Elk County District Attorney Bradley J. Kraus responded this week to requests by The Ridgway Record for comment on his decision not to further investigate the death of an area woman whose family members, along with area attorney Shawn McMahon, claim died as a result of prescription drug-related complications.
Kraus responded following a press conference held last Friday on the steps of the Elk County Courthouse in Ridgway, during which Ridgway resident and father of the deceased, James Buehler, called for a formal investigation into the death of his daughter, Heather Buehler Armanini, whom he claims was prescribed excessive amounts of potentially dangerous medications by an area physician. According to McMahon, Armanini's autopsy determined the manner of death to have been "unnatural," with the cause of death being liver failure likely the result of "acetaminophen toxicity."
Buehler said that since his daughter's death on July 7, 2008, he has contacted various law enforcement agencies, judicial bodies and state officials, including state Attorney General Linda L. Kelly, in an effort to initiate an investigation, but all have declined. Most recently, Buehler sent a petition signed by area residents to Governor Tom Corbett calling on the governor to intervene in the matter. In his address to the governor as well as in a paid ad that appeared in area newspapers this past summer, Buehler was critical of local officials, most notably Kraus, for not launching a formal investigation into the case.
Buehler claims that Kraus did not respond to his requests for an investigation or to evidence that was presented to him. Kraus said he met with Buehler and Punxsutawney-based attorney Jeff Lundy on March 8, 2010.
"I had a long discussion with him and his attorney as to my review of the case. I met with Mr. Buehler and his attorney for a period of time at my office and provided an opportunity for them to meet with me and I had a time to explain to them and I've done that. So, I have nothing further to comment about with respect to that because I think that, that would potentially disclose conversations I had with him and I don't think that's fair to anybody involved," Kraus said.
Kraus said he could not comment on his reasons for declining to further investigate the matter, nor the reason other federal and state agencies contacted by Buehler decided ultimately not to investigate.
"Why other agencies have made their decisions, I can't comment on because I am not a part of those agencies. I'll just repeat the fact that I met with Mr. Buehler and his attorney at the time, Mr. Lundy, at my office and reviewed with him my position with respects to the case. I'm not going to disclose what I told him because I don't think that would be fair, but I certainly told him of my review of all the facts and circumstances and what my decision was at that time," Kraus said.
While Armanini's death occurred in Allegheny County, according to McMahon, who is serving as Buehler's attorney, the prescribing doctor's practice was based out of Elk County.
Kraus explained that the location of Armanini's death had not factored into his decision not to take the case and would not preclude the case from being heard in an Elk County courtroom if it moves forward.
"Let's assume that today you're in a car accident and you are life-flighted to Pittsburgh and subsequently die. You had the accident here in Elk County but subsequently die in Pittsburgh...let's assume somebody ran a red light and injured you and you died in Pittsburgh. Obviously the facts of the accident are here, so the fact that you died in Pittsburgh wouldn't prevent jurisdiction from being here," Kraus said.
Kraus reiterated that upon reviewing materials associated with Armanini's death and convening with Buehler and his attorney, he made the decision not to investigate the matter further. He said that he stands by his decision and feels that any attempts to justify or interpret his actions would be a disservice to his position, as well as to the public he serves.
"If you're asking me in terms of why I decided what I did, I'm not going to do that, it's not appropriate for me to do, I can't debate every decision publicly why I did or did not do something. That is not a proper thing for the district attorney to do, you don't see that anywhere, it's not a matter of publicly debating why things are done or not done or why a decision is made or not made to prosecute or not prosecute, whatever the decision is. But I certainly explained that in detail to Mr. Buehler and his attorney and I did that, as I said, on March 8, 2010, which is approaching 20-some months ago," Kraus said.
In response to the fact that some, including Buehler, consider Kraus' decision not to investigate the Armanini death as an arbitrary one, Kraus said, "I don't make arbitrary decisions. I took an oath to review cases and that's what I have done. I don't arbitrarily decide anything, that would be a disservice to the same citizens that elected me. I would never do that."