WAYNESBURG – A Greene County judge was moved to tears as he sentenced a local businessman who pleaded guilty to 13 criminal charges for illegally dumping thousands of gallons of wastewater across the region and defrauding 17 companies and many area municipalities from 2003 through 2009.
Judge Farley Toothman noted the personal tragedies in Robert Allan Shipman's life, notably, the suicide of his teenage stepdaughter, and decided to sentence Shipman to seven years probation, easing the penalty agreed to in a tentative plea agreement that would have imprisoned Shipman for up to 16 months.
“When you were caught red-handed, you admitted it,” Toothman said as Shipman quietly wept. “ I am compelled to note in a moment of silent memory the devastation of the suicide of your step daughter.” Toothman went on to say that imprisoning Shipman would do little to further punish him, as he has suffered greatly in the years since he was charged.
Shipman, 50, of New Freeport was charged with illegally dumping waste, including production water from natural gas drilling operations, sludge from sewage treatment plants and grease water from restaurants, that cannot go into a normal sewer system.
Agents from the state attorney general's office filed 98 charges against Shipman and 77 charges against his business, Allan's Waste Water Service Inc., also of Holbrook.
Shipman and his business were both charged with corrupt organizations and multiple counts each of theft by unlawful taking, theft by deception, deceptive business practices, forgery and tampering with records.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, Shipman and his company pleaded guilty to 13 counts each, including theft and pollution charges.
After eight-hours of testimony and deliberations Friday, Toothman sentenced Shipman to the mitigated probationary term, but also ordered him to spend 5 hours a week for the next seven years working with a local water conservation group to help atone for his mistakes.
While Toothman showed leniency to Shipman, he also took the opportunity to scold him for his disregard to the local environment and praised prosecutors for filing the charges against him.
“These crimes are significant and pollution is a serious crime,” Toothman said. “By illegally dumping these polluted liquids you caused serious injuries to our waterways...these are dastardly crimes.”
A parade of character witnesses took the stand on Shipman's behalf, detailing acts of kindness ranging from putting a friend's daughter through college to paying for funeral costs for two families that had children die to personally undertaking renovations at West Greene High School and a local church.
Psychologist Dr. Michael Crabtree testified for the defense that Shipman suffers from depression caused by his step daughter's suicide and a suicide attempt by his wife, Carolyn “Bunny” Shipman in the last six months as well as fear of serving a prison sentence.
Shipman testified on his own behalf and cried as he described his fall from grace as a prominent local businessman to an unemployed father struggling to care for his children and ailing wife.
He told defense attorney Christopher Blackwell that he has relinquished all ties with his companies, which also included Tri-County – a waste water treatment plant – and now intends to raise beef cattle.
He told the court that it would be very difficult for his family to survive should he be incarcerated and also apologized for his actions.
“I'm sorry for what happened, I really am,” Shipman said. “I'm sorry for the pollution stuff my company caused.”
Blackwell asked Toothman to look at Shipman's entire life while considering sentencing, and also asked him to consider several letters received by the court on Shipman's behalf.
Deputy Attorney General Amy Carnicella told the court that Shipman was a modern day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde showing great concern for friends and family while engaging in dirty business practices.
“Anybody, anybody, even Jeffrey Dahmer, would have letters written on his behalf,” Carnicella told the court. She argued that the case, which drew national attention, was an opportunity for Toothman to set a precedent regarding pollution at the start of the gas well boom across the region.
“This industry needs to be sent a message.”
She also noted that Shipman could not contend to be financially burdened by seving jailtime, noting that bank accounts for Shipman and his wife total more than $180,000 and that they stand to make more than $2 million for the recent sale of Tri-County.
Charges against Shipman and his business were filed after a grand jury recommended criminal actions.
According to the grand jury presentment, between 2003 and 2009, numerous businesses retained Shipman and his company to haul and dispose of water waste, but instead of doing so in a legal manner, Shipman told his drivers to mix the wastes together into a "cocktail," prosecutors allege.
The mixes were then allegedly dumped into waterways across the area, including in Greene, Fayette, Washington, Allegheny, Lawrence and Westmoreland counties.
The reason the wastes were mixed was two-fold, prosecutors alleged: it enabled Shipman to conceal the true nature of the waste and he was able to increase the volume of disposals billed to customers.
Former drivers for Allan's Waste Water Service testified "cocktailing" most commonly occurred with grease loads, according to the presentment.
Then, Shipman told the drivers to take the waste to various disposal sites and say it was either sewage sludge or production water.
Production water is the wastewater produced by gas well drilling operations.
The grand jury found that Shipman told his drivers to falsify their manifests so he could bill customers for the full capacity of the truck, regardless of how much waste was actually being hauled and disposed of.
Shipman allegedly received about $257,000 from over billing during a specific segment of dumping reviewed by the grand jury.
During the sentencing, Shipman paid full restitution as well as presented more than $125,000 in checks to cover additional fines.
Shipman also is accused of instructing employees to shred and discard actual manifests in order to generate new fraudulent invoices that would be sent to customers, forging drivers' signatures and other information on those bogus manifests.
His former administrative assistant testified she saw Shipman forge manifests between 2005 and 2008 so that he could bill customers for more waste than was actually hauled.
The woman, who quit in 2008, also told the grand jury that Shipman intimidated his drivers into forging manifests, and that the business made millions of dollars yearly.
The grand jury presentment also said that Shipman told his drivers to leave water valves open at gas wells. That would allow production water to flow onto the ground and into nearby waterways to conceal the illegal discharge, prosecutors said. That typically occurred after dark or during heavy rains, prosecutors said.
Drivers for the waste company also were told to park their trucks in the business's garage, and dump wastewater into the floor drain. That drain leads directly into Tom's Run stream, which leads into Dunkard Creek.
Shipman also discharged waste into a half dozen other area waterways.