A 32-year-old former Altoona police officer who helped beat up a bar patron nearly three years ago and then participated in a cover-up said Wednesday during his sentencing hearing, "I should have come forward and said what happened."
Eric R. Kriner chronicled for Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan his descent into a "dark place," suggesting suicide was on his mind for a time, thanking God for helping him get through the lengthy ordeal and pleading with the judge not to disrupt his attempts at new life with his wife, Sue, and his children by sending him to prison for a long period of time.
Sullivan placed Kriner, now of Brockport, on probation for four years for simple assault and conspiracy to obstruct justice, saying to him, "Nobody - not judges, lawyers, police officers or government officials - are above the law."
The judge denounced the idea of taking the law into "your own hands," and he said, "It's important the community has trust in police departments and in law enforcement."
Kriner is the first of two officers to be sentenced in the controversial case that shook the Altoona Police Department from top to bottom and wasn't resolved until state police took over the investigation and a statewide grand jury recommended charges be brought against Kriner, his friend and colleague Duane "D.J." Eichenlaub and the patron, Herman "Bo" Lardieri, 40, who allegedly started the brawl by lifting the dress of Eichenlaub's wife.
Lardieri was acquitted of indecent assault but was found guilty of lying to the grand jury.
The ruckus at Pellegrine's Lounge in May 2010 resulted in convictions of Kriner and Eichenlaub. Two other officers linked to the cover-up also are no longer on the force.
While Kriner entered guilty pleas to two misdemeanor charges, Eichenlaub took his case before a jury and was convicted Jan. 24 of seven offenses that included the aggravated assault of 60-year-old Earl Eshelman of East Freedom, another patron who tried to break up the fight between the officers and Lardieri.
The investigation determined Eichenlaub punched Eshelman several times in the face, injuring him severely but found that Kriner was not involved in the violence toward Eshelman.
Eichenlaub will be sentenced on April 29, according to Sullivan.
Eshelman did not speak during the Kriner hearing, but he submitted a victim impact statement that said, "My life has dramatically changed as a result of crimes committed by Eric Kriner and Duane D.J. Eichenlaub on May 30-31."
He said he used to go to the gym and would contribute blood to help children who are suffering with cancer. He said he enjoyed attending community events and socializing with his friends.
"This life I once had has been viciously taken from me," Eshelman wrote.
He said he suffered significant injuries to his brain, head, face, nose and eyes and continues to have dizziness, lack of balance and short-term memory loss.
He concluded, "I am very frustrated, and angry and depressed over what my life has become due to the irresponsible actions of these two men."
After the hearing, a family member who was comforting Eshelman said he was unable to speak about Kriner's sentence of probation, but then he said, "Very angry."
Deputy Attorney General Christopher Jones did not recommend a sentence to the judge, but after hearing the presentations of Kriner and his attorney, Roger Laguna Jr. of Harrisburg, Jones said, there's no doubt in his mind Kriner's family has suffered, but he said it was "no one's fault but Mr. Kriner" that he was involved in the fight.
"Other people suffered because of this," he said.
Laguna said the fight was "an aberration in Mr. Kriner's life."
He said Kriner and Eichenlaub were two young men attending an after-wedding event at an Altoona lounge, saying, "It was a big party is what it was."
He said Kriner knows he was not justified in becoming involved in the fight and the subsequent cover-up.
"He gets it," Laguna said.
Kriner, in speaking to the judge, said, "I wish I had a time machine and [could] go back and change this."
At the time of the incident he was faced with a choice to do his duty or stick by a friend. He said he also remained quiet about what happened that night because of the fear of being ostracized by fellow officers throughout the rest of his career by coming forward.
The incident cost him his career in law enforcement, his Altoona home, and for a while, he was without a job and couldn't pay the bills.
"I was in a very dark place when this happened. ... Thank God for giving me the strength to go forward," he said.
Kriner is now working with machinery at a plant and is taking courses at Penn State, where in two years he will obtain a degree in mechanical engineering.
"I've done so much to rebuild my life, to be a productive member of the community, to rebuild my dignity. You don't know what it is like to feel like dirt," he said to the judge.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.