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Police detail shooting incident

Mirror photo by Sarah Vasile / State College Police Department Chief John Gardner (right) delivers a press conference Friday about a fatal shooting that took place Thursday night.

STATE COLLEGE — This usually quiet town finds itself still shaking from Thursday’s late-night tragedy in which a gunman killed four people, including himself.

“Relatively speaking,” State College Police Chief John Gardner said at a press conference Friday, “State College is one of the safest places in America.”

That classification was challenged at 10:14 p.m. Thursday when 21-year-old Jordan Witmer of Benner Township went on a shooting spree at P.J. Harrigan’s Bar & Grill, located at 1450 S. Atherton Street. Harrigan’s is attached to the Ramada Hotel.

Pronounced dead Thursday night were Dean Beachy, 61, George McCormick, 83, and Witmer.

Beachy’s son, 19-year-old Steven Beachy, died Friday.

Nicole Abrino, 21, remains in critical condition after being transferred from Mount Nittany Medical Center to a Pittsburgh hospital.

Gardner said police are trying to determine a motive and “make sense of what occurred.”

Officers were first dispatched to Harrigan’s after a report of shots fired.

Gardner said Witmer had arrived at the bar about 8:30 p.m. and was there with Abrino.

Police are still trying to determine the exact relationship between Witmer and Abrino.

According to police, at one point during the night, Witmer got up from his bar seat, walked to where the Beachys were seated and began shooting.

Dean Beachy, a visiting auctioneer from Millersburg, Ohio, suffered a gunshot wound to the head and was pronounced dead at the scene.

Steven Beachy suffered a torso wound and was taken to Mount Nittany Medical Center.

He was transferred to UPMC Altoona, where he was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. Friday, Centre County Deputy Coroner Debra Smeal told the Millersburg (Ohio) Daily Record.

Dean Beachy was listed as an auctioneer at a standard-bred horse auction at Penns Valley Livestock in Centre Hall, the Record reported.

Abrino suffered a chest wound.

According to police, after the shooting, Witmer fled and crashed his car at the intersection of Waupelani Drive and Tussey Lane at about 10:46 p.m.

Officers found Witmer’s vehicle unoccupied, and at 11:09 p.m., State College police were dispatched to 748 Tussey Lane — McCormick’s home — for a reported burglary in progress with shots fired.

Gardner said Witmer entered the McCormick residence by shooting a sliding glass door and then kicking his way in.

Officers entered at approximately 11:14 p.m. and found McCormick deceased with a gunshot wound to his head.

Witmer was found deceased in the living room from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

McCormick’s wife, Joann, 80, was unharmed. She had locked herself in the bedroom and called 911.

As questions persisted Friday about the shooter and his motive, Gardner reminded, “What I don’t want to have lost here … four people lost their lives.”

Gardner said an investigation revealed that there was no relationship between Witmer and the McCormicks, and it is believed he chose the home at random after crashing his vehicle.

After describing the incident, Gardner took time to address some issues regarding the timeliness of certain warnings.

Gardner said he wanted “to stress more than anything” that the first thing officers did after collecting relevant information was to send that information to other law enforcement bodies, including Pennsylvania State Police. This information included a description of the suspect.

Gardner noted that by the time he arrived on scene at 11:15 p.m., a lot of the information had already been dispersed through local television and social media.

“If there’s one thing I think we, myself in particular as the police chief here, could have done better is to release information sooner that the threat had been eliminated,” he said.

“We knew there was no more threat to the public,” Gardner said, adding that “in hindsight” he wishes the information had been released sooner so the public hadn’t remained in a “heightened state.”

On social media in particular, several Penn State students expressed concern over the fact that no university alert was sent out.

Gardner said that during the incident there were “no immediate threats to Penn State or its students,” in part due to the fact that the shooting took place miles off campus.

Gardner said the shooting was “a State College incident, not a university incident,” which contributed to the university’s decision not to send out an alert.

Penn State issued a statement Friday, saying it was “deeply saddened by the senseless acts of violence that have occurred and our thoughts are with the victims and their families” and adding that it was in touch with State College police Thursday night and was “monitoring the rapidly unfolding off-campus incident.”

“The decision to send an action alert is made on a case-by-case basis for each situation, and is based on information available to Penn State Police at the time of the event,” the statement read. “We always review our responses to these incidents and will adjust our processes as needed.”

The police department is in the process of investigating more on Witmer’s background, Gardner said.

A 2015 Bellefonte High School graduate, Witmer was in the military, but it is unclear whether he was active duty or had just gotten out.

Gardner said Witmer had a legal permit to carry a gun.

Gardner said the case isn’t “open and closed” because Witmer took his own life, adding that the department will work as long as possible to determine exactly what happened.

Gardner said an investigation into whether or not there were drugs or alcohol in Witmer’s system is being conducted.

Gardner said mass shootings are “not very common” in the area.

A sign on the door at Harrigan’s said the bar would be closed through the weekend and expressed condolences to the victims.

Mirror copy editor Sarah Vasile can be reached at 949-7029.

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