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Teen’s murder, COVID-19 voted top local stories of 2020

Mirror file photos, Photo illustration by Nick Anna A group of students gather at a memorial for Devon Pfirsching, a sophomore at Altoona Area High School, who was shot and killed on Feb. 25, 2020.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic dominated national and local news during 2020, the February murder of an Altoona teenager was voted as the top local story of the year by the Mirror’s news staff.

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

1. Devon Pfirsching homicide

Four juveniles face homicide charges in the Feb. 25 killing of a 15-year-old Altoona boy.

Devon Pfirsching, 15, a sophomore at Altoona Area High School, was shot in the head at point-blank range just before midnight.

Those charged after the incident include 15-year-old Damien Green and 16-year-olds Owen Southerland and Logan Persing.

Southerland, who was accused of firing the fatal shot, was charged with first-degree murder, criminal conspiracy to commit robbery, criminal use of a communication facility and possession of a firearm by a minor.

Persing and Green were charged with second-degree murder, criminal conspiracy to commit murder and criminal use of a communication facility.

Altoona police accused Persing and Green, along with Southerland, of plotting to rob Pfirsching of marijuana, leading to a confrontation and the fatal shooting on the 100 block of Fourth Avenue Alley between Overflow Church and Jefferson Park.

In April, Omedro T. Davis, 16, was charged with second-degree murder, conspiracy and related charges for his role in the shooting. Altoona police said Davis supplied Southerland with the stolen Glock handgun used in the killing.

While Southerland allegedly told investigators the day after the shooting that he bought the gun for 3 grams of marijuana and $110, an informant came forward in early March and claimed the Glock had been stolen from someone who lives in the Logan Hills Apartments and that about Feb. 22, Marcus Ellis gave him the gun, along with three loaded magazines, to “hold” for him, according to the charges.

Ellis was arrested

March 9 on a Blair County sheriff’s warrant and charged two days later by Altoona police with aggravated assault and related charges stemming from a Feb. 16 shooting on Lexington Avenue. Ellis has not been charged in relation to the Pfirsching shooting.

2. Blair’s first

COVID-19 death

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Blair County was not hit especially hard.

However, the first Blair County death attributed to the pandemic was announced in mid-May.

Blair County Coroner Patty Ross reported a 73-year-old inmate from the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon died at UPMC Altoona. The man was serving a life sentence.

As of Dec. 19, Blair County had 132 deaths.

COVID-19 deaths reported in other area counties included: Bedford, 77; Cambria 188; Centre 118; Clearfield, 31; and Huntingdon, 75.

3. Governor closes businesses

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to spread, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all “non-life sustaining” businesses to close their physical locations and said that the state government would enforce the edict.

It was among the toughest actions by a U.S. governor to combat the spread of COVID-19, coming after he had discouraged people from leaving home, if they could avoid it, and ordered schools shut through March, at least.

The governor’s order drew loud complaints that it threatened critical supply chains and economic devastation.

By the next evening, the Wolf administration issued new guidance that granted exceptions to the timber industry, coal mining, hotels, accountants, laundromats and law firms permitted by the courts.

Wolf also said there was a “robust waiver process” for businesses that believed they should be exempt from the shutdown order.

4. Blair ninth

worst county in U.S.

In mid-December, Blair County was listed ninth on the list of covid-dash.net’s list of the “50 Worst Outbreak Counties (in the nation) with population 100,000 or Greater,” based on the total number of cases per 100,000 people for the previous two weeks.

Neighboring Cambria County was ranked No. 1.

Cambria’s 2,004 cases per 100,000 people in the 14 days prior to Dec. 14 was 59 more than second-place Pueblo County, Colo., according to the website, which uses data from the New York Times and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Blair County’s 14-day total of new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people was 1,626 at that time.

The 14-day “target” used by the website, based on reopening criteria in several states, is 25 or fewer cases per 100,000 people, which means that Cambria’s infection rate was 80 times higher than it should be for relative safety.

Blair’s rate of new cases per 100,000 people was 65 times higher than the target number.

Cambria’s seven-day average for new cases was 194, while Blair’s was 155.

5. AASD high

school delayed

The Altoona Area School District’s new high school building was expected to be completed for the 2020-21 school year, but its opening was delayed.

Workers broke ground in 2018 for the $88 million project, which included a new B building and renovations to the A building.

The original completion date for the A and B buildings was June 20, but contractors lost about eight weeks of construction time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In July, Superintendent Charles Prijatelj said in spite of lost time, the school was scheduled to be completed by Aug. 31 deadline, but a decision was made to start the year virtually.

Upperclassmen were scheduled to have their first classes in the building the week of Nov. 9.

The district received its occupancy in mid-October, but it was waiting on several small items that were delayed because of the pandemic. Work continues on the expansion of the bridge.

Students in grades six through 12 began the school year in a virtual model and participated in a virtual model for the first marking period. Students returned to a hybrid, in-person model beginning Nov. 12 and 13.

As a result of the increased transmission rate in Blair County, on Nov. 24 the school board approved the shift to a full-time remote learning model beginning Dec. 1 and continuing through Feb. 1.

6. Elections in Pennsylvania

The 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania was different from other years.

In previous elections, mailed ballots were accepted only from absentee voters, defined as those who would be outside their municipality on Election Day and those with an illness or disability keeping them from voting in person. While those reasons were still valid for requesting absentee ballots, others electing to vote by mail did not need to have an excuse. Allowing voters to submit mailed ballots for any reason was part of Act 77 of 2019, the most significant change to the state Elections Code in 80 years.

In February, the state introduced a website to start taking online applications for mailed ballots.

On March 25, Pennsylvania lawmakers voted to delay the state’s primary election by five weeks to June 2 because of the spreading COVID-19 pandemic.

In May, the Blair County election’s board authorized temporary polling place locations and consolidations because of the pandemic. In some cases, polls were changed because previous locations were unavailable. In other cases, polls were consolidated based on the amount of staff available.

Thousands took advantage of the mail-in option for voting in the primary election. Across the state, more than 1.8 million voters had applied for mail-in or absentee ballots, smashing expectations by state officials for the debut of the new state law expanding access to mail-in balloting. Blair County voters had submitted 8,100 absentee and mail-in ballots prior to the primary election.

7. Damon ‘Fat Cat’ Devine sentenced

In February, a 43-year-old Johnstown man was sentenced to 21.5 to 43 years in jail for his role at the top of a drug-trafficking organization that sold a deadly form of heroin in Blair and Cambria counties in 2016 and early 2017.

Judge Daniel J. Milliron imposed sentences on Damon “Fat Cat” Devine who was convicted in December 2019 of multiple drug-trafficking offenses, then convicted in January of assaulting a fellow defendant at a district magistrate’s office.

Milliron said he based the sentence on Devine’s convictions, the amount of heroin and cocaine sold, the complexity and size of the organization and its threat to the community.

Devine’s organization involved about 15 associates, including those who testified at his December trial about the amount of heroin and cocaine they were selling, which included heroin that was packaged inside bags with a dragon stamp.

It was the sale of that heroin, leading to overdoses and deaths, which prompted investigators to start looking for the source and ask for a grand jury to aid their investigation.

That investigation culminated on Feb. 13, 2017, outside the Motel 6 in Altoona, where Devine and then-girlfriend, Jasmine McGowan, showed up to deliver $7,000 worth of heroin to Richard Govier, who had been selling Dragon heroin in Altoona. McGowan advised police where they could find more than 10,000 packets of heroin in the Johnstown residence that she and Devine shared.

8. Trump visits

Blair County

As in 2016, Donald Trump made a campaign visit to Blair County.

On Oct. 26, just eight days before the election, Marine One flew into the Altoona-Blair County Airport under gray skies; it looped once around the crowd of thousands below, then touched down. President Donald Trump stepped out of the helicopter and walked to the stage, which was decorated in red, white and blue, while “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood played in the background.

During the visit, he brought up a variety of issues, including the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for Supreme Court justice, foreign policy, taxes and military spending.

Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., made two campaign appearances in the county.

On Oct. 19, he addressed a couple of hundred people at McLanahan Corp. in Hollidaysburg and focused most of his speech on why Joe Biden and his family would be worse for the American people than President Donald Trump.

Trump Jr. also attended a rally Oct. 30 at the Blair Convention Center. The event didn’t pulsate with the kind of energy that dominated recent area events held by his father, but it clearly targeted the same group: those who’ve climbed aboard the “Trump Train” — which was the subject of a performance by a group of dancers who warmed up the audience in plaid shirts that matched the shirt worn by guitarist Ted Nugent, who also helped warm up the crowd for the president’s son. The event drew about 500 attendees.

9. George Floyd’s death spurs protests

Protesters gathered nationwide in the wake of George Floyd’s death and Blair County was no exception.

Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died while in custody of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on Memorial Day.

Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter four days after Floyd’s death.

A Facebook event titled “Justice Vigil for George Floyd” was planned by the Altoona contingent of Put People First-PA and scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. May 31 at Canal Basin Park & Visitors Center in Hollidaysburg.

About 5 p.m., organizers said it would be postponed and joined with another event. The group Indivisible Blair County articulated similar information, but was not involved in the original event’s planning.

Still, more than 100 people gathered at the park, holding homemade signs and participating in “Black Lives Matter’ chants. Individuals were invited to get up on stage and speak about their own experiences with racism. Police cruisers and EMS were staged a few blocks away from the protest.

According to reports, a handful of armed people stood along Bedford Street, briefly standing in the middle of the road but were “not engaging” with any protesters. Police on scene said they were aware of the situation, but they took no action because the armed individuals remained on the sidewalk and were not blocking traffic.

10. B-A school board member arrested

A member of the Bellwood-Antis School Board was arrested on drug and gun charges in January.

Jason Lynn, a member of the board since December 2017, was arrested by Altoona police Jan. 12 and numerous charges after police allegedly seized methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and stolen guns from two vehicles and Lynn’s home in Bellwood.

According to police, a woman who told police she had borrowed Lynn’s car, was stopped by Altoona police about 1 a.m. Jan 12. After the woman told officers there were guns in the trunk, along with a safe that possibly contained a stolen handgun, police searched the vehicle and allegedly turned up a stolen shotgun and three other long guns. The safe contained alleged drug paraphernalia, including ingredients used to make methamphetamine. Lynn was arrested after Altoona police pulled him over in another vehicle on Broad Avenue. He allegedly had a small bag of methamphetamine in his pocket and a backpack in the vehicle allegedly held 1.7 ounces of meth and an ounce of cocaine. An AK-47 and a .22 rifle also were in the vehicle.

A search of his home at 1200 E. Fifth St., Bellwood, allegedly turned up a stolen handgun, a packet of heroin, Suboxone, two amphetamine and dextroamphetamine pills, a small amount of marijuana, more methamphetamine, $2,806 in cash and four long guns, gun magazines and ammunition.

Lynn was again arrested on Feb. 9 on charges that include felony strangulation and robbery, stemming from an incident at his home, where he is accused of assaulting a woman and tying her up with plastic cable ties.

Lynn submitted a letter of resignation to school officials at his preliminary hearing Jan. 28, and the resignation was officially accepted Feb. 11.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.

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