‘Indispensable in the pursuit of justice in Centre County.’ DA hands out awards

Holidays away from family, burnout and an increasingly complex work environment are part of a police officer’s job description, but the two Centre County Law Enforcement Officer of the Year award recipients know that does not make it any easier.

State College police officer John Aston and state police trooper Jeffrey Ebeck were recognized Tuesday by Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna for their “exemplary” work in 2018. Penn State police Detective Nicholas Sproveri and Bellefonte police Detective Bill Witmer were also nominated.

Aston, who joined the borough police department in 1995 and was promoted to detective in 2003, is an expert in cellphone forensics and has assisted local, state and federal agencies in downloading and analyzing cellphones.

That included analyses in three Centre County murder trials in 2018 — George Ishler and Danelle Geier, Matthew Dreibelbis and Ardell Gross.

“You would probably have to go hundreds of miles to find somebody with more expertise and knowledge and experience than John Aston in handling evidence from cellphones, computers and the internet,” Deputy District Attorney Sean McGraw said during the ceremony. “He has been absolutely indispensable in the pursuit of justice in Centre County.”

Ebeck, who became a state trooper in 2002 and was a criminal investigator until April, was the lead detective in Dreibelbis’ murder trial and “worked extensively” in the Ishler and Geier case, Cantorna said.

“He is a man of character. He is a man of integrity. He is one of the most competent, credible human beings you’re ever going to run into,” Cantorna told Ebeck’s wife, Chrissie, son and daughter during the ceremony. “You have the honor and privilege of calling him your dad.”

State police trooper Jeff Ebeck was awarded with the 2018 Centre County Law Enforcement Officer of the Year award on Tuesday at the Centre County Courthouse. State College police officer John W. Aston also received an award. Abby Drey

Ebeck was also the lead detective who investigated child rape claims against Matthew Sheffer, who was found guilty of all charges in February. He accepted the award in the same Centre County courtroom where Sheffer’s verdict was announced, and where Ebeck said, “These cases can take a lot out of you.”

Sheffer’s trial was the last for Ebeck as a criminal investigator. In April, he became a state police academy instructor in Hershey.

“For me, personally, those are the ones that weighed on me the most,” Ebeck said. “You can just feel the pressure and the weight of all of that mount on your shoulders. Those are the ones that kept me up at night and genuinely felt like it took years off my life.”

The job change has added many miles to his commute, but it has been a welcome — and needed — change, Ebeck said. He recounted leaving his wife on their anniversary weekend for two consecutive years to investigate a homicide and leaving his then 3-year-old son on Christmas to investigate a rape.

“He had just finished opening his presents and the phone rang. I knew right away it was the barracks. I had to find a gentle way to explain to him that I had to leave for a little bit and he lost it,” Ebeck said. “It just wears on you.”

Aston said he has an “immense” amount of pride when reflecting on the amount of people he has helped over his 24-year career, but also lamented the “extreme amount of sacrifice.” He and his wife, Kelly, are both State College police officers and have four children.

“I’ve known a lot of sacrifice. The sacrifice of missing Christmas. Getting called out in the middle of the night. Missing birthdays. That’s the thing that I’m never, ever gonna be able to replace,” Aston said. “It stings a little bit, but at the same time, I’m really honored to be in this profession.”

State College police officer John W. Aston speaks after being awarded with the 2018 Centre County Law Enforcement Officer of the Year award on Tuesday at the Centre County Courthouse. State police trooper Jeff Ebeck also received an award. Abby Drey

Aston never intended to leave the department’s detective unit, but when he was selected to be the State College Area School District school resource officer, he said it relieved stress he said he didn’t know he had.

“I’ve been a detective for 16 years. I get called out for everything and anything. I worked an assembly line of cases nonstop,” Aston said. “I was burnt out and I didn’t know I was burnt out.”

The necessity of police responding to a variety of issues, interacting with individuals at their low points and the unending crunch of training has also taken its toll.

The police academy, for example, was 13 weeks when Aston attended in 1993. It is now about 26 weeks, he said.

“I’m really happy for today, but I think sometimes there’s an ignorance to our profession and people just don’t understand everything that we do. There’s always the negative side of things, but not the positive,” Aston said. “Being a police officer is like riding on the front seat of the roller coaster of life. There’s things that I see and do and know every single day in our profession that the general public doesn’t know. I don’t know how to bridge that gap. It’s making our job more and more complex.”

Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.