State College

‘It’s shocking and it’s disturbing.’ Community reacts to shooting rampage

Less than a day after a Bellefonte man went on a shooting spree in State College — shooting five and killing four people, including himself — local residents expressed shock and sadness that the area known as “Happy Valley” could suffer such violence.

“It’s not something that happens every day. Quite frankly, it’s shocking and it’s disturbing,” State College police chief John Gardner said during a press conference early Friday morning after the shooting. “We like to think of this place as Happy Valley and we like to think these things can’t happen here, but one of the things it does make you realize is that it can happen here and it does happen here. I guess maybe it’s a sign of the times of the world we live in.”

The shooter, identified as Jordan Witmer, shot and killed Dean Beachy, 62, of Millersburg, Ohio, at P.J. Harrigan’s Bar & Grill at the Ramada Hotel shortly after 10 p.m. Thursday. He also shot and critically injured Beachy’s 19-year-old son Steven, who died Friday afternoon of his injuries, and his ex-girlfriend, 21-year-old Nicole Abrino, who remains hospitalized. Then, Witmer broke into a house on Tussey Lane and shot and killed homeowner George McCormick, 82, before turning the gun on himself.

Witmer was a 21-year-old man who graduated from Bellefonte Area High School in 2015. Community members said he was well-liked and his family was well-known and respected in the area.

According to a State College Police Department press conference Friday, Witmer was an infantryman in the U.S. Army, but it is not known if he was active duty or had ended his service at the time of the shootings.

A 2014 graduate of Bellefonte Area High School, who wished to remain anonymous, said she attended high school with Witmer. He was one grade below her.

“He always seemed to be the one kid that you just knew was going to be successful in whatever it is that he put his mind to,” she wrote in an email. “You would always see him around laughing with his friends.”

Sharon Royer, Benner Township secretary and treasurer, said she knew of the Witmer family.

No one expected anything like this from a person in the community, she said.

“It’s kind of a sinking feeling,” she said.

Residents who lived near the area where Witmer crashed his car and broke into a house on Tussey Lane, shooting and killing McCormick, said they felt shock and sadness that a crime so violent could happen in their neighborhood.

“I was pretty much asleep when it happened, but I can say it’s very scary when it hits close to home,” said Iris Lin, a resident of Briarwood Apartment & Townhomes, near the crash scene.

And while the incident occurred in a public place and involved more people, District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said it has parallels to another Centre County murder.

Charles McGhee killed his wife in June 2017 and then intentionally set the house on fire, which awoke his daughter. Bellefonte police said McGhee was “startled” when he saw her so — like Witmer — he drove away from the scene and ultimately crashed his vehicle.

“It’s not unusual in a homicide case where the individuals who were involved to know each other,” Cantorna said. “So that’s a similarity. And we have someone who fled a crime scene and crashed and was apprehended and that is similar to the McGhee case.”

In a statement issued Friday morning, Bellefonte Area School District reminded parents that counselors are available to support students needing to talk about the shootings.

“In light of last night’s tragic events in State College, we want to take a moment to reassure you of the safety of your children, our students, when at school. Although there is no longer any danger associated with last night’s events, we know the information relayed through the news media can cause anxiety and emotional response,” the statement read. “Our hearts go out to the victims and their families. Again, please know our students’ safety is our primary concern.”

State College Mayor Don Hahn expressed sympathy for the shooting victims and concern about unanswered questions surrounding Thursday night’s incidents.

“Our thoughts and prayers go to the victims of last night’s tragedy,” he said. “I understand that the shooter ultimately shot himself. While it ended the immediate threat, it also removed a source of potential answers to a multitude of questions raised by last night’s tragedy. I commend the police department and emergency responders for their work under these difficult circumstances.”

Due to the violent nature of the crime and the suicide of the shooter, Gardner said law enforcement “are going to be weeks and months following up on this.”

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Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.
Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.