attorney, said the jail might not have to allow Jones in for a clerical visit because "the religion that the Rev. Jones is involved with is not federally recognized."
Kathryn Jones did not attend the meeting, but contacted afterward, she said Heneks is wrong.
"It is a federally recognized religion," Kathryn Jones said. "It's insane for Heneks to say something like that."
Jones said she never had problems entering the jail to minister to Wiccans until she began to picket outside the courthouse several years ago over a dispute involving Heneks and Uniontown police. The problems escalated when she and her husband accused the jail of forcing an inmate to take medications used to treat mental illness, she said.
Miller has denied forcing inmates to take medications.
Three other residents, including Adrianne Wilson of McClellandtown, told the board Sanders' prison work has changed lives for the better.
"His life is an example of what individuals can accomplish, despite past mistakes, if negative people get out of his way," said Wilson, a City Mission case manager. "Chaplain Sanders is an example we all should follow."
Al Ambrosini, commissioner and board member, said the board plans no actions against Sanders.
"He's helped a lot of inmates through their difficult times, even after they got out," Ambrosini said. "In reality, Rev. Sanders is uniquely qualified to help people. He can look them right in the eye, and tell them, I walked in your shoes. I've turned my life around. You can do the same."
Copyright 2014 - Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service