Author: Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
By Steven Henshaw Reading Eagle
READING, Pa. — Hiding in brush so thick that a tracking dog was of no use, Gregory A. Longenecker couldn’t shake his pursuers as they inched closer with the help of a bulldozer on state game lands in northwestern Berks County.
Desperate and impaired by the use of multiple narcotics, the Reading man, 51, crawled on his belly underneath the machine after it had stopped, according to Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams.
In a press conference Tuesday, Adams announced the findings of a nearly two-month investigation of the July 9 death of Longenecker in the field adjacent to Snyder School Road in Penn Township.
Bernville police Chief Brian Thumm and a Pennsylvania Game Commission employee discovered Longenecker and his friend David B. Light in the vicinity of a marijuana-growing operation enclosed by chicken wire in a hidden clearing.
Light surrendered immediately, but Longenecker fled into the brush.
Adams ruled the death was accidental and said that state police operated in a safe and reasonable manner despite the tragic outcome.
Adams said he assigned county detectives to investigate the death in conjunction with state police investigators because it has been his policy for several years to have an independent agency investigate police-involved deaths.
The investigation relied heavily on the autopsy report issued Aug. 23 by Dr. Neil A. Hoffman, a forensic pathologist, Adams said.
Hoffman found that Longenecker died of acute compression of the chest and that his injuries were “consistent with the decedent placing himself in between the treads of the bulldozer then becoming caught under the treads as the bulldozer made a turn toward the left.”
Adams said he saw the brush for himself and was “quite frankly shocked” at how thick it was. A Lower Heidelberg Township tracking dog was called, but it was too thick for the canine to be effective.
Investigators believe Longenecker used hand-operated shears to cut his escape path.
Adams said he wanted to correct the “misconception” from early media reports that Longenecker was run over. He said that gave the impression that the treads of the small bulldozer ran over his body.
The investigation showed the only part of Longenecker’s body that made contact with the treads was his right arm. When the bulldozer resumed movement and entered into a left turn, it twisted Hoffman’s body so he was no longer lying flat.
With only 14 inches of clearance between the bottom of the machine and the ground, Longenecker could only avoid contact while in the prone position.
How the bulldozer moved
The trooper navigated the bulldozer driven by a Game Commission employee on a slow, methodical, indirect path toward the suspect, Adams said.
“They went approximately 1 mile per hour at best,” he said.
It was impossible for Longenecker to end up under the bulldozer other than crawling from behind because its front blade was only an inch above the ground, Adams said. If Longenecker had been in front of the bulldozer, he would have been pushed along with the brush.
“We can only guess he crawled under the back of the bulldozer to avoid detection,” Adams said.
Toxicology tests found Longenecker had methadone, methamphetamine and cannabis in his system at the time of his death. The levels of methadone and methamphetamine were almost “toxic,” Adams said, citing the pathologist’s report, and this would have impaired his judgment, perception and coordination.
The findings didn’t surprise Todd Jones of Spring Township.
Still, Jones, who said that he considered Longenecker and Light to be his two best friends, could hardly contain his anger when called by a reporter.
Jones said he figured prosecutors would use the toxicology report as a way of avoiding taking responsibility for Longenecker’s death.
“That’s exactly how we knew they were going to spin it,” Jones said. “They tried so hard to find a way out. They stopped the bulldozer when they lost sight of him, so why the hell did they start in again? They’re just pushing the blame.
“First they said he might have died of a heart attack, and now they’re saying it was a drug thing.”
Jones, who said he stays in contact with Longenecker’s family, rejected the theory that Longenecker crawled under the bulldozer.
“He was hunkered down hoping they wouldn’t find him and give up,” he said. “They already had Dave (Light). Wait a couple of days and you’ve got him. It was uncalled for. Go to war for 10 marijuana plants?”
Light of the 1000 block of Clematis Street was held for court after a hearing Aug. 22 before District Judge Andrea J. Book on a manufacturing marijuana charge. He remains free awaiting action in Berks County Court.
Friend wants state probe
Jones, who organized a “Justice for Greg Now” rally Aug. 5, said that he and his supporters plan to take the issue to the state attorney general’s office.
“We’re jumping over John Adams,” he said.
Chief County Detective Michael J. Gombar said after the press conference that state police were so close to Longenecker that at one point they heard his cellphone go off.
He said Longenecker faced a felony charge of manufacturing marijuana if caught.
“When you’re that close, you’re not going to call it off,” he said.
Gombar said the 10 marijuana plants were not at full maturity, but if nurtured to harvest, they had the potential of producing 30 pounds of cannabis.
Adams said a number of seedlings in Styrofoam cups were found near the more mature plants. He reminded his audience that marijuana is still illegal in Pennsylvania unless prescribed for medical purposes.
“I recognize the sanctity of life above all values,” Adams said. “It’s very unfortunate that a life was lost, and our condolences go out to the Longenecker family. However, I support the actions of the Pennsylvania State Police. Their actions were reasonable and conducted in a safe manner in this situation.”