By Greg Bock
HOLLIDAYSBURG - The state police investigator assigned to investigate a 2010 bar beating that allegedly involved two off-duty Altoona police officers testified Tuesday that the case went to a grand jury after nearly every officer he interviewed denied knowing anything about rumors that it involved two of their own.
Cpl. Joseph Cigich said in Blair County Court that he spoke to between 12 and 15 officers as he began investigating the alleged beating of two men in the men's room at Pellegrine's Lounge in the early morning hours of May 31, 2010, on rumors that Duane James "D.J." Eichenlaub and Eric R. Kriner were involved.
Most of the officers were at the bar following the wedding of a fellow officer.
Eichenlaub is on trial on aggravated assault and cover-up charges.
Cigich testified that after talking to the officers, including responding on-duty patrol officer Jack Kuhn III, he concluded that there was more to what he was being told.
"I felt others may have information but everyone denied knowledge of what happened in the restroom," Cigich told the jury.
After speaking with a prosecutor from the state Attorney General's Office, the decision was made to put the matter before an investigative grand jury, Cigich said.
"It became evident the only people who know what happened in that restroom was those four people," Cigich said, referring to Eichenlaub, Kriner and the two men prosecutors said were assaulted - Herman "Bo" Lardieri, 40, and Earl P. Eshelman, 61.
Eichenlaub's attorney, Lawrence J. Rosen of Harrisburg, told the jury during opening arguments that Eshelman was responsible for the beating that put him in the hospital for six days and left him with lingering health issues. He said Eshelman attacked Eichenlaub when he pulled the off-duty cop off Lardieri by the neck.
Eshelman insisted when he took the stand Tuesday that he pulled Eichenlaub off Lardieri by the waist but admitted that certain aspects of that night were hard to remember because of the beating.
Rosen, who said Eichenlaub will testify today, pointed out his client was justifiably enraged at Lardieri because the convicted felon had sexually assaulted Eichenlaub's wife in the bar just before 1 a.m. that morning by reaching under her skirt to touch her bare backside and that Eshelman was wrong to try to break up the altercation.
"My client didn't intend to injure anyone," Rosen said. "He was defending himself."
Prosecutor Deputy Attorney General Christopher Jones opened by pointing out to jurors that the defense has stipulated to the fact that Eshelman suffered serious enough injuries to meet the definition of aggravated assault and that Eshelman was only present at the time because he had gone to use the restroom. Jones said the Eichenlaub's and Kriner's assault of Lardieri had blocked Eshelman's exit from the bathroom and after thinking through his options, the retired dairy worker decided to break up the fight.
After Eichenlaub beat Eshelman, Jones said, the off-duty officer fled and a plan was set in motion to try to cover it up through lies and misinformation.
Jurors heard Kuhn testify that Eichenlaub called him several times while Kuhn and another officer were at the bar following a 911 call. Kuhn said he and Eichenlaub were close, that Eichenlaub had once saved his life during a shootout with a suspect, and Eichenlaub asked him to "make it go away."
Kuhn said he decided to help Eichenlaub and noted that his official police report didn't contain Eichenlaub's or Kriner's names. He admitted to stonewalling and lying to Altoona police internal affairs as well as the state police.
As he learned he would have to face a grand jury, Kuhn said he decided to come clean.
Rosen tried to cast a shadow over Kuhn's testimony, insinuating that Kuhn decided to cover up the incident on his own and was now taking advantage of immunity from prosecution.
Also testifying was Altoona police officer Terry Merritts, who was off-duty and at the bar but not a part of the post-wedding gathering. Merritts said Kriner, who pleaded guilty to simple assault and conspiracy to obstruct a law enforcement investigation and who is slated for sentencing in March, called him that night and said Eichenlaub had beat an old "drunk" in the bar's restroom and encouraged Merritts to help muddy the waters of any investigation by suggesting false suspects if asked.
Merritts said Kriner told him the Altoona police administration was gunning for Eichenlaub and all he needed to do was supply misinformation that would make investigators "look like a bunch of clowns."
Merritts said he told Kriner he wasn't lying for the pair and said when he was asked if he knew anything about the incident the next day, he told an Altoona detective about Kriner's calls, admissions and request for help.
Judge Timothy M. Sullivan said the case will likely go to the jury today.