A pair of veteran investigators from two police agencies were recognized on Tuesday as Centre County Law Enforcement Officers of the Year.
State College police officer John Aston and state police trooper Jeffrey Ebeck received the honor during a ceremony at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte. The award was instituted by the Centre County District Attorney's Office and a committee selected Aston and Ebeck from among four nominees. The other two nominees were Penn State police Det. Nicholas Sproveri and Bellefonte police Det. Bill Witmer, both of whom were acknowledged for their work on major cases and for helping victims' families.
District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said he believes this is the first time such an award has been presented in Centre County.
"It’s really not recognizing just one officer. You're recognizing law enforcement for all the work they do day to day," Cantorna said. "These officers will tell you they wouldn’t have received this recognition if it weren’t for the hard work of their brothers and sisters in law enforcement. It’s a hard job. It’s one that grinds, and the recognition doesn’t come very often. So it’s important that when people do good, hard work that you take the time to talk about and recognize that. I felt it was important for law enforcement, the county and the community to recognize the good work that the police do every day."
Aston and Ebeck both played critical roles in the investigations of several murder cases in 2018, but both also were recognized for long and accomplished careers, which for both men have entered new phases.
Aston joined State College police in 1995 after graduating from Penn State and the police academy. In 2003, he was promoted to detective and has had specialized training in a wide array of areas. Perhaps most notably, he became the county's foremost expert on digital forensics, assisting local, state and federal agencies in the downloading and analysis of information from cell phones and computers.
His work in not only retrieving information but also understanding cases and contextualizing evidence was pivotal in the cases of Ardell Gross, convicted of killing his uncle Richard Smalley; Matthew Dreibelbis, convicted of murdering Jeremy Cantolina; and Danelle Geier and George Ishler, convicted for the murder of Ronald Bettig.
"You would probably have to go hundreds of miles to find somebody with more knowledge, expertise and experience than John Aston in handling evidence from cell phones, computers and the Internet," Deputy District Attorney Sean McGraw said. "He has been absolutely indispensable to the pursuit of justice here in Centre County in his work in digital forensics."
Ebeck joined the state police in 2003 and was assigned to the Rockview barracks. For the past seven years he was a criminal investigator, leading the investigation in the Dreibelbis case and working extensively on the Geier-Ishler case, among others.
Cantorna said that the Ebeck-led Dreibelbis investigation was so thorough he remarked at the time, "Anyone could try this case." He added that Ebeck was the first investigator he worked with on a major case when taking office and that despite being a state trooper pulled in many directions, Ebeck always went above and beyond.
"He is a man of character, a man of integrity and one of the most competent and credible human beings you will ever run into," Cantorna said. "Jeff Ebeck is the consummate team player and the last person who would take credit for a team’s work."
Ebeck said the murder cases and cases involving child sexual abuse victims are the ones he takes the most pride in because they "make me feel like I’ve made a difference."
But the work of an investigator of major crimes is also taxing, both in the nature of the crimes and the sacrifices they and their families must make. That's part of the reason Ebeck and Aston have both moved into new positions in their fields. Last year Aston became the school resource officer for State College Area High School and in April Ebeck became an instructor at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy.
"[Those cases] insanely wear on you," Ebeck said. "I would say that’s why you see John Aston has gone on to another position and I have as well. Over the years a lot of my co-workers have told me the position of investigator is one you shouldn’t hold very long and they’re right. It takes an unbelievable emotional toll."
In his new role, he is teaching cadets about crime scene investigations and criminal law.
"It’s an honor to pass along my knowledge and experience to the next generation," Ebeck said.
Aston said he didn't quite realize the toll 16 years as a detective had taken until he started to think about applying for the school resource officer position.
"I was a detective for almost 16 years and I didn’t know the stress and the tax it put on not only me but my family," he said. "On-call detective, every six weeks getting called out for everything in the middle of the night, an assembly line of criminal cases that you had to work. After 16 years I didn’t realize how much stress it put on me."
He was unsure about applying for the school position, but having spent a number of years as a juvenile detective, his colleagues and family told him he would be a good fit. They were right. He's been able to bring his 24 years of experience, and particularly his expertise in digital forensics, to help not only keep the school safe, but also to educate students, faculty and staff.
"I absolutely enjoy it," he said. "All the things I’ve been doing in my investigations for years I’m now bringing into the school and presenting to students, teachers and staff, about [things like] some of the pitfalls of social media and kind of bringing people up to speed. It’s been a really great transition and I love working with everyone down at the high school."
Aston and his wife, Kelly, a State College police sergeant, have children in high school and he said his ability to relate as a parent also played a role in taking the new job.
"As a parent I wanted to be able to say I feel secure with the person that’s in that school," he said. "When that position opened up I thought I would be a good fit for that, to give parents and staff the assurance that I am there each and every day and my top priority is the security and safety of the school."
Both men said they were humbled to receive the first Centre County Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award and to do so in each other's company. Similarly, neither is a native of Centre County but began their law enforcement careers here and decided to make it their home.
Ebeck had no ties to Centre County and initially figured he'd put in his time until he could move closer to his hometown in western Pennsylvania.
"There was something about this area that just kept me here, that I just liked," Ebeck said. "The more time I spent here, I became comfortable with this area and fell in love with it and chose not to leave. Centre County is a fantastic place to raise a family and a fantastic place as a law enforcement officer to raise a family. The majority of the community here is very appreciative of law enforcement."
Aston grew up in the Philadelphia area but knew while he was attending Penn State he wanted to make State College his home. The county's rapid growth in recent decades and the university population make being an officer in State College a unique experience, he said.
"I think being a police officer here is like riding on the front seat of the roller coaster of life. There’s just so much going on," Aston said. "The community is vibrant and energetic and has so much to offer. But we also have a very transient population, and that makes for this job to be a little more complex, because we deal with people from all walks of life who come through State College.
"I’ve had some very rewarding days, sometimes stressful or sad days, but when I look back on my career I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else."