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Family reeling from shooting

‘There are so many things I don’t understand,’ says Messner’s mother

In the days leading up to Friday, Todd Messner’s family knew something was terribly wrong.

“It was a long battle for Todd,” his mother, Sandra Messner, said Saturday, a day after her youngest son was shot and killed when, according to state police, he pulled a gun on a Roaring Spring police officer who responded to the parking lot of True Value Hard­ware after multiple calls about a man acting strangely and causing a disturbance.

“There are so many things I don’t understand,” Messner said, pointing out she has only spoken to state police once since Friday’s shooting and right now she has more questions than answers about why her 49-year-old son, who was living with her in Saxton, found his way to Roaring Spring with a gun.

“The officer probably has a family and has to be going through hell,” the 72-year-old Messner said of the unnamed officer who shot her son.

As for her son, he had been living in his own sort of hell, one consumed by health problems compounded by deteriorating mental health that was further hampered by lingering troubles.

“It just hurts that everyone thinks he’s a bad guy,” she said. “He wasn’t.”

Messner said her son was a family man who loved his children and was tortured by his inability to provide for them while struggling to navigate not only the Veterans Adminstration system, but the criminal justice system as well.

Todd Messner served nine years with the Pennsylvania’s National Guard’s 56th Stryker Brigade, 28th Infantry Division, Second Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment — service that included tours in Kosovo and Iraq, she said. It was during his last tour in Iraq, in 2009, that he fell while unloading ammunition for the Strykers and broke his neck and dislocated his shoulder.

His mother said from that point on, life became a struggle as he tried to navigate the VA system to deal with getting treatment for his injuries, only to encounter roadblock after roadblock. By the time he did get surgery, and only after going to a doctor outside the system, there was scar tissue and nerve damage.

He was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered regular seizures, she said.

Todd Messner was able to get 70 percent disability through the VA, she said, and in time was able to get a small increase, but the money wasn’t enough for man with a wife and two children. Before he was injured, Messner worked as an auto body man, a trade for which he had gone to school and trained for after graduating from Plymouth White Marsh High School in Plymouth Meeting, just outside Philadelphia.

She said his children meant the world to him. They had enough acreage at their Three Springs, Huntingdon County, home, that he loved to spend time in the outdoors with his 8-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter.

“He had such a big heart,” she said. “He loved his children.”

At one point in time, Todd and his wife took in the children of a family member. “He loved his children with all his heart,” his mother said. “All he wanted to do is make sure they were provided for and he didn’t see any way of making that happen.”

Over time, his mental state deteriorated. In early 2015, Todd Messner was arrested by state police after he loaded four guns, told his wife he was going to “burn the mountain down and kill his neighbors.” According to state police report at the time, he tried to burn down a neighbor’s cabin.

“He had a breakdown at home,” Messner said of the incident, one she said was a cry for help.

He was sentenced in 2016 in Huntingdon to 18 to 36 months in jail and four years’ probation after he pleaded no contest to felony reckless burning or exploding of an uninhabited structure and felony explosive material.

Huntingdon County President Judge George Zanic also included a stipulation that Todd Messner continue his mental health treatment as directed by his doctor, and that he take his medication as prescribed by his doctor, according to online court records.

Last week, three days before he was killed, Todd Messner stopped taking all his medications, she said.

“He said all those medications did was mess up his thinking,” she recalled. “He needed to clear his head. He said he couldn’t think.”

Even before that, in recent months and weeks, his behavior was disturbing. He was living with his mother because his children were afraid of him, although he spoke to his son on the phone every night, she said.

“I noticed different things,” she said, pointing out that he thought the police were after him everywhere he would go.

“He would yell back the hallway, ‘I know you’ve been listening. Is that all right with you?'” she said. Messner said she asked her son what he was doing and he would tell her he was talking to “the man back there.” She would get up, look and tell him, “Todd, there’s no one back there.”

He told her, “They’re here, mom. They’re outside and they’re watching me. They’re whistling. Don’t you hear them whistling?”

He thought people were in the trees, unhooked her house phones for a time and even manipulated her box for her television so she only has one channel, she pointed out.

He complained about a continuous ringing in his ears, she said. “He said, ‘Mom, it’s driving me crazy.'”

He couldn’t sleep and lost weight. He blacked out. He had seizures. His mother said they exhausted every financial means they had trying to find out what was wrong with him. “We used every financial resource,” she said. “We went to psychologist after psychologist.”

He was also facing trial on DUI by drugs charges from a 2017 arrest in Huntingdon County.

On June 18, Todd Messner posted a long, rambling message on Facebook, saying he would do as he was ordered by the court and take his medications while also laying out how he felt let down by the government he was once proud to serve. He started off the post referencing the warning on car mirrors, that objects are closer than they appear, before writing, “‘WARNING: YOU appear crazier than those in view of you,’ those who know me will probably know better.”

Earlier that week, although she wasn’t sure if it was over the weekend or last Monday, state troopers arrived at her house with a warrant for an involuntary commitment, what is commonly referred to as a 302. She asked them to take him to the VA in Altoona or UPMC Altoona, but he was taken to J.C. Blair Memorial Hospital in Huntingdon.

Messner said she figured he would be in mental health treatment for at least 72 hours, but she was shocked when six to eight hours later, at 1 a.m, she got a call from a nurse at the hospital asking that she pick up her son as he wasn’t being admitted.

An email sent to a J.C. Blair spokesman on Sunday was not immediately answered.

About 3 p.m. Friday, he talked with his wife, Alda, on the phone and then his 8-year-old son, who suffers from autism, Messner said. He told his son he loved him, she recalled. “It really sounded like he was telling them goodbye.”

He told her, “Mom, I’m really not afraid to die.”

She asked him what he meant. He told her, “I would have never joined the military if I was afraid to die.”

She said when he left home, he had his small duffle bag with some clothes and his computer, and put it over his shoulder. He asked his mom if she had any cash she could give him and she said didn’t. She reminded him he had some cash in his wallet and he left, saying he was going for a walk.

She said she was upset and doesn’t know how he got to Roaring Spring or got his hands on a gun. Messner lost an appeal to the state Superior Court in 2018 to get his guns after his 2015 arrest — two shotguns, a hunting rifle and a .380 caliber handgun — returned to his wife and a family member. The court found he failed to transfer ownership of the guns, some of which his mother said were family heirlooms, within the 60-day timeframe after his July 2016 conviction.

Messner said she hopes to get some answers someday and said she believes her son just reached a breaking point.

He told her recently, “Mom, they took everything. I’ll never get out of paying, with my VA check — I’ll never get this probation thing paid for.”

She said she told him: “You have a little boy who thinks you’re the moon and the sun. You have a daughter who loves you.”

Messner questioned how someone who was once proud to serve his country got to the point he told her if someone asked, he’d lie and tell him he hadn’t served. She wondered if enough is done to help veterans.

“They teach them how to kill,” she said, adding that when they come back and are discharged they are left to fend for themselves. “They don’t teach them how to be civilians again.”

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.

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