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Joseph E. LeClaire, Jr.
Sergeant, United States Marine Corps
Warrant officer's killing sparks nationwide drive for protective gear 
Monday, June 14, 2004
By Stephanie Daye
Journal staff writer

Since the age of 17, former Hudson County resident Joseph E. LeClaire Jr. had served his country.

A U.S. Marine who saw action from Vietnam to Desert Storm, LeClaire, who grew up in Jersey City and Union City, became a warrant officer in Philadelphia in 1995. Three months ago, authorities said LeClaire became the first Philadelphia warrant officer to die in the line of duty after he was killed in a gun battle with a wanted man.

But even after his death, LeClaire continues to serve the public - as the inspiration for a nationwide effort to adopt better protective gear for court officers.

LeClaire, 53, who grew up in Jersey City and attended Emerson High School in Union City, was a warrant unit field supervisor with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. On March 19, he was fatally shot in the head and stomach while he and two other officers attempted to serve a bench warrant on a fugitive - who had a lengthy criminal record, including prison time for convictions on aggravated assault and robbery - wanted for failing to appear in court to answer drug and rape charges.

LeClaire's nephew, John Conklin, said that throughout his life, he looked up to his uncle.

"He was my dad, mentor and friend," Conklin said. "I took him for granted. He was my uncle, and when I realized how many lives he touched, I realized he wasn't just my uncle."

Now LeClaire's death has inspired Conklin to take action. Conklin, a resident of Bergen County, said he was shocked to learn that his uncle and other domestic officers aren't required to wear full body armor, even while serving warrants to dangerous fugitives.

"There is no funding for the domestic police officers fighting a war here every day in the United States," Conklin said. "Their vests are not designed properly. If there was a law that said they would have to wear it, these boys would wear it."

Conklin, who has never been a political activist, is now turning to the public for support in creating new federal legislation that will require the use of better protective gear for domestic officers.

LeClaire and two other officers had knocked on the door of an apartment in the Germantown section of Philadelphia during a search for Darien Houser, 40, at about 2 a.m. on March 19, said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson. A woman opened the door and the officers, who were armed and wearing uniforms, identified themselves as court officers, Johnson said.

"As soon as the door was open, and they took their first steps in, shots started ringing out," he said.

LeClaire was wearing a bullet-proof vest, but it only covered his chest, so it did not stop the bullet to his abdomen. Warrant Investigator Carlo Delborrello, 29, also was hit in the abdomen below his vest, but survived. The third officer, Senior Warrant Investigator Vincent DiSandro, 37, was shot in the hand.

Houser, who was shot in the back and leg, tried to flee but was captured a short time later, authorities said. He will face a charge of murder in connection to LeClaire's slaying.

Investigators refused to release more details about the circumstances of LeClaire's death.

In an effort to prevent a similar tragedy, Conklin is aiming to get a federal law passed, through petitioning, that would require warrant officers to wear better body armor, including helmets, for enhanced protection.

"They say it's a state issue," Conklin said. "I don't think it's a state issue, it's a national issue."

Conklin said he plans to do whatever it takes to influence change. He said he's especially hoping to find support in Hudson County - at malls, supermarkets, homes, and other places - because this is where his uncle grew up.

"Hopefully, I can get people behind me," he said.

LeClaire was born on Feb. 23, 1951, at a Newark hospital. He was one of the middle of six children. His siblings include William, Jackie, Peggy, Edward, and Danny. LeClaire attended School 37 as a boy in Jersey City, where he lived on Ninth Street.

He was active at Emerson High School, playing drums in the band for three years, and on the baseball team as a junior.

"He loved growing up here," Conklin said. "We went to the Loew's Theatre. We used to go clamming along the waterfront . He taught me how to skip rocks in Hudson County Park."

Although LeClaire enjoyed his time as a high school student, he wanted more. In 1968, with just a year and 22 credits remaining to graduate, he left school to pursue his dream: to serve his country.

In the middle of the polarizing Vietnam War, when many young Americans were dodging the draft, 17-year-old LeClaire eagerly enlisted in the Marine Corps.

He would have graduated with Daniel Frezzo, now the assistant principal of Emerson High School, had he stayed in school.

Although Frezzo doesn't remember LeClaire, he said it's easy to tell from his records that he possessed strong character.

"He must have been driven by citizenship," Frezzo said. "He gave part of his youth to his country."

Frezzo also said that, according to school records, LeClaire had a strong academic record and was well on his way to attending college.

Instead, he would spend most of his adult life in the military, from two tours in Vietnam to working with military police during Operation Desert Storm. He also served as a drill instructor and a recruiting officer.

He retired in 1995, with the rank of gunnery sergeant, and joined Philadelphia's warrant unit.

Deputy Court Administrator David Wasson said LeClaire's colleagues were devastated by the unit's first fatality since its founding in 1972.

"He was a gentleman. He was well liked. . His first priority was the safety of his unit," Wasson said.

After serving his country for 22 years, LeClaire was buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery in April.


25 March 2004

City warrant officers traded bullets with a fugitive last week during an early morning raid that left an officer from the Northeast dead.

Pretrial Warrant Supervisor Joseph LeClaire, 53, of Greenacres Road, was shot to death while serving as arrest warrant in East Germantown.

The accused gunman, Darien Houser, 41, was wanted for failing to appear in court. He allegedly shot LeClaire in the head and stomach after entering his apartment on the 4900 block of Stenton Avenue.
 

Officers Vincent A DiSandro, 37, and Carlo Delborrello, 29, were wounded in the encounter.

"This is a truly tragic event," said David Wasson, deputy court administrator. "This is the first time in history of the warrant unit that an individual has been killed in the line of duty. We're deeply sorry."

Around 1:45 a.m. on March 19, 2004, the officers knocked on the third floor apartment at the Fisher's Crossing complex. After identifying themselves, an unidentified women admitted the three officers.

LeClaire, who led the raid, was gunned down inside the apartment. His partners, DiSandro, a six year veteran, and Delborrello, a two year veteran, returned fire.

LeClaire died two hours later at Albert Einstein Medical Center.

"The unit prides itself on trying to arrest with minimum confrontation," said Dave Preski, director of the PreTrial Service Unit of the Common Pleas Court. "In this case, it didn't work."

DiSandro received a bullet wound to the left hand and Delborrello was hit in the right hand and the abdomen below his bulletproof vest. Both were taken to Temple University Hospital. DiSandro underwent surgery for his left hand and remained in stable condition. Delborrello was treated and released.

Houser jumped out an apartment window with bullets in his back and leg. Philadelphia police captured him minutes later in a vacant first floor apartment and rushed him to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Houser has a long criminal record. He and another man were charged in a 1990 contract killing of an 18 year-old man. Houser was acquitted, but the second suspect was found guilty of shooting the victim behind the ear and sentenced to life in prison. 

In 1997, Houser was sentenced to four-to-10 years for robbery.  Last year, Houser failed to appear in court during two trials, one for a drug charge, the second a rape case. Because he failed to show, a bench warrant was issued.

Warrant officers are armed court employees who enforce court orders and arrest criminals for violating probation, parole or failing to appear in court. The unit's 56 members also tend to the 800 criminals subjected to electronic monitoring devices.

"We call them silent heroes," Preski said, "because people don't know what they do, but they get the job done."

DiSandro is married with no children and Delborrello is engaged and the father of a one- month-old girl.

After 22 years in the Marine Corps., LeClaire a Vietnam veteran retired in1995 as a Gunnery Sergeant for the military police. He leaves behind a wife, Gretchen, and two daughters from a previous marriage, Renee, 18, and Michelle, 29. He will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


March 24, 2004

Hundreds mourn slain court officer
He was shot to death serving a warrant

Joseph E. LeClaire Jr. lived proudly during his 22 years as a Marine.

LeClaire, a court warrant officer killed in the line of duty on Friday, was remembered fondly last night by friends, family and colleagues.

At his viewing, held at the Christian Life Center in Bensalem, a table was covered with memorabilia and photos from LeClaire's long career.

District Attorney Lynne Abraham, one of about 300 who paid respects to his family, said LeClaire "loved his men and women in the service.

"And in this service," she said, referring to his years as a member of the warrant unit.

Co-workers and police from Philadelphia, Bucks and Montgomery counties also attended the service for LeClaire, 53, the first warrant officer killed in the line of duty.

LeClaire and two other officers were shot as they tried to serve fugitive warrants on Darien Houser at his home in East Germantown early Friday, police said. Houser was wanted for failing to appear at a court proceeding.

As the officers stepped inside the house, they were showered with bullets. LeClaire, of Greenacres Road near Templeton Drive in Northeast Philadelphia, was shot in the head. Also wounded in the melee were Vincent A. DiSandro, 37, and Carlo Delborrello, 29.

Houser will be charged with murder and related offenses once he is released from Temple University Hospital, the D.A.'s office said. He is recovering from a gunshot wound to the leg.

Last night, LeClaire's friends and colleagues recalled the last time they saw their buddy played golf. He had a hole in one in February at the John F. Bryne course when spring seemed to be in the air.

Fellow golfing buddy Tom Faro remembers LeClaire as a "quiet and focused" golfer who spoke to himself when he played.

"He'd say 'Joe, what are you doing? Why did you play this guy?' " Faro said. "I'll miss him, seeing him on the weekends playing golf. I'll never play with him again."

LeClaire, a Vietnam veteran, will be buried April 1 with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia.


Saturday, March 20, 2004

Shooting kills one court officer, wounds two

The three were attacked as they served a warrant at an East Germantown apartment on a man wanted on two bench warrants.

By Thomas J. Gibbons Jr.
Courtesy of the Philadelphis Inquirer

Standing in the den of her Far Northeast home last night, the widow of the court officer gunned down while serving an arrest warrant early yesterday cradled his numerous law enforcement commendations in her hands and seemed to gather strength from them.

"He was a real hero. He was my hero," Gretchen LeClaire said of her husband, Joseph E. LeClaire Jr., a pretrial warrant supervisor who, with his two partners, was shot in an East Germantown apartment shortly before 1:45 a.m.

"He stood by his men. He never let his men out of his sight," she said, fighting back tears.

Police said LeClaire, who led the raid, and his partners were met with gunfire as they entered a residence on the 4900 block of Stenton Avenue. LeClaire was wounded in the head and stomach. LeClaire - the unit's first officer to be killed in the line of duty - died at Albert Einstein Medical Center about two hours later.

Police said the shooter was the wanted man, identified as Darien Houser, 40.

Houser faced multiple charges last night, including murder.

The wounded officers were senior warrant investigator Vincent A. Di Sandro, 37, a six-year veteran, and Carlo Delborrello, 29, who has two years in the unit. Di Sandro was expected to undergo surgery at Temple University Hospital for a bullet wound to the left hand. He was listed in stable condition.

Delborrello was treated at the same hospital for a bullet wound to the stomach - just below his protective vest - and sent home.

Gretchen LeClaire said she was told that her husband, who had spent nine years with the unit, saved his partners because he was first through the door.

Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson, who briefed reporters after the shootings, said a woman admitted the three officers to the third-floor apartment in the Fisher's Crossing complex shortly after they knocked.

"As soon as the door was open, shots started ringing out," Johnson said.

LeClaire, a police officer in Newport News, Virginia, in the 1970s who later spent 22 years in the Marine Corps, collapsed inside the apartment.

Houser, who was hit in the back and leg, jumped out a rear window but was captured by Philadelphia police a short time later in a vacant first-floor apartment, authorities said. He was taken to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania under police guard.

As word of the gun battle spread, warrant-unit officers and city police went to Einstein and Temple to check on conditions and to console one another.

"We are just one family. It could happen to any of us," Johnson said.

David D. Wasson 3d, deputy court administrator, said: "This is truly a tragic event. This is the first time in the history of the warrant unit that an individual has been killed in the line of duty, and we're deeply sorry."

Wasson and Dave Preski, director of the court's pretrial service division, joined other somber-faced court officials and police brass at a news conference to give background information on the three officers. They declined to give details on the shooting.

According to court records, Houser has four convictions dating to 1986. The three officers were seeking him on two bench warrants. One was for a drug case in which he failed to appear for trial on December 2, 2003.

The second involved a rape charge stemming from an attack on a 13-year-old girl three years ago. Houser's trial on that charge began Novmber 10, 2003. He showed up for jury selection, but the day of opening arguments, he telephoned the court and said he had been in a car accident and could not attend.

When Houser failed to show up, he was tried in absentia. The victim and her foster mother - with whom Houser lived at the time of the attack - testified against him.

A jury found him not guilty, but a bench warrant was generated because he had not shown up at trial.

Houser's longest sentence was in 1997, when he was ordered to serve four to 10 years for robbery.

The warrant unit originated in 1972 to enforce court orders and to encourage voluntary surrender through telephone contact. The unit is now a full-fledged, armed, law enforcement agency with 56 officers who work around the clock tracking down defendants and keeping tabs on an electronic-monitoring population of 800.

Preski said LeClaire was a devoted supervisor who considered the safety of his unit paramount. "He took the job very, very seriously," he said.

"The unit prides itself on trying to arrest with minimum confrontation. In this case, obviously, it didn't work."

Wasson said Delborrello was engaged and the father of a girl born about a month ago. Di Sandro is married with no children.

LeClaire also leaves two daughters from a previous marriage, Renee LeClaire, 18, and Michelle LeClaire Oliver, 29.

His wife said her husband, nicknamed the "Silver Fox" for his shock of silver-white hair, "liked excitement. He liked danger."

He had told her about his job, relating how criminals hid behind wallboards, under beds and in closets.

"This was everyday danger, but he just carried on," she said.

Her husband, who retired from the Marines in 1995, never forgot his time in uniform. Indeed, a new Mitsubishi Eclipse in the driveway bore on its back window a decal identifying him as a retired Marine. The license plate read: "GUNNY-MP" - further identifying him as a gunnery sergeant with the military police.

A viewing is scheduled for 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday at Christian Life Center, 3100 Galloway Rd. in Bensalem. Another viewing is scheduled for 9:30 to 11 a.m. Wednesday at the center, with services following. Burial is expected to take place at Arlington National Cemetery.



Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - Three court officers were shot, one fatally, early Friday while they were trying to serve a warrant on a man for failing to appear at trial, police said. The man who was being sought also was shot and wounded.

The gunfire started after a woman opened the apartment door and the three officers identified themselves and entered, Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson said. Further details on the circumstances were not immediately released.

The officers, who work for the city court system, were serving a bench warrant for Darien Houser, 40, who had failed to appear at his trial on a charge of raping a 13-year-old girl. He was acquitted in absentia last November, but a judge issued a bench warrant on a contempt of court charge.

Court officers generally are armed, but police did not say if all three officers had weapons at the scene.

"It's a dangerous job when you go out there and try to apprehend people that have committed crimes, especially violent crimes," Johnson said.

The officer killed, Joseph LeClaire, 50, was a supervisor who died from wounds in his head and stomach. The second officer was shot in the stomach, and the third officer was shot in the hand. Both were in stable condition at hospitals, broadcast reports said.

Houser was shot in the leg and back. He tried to flee, but was captured a short time later and taken to a hospital. He was in stable condition late Friday morning.

Houser has a lengthy criminal history, including convictions in the 1980s and '90s for robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and other charges, according to court records.



Friday, March 19, 2004

PHILADELPHIA -- One court officer was killed and two others injured early today when they were shot serving a warrant on a man wanted for failing to appear at his trial on rape charges, police said.

Joseph LeClaire, a 50-year-old supervisor, was shot in the head and stomach in an apartment in the city's Germantown section at 1:42 a.m., authorities said.

He was pronounced dead at Albert Einstein University Hospital just before 4 a.m., according to Homicide Sergeant Alex Strong.

Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson said shots were fired after a woman opened the apartment door and the three court officers identified themselves and entered.

Another officer was shot in the stomach and the third in the hand, Johnson said. Those officers, Vincent Disandro and Carlo Delborrello, both 30, were in stable condition at Temple University Hospital, according to broadcast reports.

Police said the suspect, Darien Houser, 40, was shot in the back and the leg. He tried to flee but was captured a short time later, authorities said. He was in stable condition at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Warrant officers work for the city court system and are not members of the Philadelphia Police Department.

"It's a dangerous job when you go out there and try to apprehend people that have committed crimes, especially violent crimes," Johnson said.

Houser was scheduled to go on trial last November on charges that he raped a 13-year-old girl, but failed to appear in court. He was tried in absentia and acquitted. Following the trial, the judge issued a warrant for his arrest on a contempt of court charge for failing to show for the trial, according to prosecutors.

Houser has a lengthy criminal history, according to court records. He received a 4-to-10 year prison sentence for robbery in 1997, was placed on probation in 1987 for burglary and theft, and was sentenced to a pair of 11 1/2-to-23 month jail terms in 1986 and 1988 for offenses including robbery, aggravated assault and burglary, the records said.


LECLAIRE, JOSEPH E
GYSGT US MARINE CORPS
VETERAN SERVICE DATES: 10/30/1960 - 10/30/2000
DATE OF BIRTH: 02/23/1951
DATE OF DEATH: 03/19/2004
DATE OF INTERMENT: 04/01/2004
BURIED AT: SECTION 69  SITE 3939
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Posted: 20 March 2004  - Updated: 24 March 2004  Updated: 31 July 2004 Updated: 18 December 2005