A former Altoona police officer accused of aggravated assault testified Wednesday that he pummelled an older man during a brawl at a local bar nearly three years ago when he was grabbed around the neck and pulled backward.
Duane "D.J." Eichenlaub said that he was fighting Herman "Bo" Lardieri in the restroom of Pellegrine's Lounge because he believed Lardieri had improperly touched his wife while in the bar area.
Eichenlaub was joined by another off-duty officer, Eric R. Kriner, in the confrontation with Lardieri.
What the two men didn't realize was that Earl P. Eshelman, 59, was washing his hands when he noticed the two attack Lardieri.
During his testimony Tuesday, Eshelman said he saw two men on their knees beating Lardieri, who was prone and in the fetal position.
Eshelman said he grabbed Eichenlaub around the middle and was trying to pull him away, and that's when Eichenlaub spun and punched him in the face multiple times, ending with two serious blows that knocked Eshelman unconscious and resulted in eye and other serious injuries.
Eshelman spent six days in the hospital.
That wasn't what occurred, Eichenlaub responded on Wednesday when he, for the first time, told his story publicly in Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan's courtroom.
Eichenlaub, citing a key point in his defense, said he was grabbed around the neck and his head was jerked back. He said he began backpedaling and he felt the "sensation" of not being able to breathe.
As a police officer, he learned that neck holds can be deadly, potentially resulting in suffocation.
Eichenlaub said he spun to face Eshelman and punched him four times in the face, but the last he saw, Eshleman was getting to his feet and appeared uninjured.
Eichenlaub said he "felt horrible" about what happened to Eshelman, but he said he was being choked and he took steps to save himself the only way he knew how.
Eichenlaub's attorney Lawrence J. Rosen said, "This was the perfect case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time."
He argued to the jury that Eichenlaub acted in self-defense when he attacked Eshelman.
Deputy Attorney General Christopher Jones countered that argument, saying the defense was putting the victim on trial, adding there was a common theme to Eichenlaub's story: Everybody else during the early morning of Memorial Day 2010 was at fault, with Eichenlaub attempting to depict himself as a victim.
Jones argued that Eichenlaub was portraying Lardieri as being at fault for his own assault because of the assault on Eichenlaub's wife, even though, Jones said, Eichenlaub had no legal right to attack Lardieri.
Eichenlaub believes Eshelman was at fault for being a "good Samaritan," Jones said.
Eichenlaub is charged with attempting to cover-up the assault by urging a fellow officer Jack Kuhn III, sent to investigate the brawl, to not put his name in the official report. Kuhn didn't.
Kuhn did what he did on his own, Eichenlaub testified.
Jones countered that Eichenlaub's statement was more of the defense's common theme: blaming Kuhn for the cover-up.
Sullivan was about to give the case to the jury at 5 p.m. Wednesday but decided to put off his instructions until this morning. The jury is expected to have the case in its hands by 10 a.m.
The jury has several decisions to make as outlined by the attorneys.
A suspect cannot argue self-defense if a third party - in this case Eshelman - was attempting to intervene or help a person he thought was in danger of injury, Jones argued.
The defense contended that Lardieri was standing and fighting with Eichenlaub and Kriner, not lying on the floor in a fetal position.
The jury must decided which story to believe, both attorneys argued.
Eichenlaub's wife, Adrienne, took the stand on Wednesday and tearfully told of the assault on her by Lardieri, who, she said, put his hand up her dress as he passed by.
Kriner supported Eichenlaub's story that he was grabbed around the neck and had to defend himself from Eshelman.
Kriner has entered guilty pleas to simple assault of Lardieri and to hindering the police investigation. He will be sentenced by Sullivan in March.
Eichenlaub testified that he was an Army veteran of the Iraq War and that he had been a police officer since 2006.
Until the night of the fateful incident at Pellegrine's Lounge, Eichenlaub said he had seen his wife cry only once and that was when her grandmother died.
She is a "very strong woman," so when she approached him in Pellegrine's after an evening celebrating a fellow officer's wedding, he knew something was wrong.
"Her face was red. She was crying. She was very upset," he said.
She told him that "some pervert" had stuck his hand up her dress.
She described the man as short and stocky, and Eichenlaub approached a male standing nearby who fit the description. The man denied the assault, but a woman approached Eichenlaub and said the person who had committed the offense was in the men's restroom.
He went to the restroom and found Lardieri in "a hiding or cowering position," Eichenlaub said.
The ex-officer said that based on Lardieri's body language, he knew the man had done something. He said he asked Lardieri if committed the assault on his wife.
It was Lardieri's response that brought Eichenlaub's anger to a full boil, he said. Lardieri bore a "crazy smile." He "giggled like a child," Eichenlaub said.
He grabbed Lardieri by the lapel of his shirt and the two began what Eichenlaub called a "hockey fight" with each man grabbing and punching the other as they went round and round, slamming into walls.
Eichenlaub said as he was fighting, he was grabbed around the neck.
After the fight, Eichenlaub said he, Kriner and Lardieri left the lounge.
Eichenlaub left the lounge, he said, because his wife was upset and she wanted to go.
He said that he knew, "I am a police officer. I am intoxicated. I just rolled with some guy." This meant potential trouble with police administration.
Eichenlaub is alleged to talked with Kuhn, Kriner and a third officer Terry Merritts later that morning in an effort to hinder the police investigation.