Widow struggles with loss of husband in shooting
BRUSH VALLEY — Memorial services are being arranged for a former Indiana County deputy sheriff, who died of gunshot wounds in a confrontation with state police early Monday at his home in Brush Valley.
A memorial service for Gary Wissinger, who would have turned 56 years old today, is set for 7 p.m. Friday at Trinity United Methodist Church.
His wife, Mary Wissinger, said Wednesday she is considering setting up a second service later at the nearby Calvary United Methodist Church, where her husband often plowed snow in winter and mowed the grass as recently as last weekend.
She said it would probably wait until a calmer time, when the attention wanes following the high-profile end of her husband’s life.
Meanwhile, most other final arrangements for Gary Wissinger have been carried out: a brief private viewing Wednesday morning at Rairigh-Bence Funeral Home in Indiana followed by cremation at a facility in the Blairsville area.
And at Mary’s request, funeral directors also took a detour on the way from Indiana to Blairsville, driving Gary’s remains in a nondescript white van to the Wissingers’ home just off Route 56 and pausing there for a time.
It was one of the steps that Mary hoped would bring closure following his death.
Mary wrote about the peace that it brought her in an open letter to the community.
“Gary Lynn Wissinger, ‘Wiss,’ came back home today. It was his final goodbye to his wife, his dogs and his community in Brush Valley.
“He left at 11:33 a.m. — this time in peaceful gentleness and dignity. As they drove him away his essence embraced the community, and his spirit absorbed all and everything that he loved,” Mary wrote.
Mary and Gary had been married just more than six months. They had dated about a year, she said, and made their home in a blue-trimmed, white ranch house where Gary had lived many years. Their Labrador retrievers, Sadie and Shelby, alternately wandered and rested in the front yard Wednesday afternoon as Mary talked about her husband’s life and pondered his death.
According to the state police account of the incident, troopers were sent to the home early Monday, shortly after midnight, to investigate a domestic dispute. When police approached the house, Gary Wissinger came to the front door armed with a handgun and pointed it in the direction of the troopers.
One trooper opened fire on Wissinger, who closed the door, retreated into the house and didn’t respond to their calls to him to exit the house, police reported.
Police brought in the Special Emergency Response Team to try to contact Wissinger and, after several hours, broke into the house and found him dead.
The Indiana County Coroner’s office reported late Tuesday that an autopsy was conducted at the Allegheny County Medical Examiner office in Pittsburgh and the “preliminary results … were consistent with initial reports that he died as the result of multiple gunshot wounds.”
Police, the coroner’s office and the Indiana County District Attorney’s office said little else.
Mary Wissinger talked about the incident, sitting on the front porch, where investigators’ evidence markers were still present. Numbered stickers marked bullet holes in the siding and marks apparently made by a ram on the front door.
Around the corner from the porch, plywood had been nailed over a bedroom window. Mary said her neighbors came over and helped to close it up after police left the scene Monday.
The bedroom is where Gary Wissinger’s body was found, where he apparently bled to death from gunshot wounds to his chest and abdomen, she said.
And it’s apparently where he cried out after being wounded, calling her name after she left the house, she said.
Mary said she was on the phone with 911 until police arrived at the house and left through the back door, where a trooper with a flashlight beckoned her to come to him and stay behind a tree.
She said she heard the shots five to seven minutes later.
“There were three shots fired, rapid shots, boom-boom-boom,” she said. “And I stopped and froze because my husband … yelled ‘Mar, Mar, Mar,’ three times. All I could think was the gunshot and him crying out for me. Three gunshots, three cries.”
If she had the chance again, Mary said, she would defy the police and answer his call.
“And I was saying in my mind, here’s my husband, a man who’s compromised and he’s hurt and he’s calling out for me to come to him,” she said through sobs. “I wanted … and I started to get up and turned … and the trooper got more assertive and told me to stay behind the tree. Then I remember hearing another shot … then this trooper started to edge his way up sideways. And he said to me, ‘go to the edge of the bushes, and walk around and go all the way to the front of the church and stay there.’”
Mary said she continued to second-guess herself and considered yelling to police that she was going back in the house, but she followed their instructions.
But if not her, then someone could have tried to help Gary, she said.
“I’m thinking, what the hell, Gary had to be hit, he had to be hit,” she sobbed. “All these people were coming in and I kept saying, ‘wait a minute, shouldn’t someone just go in there?’
“He wasn’t responding to anyone, no one, nothing. And I know they have procedure and protocol and, believe me, I’m not accusing anyone. Because law enforcement gets hurt all the time, they do, and they have to take precautions. But no one was going anywhere.”
Mary said a neighbor offered to go in to check, and she told police again she wanted go back.
“I never should have left,” she said. “I know it’s insanity to think that way, but you know what? Maybe he wouldn’t have died. And if he would, maybe he would have died in my arms.”
Instead, no one was allowed into the house and police tried to communicate with Gary, she said. Officers phoned and called out for him.
Mary said she dialed his cellphone and sent text messages. No response.
Police directed her to make a recorded message that troopers broadcast to the home over a public address speaker. In the recording, she pleaded with him to come out and told him she loved him. She said she lightly reminded him in the message of his promise that they would grow old together.
“He said he’d give me 20 years!” she said.
And after police found Wissinger dead in the bedroom, Mary said, her anguish was compounded.
“They wouldn’t let me go in the house and I couldn’t see him,” she said. “I understand they have procedure and I respect that. But I signed off on the form that it was his body and I asked … can I use this as leverage to get in and see him? But they said ‘you’re not allowed, it’s a crime scene.’
“I begged them and they wouldn’t let me in. I know it’s important and I do respect what they have to do. Then I thought, OK, I’ll just stay here in the driveway because I knew they would bring him out in a body bag and take him away. You know what they did? They wouldn’t let me do that either. … The one said, ‘no you can’t stay.’ They said he was considered evidence.”
She said little about what sparked the incident.
Mary said that her husband had been upset by issues that most people wouldn’t consider “domestic” husband-wife matters, and that she understood why he had a gun in his hand when police came to the door.
“I know what fractured him …” she said, but “it’s too early to get into that.”
She wondered Wednesday afternoon whether she should expect help from police or others involved in the investigation to remove the investigation stickers from her house or to clean the bedroom where her husband died.
“It’s like sacred ground. I’m afraid to disturb it,” she said. “I just don’t know what to do. I feel like I’m in a maze. I don’t know how to react, what to do or not to do.”
What’s holding her back, she said several times, was that moment when she heard the shots being fired.
“I feel like I’m cemented in time,” she said.
Indiana County Chief Deputy Coroner Jerry Overman this morning said no additional autopsy findings were being released at this time because of what he called the sensitive nature of the investigation of Wissinger’s death.
Ballistics tests and toxicology tests remain incomplete, he said, and the official cause and manner of death haven’t been established.
Gary Wissinger had served from 1994 to 2008 as a sheriff’s deputy, and worked about four years in the 1980s as a corrections officer at the county jail. His wife said he went on disability, mainly for complications of diabetes, and did not work again after leaving the county sheriff’s office.
Mary Wissinger wrote Wednesday after his body was brought back to his home that she hoped the visit, absent from the turmoil of early Monday, would bring peace to those concerned about him.
“Hopefully, solace will come to everyone who loved him — knowing that the gentle wind carried his spirit throughout the county and that the gentle rain fell softly with tears of gratitude for all who loved, valued and appreciated him,” she wrote, signing it with her husband’s name for her, “Mar.”