A Unity Township woman’s trial on conspiracy, forgery and fraud charges is being delayed as her son and co-defendant is in federal custody.
Almira Stanko, 83, was scheduled for trial last week in the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas on allegations she tried to use her son’s government benefits account while he was jailed.
Her son, Thomas George Stanko, 49, of Unity Township is in federal custody on charges of illegally possessing firearms, and federal authorities have refused to transport him back to Westmoreland County for court dates related to the conspiracy and fraud allegations.
State police allege Thomas Stanko told his mother how to access his government benefits account, providing her with the PIN number for his ACCESS card during a recorded phone call in late October while he was being held in Westmoreland County Prison. According to police, Almira Stanko attempted to make a purchase of $9.22 at the Giant Eagle on Oct. 30, but the purchase was denied.
Almira Stanko allegedly told her son about the denied purchase in another recorded phone call later that day, according to police. Troopers seized Thomas Stanko’s ACCESS card and the receipt from the attempted purchase at Almira Stanko’s home on White Fence Lane near Unity Cemetery.
Thomas Stanko has been jailed since April 2018, shortly after being named as a person of interest in the disappearance of Cassandra Gross, on charges unrelated to Gross’ disappearance.
A Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas judge in January declared Gross legally dead in response to a request from her son, Brandon Diebold of North Carolina. Judge Chris Scherer ruled Gross the victim of homicide and heard testimony behind closed doors from Tpr. James McKenzie, the state police lead investigator in the case.
Gross would have turned 53 in May.
Numerous searches for Gross, including at Thomas Stanko’s home and his mother’s property, have been unsuccessful. Thomas Stanko has repeatedly denied any involvement in Gross’ disappearance.
Thomas Stanko was charged by state police in connection with a stolen all-terrain vehicle discovered during one of the early searches for Gross, and was re-sentenced to prison time for violating the terms of his probation for a prior assault conviction. He’s awaiting trial in another case for allegedly assaulting a man outside a Youngstown bar, and is awaiting a preliminary hearing in the forgery and fraud case involving his mother.
According to court documents, federal authorities have refused to transport Thomas Stanko to Westmoreland County from the Mahoning County Jail in Youngstown, Ohio. He’s being held after being indicted in December on two counts of illegally possessing 17 firearms and ammunition despite multiple criminal convictions dating back to 1989.
Local authorities filed similar charges after finding and confiscating 28 guns while searching properties owned by Thomas Stanko following Gross’ disappearance. Magisterial District Judge Michael Mahady dismissed those charges at a preliminary hearing, ruling there was insufficient evidence that Thomas Stanko owned the firearms.
Thomas Stanko was charged by state police with the same offenses as his mother in connection with the alleged ACCESS card fraud attempt, and prosecutors consolidated the cases so they will be tried together.