A polarizing political figure who in recent years played a controversial backstage role in Coatesville government has died.Richard Legree Sr., 55, of Coatesville, died from natural causes about 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Chester County Hospital, the coroner's office confirmed Sunday. Several sources said Legree suffered a heart attack.

Legree, a former Valley police officer and Coatesville city councilman, was a constable who also worked as a union consultant in Philadelphia.

Last week, Legree was serving as a constable in Magisterial District Judge Robert Davis' court in Coatesville. Outside the courtroom Wednesday, the former local Republican leader said he was content with his recent decision to become a Democrat. Legree said his sense was that the Republican Party would likely not make any progress over the next eight years.

Legree lost his chairmanship of the Coatesville Area Republican Committee when several new committee members were elected in the April primary. At the Republican Committee's reorganization meeting, they teamed up with several incumbent committee people to replace Legree. In October, he changed parties.

"I became a Republican because I thought the Republican Party offered the best vision for African-Americans to realize the American dream and for working class and union families to offer their children the best chance at a better life," Legree said at an Oct. 24 news conference. "The last eight years have convinced me otherwise."

Legree was joined by City Councilman Kareem Johnson, who also announced his intent to leave the Republican Party and join the Democrats. Legree was instrumental in getting Johnson and three other members elected to City Council in 2005. Johnson described Legree as his top adviser during the campaign.

"He was always available to give any advice," Johnson said Sunday. "He introduced me to key people in the community."

Johnson said he and Legree are practically family. Legree's brother was married to Johnson's aunt. Johnson said he has known Legree since he was a child.

"He was a very good friend. A very loyal friend. He was always willing to help out if you had a problem," Johnson said. "We spent a lot of time laughing and joking about different situations. He was able to find a lot of humor in life."

News of Legree's death came as a shock to Johnson, who said he was unaware Legree suffered from a heart condition. Johnson also said he and Legree had plans to get together Saturday night. But before the meeting a friend called Johnson to say he heard Legree had died. Johnson said he automatically called Legree, thinking the rumor was untrue.

"I told my friend I would call Richard and I didn't think anything was wrong. But a family member answered when I was fully expecting to hear his voice," Johnson said.

Funeral arrangements are pending with the Emmett Golden Hunt Memorial Chapel in Coatesville.

Legree's work to get Johnson, Patsy Ray, Kurt Schenk and Robin Scott elected to City Council in 2005 quickly received a lot of attention after they were sworn into office. The four were unified on nearly every issue and helped replace a previous city administration and hire new staff, including a police chief.

Shortly after council appointed William Matthews as chief in 2006, the Daily Local News learned Legree met with police chief candidates in secret. High-ranking law enforcement officials criticized Legree's involvement because he was not a city employee, nor was he a member of an appointed committee tasked with interviewing candidates.

One police chief candidate said Legree had tried to negotiate a position for himself in the police department and had asked the candidate to remove one of the lieutenants.

But City Manager Harry Walker defended Legree's involvement, and City Council stood by its decision to appoint Matthews. The controversy raised questions over how involved Legree was with decisions made by council, the administration and the police department.

Legree had been in and out of the courtroom for roughly three decades.

In 1976, Legree was found guilty of selling heroin and served 17 months in state prison before the conviction was overturned after it was determined the state trooper who arrested Legree mistook him for his younger brother.

In 1988, Legree pleaded guilty to harassment for pointing a gun at a woman and her children. He paid a $250 fine in the case and was prohibited from carrying a gun as a constable, although he continued to be armed while on patrol as a Valley police officer.

In 2002, he was charged with insurance fraud and theft for reportedly fraudulently collecting disability compensation. That case was dismissed in district court, and two years later his arrest record was expunged.

Legree's 30-year-old son, Richard Legree Jr., is in federal custody awaiting sentencing for drug offenses.

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