Harrisburg volunteer trashman fighting for a second chance and a job he was promised

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- For Jeremy Domenico of Harrisburg, every day is trash day.

Since 2013, Jeremy has done his part to make sure his section of South Allison Hill is spotless. Nearly every day, he leaves his home, wearing a yellow reflector vest, with a trash bag in one hand and a trash grabber in the other.

If there's the slightest bit of litter on the side of the road, it will be in Jeremy's bag by the time he passes it.

"Go talk to the white guy at end of the block," he says his neighbors say about him. "He'll get rid of it for you."

As he says, if he doesn't, who will?

"There's an expression in South Allison Hill: When all else goes wrong, this is where you end up," he says.

Jeremy has carved out a life trying to beautify one of Harrisburg's roughest neighborhoods, because he finds it more and more difficult to move beyond his previous life.

He might say his life went south long before, but February 13, 1982 is when everything changed for Jeremy Domenico, also known as John Robert Koonce. According to court documents, Jeremy and an accomplice nearly beat two Navy sailors on leave to death at a motel in Carlisle. Domenico was charged with attempted murder and spent much of the next 18 years in state prison.

"I was a monster," Domenico said. "But for the first time in my life, I saw in others what others saw in me."

Prison changed Jeremy Domenico for the better. After his release in 2000, he spent time in halfway homes with jobs as an auto mechanic and pizza delivery man. He spent a few months in prison in 2009 after getting caught with drugs. Jeremy says he's been clean since.

In December 2013, Jeremy and his wife moved into their South Allison Hill home. It was surrounded by trash, he remembers.

Without full-time work -- his last full-time job was in 2013 -- Jeremy spent his days cleaning illegal dump sites around his neighborhood. There would be sections along alleyways and in front of homes completely littered with bulk-item trash; mattresses, furniture, television sets, palettes, and rotten food. Often times, Jeremy would find crime evidence such as guns or drugs and turn it over to Harrisburg Police to help them solve crimes.

"I call it trash forensics," he says. "My wife calls it Garbology."

By June 2014, the City of Harrisburg began to notice Jeremy's work, and asked him to volunteer his service for the city. He was offered the use of a city dump truck, which allowed him to clean up more illegal dump sites than ever before. At one point, he says, he took 11,000 pounds in one day to the city incinerator.

Jeremy was never employed by the city, and was rarely reimbursed. When asked how much of his own money he spent taking trash to the incinerator, he specifically said $9,157.86. He added the city paid him once, a $14,681 lump sum payment on December 31, 2014.

All of Jeremy's work with the city was done as a volunteer. He claims that on multiple occasions, Harrisburg government officials, including Mayor Eric Papenfuse, said they would hire Jeremy to a full-time job, which never came. Over the summer, he says he was told by city officials he could no longer use the city's dump truck. In September, he received a letter which explained why he would not be hired.

"I never looked at it like the city owed me money," Jeremy said. "I expected the city to keep their word and give me the job they promised me."

FOX43 contacted Harrisburg city officials with Jeremy's claims. Joyce Davis, spokesperson for Mayor Eric Papenfuse, initially responded in an email to say, "City officials do not comment on personnel issues." A later email from the city revealed Jeremy had not filled out all the necessary information.

Jeremy responded to FOX43 by saying the city asked to see his birth certificate which he did not provide. Jeremy, who was born and adopted in Colorado, says his attempts to obtain his birth certificate were unsuccessful due to the state's strict adoption shield law. According to Harrisburg area state representative Patty Kim (D-Dauphin County) who tried helping Jeremy get the birth certificate, Colorado officials asked for information on his birth mother and adoption agency, neither of which Jeremy knew.

FOX43 then contacted City of Harrisburg officials once again, who said they could not explain why Jeremy was not hired, only that doing so would "reveal unpleasant information."

"I'm not hiding anything," said Jeremy, who proceeded to show FOX43 his entire background and social security history. He says he carries it around with him wherever he goes. "If I was hiding something you think I'd be such a public persona?"

When asked what could possibly be considered "unpleasant information," Jeremy admitted in 1977, he shot and killed a man in self-defense. He says he was found not guilty.

"All the ails I did 30-plus years ago, I paid for," he says.

Jeremy could have another option: seeking a government pardon.

Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack is the chairman for the state Board of Pardons. When people, like Jeremy, get on the path to changing their lives, a pardon allows them to completely clear their criminal record so their criminal past doesn't become a burden.

"It's in our best interest to give folks a second and third chance," Lt. Gov. Stack says. "When you don't allow people to turn things around, they either remain unemployed or they get sent back to prison."

In 2015, the Board of Pardons reviewed 837 cases to determine if individuals would be granted a hearing. Of those cases, more than half, 434, were granted a public hearing, while 329, or 75 percent, were recommended pardons by the board.

"We have too many people out there who have changed their lives but haven't gotten a chance to show people what they have to offer," Stack says. "Let the person's performance and character demonstrate what kind of person it is, not their past history."

Jeremy was unaware about the pardon process, but sounded interested when told. His dream remains to have a full-time job cleaning trash off Harrisburg's streets, but three years of working with virtually no income has caught up to him. Thanks in part to a meeting with Governor Tom Wolf, Jeremy will start a full-time job with PennDOT as a data clerk on October 11. It is Jeremy's first full-time job since 2013.

He admits having a job will take time away from picking trash up off the streets, or mowing parks in South Allison Hill, or planting in anyone of the neighborhoods multiple community gardens. It's work Jeremy has done for free since the start of 2015, and it's work he says he'll continue to do. He just has to figure out the time to do it.

"If I have the means of which to help my neighbors, that's what I'll do," Jeremy says. That's what a neighbor is supposed to do. That's how you build a neighborhood."