Pa. standoff with prison guard ruled 'Suicide by cop'


Copyright 2006 P.G. Publishing Co.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Slightly before 5 a.m. on New Year's Day, William Lee Leister stepped onto his porch, choking from tear gas that was clouding his Berlin home, and fired 19 bullets at state police with a high-powered assault rifle.

Twelve hours after the off-duty prison guard abducted 21-year-old Ashley Bittinger and shot a man who tried to help her, and after telling state police negotiators there was a "50 percent chance he was coming out and a 50 percent chance he wasn't," the 38-year-old Somerset County man challenged police to shoot him dead.

"I believe he was practicing something called suicide by cop," said Lt. Dale A. Blasko, patrol section commander for the Greensburg state police barracks, who gave an account of the fatal confrontation yesterday.

A state police Special Emergency Response Team rifleman 60 yards from Mr. Leister shot him twice, killing him instantly.

After several hours of negotiations with the state police, which included use of several canisters of tear gas and impassioned pleas for surrender from his father, brother and a female acquaintance, Mr. Leister stepped onto his second-floor porch with the civilian model of an AK-47 and fired at police below.

The barrage was over in three seconds. One response team member was shot in the breast of his bulletproof vest, which stopped the bullet, and a neighbor was grazed by a gunshot.

The rifleman, situated in a cemetery near the house, fired two shots. One bullet entered Mr. Leister's back and exited his chest and another hit him in the abdomen and penetrated his left hip.

Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller said he probably will call an inquest, at which a coroner's jury of six people will review details of Mr. Leister's confrontation with police and the subsequent shooting.

"There was no indiscriminate fire on the part of the state police," said Maj. Richard Zenk, director of the state police Bureau of Emergency and Special Operations.

Mr. Leister's rampage began on New Year's Eve, after police had served a protective order from Ms. Bittinger against him. Mr. Leister grabbed his .40-caliber pistol and got into his car to search for Ms. Bittinger.

"Mr. Leister was looking for love and romance and Bittinger wanted to keep it at friendship," said Lt. Blasko.

He spotted Ms. Bittinger Saturday night in her friend's car as he was driving by. Mr. Leister quickly turned his car around and rammed into the driver's side of the other car. He got out and shot through the windshield of the other car, missing both the driver and Ms. Bittinger.

As Mr. Leister pulled Ms. Bittinger out of the car, a passer-by, Larry Glover, 46, pulled over to try to stop the abduction. Mr. Leister shot him three times. Driving recklessly back to his home in Berlin, Mr. Leister tried to convince Ms. Bittinger of his love, police said.

"This was a very, very tragic event," said Lt. Blasko. "Unfortunately, this individual was not going to surrender, not going to comply, and unfortunately he met his demise." 
Moustafa Ayad can be reached at mayad@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1731.
January 4, 2006

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