Stories of the year

A longtime family feud that led to the death of four people in Ashville and a merger involving the area’s largest hospital were among the top local stories of 2013.

The Mirror’s news staff voted on the top stories from a ballot that contained 50 prominent local news items.

The following is a look at the top stories, as chosen by the Mirror news staff:

1. Ashville shootings

A late Friday night shooting on Sept. 27 left four people dead at a residence on Bottom Road near Ashville.

The event began when Josephine Ruckinger knocked on the door of her parents’ double-wide mobile home. When her mother, Roberta Frew, answered, Ruckinger, who police said had been estranged from her parents for almost 20 years, pointed a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun at her mother’s chest, shot and killed her.

State police said Roberta Frew, 64; her husband, John Edward Frew Sr., 67; and their son, John Frew Jr., 47, were attacked by Josephine and her husband, Jeffrey Ruckinger, both age 43, from Blandburg. Each of the family members, except Frew Sr., died from gunfire within the Frew home.

John Sr., Roberta and John Jr. had just returned home from dining out and were settling into the living room to watch TV, when they heard a knock at the door, police said. When Roberta answered, she had time to scream something to the effect of, “Oh my God, they have guns” before her daughter shot her.

According to police, John Jr. then attempted to grab a .22-caliber rifle from somewhere in the home but was shot and killed in the kitchen. Police said he suffered several gunshot wounds to the left side of the chest. Police said Jeffrey Ruckinger was carrying a .410 Derringer pistol and a .22-caliber semi-automatic handgun.

Police said John Sr. was able to retrieve a .22-caliber revolver from a rear bedroom and returned to find his daughter on one knee in the living room, pointing the shotgun at him.

He was able to fire at least one round, striking his daughter. Because John Sr. had not seen Josephine in two decades, he told police he did not know she was one of the intruders. John Frew Sr. then turned and saw the male intruder crouched against the refrigerator in the kitchen, firing a handgun at him, police said.

John Sr. fired back and struck his son-in-law in the head, killing him. The elder Frew was uninjured and called 911, police said. It was only after police arrived that John Sr. was able to identify his daughter as one of the intruders he shot.

Relatives were perplexed on why Josephine Ruckinger despised her family so much that she wanted to murder them. Roberta Frew’s sisters said animosity from a decadeslong feud could have motivated their niece and her husband.

Roberta’s younger sister, Susan Showalter of Altoona, said their family was no stranger to disputes. Over the past 25 years, she said, there had been several that kept some siblings from speaking to each other for years.

Another sister, Virginia Cruse, said she knew the hatred between her sister and her niece was intense, but she never expected a family dispute to end in tragedy.

2. ARHS acquired by UPMC

Altoona Regional Health System joined the UPMC health system on July 1 as UPMC Altoona.

The affiliation process had begun two years ago and included an “exhaustive analysis” that led to the consensus decision that UPMC was the best available partner, according to hospital officials.

The affiliation with UPMC will be “extremely positive for Altoona Regional, our patients and the entire region,” said Altoona Regional Board Chairman Rob Halbritter.

Under the agreement, UPMC pledged to invest $250 million over 10 years to upgrade facilities and services, assume all ARHS liabilities and maintain operations at the current campus – core specialties intact – for 20 years.

UPMC Altoona will become a regional referral center, governed by a board with a third of its members appointed by UPMC and the rest locally on a self-perpetuating basis – with ARHS appointing one member to the overall system board.

Under the agreement, UPMC would honor existing labor agreements – and for the rest of 2013, make no changes in human resources or benefits – while communicating subsequent changes “well in advance” through hospital managers and a new merger transition newsletter.

Actual “integration” of the two institutions was scheduled to begin within six months.

Altoona joined UPMC to preserve existing services, add new ones and meet the challenges of modern health care, according to hospital officials.

3. Closure of SCI Cresson

In January, word leaked that the state Department of Corrections announced plans to close Cresson and Greensburg state prisons June 30 and open a newly built facility near State College that has remained vacant since it was completed a year ago. Corrections officials acknowledged the planned closures the next day.

The two prisons employed about 800 people, and about 2,400 former inmates from the corrections facilities were to be transferred to SCI Benner and other correctional facilities across the state.

A pay freeze within the corrections department allowed employees to transfer to any facility, including newly-constructed SCI Benner.

Anger and frustration – most of it directed toward Department of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel and Gov. Tom Corbett – dominated discussion during a public meeting Jan. 31 to discuss the closure of SCI Cresson. More than 170 SCI Cresson corrections officers and area residents turned out for the town meeting.

State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, expressed his outrage at Corbett and other state officials’ continued indifference to hardships faced by employees and nearby residents affected by the closure of the prison.

Shuttering the prison is akin to a huge manufacturing plant suddenly pulling about 500 employees out of the work force – something the state would normally fight to keep in the area, State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria said.

4. Bomb and water threats rattle Hollidaysburg

A Claysburg man with military computer training, Adam C. Hardin, 23, formerly of 2250 Right Hand Gap Road, was charged with sending bomb and water contamination threats from a jail computer.

Hollidaysburg police said Hardin was an inmate at the Blair County Prison when he sent emails to area media on Oct. 23 that contained threats of a bomb at the Blair County Courthouse. This led to a search and a voluntary evacuation for several hours of the area around the courthouse after a bomb-sniffing dog alerted to a package in the basement. It wound up being a false alert.

Two days later, Oct. 25, Hardin allegedly sent an email to the Mirror that claimed several Altoona Water Authority water sources in the Hollidaysburg area, as well as its transmission system, had been contaminated with an unspecified toxin, and that three bombs had been placed around the borough that were set to explode using a random number generator.

This led to a warning from the authority alerting customers in the Hollidaysburg area to avoid consuming tap water for two days until testing could be completed. The tests revealed no contamination.

Hardin faces 14 criminal charges, including felony and misdemeanor counts of threats to use a weapon of mass destruction, terroristic threats, unlawful use of a computer and criminal use of a communication facility. Hollidaysburg Patrolman Henry Fownes said the motive for the threats remains under investigation, and that Hardin hacked into a law library computer, which had been set up to restrict inmates from accessing the Internet.

Police were able to connect Hardin to the threatening emails by examining two computers in the prison’s law library, through information supplied by Internet service provider Atlantic Broadband and through Hardin’s own bragging in another case.

A tip from a resident put investigators on Hardin’s trail.

5. Brother Stephen Baker’s alleged abuse

On Jan. 26, less than two weeks after he was accused of sexually abusing dozens of Bishop McCort High School students during the 1990s, Brother Stephen Baker, 62, a Franciscan friar, died from a self-inflicted stab wound to the heart.

Baker was found in his room at St. Bernardine Monastery by another friar, Blair Township police said.

Baker allegedly abused dozens of young boys, according to allegations that began surfacing in Ohio and Pennsylvania. He spent the mid-1980s teaching and coaching in Ohio, then served as a religion teacher and athletic trainer at Bishop McCort from 1990 to 2000.

He was removed from public ministry after the St. Bernardine Monastery was made aware of an allegation involving a man who was allegedly abused by Baker in the 1980s, according to Father Patrick Quinn, minister provincial at the monastery.

Despite his removal from ministry, Baker continued to maintain a presence in the area, particularly involving Bishop McCort athletics.

In November, 25 additional sex-abuse claims were filed in Ohio, according to the Youngstown Diocese.

The diocese said it would review the additional claims and the demand for $1 million in compensation for each alleged victim. The alleged victims’ attorney, Mitchell Garabedian, said the abuse occurred from 1985 to 1992. The diocese and Franciscans settled 11 earlier abuse claims against the brother for $75,000 each.

The new claims came from men now in their 30s and 40s and who were about 12 to 18 at the time of the alleged abuse, Garabedian said. Garabedian said his experience with such cases indicates to him that more victims could come forward.

6. Kenneth Leighty admits to murder

Kenneth Wayne Leighty, 66, of Altoona accepted a plea deal Dec. 19 under which he will spend between 7 and 14 years in state prison for the murder of Sherry Jean Leighty.

Huntingdon County District Attorney George Zanic said that Leighty, who now stands convicted of third-degree murder in the killing of his former daughter-in-law in the fall of 1999, wouldn’t have served a single day in jail without the plea deal. His sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 27.

Before Kenneth Leighty was arrested April 19, police had suspected a heavily wooded, 155-acre property in Warriors Mark Township, Huntingdon County, was where Kenneth Leighty had buried Sherry Leighty. But it wasn’t until a phone call admission by Kenneth Leighty on April 19 during a conversation with his son and Sherry Leighty’s former husband, Aaron Leighty, that they were certain he had committed the crime.

Even with the admission – in which where Kenneth Leighty claimed the killing was an accident – there

wasn’t enough evidence to file charges, Zanic said.

Zanic said he was shocked by the size of the property, and even after five days of searching, complete with 20 cadaver dogs, nothing was found.

Zanic said without Sherry Leighty’s body, there just wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute Kenneth Leighty, so police and prosecutors offered him the deal on May 10.

After a visit to the property with Leighty that same day turned up nothing, police returned the next day and found the young woman’s skeletal remains, “mere feet” from one of the areas investigators originally excavated during the first search in late April.

Sherry Leighty disappeared in late September 1999, but it wasn’t until August 2012 that the Altoona police considered it a missing person’s case since the time of her disappearance. Her father, the late Sheldon Dumm, told police it was rumored she had run off to Maine with a boyfriend.

Sherry Leighty, then 23 years old and the mother of three children, was in the midst of a divorce but living with her in-laws on 19th Avenue. Kenneth Leighty told police back in 1999 that he dropped her off near Labor Ready in Duncansville the morning of Oct. 1, 1999, before heading to his job at Veeder-Root Co., a fact that police learned in the fall of 2012 wasn’t true.

7. Murray investigated

Former Altoona Area School District Superintendent Dennis Murray came under fire for allegedly giving raises to some administrators without specific board approval.

Inquiries by board President Ryan Beers led to the two investigations that found raises of past and present employees had been administered by Murray without board approval between 2007 and 2011.

The board’s investigator, attorney Paul Cianci of Philadelphia, determined that employees whose salaries were increased without board approval were led to believe they were approved publicly.

Murray denied breaking school code in giving the raises and maintained they were discussed in board executive sessions.

In March, Murray was placed on administrative leave until his retirement June 30, after 29 years as district superintendent.

In July, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the Altoona Area School District violated Pennsylvania School Code when Murray granted employee promotions, transfers and pay raises without the school board voting on the changes at a public meeting and without documenting the approvals in the board meeting minutes.

Meanwhile, Murray’s lawyers continued to fight against the department of the auditor general for issuing a report that contradicted findings of an investigator who believed violations of school code applied to the board for not voting on the raises in public and not recording the votes in board minutes.

Following a story by the Mirror about the former auditor general investigator, Murray’s lawyers corresponded with the auditor general demanding changes to the audit report.

Murray’s lawyers demanded changes to the auditor general report, or they said they will report the matter to be investigated for governmental obstruction.

8. (Tie) Geeseytown aftermath

Developments stemming from the Dec. 21, 2012, shooting incident that left four people dead near Geeseytown continued throughout 2013.

In September, Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle found there was enough evidence to take Brenda Shultz of Frankstown Township to trial for allegedly making a straw purchase of a handgun used by her boyfriend, Jeffrey Lee Michael, in the shooting spree. Doyle also ruled that two statements about the gun purchase made by Shultz, 52, to state police investigators were voluntary and can be used against her during trial.

In 2011, Shultz allegedly bought two handguns at Campbell’s Sporting Goods Store in Hollidaysburg on Michael’s behalf. Police said she told them that one of the guns, a Glock, was paid for by Michael, but Michael told her it was to be her gun.

The other gun she purchased, a .45-caliber Taurus, was to be his gun, and it turned out to be a weapon he used Dec. 21, when he went on an early morning shooting spree, killing a neighbor, Kenneth Lynn, 60, Lynn’s son-in-law, William H. “Bill” Rhodes Jr., 38, and a woman who was decorating a nearby church along Juniata Valley Road, Kimberly Scott, 58. Michael’s shooting spree didn’t come to an end until he was killed during a shootout with three state police troopers.

Meanwhile, one of those troopers, Trooper First Class Timothy A. Strohmeyer, 41, a trooper with Troop G in Hollidaysburg, was named Officer of the Year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police for his actions in the incident.

Strohmeyer, along with Trooper First Class David Nazaruk and Cpl. Kevin Campbell, were the first officers in the area after reports came in that a man was shooting people. After Michael fired into Nazaruk’s and Strohmeyer’s cars as they drove past him in the opposite direction, Michael rammed his pickup truck head-on into Campbell’s patrol car, according to state police.

The wreck jammed Campbell’s door, but within seconds Strohmeyer arrived on scene and rammed the rear of Michael’s truck with his car.

Michael charged, firing his gun at Strohmeyer, who was in his car. Michael’s shots struck Strohmeyer, who was wearing a protective vest, in the chest and left wrist.

Earlier this year, Strohmeyer was awarded the state police Medal of Honor and Purple Heart, and in 2012 he was named Trooper of the Year. The Mid-Atlantic District Exchange Clubs’ State Police Officer of the Year Committee named Strohmeyer, Nazaruk and Campbell as the 2013 Trooper of the Year.

8. (Tie) House bombing in Cambria County

In March, Bradley Gene Kollar, 40, of Hastings committed suicide by blowing himself up with an unknown explosive device inside of a truck outside the William M. Shaner home at 882 Kepshire Road, Patton.

Shaner, 44, was critically injured in the blast, suffering a fractured skull and multiple other injuries in the attack. His teenage son was injured but was released from the hospital.

Cambria County Coroner Dennis Kwiatkowski ruled Kollar’s death a suicide. Prosecutors said he specifically targeted the Shaner residence in what is being called an attempted criminal homicide.

The home was leveled to its foundation in the blast. Debris was scattered across both sides of Kepshire Road and was strewn about by heavy winds as investigators combed through the scene.

Kollar had previously attempted to take his own life using explosives, prosecutors said.

He was a fireworks enthusiast who used to make his own pyrotechnics – and had lost an arm in a previous explosion gone awry, police said.

Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan said her office was unsuccessful in revoking Kollar’s bond in June of last year after learning of his suicide attempt and access to explosives. In a recorded phone conversation between Kollar and an ex-girlfriend locked up in the Cambria County Prison, Kollar admitted to lighting the fuse on a homemade bomb multiple times.

The 1,600 pounds of the fuel in the device failed to detonate.

Prosecutors expected Kollar to serve jail time after pleading guilty to vehicle theft and illegally possessing liquid ammonia.

In March 2012, police recovered various chemicals, including liquid ammonia, during a raid of 47 acres owned by the Kollar family.

Additional drug charges against Kollar were dropped because prosecutors could not prove the chemicals were used in the preparation of methamphetamine, police said.

Sources said Brad Kollar blamed Shaner for many of the charges brought against him last year.

10. Pirates have winning season

The Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning season after 20 consecutive seasons under the .500 mark and made their first playoff appearance since 1992.

The Pirates, who won 94 games, defeated the Cincinnati Reds in a one-game wild card playoff game at PNC Park before losing to the eventual National League champion St. Louis Cardinals 3 games to 2 in the National League Division Series.

Center fielder Andrew McCutchen became the Pirates’ first National League Most Valuable Player since 1992, and Clint Hurdle was named National League Manager of the Year.

The Pirates’ pitching staff that was among the league’s finest in fewest earned runs allowed. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez crushed 36 home runs to tie for the National League lead with MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Alvarez also drove in 100 runs.

Second baseman Neil Walker had a red-hot September, and catcher Russell Martin, a free-agent acquisition, provided leadership and stability behind the plate, as well as a solid bat. The bullpen, led by late-inning specialists Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, helped the Pirates to a 79-5 regular-season record in games in which they led after seven innings.

Other stories ranked highly by the Mirror news staff included:

– The Altoona Area school board voted to close Wright and Washington-Jefferson elementary schools despite some parents’ protests and questions about boundaries and exceptions.

– Tabatha and Patrick Partsch of Claysburg received lengthy prison sentences for abusing at least five children in various ways. Tabatha Partsch, 40, was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison to be followed by 15 years probation, and Patrick Partsch, 34, will be behind bars for eight to 28 years.

– Wade Kagarise won a three-way race for the Republican nomination for Blair County judge and went on to win unopposed in November.

– Two murder suicides in March: Kenneth Robert Ayers shot to death his 2-year-old son, Michael Ayers, near Petersburg while meeting at his mother’s home for a custody exchange and supervised visit. Ayers began fighting with his estranged wife, Hollie Jo Ayers of Belleville, who arrived with the boy.

He shot her in the legs, right arm and face. After killing his son and disabling his wife, Ayers shot at his mother before fleeing for several hours, killing himself.

In the second case, Mark M. Miscavish, 51, Philipsburg, who retired in 2011 from the state police barracks in Philipsburg, killed his estranged wife, Traci Miscavish, 49, also of Philipsburg, at the County Market in the Pebbles Plaza in Philipsburg, where she worked. He also killed himself.

n Altoona voters passed a measure for a government study commission, which in December unanimously recommended that the city move to a home rule charter, which would ease some of the taxing restrictions that currently exist.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.