Hundreds salute officer in last call
Community gathers, recalls fond memories in emotional ceremony
The voice of a radio dispatcher echoed inside the Blair County Convention Center where family, colleagues and friends gathered Monday to remember county prison corrections officer Rhonda J. Russell.
“Officer Russell?” the dispatcher asked in what was described as a final radio check.
“This is a last call for Officer Rhonda Russell,” the dispatcher said.
The lack of response prompted tears near the beginning of the 90-minute memorial service to recognize the 47-year-old Russell killed on the job two weeks ago Wednesday.
Russell’s last shift ended Nov. 17, 2021, when she died at UPMC Altoona where she was taken for treatment of a gunshot wound suffered at Central Court in Altoona. That’s where Christopher J. Aiken, an inmate in custody, grabbed Russell’s gun and threatened her during a struggle, prompting an Altoona police officer to shoot at Aikens who moved Russell’s body into the line of fire, state police at Hollidaysburg reported in criminal charges against Aikens.
“We will never forget Nov. 17, 2021,” county Senior Judge Jolene G. Kopriva told the estimated 1,100 people who attended the memorial service and who watched via live broadcasts carried by local media outlets.
“On that day and within minutes,” Kopriva said, “a despicable act of pure violence erupted to end the life of a beloved mother, fiancee, daughter, sister, colleague and friend Rhonda Russell. Our souls were crushed by the weight of this evil act.”
Kopriva and others speaking at the memorial service, including Russell’s three sons, thanked the hundreds of law enforcement officers and honor guards who attended and participated in the service with bagpipe music, an outdoor 21-gun salute and the playing of taps.
Out-of-state honor guards included ones from California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, Michigan and Colorado.
“What you are witnessing is the brotherhood and sisterhood of corrections,” state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, told the attendees.
Russell’s sons, Justin, Richard and Aric Reader, spoke of their mother as someone with protective instincts, especially at home.
“Our mother was a true example of a mama bear,” Justin Reader said. “She would go to the end of the earth to protect us, and it didn’t matter what was in her path.”
“My mother is always going to be right here,” son Richard Reader said, placing his hand to his heart.
Aric Reader urged those watching the service to maintain regular contact with loved ones because “you don’t know the last time you’ll get to talk.”
Gregory, who recalled seeing Russell at Tyrone Area High School football games when her sons played, said he spoke to Justin Reader about his mother’s gravitation to a career in law enforcement. Russell worked nearly 15 years at the county prison.
“She never judged the inmates as anything other than human beings struggling through life,” Gregory recalled Justin Reader telling him.
When President Judge Elizabeth Doyle spoke of Russell, she referenced an online posting by a former inmate who credited Russell for helping her turn her life around.
The judge said: “It’s an extraordinary corrections officer who has those words spoken about her as well as these: “It’s pretty quiet and sober here in the prison today. The inmates are mourning her loss just like we are.” The latter quote came from Deputy Warden James Eckard, as published in the Nov. 19 Altoona Mirror.
Warden Abbie Tate, who had been working for about a year at the prison when Russell was hired in 2007, spoke of the camaraderie the pair developed on the job. Their usual greeting, the warden said, was “Hey Sunshine” and a head nod.
That started, Tate said, after a new inmate criticized both of them for their less-than-sunny dispositions and her annoyance with them.
“Hey Sunshine,” Tate said during the service as she glanced at the flag-covered casket and became a little emotional. “Don’t worry. We’ve got it from here.”
County Controller A.C. Stickel, who chairs the prison board, told those attending the service that Russell should be remembered.
“While there’s nothing we can do to change what happened, I can promise you that we will work together to never forget her sacrifice,” Stickel said.
U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, described Russell as an officer “who stood guard to protect us.”
“The debt we owe her is one we cannot repay,” Joyce said.
In addition to her sons, Russell is survived by fiance, Donald LaGesse, a fellow corrections officer at the prison; her parents, Ronald J. and Joyce (Bryan) Russell; two brothers, Chad Russell and Brandon Russell, and the father of her sons, Richard M. Reader.
Following the service, a procession of about 70-plus vehicles exited Convention Center Drive where several flag holders lined the intersection. From there, the procession moved quickly along Plank Road to the 17th Street entrance of I-99, heading toward Bellwood for a graveside service at Blair Memorial Park.
Along the route, many drivers parked and waited for the procession in the warmth of their vehicles on the cold, windy day with intermittent snow flurries.
David and Cathy Resch of Hollidaysburg, members of the Patriot Guard, however, embraced the weather as they stood at the corner of Orchard Avenue and Plank Road, holding American flags and saluting as the procession passed.
When asked why they came out on Monday, Cathy Resch said it was the patriotic thing to do and the weather doesn’t matter.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456. Mirror Staff Writer Hannah Pollock contributed to this report.