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District attorney investigates fatal shooting

by CHAUNCEY ROSS chauncey@indianagazette.net on July 09, 2013 11:00 AM

BRUSH VALLEY — A former Indiana County sheriff’s deputy died early Monday during a confrontation with state police at his home, and authorities this morning continued their investigation of the incident.

An autopsy on the body of Gary Wissinger, to be conducted today at the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office in Pittsburgh, would show whether he was fatally wounded by state police gunfire or a self-inflicted wound, according to Indiana County Chief Deputy Coroner Jerry Overman.

Wissinger, 55, pointed a handgun toward state troopers when they arrived at his home in response to a call about a domestic dispute shortly after midnight, and he retreated into his home after police opened fire on him, said Trooper John Matchik, a public information officer at the state police station in Indiana.

Wissinger’s home carries an address on Route 56 in Brush Valley but was situated almost 100 yards away from the highway, behind the grounds of the Calvary United Methodist Church and parsonage.

After getting no response from Wissinger for several hours and handling the incident as “a barricaded gunman situation,” troopers on the Special Emergency Response Team broke into the house and found Wissinger dead, said Matchik.

No one else was reported to be hurt during the confrontation. Matchik said Wissinger’s wife safely fled through a back door early during the incident.

A neighbor said he later heard her pleading over a bullhorn for Wissinger to come out of the house.

“I heard a voice on a PA, a woman’s voice trying to talk him out,” said Joe Visnesky, who lives on the opposite side of Route 56 from Wissinger’s home. “She was saying ‘Gary, I love you,’ and ‘Gary, come out, nobody’s going to hurt you.’”

Other than the voice on the loudspeaker, Visnesky said, only the brief sounds of weapons being fired broke the silence during the night.

There were four shots early on, he said.

“I heard one shot, then three quick ones, bang-bang-bang, almost like an automatic. That was about quarter after midnight,” Visnesky said.

Then after hearing voices over the bullhorn, sometime after 4 a.m., Visnesky said he heard two loud booms, speculating that they were “flashbangs” — explosives designed to stun and disorient the occupants of a building being entered by military or police.

Around daybreak, Visnesky said, he saw about 10 heavily equipped police leaving the scene.

Wissinger worked more than 14 years as a deputy, from 1994 until July 2008, when he was terminated from his job, according to Indiana County personnel records. County officials said Wissinger also had accumulated more than four years of service as a corrections officer at the county jail in 1982 and from 1985 to 1989.

Indiana County Sheriff Robert Fyock did not return a call requesting comment on Wissinger’s work as a deputy.

Wissinger’s history of work in law enforcement made the incident a more personal matter to investigators, said Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty.

“It’s a tragedy any time you lose somebody that you knew or somebody that you considered a work acquaintance,” Dougherty said. “Not that going to a scene like that is ever easy, but when you know the person, that makes it that much tougher.

“I think most people in law enforcement were shocked and surprised. And when you get that call that there’s a situation involving someone you know, it’s startling. The whole situation is sad.”

Matchik and Dougherty said it is uncertain whether the troopers answering the call for the domestic incident personally knew Wissinger. But the officers were told at the time of the call that they were heading to a former law officer’s home, Dougherty said.

“They had the information when they went to the scene that he was a former deputy sheriff. That’s important because they would know and understand that there was a potential for firearms to be present,” Dougherty said.

Matchik said the report of a domestic dispute was the second that state police investigated at Wissinger’s residence in the last three months.

Matchik declined to identify the troopers who responded to the call or which officer fired the shots at Wissinger.

That officer has been placed on administrative duties while the investigation goes on, Matchik said.

Dougherty said this investigation involves interviewing neighbors about what they saw or heard, in addition to compiling statements from officers involved in the shooting.

“It’s a matter of putting it all together and then we make a decision where we go from here,” Dougherty said. “We’re going to do a thorough investigation and I’m not going to rush to judgment. There’s no reason to rush to any judgment. We want to do an expedient, but also fair and thorough, investigation, and we have already started to do that.”

The outcome of the autopsy and ballistics tests will be important to determining how he will conclude the investigation, Dougherty said.

“Obviously we have a pretty good idea where the bullets came from. I don’t think that that’s going to be a huge surprise, but we need to confirm, and we need to make sure,” Dougherty said. “There are a lot of different forensic pieces that need analyzed. For example, what was the status of the decedent’s gun? Had it been fired? Did it work? We need to analyze everything to make sure we have a clear picture, and it’s going to take time.”

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