Ex-officer guilty on all charges
HOLLIDAYSBURG – As his wife sobbed in the arms of a friend, former Altoona police officer Duane “D.J.” Eichenlaub stood stoically, hands clasped behind his back, while a jury on Thursday afternoon pronounced him guilty of aggravated assault, obstruction of justice and other offenses stemming from a brawl at Pellegrine’s Lounge 32 months ago.
The jury’s decision brought to an end a lengthy investigation that Deputy Attorney General Christopher Jones said was a black mark on law enforcement. But, he said, the public could take comfort in the knowledge that while Eichenlaub and other Altoona officers attempted to cover up the Pellegrine’s bar encounter, agencies, such as the Attorney General’s Office and the Pennsylvania State Police, are available to investigate such incidents.
Early in Eichenlaub’s three-day trial, state police Cpl. Joseph Cigich said he was able to turn to a statewide investigative grand jury to get to the facts of the brawl that rumor had involved two city police officers.
Altoona police officer, Jack Kuhn III, who investigated the incident, did not mention the officers, Eichenlaub and Eric R. Kriner, in his initial report, and other city police officers told Cigich they knew nothing about what occurred. Kuhn resigned from the force in November 2010.
Eichenlaub, police charged, was infuriated in the early morning of Memorial Day 2010, when he was told his wife, Adrienne, had been improperly touched by another bar patron, Herman “Bo” Lardieri.
Police said Eichenlaub tracked Lardieri to the men’s room and began to beat him. Kriner followed and punched Lardieri.
Another man, 59-year-old Earl P. Eshelman, was also in the men’s room. He testified that when he saw Eichenlaub and Kriner on their knees beating Lardieri, who was in a fetal position, he attempted to pull Eichenlaub off Lardieri. Eichenlaub turned and repeatedly punched Eshelman in the face, causing “serious bodily injury” to the older man’s eyes and brain.
Eichenlaub, through his attorney Lawrence J. Rosen of Harrisburg, contended Eshelman grabbed Eichenlaub around the neck, causing the officer to fear for his life, and he responded with punches – an act of self-defense.
The defense also denied there was a cover-up, but after six hours of deliberation by a jury Thursday, Eichenlaub was found guilty of aggravated and simple assault of Eshelman, simple assault of Lardieri, simple assault by mutual combat of Lardieri and conspiracy to hinder a police investigation, tampering with public records and obstruction of the administration of law.
Emotion ripped through the courtroom as the verdict was read. A former military police officer, Eichenlaub stood at rest, but his wife cried. A male who was with Eichenlaub uttered disbelief and an obscenity. Someone said, “Oh, my God.”
As Mrs. Eichenlaub cried, tears also welled in the eyes of a female juror as she left the courtroom. She nodded in the affirmative when asked if the decision was “tough.”
Jurors did not want to discuss the case.
Jones told the jurors in the hallway what they did “was the right decision.”
Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan said he will sentence Eichenlaub on April 29.
That sentence could be substantial, according to the deputy attorney general.
The standard-range minimum sentence for aggravated assault with serious bodily injury runs from 36 to 54 months. More jail time could be added for the obstruction of justice charges and the assault of Lardieri.
Rosen did not want to comment on the sentence, noting it is in the hands of the judge.
The jury asked three questions during deliberations, including one that requested the judge repeat the definition of aggravated assault.
Prosecution and defense attorneys discussed the law during their closing arguments.
Jones told the jurors that the defense argument of self-defense was not appropriate if the jury found that Eshelman had intervened in the brawl between the off-duty officers and Lardieri because he believed Lardieri was in danger of being hurt.
The jury asked the judge if the right to self-defense could be justified if it was found that Eshelman used a “life-threatening maneuver” [a neck hold] to pull Eichenlaub off Lardieri.
Sullivan re-read the definition of self-defense, and the jurors within minutes returned with their verdicts.
Rosen said the jury’s self-defense question gave him hope that a not guilty verdict was possible, but it turned out not to be the case.
Rosen concluded his remarks after trial by calling Eichenlaub “a good man, a good man.”
Eshelman was present for the verdict, sitting with family members. He said the verdict made him feel a lot better.
He said he suffered serious injuries when he tried to help Lardieri. He said he sees a “brain specialist” at UPMC and still is suffering from injuries to his eyes. He said he will soon need an operation.
In summarizing the case, Jones said he believed the jury took all of the evidence into consideration.
“I’ve tried a lot of criminal cases. This was the most difficult case,” he said.
He said he never has spent an hour closing to the jury as he did in the Eichenlaub trial, but he thought it was necessary to explain the legal concepts of self-defense and aggravated assault in detail.
Jones, talking about the cover-up by Eichenlaub, Kriner and the other officers, said, “You don’t try to cover up unless you think you did something wrong.”
The case came down to credibility, who the jury believed, he said.
Kriner already entered guilty pleas to hindering prosecution and simple assault of Lardieri. He will be sentenced in March.
Mirror staff writers Phil Ray is at 946-7468 and Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.