A Jonestown-based Pennsylvania State Police officer pulled the trigger in four police-related shootings – including two in Lebanon County over the past 19 months – according to an investigative report published Thursday by the New York Times.
In the report, the Times says trooper Jay Splain, 41, was involved in the shooting of 42-year-old Charity Thome in Jackson Township in March 2020, and Andy Dzwonchyk, 40, of Jonestown, in November 2021.
The Times reports that Splain has been involved in four shootings during his career, the first dating back to 2007 in Lehigh County and the second in Northampton County in 2017.
In the first three incidents, including the Thome case, investigators ruled the shootings were justified. The latest investigation is ongoing.
The number of shootings was described to the Times as “incredibly unusual” by Darrel W. Stephens, a former longtime police chief who heads a policing research institute at Florida State University.
Calls for comment from Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf and the state police, the two agencies reported by the press as investigating the Dzwonchyk shooting, were not returned.
Autumn Krouse, Dzwonchyk’s sister, said the Times article has left her feeling sick and with a range of emotions. Her brother was shot Nov. 7 near Ridge Road in Union Township.
“My reaction is, I guess, initially, is like rage and then kind of like a little bit of hopelessness,” said Krouse. “I can’t believe, first of all, that it has gotten this bad. You know, that this was not looked into sooner and where do you go from here? Like, whose attention needs to be gotten for something like larger to happen?”
State Rep. Russ Diamond, whose legislative district includes the locales of both shootings, said he didn’t know enough about either case to make an informed comment.
“I actually knew about the latest shooting but didn’t know about the one before that,” Diamond said via telephone.
Requests via telephone and email for an interview with Sen. Chris Gebhard via legislative district director Dan Bost concerning the Times article were not successful. Gebhard’s legislative district also includes the locations of both shootings.
In the Thome case, Philadelphia-based attorney Thomas Kline of Kline & Specter has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the Thome family citing the violation of her civil rights. Multiple requests to Kline for comment on the Times article went unanswered.
Additionally, a request for comment from Philadelphia-based attorney Paul Messing, who is representing Dzwonchyk’s family, was unsuccessful.
The Times article notes that in all four cases the individuals suffered mental health issues, and wrote that current PSP regulations call for troopers dealing with someone who is mentally ill to “take steps to calm/de-escalate the situation, when feasible,” and to “assume a quiet, nonthreatening manner.”
Krouse said it’s a shame that a common denominator in all four shootings involving Splain were related to individuals who were suffering mental health issues.
“There is no place for someone to kind of have a nervous breakdown,” said Krouse. “The common thread is these people were all unraveling and it feels in our society there is not a time nor a place where that is a good idea. It seems like such a deeper problem.”
Noting Splain’s involvement in four shootings throughout his career, Krouse said, “It almost felt like he (Splain) didn’t have the capacity to (deal with), or any level of patience or tolerance for, this type of situation. … Even the most mentally sound people have times when everything is falling apart.”
The Thome shooting occurred after a car chase in the early morning hours involving multiple police departments. Police said Thome was shot after she tried to use her car as a weapon and Splain had forced her car off the road and into a field following a chase that began on Heilmandale Road in North Lebanon Township and ended 10 miles later on King Street in Jackson Township.
Less than a month after the March 16 shooting, Hess Graf, whose husband is a state police corporal and worked out of the Jonestown barracks at that time, ruled the shooting was justified. The Times noted that Hess Graf hosts an annual fundraiser, “Back the Blue,” for a Pennsylvania nonprofit that helps the families of slain officers.
- Richland woman shot dead after vehicle chase, attempting to ram police car
- DA discusses details, process that led to justified shooting finding in Thome death
In its report, the Times said “advocates of reform state that apparent conflicts of interest highlight the need for independent, arms-length criminal investigations into killings by the police.”
Spotlight PA, a nonprofit, investigative reporting partnership of Pennsylvania news organizations that includes LebTown, recently reported that the “newly created Pennsylvania State Law Enforcement Citizen Advisory Commission has recommended that shootings involving the Pennsylvania State Police be independently reviewed.”
Spotlight PA noted that “whether those recommendations will be put in place remains to be seen. The State Police are currently drafting a response to the recommendations.”
When Hess Graf was asked by LebTown if her investigation of the Thome shooting was a conflict of interest, she wrote the following in an email response dated April 27, 2020:
“My husband is a Corporal at PSP Jonestown. He had nothing to do with this incident or the investigation. Our Office created a formal Conflict policy in place which governs how we handle any incidents which involve him. The Policy existed far before the THOME incident. We’ve met with the President Judge on the topic, sent a copy of the Conflict Policy to PSP, and met with the Station Commander to cement in the understanding of what our Office can and cannot do. The Attorney General’s Office prosecutes cases which are a conflict for our Office, this now includes any case in which my husband is an affiant or substantial witness. He had no input or involvement in any way. Given my husband’s utter lack of involvement, I did not refer the case to the AG’s Office.
“The [Pennsylvania State Police] accident reconstructionist [who documented the Thome crime scene] is a Corporal, stationed at another barracks. The accident recon training/expertise is a very specialized position. As such, this Corporal is responsible to cover Lebanon, Berks, and Schuylkill counties at a minimum. He will travel to other areas if needed.”
Spotlight PA reports an unintroduced bill by state Sen. Art Haywood (D-Montgomery) that would require that the state attorney general be given new powers to investigate all police killings.
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This article was updated on Monday, Jan. 3, to refer correctly to Thomas Kline of Kline & Specter. An earlier version of this article had the incorrect surname for Kline.