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Up to 23 Mos. For Ex-Health Inspector in Eatery Heist

June 21, 2008

By Julie Shaw, Philadelphia Daily News

Jun. 21–It must have been a dramatic scene: An immigrant woman chasing a burly city health inspector across North Broad Street, tugging and pulling at him as he tried to get into his Jeep.

The now-former health inspector, Clarence Morris, had just stolen $1,200 from a Chinese restaurant where the woman worked.

The employee, Min Li, was “pulling on him” and “holding on to the car door, trying to stop him from getting away,” Assistant District Attorney Terry Kibelstis said yesterday after a sentencing hearing.

Li, a Chinese immigrant who can barely speak English, yelled out a few words that July day last year, such as, “Help!” and “Money!” the prosecutor said.

As Morris, then 33, got into his city-issued vehicle, he slammed the door on Li’s arm. The struggle had caught the attention of Leila Reed, who worked at a nearby day-care facility. Reed helped pry Li’s arm from the door.

But then, Morris got out of the Jeep and, according to witnesses, “picked [Li] up and threw her into the street,” Kibelstis said.

As Morris fled in his white Department of Public Health Jeep Cherokee, he ran over Reed’s foot, authorities said.

After a nonjury trial in March, Morris was convicted by Common Pleas Judge Ellen Ceisler of robbery, theft and simple assault in connection with the robbery and the injuries suffered by Li.

Ceisler yesterday sentenced Morris to 11 1/2 to 23 months in jail with work-release eligibility.

Reed did not show up to testify at the trial. The prosecution thus withdrew aggravated-assault and related charges against Morris in connection with her alleged foot injury.

It was about 1:30 p.m. July 18 when Morris, then a probationary employee with the Health Department, went to the Erie Express Chinese Restaurant on Broad Street near Venango, in Tioga, to check for possible unsanitary conditions.

At a preliminary hearing in September, Li, testifying through a Mandarin interpreter, said she grew suspicious of Morris when he warned her husband, who also worked at the restaurant, to not follow him around.

“After he walked around the refrigerator, I couldn’t see the money anymore,” she testified, alluding to an area where money was stashed in a box.

Li, 39, who came from the Fujian province of China about six years ago, was unable to give a victim-impact statement in court yesterday because a Mandarin interpreter was not available.

Kibelstis told the court that this case was about “a very vulnerable person” who was taken advantage of by someone who recognized the victim’s frailties, both culturally and physically. Morris, a large man, towers over Li.

Kibelstis also said that at the trial, Li got “physically sick during cross-examination because she was very nervous,” but pushed herself to continue testifying.

Morris, in a barely audible voice, mumbled an apology yesterday as he sat next to his defense attorney, Brian Fishman.

The defense contended that Morris did not take the money, but that it “went missing” for some other reason.

Before imposing sentence, Ceisler told Morris that “during this trial, I looked for every reason not to convict you, but the evidence is the evidence.”

While Kibelstis asked the judge for a sentence in the aggravated range of the guidelines — 1 1/2 to 3 years in prison — the judge rejected that. She set a sentence in the standard range, telling Morris that while she found he stole the money, “I don’t believe you wanted to be violent.”

“I just thought you [Morris] tried to escape” after the robbery, she said.

The judge initially told Morris: “I’m not going to put you in jail.”

But when she imposed the 11 1/2- to 23-month sentence, and granted him eligibility for work release, there was some confusion. Fishman noted that such a sentence would mean Morris would be sent to county prison.

That’s “not regular jail. It’s almost like a dorm room,” because he can leave during the day to go to work, the judge said.

Fishman asked for his client to be placed on house arrest, saying that Morris has a residence with a friend on Lindbergh Boulevard in the Eastwick section of the city.

The judge said she couldn’t put him on house arrest because she understood that he actually lives in Phoenixville, Chester County.

But after some discussion, she agreed to reconsider the house-arrest issue if Morris can come back on July 7 — his surrender date — with evidence that the Lindbergh residence is a verifiable home address for him.

Ceisler also sentenced Morris to two years’ probation, ordered him to pay $1,200 in restitution and to serve 150 hours of community service once he is paroled.

Morris began working for the Health Department April 9, 2007, spokesman Jeff Moran said yesterday. The department “rejected” him as a probationary employee on July 19 because, as a result of his arrest, it found out “he misrepresented his [criminal] past during the interview process,” Moran said.

Kibelstis said Morris was previously convicted in Centre County — in 1994 of forgery and theft, and in 1998 of two drug-possession charges.

She said Morris’ arrest on the same night of the robbery was due to the “quick thinking” of Police Officer Dennis Herod, a beat cop who, after speaking to a business owner in the neighborhood, was able to identify Morris as the inspector who visited the Chinese eatery.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Philadelphia Daily News

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