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Tracing career criminal through system to Phila. officer's death

By Nov. 10, Bucks County Court Judge David W. Heckler had endured enough of William Allan Foster, a junkie, career thief and scofflaw.

William Allan Foster (at right), 41, was drunk and fleeing officers when he crashed his car last month into Sgt. Timothy Simpson's cruiser, killing the officer. Mistakes by a judge and a county probation office meant Foster was out of jail when he likely would not have been, a report found. (File photos)
William Allan Foster (at right), 41, was drunk and fleeing officers when he crashed his car last month into Sgt. Timothy Simpson's cruiser, killing the officer. Mistakes by a judge and a county probation office meant Foster was out of jail when he likely would not have been, a report found. (File photos)Read more

By Nov. 10, Bucks County Court Judge David W. Heckler had endured enough of William Allan Foster, a junkie, career thief and scofflaw from Levittown.

Foster had failed to show in Doylestown that day for a series of probation violations that almost certainly would have landed him back in jail. Have him arrested, Heckler told Foster's probation officer, Ventura Vazquez-Acosta, an order reinforced by the officer's supervisor.

The arrest never happened. Seven days passed with no action taken, according to an investigative report compiled by county probation officials and released last week.

"According to Officer Vazquez-Acosta, a variety of issues including a holiday, training and miscellaneous duties prevented him from coordinating the arrest of William Foster over the next week," the report says.

By then, Philadelphia Police Sgt. Timothy Simpson was dead.

On the night of Nov. 17, police say, Foster, 41, was drunk and had just scored some heroin. Police were chasing him in the city's Juniata Park section when his speeding car broadsided Simpson's cruiser, killing the 20-year veteran.

Foster was wanted at the time on a New Jersey fugitive warrant for jumping parole, as well as on multiple warrants in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia police officials have angrily questioned why Foster was free at all.

Some answers are in a four-page timeline created at the behest of Heckler and Sean R. Ryan, Bucks County's chief adult probation and parole officer. It tracks the county's involvement with Foster from August 2007, when Hecker put him on probation.

Foster was arrested at least three times in recent months - twice in Bucks County, and at least once in Philadelphia - and released each time, the report says.

Two mistakes led to Foster's Aug. 11 release from the Bucks County prison, where he had spent four days after an arrest on theft charges in New Britain.

First, Vazquez-Acosta and his supervisor, Edward Chromiec, failed to review his file after being told Foster was in prison, the report says. Had they done so, a violation hearing before Heckler could have been scheduled.

Second, Magisterial District Justice Robert Gaffney erred by allowing bail on the New Jersey parole violation after Foster's Aug. 7 arrest, Heckler said in an interview.

A policy directive circulated to Bucks district justices in February 2007 instructs that out-of-state fugitives facing local charges be allowed bail on the local charges only. Once the local charges are addressed, the sheriff's department should start extradition proceedings, the policy says.

"I'm disappointed that we let this fellow slip through our fingers when we had him," Heckler said. "Bail should not have been set on the detainer, and our probation office should have picked up on the proposition that he was in the prison."

Ryan called his officers' errors "sloppy work." He said he has taken steps to ensure that when a probationer or parolee is jailed, his officers act immediately and document their actions by midday.

Heckler and Ryan were less critical of the failure to quickly arrest Foster last month for parole violations. Both said the lag was not unusual, given the massive workload of probation officers and Foster's reputation as a petty, nonviolent criminal.

"Given the low level of this offender . . . I was authorizing them to take him into custody," Heckler said. "It was not a direction for them to go out and find him immediately."

Ryan said that Bucks County's 46 probation officers are assigned to oversee more than 8,200 offenders. Vazquez-Acosta, he said, is one of just six intake officers required to interview every offender entering the system, as well as to prepare presentencing and pre-parole reports.

Rounding up nonviolent probation violators often is trumped by more pressing duties, Ryan said.

"We don't have an arrest unit waiting to detain people," Ryan said. "In a perfect world, this is sloppy work. But in the context of the workload, it is not unusual for these things to happen."

Ryan would not say whether anyone had been disciplined over the Foster case. He called the report a first step in examining what went wrong.

"This will be the topic of office discussions for months to come," he said. "It's not to suggest that the entire system is broken, but we are going to look at it very, very carefully."

Vazquez-Acosta did not return a call seeking comment. Ryan said he had instructed his staff not to discuss the matter and to refer questions to him.

Since the mid-1980s, Foster has been arrested more than 20 times, mostly on drug offenses and thefts to feed his heroin addiction.

In August 2007, Heckler placed him on 15 years' probation for three theft convictions and a heroin-possession charge. Foster then returned to New Jersey, where he was already doing state time.

He was paroled the following March, but never told his Bucks probation officer of his release, the report says.

State parole officials tried to transfer Foster's state supervision to Pennsylvania, the report says. They were stymied in June when Foster's stepfather refused to let him share his Levittown home.

On July 30, New Jersey put out a fugitive warrant for Foster. A week later, New Britain police arrested him in an SUV carrying stolen tools.

A computer check alerted police of the New Jersey warrant, and they told both Justice Gaffney and county prison officials. Nonetheless, Gaffney set bail at $10,000 for the theft charge, and $5,000 on the fugitive charge, and Foster was jailed.

Gaffney did not return a call seeking comment.

The next morning, Aug. 8, a probation and parole secretary spotted Foster and four other men on probation on a list of new county prisoners. She sent their names on a high-priority e-mail to Vazquez-Acosta and Chromiec.

They never reviewed the case, the report says.

On Aug. 11, Foster made bail. A computer check at the prison found no active warrants on him, the report says.

That's because New Jersey officials had just pulled Foster's name from a national criminal database, reasoning that he was already in prison and under a detainer to be returned to them.

On Nov. 3, Foster was jailed after a traffic stop in Philadelphia for failing to show up for a court date there. He was released the next day without posting bail. Two days later, Vazquez-Acosta received a computer alert of Foster's arrest, but later told supervisors he thought it was a different offender by the same name.

"The notification included [Foster's] name, date of birth and [state identification] number," the report says, but Vazquez-Acosta did not look into it further.

Also on Nov. 5, Middletown Township police arrested Foster on shoplifting charges. He was freed on $25,000 unsecured bail, but a Middletown lieutenant sent a fax of the charges to Vazquez-Acosta.

Only then did Vazquez-Acosta alert Heckler that Foster had resurfaced. Heckler told the officer to order Foster to appear at the courthouse on Nov. 10.

Foster never showed.

"People have a right to expect a lot of the system," Heckler said last week. "We've identified ways in which our system has failed, and I'm troubled by that.

"But to say that it was somehow foreseeable that an officer was going to get killed is too big a reach in this case."

Ryan agreed, but said he understood the blame being cast in Philadelphia.

"If I were a member of the officer's family," he said, "I would feel the same way."

A Timeline of Mistakes


Aug. 6: William Allan Foster, already serving state time in New Jersey, is sentenced in Bucks County to 15 years' probation on theft and drug charges.


March 26: Foster is paroled from New Jersey, fails to alert Pennsylvania authorities.

July 30: New Jersey issues fugitive warrant for Foster.

Aug. 7: Foster is arrested for theft in New Britain Township. A judge mistakenly sets bail for the fugitive charge.

Aug. 8: Bucks probation officers fail to notice that Foster is in jail.

Aug. 11: Foster is released on bail.

Nov. 3: Foster is arrested in Philadelphia on failure-to-appear warrant; released without posting bail.

Nov. 5: Foster is arrested in Middletown Township on shoplifting charges; released on unsecured bail.

Nov. 6: Middletown police alert Bucks County officials of Foster's arrest; Foster is ordered to appear Nov. 10 on probation violations.

Nov. 10: Foster fails to appear on probation violations. Judge Heckler orders him arrested; probation officer fails to act.

Nov. 17: While fleeing Philadelphia police, Foster collides with Police Sgt. Timothy Simpson's car, killing Simpson.EndText