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State College police chief addresses lack of alert during shootings, status of investigation

Police chief addresses how public was notified about shooting

State College police chief talks again about notifying the public after the suspect of Thursday's shooting was no longer a threat.
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State College police chief talks again about notifying the public after the suspect of Thursday's shooting was no longer a threat.

Following criticism from community members, State College police chief John Gardner said Monday there was “no way” for the department to publish a warning during the shootings that left four people dead and one injured.

“By the time I got notified at home and got out of bed, this whole thing was over with,” Gardner said at a press conference Monday. “There was no way, from the time when we got notified and all the things the officers had to do, to put out any type of warning for this.”

A 911 call reported three people — Nicole Abrino, Dean Beachy and Steven Beachy — were shot at 10:14 p.m. Thursday at P.J. Harrigan’s Bar & Grill. Officers arrived one minute later.

Dean Beachy was pronounced dead, while his son Steven — who ultimately died Friday — and Abrino were in critical condition.

At 10:27 p.m., officers identified the shooter as 21-year-old Jordan Witmer, who fled the scene in his black Mazda. Police found his vehicle crashed at the intersection of Waupelani Drive and Tussey Lane at 10:46 p.m.

Witmer then shot and kicked his way though a sliding glass door at 82-year-old George McCormick’s home on Tussey Lane. He shot and killed McCormick, then himself. McCormick’s wife called 911 at 11:09 p.m. to report the shootings.

Officers arrived at 11:14 p.m. and Gardner said that was the first time officers saw and were able to identify Witmer.

“What I did say was that after we had ascertained what occurred and there was no longer a threat from this individual, we probably could have done a better job of putting that out sooner so people wouldn’t have to be on a sense of heightened alert. Ultimately, that falls with me in doing that and I still take full responsibility for that,” Gardner said. “I look at it in terms of — I don’t know what more we could have done. When all the factors that we have to consider when we’re responding to an event like that — what’s going through your mind. It’s getting there and getting there safely. It’s trying to eliminate a threat once we get there and then you’re trying to render aid.”

Investigation continues

Gardner also said the department is still not certain what prompted Witmer to pull out his small-caliber handgun and shoot the trio at the horseshoe-shaped bar.

He said the department has collected “a mountain of information,” but may be weeks away from knowing what happened.

At the Friday press conference, Gardner said Witmer, Abrino, the Beachys, two employees, one customer and a second customer who left before the incident were the only ones in the bar.

The employees were interviewed twice since the incident and are likely to be interviewed again, but Gardner said Abrino is “the best witness we’re gonna have.”

Abrino was shot in the chest and has since had two surgeries at UPMC in Pittsburgh. She’s been downgraded to stable condition, but is sedated, according to a GoFundMe to help pay for her medical expenses.

“We’re hoping that sometime in the future, when she makes a full recovery — and we’re praying that she does make a full recovery — that she’s gonna be able to shed some light on this,” Gardner said.

‘Not a Penn State bar’

The police chief also reiterated that Penn State, which did not send an alert to students, was not required by the Clery Act to do so. The university eventually said an alert wasn’t sent based on the circumstances known to law enforcement at the time, location of the incidents — about two miles from the flagship campus — and the “lack of imminent threat to Penn State students or the campus.”

“If you follow the letter of Clery, this was not a Clery event where they would (have) had to notify someone,” Gardner said. “Again, erroneously reported in a lot of the national services. A lot of national shows were saying ‘a shooting at a Penn State bar.’ Well it was not a Penn State bar. I guess you could say it’s a State College bar. There’s a misnomer right there — that this is a location where Penn State students hang out. That’s simply not the case. Now am I gonna sit here and say that a Penn State student’s never frequented that bar? No, but it is not a traditional bar where Penn State students would be.”

He also encouraged anyone with information about the incident or either of the parties involved to contact the department at 234-7150, by email — police@statecollegepa.us — or submit an anonymous tip through its website.

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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.
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