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Patton officer receives Life Saving Award for response to bar shooting

by on February 20, 2020 11:17 AM

STATE COLLEGE — Patton Township Police Officer Brian Shaffer was at the Ramada Hotel and Conference Center working on a separate investigation Jan. 24, 2019, when two people ran to him, telling him a shooting had just occurred in the bar area.

That tragic shooting incident started at the hotel bar, PJ Harrigan’s, and continued into a nearby neighborhood, leaving four people dead.

Shaffer’s brave response as the first officer on scene helped save the life of the sole survivor — Nicole Abrino, 21 — and assisted local law enforcement in their pursuit of the shooter, Jordan Witmer, 21.

On Feb. 12, Patton Township Police Chief Tyler Jolley presented Shaffer with the department’s Life Saving Award for rendering lifesaving first aid.

During the presentation, Jolley said, “as others fled from the danger, Officer Shaffer, without hesitation, responded to the bar area, looking for the threat. He immediately recognized that this was an active shooter situation. Officer Shaffer realized that the threat had fled from the area and he began to triage the victims of the shooting. Officer Shaffer identified a female victim who was critically wounded and he immediately began to render aid to that victim by applying pressure to the gunshot wound.”

Shaffer, a 10-year veteran of the department after serving eight years with the Baltimore police force, said he was standing in the lobby of the hotel along with two other tactical officers when they were approached about the shooting. Shaffer and the other officers had not heard the gunshots, and Shaffer said he wasn’t sure what to expect as they went to investigate. He said he had not investigated an actual shooting in the State College area, but he had in Baltimore.

As officers went to investigate, they were not sure exactly where the shooting had occurred, so Shaffer said they went through the kitchen area. As they approached the saloon-style doors that separated the kitchen and the bar area, Shaffer said, “I could smell the gunpowder, so I knew right away that it was a legit shooting.”

“We moved deliberately, but cautiously into the bar area because we also don’t know if we are going to end up in a gun fight when we go in there. We don’t know if the guy is still there,” said Shaffer. “So you fall back to your level of training.”

Shaffer said he and one of the other officers entered the bar area “hard and fast.” He said he went to his left and noticed two victims on the floor of the bar — one who appeared to be critically injured, and Abrino, who had been shot in the chest and was still conscious.

Shaffer said he was not aware of the third victim until later because that victim had fled to the lobby area after he was fatally shot.

“She was conscious, and talking, so I assessed her really quick and determined that there was nothing I could do, so my first thing was to make sure that the scene was clear, and I said, ‘Where is he at,’ and she said, ‘He left,’” said Shaffer.

He asked her as much information about the shooter as he could in a short period of time and passed that information along to other police as quickly as possible.

“We pretty much quickly determined that the scene was safe and at that point, my sole focus had to be on treating this living victim,” said Shaffer. Having only the supplies on his police belt, Shaffer said he rolled her over and determined that there was no exit wound from the gunshot to her chest.

“I knew she had a sucking chest wound and all I had were my gloves and what was on my belt. I know that a sucking chest wound requires pressure in order to keep air from entering into the chest cavity, but you have to able to let air out, so I just held pressure on it and I would occasionally burp it by kind of leaving my finger off of it when she would exhale,” said Shaffer. He said he continued to speak to her to keep her conscious.

“At that point, it just became a twofold thing to me. One, I know that she has a much higher chance of survival if she stays awake, if she stays conscious, until they get her to advanced life support, so I just kept talking to her and kept her talking. And the other thing was to get as much information as I could,” said Shaffer. Later, EMT personnel said that if Abrino had become unconscious she probably would have died.

“I think the thing that was the hardest was that she was in a lot of pain, and she was panicking, obviously, and she was telling me that she didn’t want to die. And you are telling someone that, ‘You are not going to die, you are not going to die,’ but I don’t know that. I can’t tell her that she might, so I just had to keep telling her, ‘You are not going to die, stay with me,’” said Shaffer.

And she did survive.

Shaffer saved her life, but he said he wishes he could have done more.

“The shame of it is that if it occurred 20 minutes prior, we had people right in front of the restaurant (due to the other investigation), and tactical team guys right in front of the hotel,” said Shaffer. “We couldn’t have prevented what happened inside the bar, because we weren’t in the bar.”

But Shaffer said he wished they had been there to stop Witmer from leaving the scene and extending the violence.

When Chief Jolly honored Shaffer at a recent township meeting, Shaffer received a standing ovation from those in attendance.

Jolley said, “It was due to the quick actions and clear thinking demonstrated by Officer Shaffer that a fast police response was formulated against an immediate threat and that a critically injured patient was sustained in order to be transported for more advanced care. The female victim who Officer Shaffer helped that night is alive today due in part to the care provided by Officer Shaffer. His actions reflect the utmost credit on himself and on the Patton Township Police Department.”

Authorities last year gave this account of the incident:

Abrino was at the bar with Witmer, who was a friend. District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said Abrino was acting as designated driver and planned to drive Witmer home that night.

Shortly after 10 p.m., before they were about to leave the bar, Witmer went to use the downstairs bathroom.

Abrino saw Witmer return through an outside door and as he passed the bar she “heard the bartender say something about a gun,” Cantorna said.

The bartender confirmed to police that he saw Witmer with a gun and “made an exclamation,” according to Cantorna.

Abrino grabbed Witmer’s coat, approached him and said “Come on, let’s go.”

That’s when Witmer shot Abrino at close range in the side of her chest with a 9mm handgun. Immediately after that, Witmer shot 61-year-old Dean Beachy in the head.

He then shot Beachy’s 19-year-old son, Steven, before fleeing the bar.

Dean Beachy was pronounced dead at the scene and Steven Beachy died the following day after being taken by helicopter to UPMC Altoona. The Beachys, of Millersburg, Ohio, did not know Witmer and were in the area for a horse auction in Centre Hall.

After leaving the scene, Witmer crashed his Mazda near the intersection of Waupelani Drive and Tussey Lane. He then shot his way through a sliding glass door to a home on Tussey Lane.

When police arrived they found resident George McCormick, 83, dead from a gunshot wound to the head and Witmer dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Police said that Witmer chose the home at random.

At the township meeting this month, Jolley also recognized the other Patton Township officers on the duty that night — Robert Carter and Vincent Finochio.

“They immediately responded to the area and began to help canvas the area looking for the shooter. They also were helping to provide information about the shooter gained from social media. Officer Carter and Officer Finochio were part of the team of officers who made entry to the residence, where, unfortunately, another life was lost and where ultimately the event ended. I did not want their efforts and contributions to the resolution of this incident to go unnoticed,” said Jolley.

Shaffer was quick to praise the training that he received from Patton Township and said he just responded as he was trained to do.

“I don’t feel like I did anything extraordinary. I wish I could have done something more, something extraordinary. All I did was exactly what I was trained to do, what people who came before me taught me, and you just do it,” said Shaffer.

“It is a great honor to get an award like that. I wasn’t expecting it — but it’s a shame because people died that day, and Nicole was seriously injured. People’s lives were forever altered. You know it is a great honor to get an award, but I look at all things in that light, it was a tragedy what happened, so I feel a significant weight from that incident. It is hard to put into words … I feel like it is an honor, but under the circumstances, it is a shame. I would rather not have the award and had the incident not happen.

“I guess you just act in a manner that you are trained to act and you always hope that you are going to do what is right and what is the best thing. And I hope that I did.”

Shaffer said he has not had the opportunity to speak to Abrino since that day, and the last time he saw her was as he was helping EMT staff put her on the ambulance. He would be glad to reconnect with her, but understands if she wants to move on from that tragic day.

“I am glad she is alive,” said Shaffer. “I hope that she is doing well and I am just happy that she survived.” contributed to this story.

Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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