Gamble, Abruzzino vie for open prosecutor seat
LISBON — For the first time in 42 years, there will be a new Columbiana County prosecutor after the current prosecutor Robert Herron withdrew his bid for another term. Voters will get a chance to choose between someone who currently works in his office, Chief Assistant County Prosecutor John Gamble, and Vito Abruzzino, who has spent the much of his legal career serving in the military.
Gamble, 56, who has spent most of his life in the Winona area, has also spent most of his professional life prosecuting cases in Columbiana County. In his current position, Gamble has been involved in the day-to-day operations of the office for years and believes he is the most capable person for a position, knowledgeable about the gravity and experience it requires.
Abruzzino, 39, grew up in Niles and says he gained much of his law experience while serving in various positions in both the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) and Air Force. He achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.
During his military career, he served as a trial counsel prosecutor at the U.S. Army’s Fort Jackson. Abruzzino said it was busy with about 1,000 drill sergeants and 80 percent of the female enlistees in the Army, a situation leading many complaints about sexual assaults.
“We had everything from pastors to porn stars doing training,” Abruzzino said, adding he worked with federal investigators helping them bring the most heinous stuff to justice as soon as he was appointed to that position.
He also served as trial defense counsel in Fort Bragg, N.C., where he said he saw the other side, defending people charged with murder, sexual assault, theft and drugs.
Gamble also lists a variety of crimes he has successfully prosecuted — years prosecuting murders, burglaries, fraud and drug cases. Under Herron, Gamble said the office has been operated above politics. They have developed a good working relationship with local law enforcement officers and BCI investigators, working together to find justice.
“I feel like I’ve had an impact beyond our office,” Gamble said, adding for instance he has worked to make sure others understand what goes into writing search warrants, which helps police officers to think about what challenges they may face down the road in court.
Additionally, Gamble said he has worked with the victims of crime and the public at large as they seek to help people understand the process of gaining justice in the cases affecting their loved ones, their families or themselves.
Gamble said the current prosecutor’s office never purposefully overcharges someone in this county and the defense lawyers in other counties have told him they appreciate the decision-making that comes from their office. Gamble said he does not practice gamesmanship.
“I believe we have the most seasoned and talented group of trial lawyers anywhere in the area,” Gamble said, noting Herron has made certain the attorneys in the prosecutor’s office continue to train.
Both Abruzzino and Gamble talk about drugs posing one of the biggest problems in Columbiana County. Abruzzino said whenever he comes into Lisbon, he sees the lines of people outside a local clinic waiting to get the drugs they are using to help wean themselves off controlled substances. He questions what is being done right and what’s being done wrong. He would like another drug court in the Common Pleas Court. There is already one at county Municipal Court.
Abruzzino said he has helped to set up a veterans court in Mahoning County and he knows the process is tedious, but worth it. While the deaths have gone down, Abruzzino said, the cases are still up.
Gamble said drug-related charges are a part of nearly every case in Columbiana County right now. Violent crimes and thefts usually have an underlying substance abuse problem. Gamble expressed the importance of making sure those with substance abuse problems are given a chance to go for treatment for crystal meth, heroin and other substance abuse they are facing, at least the first time they find themselves facing a lower level felony charge.
Not only will the prosecutor’s office have a new leader, but Brian McLaughlin, who most recently has served as the leader of the county drug task force is the only name on the ballot for the sheriff’s position this year. Gamble said the prosecutor’s office supported McLaughlin’s role as the director of the DTF and McLaughlin has worked well with the prosecutor’s office in the past. Gamble expects McLaughlin will be a successful sheriff.
Although there have been some contentious moments between some members of the sheriff’s department in the past, Gamble said he has never wanted an acrimonious relationship with them and in contrast has always had a good relationship with many of the detectives investigating cases in the sheriff’s office.
Abruzzino notes that the current prosecutor’s office may have a 96 percent success rate prosecuting cases, but he questions why there are so many unsolved or unprosecuted murders in the county. He said he has been approached by families of murder victims in Columbiana County, questioning why nothing has happened with the case involving their loved one.
“Sometimes you’re not going to have a buttoned-up case,” Abruzzino said. “Sometimes you have to seek justice because the family is demanding it and because there is probable cause there.”
Abruzzino said he will have no problem getting along with local law enforcement either, adding he is a Republican and his party is not interested in defunding the police. But additionally, he has a good relationship with the police, especially some members of the younger generation who are excited about some possible changes.
Abruzzino said he would try more cases within the 120 days speedy trial limit, instead of letting people out on bond and having them disappear before the case is heard. He suggests if it is an issue with the labs not returning the evidence quickly enough the prosecutor’s office should look into grants to get the work done by certified outside labs or go to the commissioners about grants or solutions because more money is needed. Additionally, allowing those facing charges to hide can lead to officers being injured serving no-knock warrants.
There have been allegations made against Gamble during the race, including accusations by Republican Party chairman David Johnson about violations of the Hatch Act for photos on his website of him posing with police officers, including at least two classified officers, with a caption saying “Pictured here — over 500 years of law enforcement experience standing with Gamble. They have his back in the election because he has had their backs for the last 30 years.” Gamble said the men and women in the photos are all people he has respected as both friends and colleagues for years. Besides Attorney General Dave Yost and Johnson, who called the photos into question, Gamble said he has received nothing but positive feedback.
Misdemeanor charges of complicity to election violations are still pending and the next hearing, a pretrial is set for Dec. 2, so it will not be resolved prior to the election.
When asked about the local Republican party attacks on Gamble on his behalf, Abruzzino said he has stood up to generals and has no problem standing up to what is right with his moral compass, even when it comes to Johnson.
Knowing the race could become very political and those on the Republican party were capable of some of the tactics used, Gamble said he thought long and hard about running for the position when Herron decided to withdraw.
“I’m trying not to dwell on it,” Gamble said. “I’m not going to let this destroy my peace when I walk away from this.”
Gamble’s only criticism he voiced about Abruzzino is his experience, which he said he has tried to find records of cases Abruzzino has prosecuted, but has found no listing for the federal cases with Abruzzino’s name listed as the prosecutor or defense attorney. Gamble contends he may have only worked in the office, but was not in the courtroom.
Abruzzino claims to have been involved in a prosecutor’s role through the JAG Corp., responsible for only criminal cases when a civilian committed a crime on base.
A search by the newspaper on the federal database of cases only turns up entries showing Captain Abruzzino being appointed as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in the South Carolina District. There are no criminal cases where he is listed as the prosecutor on the database.
By contrast, Gamble said he has been the prosecutor for well over 100 felony jury trials, handling thousands of felony cases and brought thousands of cases before a grand jury. Gamble points out he has been involved in getting search warrants for rape and murder cases, including on Christmas Eve and New Year’s.
“I’ve been in the trenches for 30 years and much of it in a leadership role,” Gamble said, adding it is important to bring justice for everyone even if sometimes that does not mean a maximum sentence. “I’m certain I am the most capable person running.”
Abruzzino does not believe his experience is an issue, although he admits the state statutes were different than Ohio’s when he was trying cases on military bases in the Carolinas.
“When you live a life as boring as mine is, you’ve got to find something,” Abruzzino said. “I get politics are a contact sport, but it’s all a red herring.”
Abruzzino said he has tried more cases by age 30 than he would venture anyone has, noting that in the military courts it is a general making the decision whether cases will be settled or go to court and more often than not they let the jury decide.
Abruzzino continues to serve in the military reserves including working as an advocate for the Air Force base in Vienna and serves as an attorney. Until recently he was with Harrington, Hoppe and Mitchell, and Abruzzino said he left as a partner. Now he is a serving in a “of Counsel” role with Brouse McDowell, where he is focusing on trusts and estates and additionally practicing family law. He explains that role gives him more flexibility.