Update (10/6/22): Aaron Fetty is no longer employed by the City of Pittsburgh, according to Department of Public Safety Deputy Public Information Officer Amanda Mueller, in an email to PublicSource and City Cast Pittsburgh. She declined to answer questions about the terms of his separation from the city. Nicole Nino, an attorney representing Fetty, declined comment. The Fraternal Order of Police declined comment.
Editor’s note: This story contains references to trauma and sexual violence.
Reported 7/25/22: Officer X’s Fitbit congratulated her on her workout.
She hadn’t exercised at all.
Her heart rate had reached 139 beats per minute in the middle of an afternoon mostly spent sitting — but also testifying, in a case against a fellow police officer, in a petition under the Protection of Victims of Sexual Violence or Intimidation Act.
“I remember lying on my back and feeling like my arms and legs were too heavy to move and looking up at light,” she told Allegheny County Senior Judge Kathleen R. Mulligan as Officer Aaron Fetty sat on the other side of the courtroom. “I remember Officer Fetty’s head looming over me and his mouth was moving. I don’t remember him saying anything,” except “you’re so hot … I remember being kissed.”
She’d tried not to look at Fetty as he provided his account.
“So she comes onto me, reaches around and tries to pull me in,” he told the judge. “I say, ‘No, no, no. I’m married.’ … She says okay. She literally rolls back over. … I go to leave. I walk out the front door of her house.”
That March 18 hearing came nearly nine months after an alcohol-soaked police party that ended with Officer X and Fetty — according to both of their accounts — in a Lawrenceville bar, in his car and then in her bedroom. During those nine months, their encounter was reviewed by the Allegheny County Police, and no charges were pursued. It was probed by the city’s Office of Municipal Investigations [OMI], but Fetty remained on the force.
Those results left Officer X — who asked not to be named in this story — wondering how she could continue to serve the city.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to respond to [crime] scenes, how we’re supposed to work on the same force and I’m supposed to be assessing a threat and dealing with a threat from somebody harmful and to have to worry about [Fetty] and where he is,” she testified before Mulligan.
Officer X sought a civil protection order against Fetty, though not via the Abuse of Family code under which Protection from Abuse [PFA] orders are issued. That law applies only to family, household members or intimate partners – not colleagues.
Instead, Officer X sought court protection under a law that has been on the books for seven years, but is invoked much less frequently.
In a Google search, she came across Pennsylvania’s Protection of Victims of Sexual Violence or Intimidation law. It is little used in adult court locally, to the point where Officer X said she had to educate court staff and a magistrate. Under the law, a victim of sexual violence who faces continued risk of harm from a defendant can ask a court to prohibit direct or indirect contact and “any other appropriate relief.”
The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape [PCAR], which championed its passage, tallied just 285 cases statewide involving the law in 2021, compared to some 18,000 PFA petitions. Andrea Levy, legal director of PCAR, said she has heard people say, “‘Jeez, I’ve been to these various professionals in Allegheny County and no one’s ever heard of [the law], and it’s really not used here.’”
Between the night of the encounter and the judge’s decision, Officer X learned a lot about that law and the stresses put on victims — even those, like her, with emotional and financial support and some familiarity with the justice system. She shared those insights with City Cast Pittsburgh and PublicSource, but asked for anonymity, which is typically granted to victims in sexual assault cases.
“While every fiber of my being is screaming to put my name on this, and say, ‘This doesn’t change who I am, this doesn’t define me, I’m not ashamed of it,’ and I want people to know what happened to me,” she’d nevertheless heed an advocate’s advice to remain anonymous, she said. “Especially since I am continuing to have a developing emotional response to everything.”
Fetty did not respond to requests for interviews, but attorney Nicole Nino spoke on his behalf.
“My client emphatically denies any of those allegations,” said Nino, of Phil DiLucente & Associates. “From a criminal perspective, Officer Fetty has been cleared,” she added.
Fetty continues to police, recently receiving the Officer of the Month designation for his zone.
Officer X isn’t on the beat, and her Fitbit has chronicled the toll. “My resting heart rate is up like 12 to 15 beats a minute this year. Well, that sucks.”
From cookout to conflicting testimony
Officer X said she became a cop, after years working in retail, in part because she witnessed an ineffective response to another woman’s plight.
Walking her dog in the North Side, she saw a man screaming at, and then hitting, a woman. She stopped the assault by placing herself between them, she recounted. A police officer arrived, but made no arrest and didn’t offer the woman a ride home. She recalled thinking, “I’m pretty sure I could police better than that.”
So in 2017, already in her mid-30s, she joined the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. After training, she was assigned to Zone 5, patrolling the city’s northeastern neighborhoods.
On June 19, 2021, Fetty invited her to join a cookout near the garage doors of the Zone 5 station.
At the cookout, Fetty handed her two drinks that he called Tito’s (a vodka) and ginger ale. She testified that she had a third drink at the station. Later they both joined several other officers at Industry, a Lawrenceville bar, where she had two drinks.
Officer X testified that her memory of Industry wasn’t clear, but it included vomiting in the bathroom. She testified that she’d rarely previously vomited from drinking.
Fetty drove Officer X to her home. He testified that he helped her to her front porch, gave her two bottles of water and sat with her as she drank. He said he took her upstairs to her bedroom.
He said he told Officer X she was “‘really messed up” and asked if he should help to take off her sullied pants. She assented, and he removed her pants and put her in bed, he said.
Fetty testified that Officer X asked him to lay next to her, and he did, but that he left after she tried to kiss him.
Her memories of what happened there were vague, she testified, consisting mostly of Fetty kissing her and calling her “so hot.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, no.’ But I couldn’t do anything,” she told Judge Mulligan.
Officer X woke up “sore all over,” she testified. “I had a headache. I had a stomach ache. My legs were sore. My hand hurt.”
Despite her training in preserving evidence, she did little to document what happened.
“I had done all my laundry and I had washed myself,” Officer X testified. “So what was I going to present to the hospital or law enforcement since I cleaned in disgust?”
She was scheduled for mounted unit training, she explained. If she went to the hospital, she’d “miss this training that is held only once a year and is compulsory for me to participate in a unit that I’ve wanted to be a part of since I was in the academy.” Forced to choose between focusing on the incident and the long-sought training in horseback policing, she said, “I picked my career.”
She did, however, text Fetty to see if she could elicit any clues. His text back read: “Sometimes no memories are the best memories LOL, no worries, glad you’re okay.”
A few days later, Officer X photographed bruising on her inner thighs, she testified. She added on cross examination that while she had been riding horses in the weeks prior, she “had never bruised on my inner thighs” from that activity.
Fetty, meanwhile, had a conversation that became a point of contention in the case.
Officer Joshua Wentz testified that he talked with Fetty back at the Zone 5 station after the revelry was over. “I asked him if he was okay because he was at the bar drinking and stuff and he said he was fine,” Wentz testified. “Then he stated that, ‘I’m fine. I just got laid.'”
Another officer who said he was friendly with Fetty testified that he heard all or most of the conversation but did not hear those words.
Fetty testified that he never said them. “If I said anything,” he told the judge, “it could have been along the lines of ‘I could have got laid.'”
A three-day suspension
Some time after the police barbecue, the city’s internal investigators at OMI received an anonymous tip about the incident.
OMI probes allegations made against city employees. It has historically kept its findings in any individual case out of the public eye. Its conclusions are provided to city bureaus and departments. In the case of police-related complaints, the bureau recommends discipline and the public safety director has final say.
OMI data obtained by PublicSource and City Cast Pittsburgh shows just one complaint with a date of violation of June 19, 2021, and the Bureau of Police annual report for that year shows just one disciplinary action stemming from that day. According to those sources, OMI found that the city’s policies regarding truthfulness and barring conduct unbecoming had been violated. The bureau then recommended suspension of the actor for five days pending potential termination, but that was ultimately modified to a three-day suspension with a transfer and a “last chance” agreement that lasts five years.
Rarely used, such agreements are negotiated between the city and officer, who can consult with the union, according to Fraternal Order of Police President Robert Swartzwelder. He said they spell out behaviors by the officer that can result in immediate termination, which the union will not challenge in arbitration.
Wendell Hissrich, who was public safety director at the time, confirmed that he made the decision not to terminate. Hissrich otherwise declined comment. Maria Montaño, a spokesperson for Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration, wrote in response to questions that the city could not comment because the “matter remains the subject of an ongoing internal investigation.”
Allegheny County Police also reviewed the matter and “did a fantastic job,” according to Officer X, but that did not result in charges.
A spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s office, which prosecutes cases, said the DA was “unable to move forward with any criminal charges because we did not believe that we would be able to sustain our burden of proof on such charges.”
From mid-autumn on, Officer X did not work within the bureau, instead serving military duty locally. As the year drew to a close, she opted to share what she called her “horror” at the city’s decision to keep Fetty on the force.
Officer X wrote an email of nearly 6,000 words telling her side of the story in detail, and sent it to every member of the bureau. The email leaked, and local TV news stations reported on it.
Asked at the March 18 hearing about the email, Officer X described it as, “my opportunity to let them know what passes for discipline in our city.”
Stumping the court staff
Fetty was transferred out of Zone 5, but Officer X knew that didn’t preclude an encounter. Significant incidents draw responses from multiple zones. Officers serving different parts of the city cross paths at police headquarters and in court.
She dreaded the prospect. “How am I supposed to put myself in a situation where I’m going to be at harm and I could go down and have him there and be my fellow in arms?” she asked at the hearing.
She knew that the state law governing PFAs would do nothing for her. It only covers abusive acts “between family or household members, sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood.”
While she had been trained in the law of PFAs at the police academy, she could recall no mention of any alternative protections. When a web search led her to the Protection of Victims of Sexual Violence or Intimidation Act, she printed out the paperwork and told her military bosses that she would need a few days off.
Sponsored by the late state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, the act went into effect in mid-2015. Key planks:
- Any adult or emancipated minor can file non-criminal petitions with the civil court alleging the need for protection from sexual violence.
- Any minor who is being stalked or harassed by an adult can file a petition for protection against intimidation.
- If the plaintiff proves by a preponderance of evidence that they are at continued risk of harm from the defendant, courts can issue orders barring contact for as long as three years.
- Violations of such orders can result in indirect criminal contempt charges.
- Anyone who makes a false report under the law can be charged for that.
- Police departments are required to train officers in the law.
Swartzwelder said the 2015 law is now part of Pittsburgh police training.
The law hasn’t generated many cases, compared to the PFA law.
In the month of June alone, 230 new PFA cases were filed in Allegheny County. By contrast, the county civil court website shows that from January 2021 through June 30, 2022 – a period of 18 months – just 24 cases were logged under the Protection of Victims of Sexual Violence or Intimidation law.
“There are just some pockets of the commonwealth, for one reason or another, that don’t have the familiarity with this statute,” said Levy, who runs PCAR’s Sexual Violence Legal Assistance Project, which provides free advice and representation to victims statewide regardless of income. The result of that unfamiliarity, she said, is that some victims “are not having this option put before them. Not every survivor would want this option, but survivors should be empowered to explore all the options that they do have.”
Nino said she has seen the law used more in regard to minors, and noted that those cases might not show up on a search of public dockets.
Officer X said that during her two days off, she saw the law’s obscurity play out repeatedly.
Staff at the Pittsburgh Municipal Court window “didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t find the procedures. They were looking through their binders to figure out how to file it, where to put it,” she recounted. “I stumped the entirety of the office until a particularly seasoned employee came back from her break or lunch.”
She was then brought before a district judge.
“I got in front of him, and I burst into tears,” she said. “And that’s not usually me. And so I’m trying to give my narrative, and like hiccoughing through it.”
She said he asked her just one question: “Where the heck do I sign this thing?”
Armed then with an emergency protection order, she brought it to a police station so it could be served on Fetty. The next day she had to travel to the Allegheny County Family Division court for the next step, an application for a temporary petition.
There she met staff who knew the law, but COVID-19 restrictions required that she tell her story by phone.
“I found some darkened courtroom and I, like, tucked myself behind a cabinet” and phoned the clerk down the hall to make her statement, she recounted.
After that, friends told her she should no longer be going it alone. She needed legal help.
She retained Elisabeth Bennington, a former state House member who served six years on the state Supreme Court’s Domestic Relations Procedural Rules Committee.
Bennington knew the 2015 law, but had never seen it used, she said in an interview. “As a practitioner in this area, you’re just not finding people going toward this law.”
Protecting the report
A first hearing was set for Jan. 12, but the case was sidetracked by a dispute between Bennington and the union representing Pittsburgh police.
Bennington had subpoenaed OMI’s report on the incident. Such reports are routinely kept confidential, and the Fraternal Order of Police [FOP] — which represents both Officer X and Fetty — wanted to keep it that way.
The FOP filed a motion to quash the subpoena, arguing that OMI reports contain “involved officer statements; witness statements; prior disciplinary histories; video and audio files” and more. The union’s lawyer, Christopher Cimballa, wrote that the union wanted to avoid a precedent that could lead to disclosure of OMI reports to members of the public who might seek them through the Right-to-Know Law.
Officer X said she felt that the union had, in effect, taken a side.
“The FOP showed up — and they didn’t show up for me. They showed up for the OMI report,” she said in an interview. She said she emailed the FOP leadership, asking: “What would you do in my position? When you’ve got a situation between two members and your union is showing up for one but not the other, would you stop paying your dues?”
Swartzwelder said the union only represents officers in matters related to the performance of their job duties. He said that in this case, it offered both officers lawyers in relation to the city’s investigation.
He added that the union believes that an OMI report is “just the investigator’s opinion” and is not subject to cross examination, so making it public would violate an officer’s due process rights.
Judge Mulligan ordered the city to release the OMI report, but also that the parties keep it confidential. Officer X and Bennington refused to discuss the report for this story, other than the attorney saying she reviewed 231 pages of material. “And being able to look at the interviews and what transpired,” Bennington said, “helped me to be prepared in March.”
The legal fight over the OMI report pushed the hearing for a long-term protective order back by more than two months, until March 18.
“I was a basket of nerves, per usual,” said Officer X. She waited with Bennington and with an advocate from Pittsburgh Action Against Rape [PAAR].
The advocate passed out fidget rings with tiny barbs. “When you squeeze it, the little wires cut into your skin a little. That helps to kind of bring you back into the moment and not get lost in your head,” said Officer X. “The next day, my hands were just like, they looked like kittens had been at them.”
Called to Mulligan’s courtroom, Officer X said she was “relying really heavily on other people to not let me walk into furniture” and “damn close to a panic attack. Just frantic crying,” she said. “I ended up grabbing my advocate and hanging on for dear life, just buried in her shoulder.”
Bennington said that when Officer X entered the courtroom and saw Fetty, “it was not good. … She was scared. She was robotic. She was fearful. She was tense.”
Testifying can be one of the most traumatizing parts of the legal process, said Levy.
“You’re being confronted with the person, you probably can have them in your periphery or even in your sight line – right in front of you – who did this to you, you are triggered and biologically your body can feel the physical sensations, the same physical sensations you did during the assault,” she said.
In Mulligan’s courtroom, Officer X, Wentz, Fetty and his friend Officer Jorge Zarate testified. At the hearing’s end, the judge said only that she would enter an order in three to five days.
The days that followed, said Officer X, were “absolutely miserable.” She tried to distract herself. “I was de-stressing by fixing an old PlayStation 3 that I had,” then hitting the games “like a college kid.”
She lived largely on popcorn, and the Fitbit told a sorry tale. “My heart rate was terrible. My sleep was abysmal — a few hours a night,” she said. “I felt actually physically crushed by the weight of waiting. I kept checking my email to see if there was any news.”
Paying the price
“The email said, ‘It’s a win,’” Officer X recounted. She ended up on the phone with her attorney and advocate. “We’re all screaming, crying at each other at this point, just like screaming and crying and shouting in this, like, exuberance.”
Mulligan’s four-sentence order: “The court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the Plaintiff is the victim of sexual violence. At a minimum, The Defendant committed the act of sexual assault. The Court further finds that the Plaintiff is at a continued risk of harm from the Defendant. As set forth in the Findings and Purpose of the Statute, the harm can include further interactions with the offender.”
Nino, the attorney for Fetty, noted that Mulligan did not specify any kind of sexual assault, which can range from kissing to rape. She added that in civil cases, judges look for a preponderance of evidence, unlike the higher beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard of criminal court.
Nino said that’s a flaw in the 7-year-old law.
“I do believe that these should not be handled in the civil court system, in the Family Division civil court system, because they are dealing with criminal statutes,” she said. “The standard shouldn’t be preponderance of evidence. It should be beyond a reasonable doubt, unequivocally.”
After reading the order aloud, months later, Officer X breathed deeply. “It means that somebody wrote, in a legal document, that I was …” She paused. “Victimized. … And it’s just, it’s the most validating thing. … The validation that that paragraph gave me, I don’t think I could ever replicate it. I’ve never felt anything like that before in my life.”
The order requires that, through March 23, 2025, Fetty has no contact with Officer X, and does not enter her residence or place of employment. It bars indirect contact through third parties. It orders him to pay the case’s court fees, though not Officer X’s legal bills.
Those bills, steeply discounted by Bennington, nonetheless ate up the money Officer X had saved to replace her leaky roof. “So yeah, I get to buy a roof still,” she said.
She’s acutely aware that the resources she brought to her case — including the understanding of the law and relative comfort with courts that comes from policing — aren’t the norm.
“I’ve just been so angry for all the people who haven’t had my situation,” she said. “I’m not married right now. I don’t have kids. My finances are completely independent. … So I have the latitude in my life right now where I can die on this hill. And other people don’t.”
In the month following the decision, Bennington sought clarification of whether Fetty should pay Officer X’s legal bills. Mulligan ruled that he did not have to pay. That’s in contrast to practice in PFA cases, in which the defendant can be compelled to pay costs incurred by the plaintiff.
Mulligan simultaneously clarified Fetty’s obligation to avoid Officer X, writing that if his employment requires him to be near to her, “he shall have no contact with her.”
Unlike PFAs, Sexual Violence Protection Orders don’t affect the defendant’s ability to possess a gun. As a result, Fetty’s ability to serve on the police force hasn’t been compromised.
In fact, Fetty was named March’s officer of the month for Zone 1. The commendation indicated that he responded to a nighttime burglary, gathered video footage, then later recognized the thief and caught him on a Port Authority bus with a bag full of hot electronics.
News of the honor reached Officer X. “When that happened, I was like, well, that’s a message, loud and clear.”
She hasn’t returned to Zone 5. The military orders under which she is serving run through September. She hasn’t yet discussed with the city the logistics of her return to police work.
“I do miss the job,” she said. “I miss being out there. I miss responding to people. I miss knowing that the call I’m going to, that person is going to be taken care of.”
Levy said that with greater public awareness, the Protection of Victims of Sexual Violence or Intimidation law could shield more people.
But ultimately, she added, we need “a cultural shift … We typically do not believe survivors in a way that supports them enough to go through the difficulties of even engaging in one of these remedies, whether it be reporting to law enforcement or whether it be seeking a civil order of protection.”
Officer X won her case and got the protection order she sought. She found validation in a little-known process after two better-traveled paths led nowhere. But she’s not declaring victory.
“I paid for that,” she said. “I paid for it with my privacy. I paid for it with my savings. I paid for it with my health. Nobody did this for me. I had to go out and force it. And that makes me so angry because there are so few people who could do the same.”
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s managing editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @richelord.
Megan Harris is the lead producer for City Cast Pittsburgh. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @meganharris13. Listen wherever you get your podcasts here.
This story was fact-checked by Terryaun Bell.
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