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DA clears sergeant in officer’s death

Bistline justified in use of force during incident that led to Russell’s killing

Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks announced that the use of deadly force in the accidental shooting death of Blair County Corrections Officer Rhonda Russell was deemed justified during a press conference at the courthouse on Friday afternoon. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

The Blair County District Attorney’s Office has exonerated the late Altoona police sergeant who fired a shot at an inmate who had taken a Blair County corrections officer hostage in November.

The shot struck and killed Rhonda Russell, a 14-year veteran corrections officer, who had been disarmed and restrained by inmate Christopher Aikens.

The DA’s office faulted security procedures in place at Central Court and recommended improvements to prevent a recurrence. Those improvements have already begun, according to a news conference Friday at the Blair County Courthouse and a printed report provided by DA Pete Weeks.

Russell was one of two prison employees who brought eight prisoners to Central Court that day, according to the report, which relies heavily on a state police investigation requested by the Altoona police department.

Two sheriff’s deputies were helping the two corrections officers guard the prisoners, but those deputies left by late afternoon to take two female inmates back to the prison, leaving Russell alone with five male inmates, after the other corrections officer took one remaining inmate to a preliminary hearing.

At that time, Aikens, who was awaiting a preliminary hearing on gun and drug charges, claimed he needed to go to the bathroom for the fifth time, according to the report.

Russell released him from the holding cell and unlocked the handcuff on his right wrist.

She didn’t relock it or secure it to the metal ring on the front of Aikens’ belt, which enabled Aikens “to fish the open handcuff through the metal ring and ultimately gain full mobility of both arms and hands,” the report states. “The transport belt and metal ring no longer shortened his arms’ reach away from his body, and the handcuffs no longer restricted the spread of his arms, giving him “completely unencumbered range of motion of his arms and hands,” the report states.

Aikens attacks

Upon returning from the bathroom, Aikens attacked Russell.

In a brief struggle, he drove Russell through an unlocked door into the empty female holding cell at the facility, which is where Magisterial District Judge Daniel DeAntonio has his offices.

Attorneys heard a commotion and asked Altoona police Sgt. George Bistline, who was there not to provide security, but as a liaison coordinating other Altoona officers’ witness assignments, to check it out.

On his way down the hall to the holding cell, Bistline heard Aikens and Russell scuffling inside the closed but unlatched door of the cell.

He opened the door and saw that Aikens had “gained physical control of both Officer Russell and her firearm,” the report states.

Aikens pointed Russell’s gun directly at Bistline’s face from a foot and a half away and ordered Bistline to “back off,” which led Bistline to take several steps backward, out of sight behind the partially opened door, after which he pulled his own gun and approached the doorway again, the report states.

As Russell continued to struggle with Aikens, Bistline saw “an opening at Mr. Aikens’ right shoulder” and fired a shot.

Because of the movement caused by the ongoing struggle, the bullet struck Russell in the head.

A second officer who’d been alerted entered the cell and found Aikens on the floor with his hands raised and Russell on top of him bleeding from the head and mouth.

Despite immediate assistance from first responders, Russell was pronounced dead at UPMC Altoona that afternoon, the report states.

When he first saw the pair struggling, Russell’s face showed “panic,” Bistline told troopers in an interview, according to the report.

Because of the continued struggling, he feared Aikens “was going to shoot her in there,” Bistline said.

“I couldn’t back off,” he told troopers. “I thought she was really in danger.”

Bistline then began opening the door slowly to get Aikens and Russell in sight again, he said.

Aikens was pointing Russell’s gun at her chest, but upon seeing Bistline again, he pointed it at the officer.

“Believing that he had a clear shot of Mr Aikens’ shoulder area, and that a second opportunity would not present itself, Sergeant Bistline fired,” according to the report. “‘I had no choice. I had a clear shot at his shoulder. I knew I could get his shoulder. That’s what I aimed for. But, when he turned, he must have pulled her. … I don’t know where she was hit,'” Bistline told troopers, according to the report.

Both Aikens and Russell fell, and Bistline then picked up Russell’s gun.

Lethal force permitted

State law permits police officers to employ deadly force to protect themselves or others from what the officer believes to be imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, and to achieve an arrest or prevent escape if there is probable cause to believe the subject poses a threat of death or serious bodily injury to themselves or others, according to the report.

Bistline was justified in his use of deadly force — although it had the unfortunate inadvertent effect of killing Russell, according to an expert on the state police Use of Force Review Team, which investigated the incident, the report states.

Bistline could reasonably believe that Aikens posed a lethal threat to himself and Russell, and that threat would have continued and expanded if he hadn’t been stopped, according to the expert.

“The facts and circumstances known to Sergeant Bistline in the moment would have led a similarly trained police officer to believe that the application of a less-lethal force option would not have represented a reasonably or tactically sound alternative,” the state police expert wrote.

“Bistline’s application of deadly force upon Christopher J. Aikens was objectively reasonable considering the facts and circumstances known to him at the time,” according to the report.

In keeping with the findings of the state police, the DA’s office has determined it would not have charged Bistline, who died of natural causes several months after the incident, with a crime if he were still alive, according to Weeks.

Communication lacking

Changes in the way the county handles security at Central Court need to be made, according to the report.

That includes better communication, the report states.

The communication failures included not informing the corrections officers responsible for security at Central Court that day that prison workers had discovered evidence that Aikens had tried to escape the day before by removing bricks from a wall of his cell, according to the report.

That was compounded by no elevated security measures being put in place for Aikens’ trip to Central Court.

The shooting also showed that responsibility for Central Court security needs to rest with one agency, according to the report.

At that time, both corrections officers and sheriff’s deputy’s shared responsibility, with neither group in charge of the other.

That became significant when the deputies left Central Court with the female prisoners.

Russell gave them her “blessing” to go, but she lacked the authority to make them stay, according to the report.

Aikens’ reaction to being left alone with Russell was telling, according to the report.

“They got this woman in this f—in’ hallway, and there’s seven of us in this holding cell,” Aikens told troopers. “Who the f— does that?”

Already planning to escape, he had been watching for an opportunity, and that situation provided it, according to the report.

There also needs to be better training, especially for corrections officers, the report states.

One glaring deficiency was in the way corrections officers handled the removal of handcuffs when inmates needed to use the bathroom, according to the report.

And there needs to be better oversight, according to the report.

“This tragedy makes it abundantly clear that lives are at stake, and any failures or inadequacies should not be acceptable,” the report stated.

Still, while it was a “culmination of multiple events … that led to Officer Russell’s death,” only Aikens was criminally responsible, according to the report, which repeatedly stresses that Aikens, who is charged in the case, is currently presumed innocent.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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