Lawsuit: Pa. police were reckless in pursuing, hitting suspect with bulldozer
The complaint quotes a state police helicopter pilot saying he tried to tell the bulldozer operator to stop but the radio failed
HARRISBURG — The family of a marijuana suspect who wound up dead under the treads of a bulldozer commandeered by Pennsylvania State Police has filed an amended lawsuit that raises new questions about the agency's tactics.
The family is suing state police, the Pennsylvania Game Commission and others. The suit accuses police of extreme recklessness in their pursuit of 51-year-old Gregory Longenecker, who had been caught growing marijuana plants on public land near Reading.
An amended complaint, filed Thursday, quotes a state police helicopter pilot as expressing shock that a police colleague was using the bulldozer to look for Longenecker, who was hiding in thick brush. Cpl. Edward Stefanides said that the bulldozer appeared to be “coming in blind” and that he tried to tell its operator to stop.
“My initial thought was that ‘holy (expletive), they’re sending a bulldozer in,” Stefanides told investigators on July 12, 2018, three days after Longenecker’s death, according to a partial transcript cited in the lawsuit.
Stefanides, flying low overhead during the search, said that when he saw the bulldozer approach Longenecker, he figured “I got to say something, because they aren’t stopping. ... So at that point, I was like, you know, stop the bulldozer.”
But he told investigators that he was unable to get through in time because the radio wasn’t working, the suit said.
State police had no immediate comment on the new information. Berks County District Attorney John Adams, who has determined that state police acted appropriately, declined to comment Friday. He has previously said that Longenecker put himself in jeopardy by fleeing from the authorities.
The chase developed as Longenecker — a short-order cook and avid vegetable gardener with a passion for the Grateful Dead — and his friend tended 10 plants in a small clearing on state game lands. A state Game Commission worker, operating a bulldozer in the area, spotted their car parked in a field where vehicles weren’t allowed and called police.
The friend surrendered, but Longenecker fled, disappearing into the thick vegetation.
State police began a search, and Stefanides, hovering overhead, spotted Longenecker in the underbrush. The amended suit said that state police Cpl. Michael Taylor asked the bulldozer’s operator, Mark Weiss, if he could climb aboard and blaze a trail in Longenecker’s direction. The pair set off on a “machine of death,” the suited contended, even though they had no visibility and were aware of the police chopper’s communications problems.
Communication that day “was a joke,” a trooper on the ground told internal police investigators. A game warden called the pursuit of Longenecker a “tactical nightmare,” the suit said.
Authorities have publicly contended that Longenecker was high on methamphetamine, crawled under the back of the bulldozer when it stopped briefly, and was crushed to death when it started moving again and made a left turn.
But witness statements, taken during the internal police investigation of Longenecker’s death, as well as by the plaintiff’s lawyer, Jordan Strokovsky, appear to cast doubt on the official explanation of how he got caught under the bulldozer.
Taylor, who the lawsuit said headed the search, told investigators: “It is my opinion that he didn’t crawl under there from the back, because I had guys walking down behind it.”
Stefanides, the chopper pilot, said he had Longenecker in view the entire time, noting in his deposition “that it would be impossible for Mr. Longenecker to crawl under the back of the bulldozer before the bulldozer turned left,” the lawsuit said.
The plaintiff’s lawyer noted that state police failed to produce radio communications between the chopper and Taylor. The chopper had a video camera, but “no video exists," the suit noted.