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One dead in city court shooting

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Local law enforcement officers wait behind Central Court at 615 Fourth St. in Altoona on Wednesday afternoon after a shooting occurred in the building. Blair County corrections officer, 47-year-old Rhonda Jean Russell, was shot and killed during the incident.

A Blair County corrections officer was killed Wednesday afternoon when a male inmate disarmed her during a struggle at the Central Court building, at 615 Fourth St.

Rhonda Jean Russell, 47, of Altoona, was pronounced dead at UPMC Altoona, according to state police, who were called in to investigate the incident.

According to state police, a known suspect, who was a prisoner at the Blair County Jail, was at Central Court for court proceedings when he allegedly disarmed Russell of her firearm and a struggle ensued.

A law enforcement officer within the court building responded to the struggle and subsequently discharged his firearm in an attempt to stop the suspect from harming Russell, police reported.

Police said Russell was subsequently struck by a round from the law enforcement officer’s firearm, and after lifesaving measures were performed at the scene, she was later pronounced dead at UPMC Altoona.

Altoona Police Sgt. Matt Plummer said the shooting occurred about 3:20 p.m., and state police confirmed later Wednesday evening that the suspect was taken into custody.

State police did not specify which department the law enforcement officer was from, but Plummer stated about 5 p.m. Wednesday that an Altoona police officer was involved in the incident.

“I can confirm there has been an officer-involved shooting, and it did involve an Altoona police officer,” Plummer said. “This investigation has now been turned over to the Pennsylvania State Police.”

Late Wednesday, Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico could only confirm that the victim was not an Altoona police officer.

Initial scanner reports indicated shots were fired and an officer was down, and a heavy police presence flooded the area of the 600 block of Fourth Street within a matter of minutes.

Plummer and Trooper Christopher Fox of the state police initially revealed that Russell, whose name was not revealed until late Wednesday evening, was injured and transported to UPMC Altoona after a shooting took place in the area of the Central Court building.

Police did not release the alleged suspect’s name, though troopers released that he faces charges of criminal homicide, attempted criminal homicide, kidnapping and other related charges.

“There is an active investigation,” Fox said Wednesday evening. “Pennsylvania State Police has taken the lead on the investigation.”

While the incident is under investigation, officials said the situation is under control and that it was an isolated incident.

“There’s no type of threat or danger to the neighborhood,” Plummer said, later adding that there are a lot of moving parts for what he called a “very serious situation.”

Fox and Plummer declined to comment further, stating that more information will be announced “when it becomes available.”

Officials from the Altoona Police Department, Blair County Sheriff’s Office, Blair County District Attorney’s Office, state police, AMED and others assisted at the scene.

According to a news release from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, the court facility was immediately secured as the incident unfolded. All other local magisterial district judge offices remain open.

Local residents who declined to be identified said Wednesday afternoon they were shocked by the news of an officer-involved shooting taking place at the court.

“It’s not a surprise that a shooting like this could happen, but it’s really unusual for this to happen at the justice’s office,” one resident said.

No residents surveyed on the scene reported hearing any gunshots, stating they were unaware of what was happening until police arrived on scene.

“I was sleeping on the couch and didn’t even know anything was wrong until I heard all of these cops flying in,” another resident said. “The screeching of all the tires is what woke me up.”

The events Wednesday unsettled residents who live in the immediate area and they voiced fear about the future of what was once a “safe neighborhood.”

It was the second deadly shooting that occurred in that section of town in the past two years, with residents citing the other fatal shooting as that of the Feb. 27, 2020, death of 15-year-old Devon Pfirsching at Jefferson Park on Fourth Avenue.

Residents said their thoughts are focused on the first responders and families of those involved, but they admitted the shooting has left them “rattled.”

“Growing up, this part of town used to be really safe,” a resident said. “Not anymore.”

Mirror Staff Writer Calem Illig is at 814-946-7535.

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