JEFFERSON — The rape trial of Thomas L. Volpi, the former Lake Avenue business owner, was delayed — again — after his housekeeper tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.
In an impromptu hearing Friday afternoon, Ashtabula County Prosecutor Colleen O'Toole requested the continuance because she didn't have a prosecutor to try the case. At the time of the request, she did not know about Volpi's exposure to COVID.
The problem with a prosecutor came about after County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Harris informed O'Toole on Thursday that her part-time assistant prosecutor, Carolyn Kaye Ranke, who was supposed to try the Volpi case, was working as a criminal defense attorney in Cuyahoga County.
According to the Ohio Disciplinary Counsel, this is a conflict of interest, and consequently, Ranke can no longer work in O'Toole's office, Harris said.
O'Toole said she was unaware of Ranke's outside work being a conflict of interest until Harris told her. She believed Ranke, who also has a private practice, could take on outside cases as long as they weren't in Ashtabula County or surrounding counties. But the Ohio Disciplinary Counsel's opinion says otherwise.
Harris asked O'Toole if any of her 13 assistant prosecutors knew they can not do criminal defense work when they're with the prosecutor's office and that this was a conflict of interest. She said no.
Assistant prosecutor Bret Hartup also went on the record that he was not aware.
O'Toole apologized to the court. She said there's been a lot of turnover in her office and it's been difficult keeping a full staff due to a shortage of attorneys who want to work for $48,000 a year. She asked Harris to appoint a special counsel so the trial can move forward.
"This is a very complex case," she said, noting it involves cross-examining sexual assault victims and she believed Ranke was the most qualified.
That's when Volpi's attorney, Mark R. DeVan of Cleveland, said there's a problem on his side, too.
Volpi's housekeeper tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, he said.
Volpi called DeVan on Wednesday to tell them there was a possibility he had been exposed. Volpi is vaccinated, but there's still concern of a break-through case, DeVan said.
Volpi, who did not attend Friday's hearing due to the exposure, told DeVan he's in quarantine.
After some discussion among attorneys and Harris, no one knew for sure exactly how long Volpi should remain quarantined.
Harris tried calling Ashtabula County Health Commissioner Jay Becker for the answer, but Becker did not answer.
Harris said he wants to move forward with the trial as soon as possible. He's tried many cases during the pandemic and "so far not one case of COVID has been traced back to my courtroom," he said.
Harris then rejected O'Toole's request for special counsel, but agreed to continue the trial until "we can proceed safely."
DeVan said he agreed with Harris' decision.
In the meantime, O'Toole said she will get full-time assistant prosecutor, Dawn Cantalamessa, ready for trial.
"She'll prepare," O'Toole said. "She is a seasoned 30-year prosecutor."
DeVan said he believes it will take five to six days to try the case.
This is the fourth time the trial has been delayed since the 64-year-old Volpi's arrest on Aug. 14, 2019.
The first time the trial was delayed because it was scheduled at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and Volpi's Cleveland attorneys did not feel comfortable staying in hotels for five or six days.
In July it was continued again because an older case had to be tried first, and put off again last month because a witness for the prosecution was sick with COVID, according to prosecutors.
In August 2019, an Ashtabula County grand jury issued a 39-count indictment, charging Volpi furnished alcohol, raped and sexually assaulted two teenaged girls, according to the indictment.
According to the indictment, Volpi engaged in acts of sexual assault with a 15-year-old girl and a 17-year-old girl.
The incidents are alleged to have occurred July 5-6, 2019 at Volpi’s Ashtabula home and his catering business.
Volpi was released from jail after posting a $200,000 cash or surety bond shortly after his arraignment. He's remained out on bond with a GPS tracking device on his ankle.
Last year, Volpi rejected a plea negotiation from prosecutors in which he could have pleaded to seven of the 39 counts against him, former Ashtabula County Prosecutor Cecilia Cooper said.
The Ashtabula Police Department and Bureau of Criminal Investigation investigated the case and executed search warrants at Volpi's home and business.