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After Receiving Police Report, Pa. Prosecutor Waited Months to Charge a Man Who Shot at Protesters

Monday, May 10, 2021 @ 12:05 AM

Posted by Staff, Spotlight PA

image-2BEDFORD, Pa. — The district attorney in Bedford County has brought dozens of charges against a man for firing a 12-gauge shotgun at civil rights marchers last August, striking one in the face and endangering 19 others.

(Byline: Joseph Darius Jaafari of Spotlight PA and David Hurst of The Tribune-Democrat. Photo: Civil rights marchers on a journey from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C. are seen here in Youngstown, Ohio. Photo credit: Amanda Mills/For Spotlight PA.)

The announcement from Lesley Childers-Potts came just days after Spotlight PA and The Tribune-Democrat learned the prosecutor had been given the results of a State Police investigation into the shooting in early March — and just one day after the news organizations asked why she hadn’t acted on it.

Terry Myers, 51 of Schellsburg, was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony that carries a possible sentence of 5 to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine, as well as 19 counts each of recklessly endangering another person and simple assault.

The attorney for Myers, Matthew Zatko, previously told Spotlight PA his client shot at the marchers, but would be exonerated by an investigation. On Friday, he said the State Police’s findings were “completely consistent with what we’ve said all along.”

Charges were also brought against the marcher whom Myers shot, Orsino V. Thurman, 37 of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Thurman — who police allege shot back at Myers — was charged with aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, as well as with illegal possession of a firearm. Thurman was convicted in 2000 on felony drug possession charges in Wisconsin, online court records show.

Online court records did not list an attorney for Thurman.

Childers-Potts, who has the sole county authority to decide whether charges should be filed, had maintained for more than eight months that she was waiting on a Pennsylvania State Police investigation to make a decision.

Reporters from the news organizations visited Childers-Potts on March 22 and were told through an assistant that the case was still “under investigation.”

When asked for an update on the case Thursday, Childers-Potts said she wouldn’t release any additional information until she made her decision: “I will not comment further until that time.”

She also ignored an additional question from reporters when confronted with confirmation from State Police that revealed she had received the completed investigation in March.

Instead, her office issued a press release on Friday to reporters, but not Spotlight PA.

“I personally reviewed every piece of evidence, including over 700 pages of written reports prepared by the Pennsylvania State Police,” Childers-Potts said in a press release Friday. “Where someone lives or who they know is not relevant in our prosecutions. Seeking truth and justice and doing the right thing for the right reason are important in every case.”

Bedford County residents for months have demanded answers from officials and tried to understand what happened that night in Schellsburg, but vented that they were met with delays, a lack of transparency, and misinformation.

As a result, the community has been split between those who interpreted the shooting as a racist attack and others who — often based on misinformation — supported the shooter.

“People need to know what happened,” Max Bulger, a Schellsburg resident who lives just east of where the shooting occurred, said in March. “Otherwise, everyone is going to keep arguing over two different stories. It makes it hard to know what is what.”

‘This has to end’

In August 2020, the group of 20 or so Black Lives Matter activists began a 745-mile march from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C. to mark the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” Their pilgrimage paid homage to King Jr.’s walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, where police brutalized marchers with attack dogs, fire hoses, and more.

At 11 p.m. on Aug. 24, the group — traveling on foot and by vehicle — stopped alongside a rural highway in central Pennsylvania near a towing garage and home owned by John Myers.

John Myers, whose son shot at BLM activists in August, stands outside his home and garage. Photo credit: Thomas Slusser/The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

John Myers, whose son shot at BLM activists in August, stands outside his home and garage. Photo credit: Thomas Slusser/The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

As the marchers organized to walk uphill, John’s son Terry Myers arrived and shot twice in the air with a shotgun before telling them to leave, according to a State Police affidavit released Friday. The affidavit explains that Myers then scanned the crowd with his gun, and after seeing two flashes, he shot at the crowd, hitting Thurman in the face.

State Police initially said in press releases that Myers confronted the marchers outside of his father’s home. Police said an argument escalated, which led to gunfire.

But a Spotlight PA review a month later of footage taken that night showed there was no confrontation, and the official affidavit states the same. Between the initial statements from the police and a slew of misinformation online, an armed mob packed Bedford’s town square the next day outside the courthouse.

“We will not allow you to destroy our towns,” read one Facebook post created by a local resident. “This has to end.” It was shared more than 1,000 times that day.

Many people who showed up weren’t from the area, according to Bedford County Sheriff Wayne Emerick, though he could relate to the fear: He heard that the marchers might firebomb local buildings, so he deployed his officers to join the group.

Jeremy Decker, a 44-year-old Everett man who attended the courthouse protest, decided to confront the marchers, according to court testimony. He loaded up his truck with guns, drove to the hotel where they were staying, and shot at the building, according to police. No one was injured, and Decker was arrested and charged with felony possession of a weapon.

During a hearing in Decker’s case, one woman said Decker went to the courthouse that day because posts online claimed activists were vandalizing property, robbing homes, or trespassing, and that they were planning to come back to Bedford to burn down the courthouse.

But none of those posts or rumors were true.

Bedford County's district attorney charged a man for firing a 12-gauge shotgun at civil rights marchers last August, striking one in the face. Photo credit: Thomas Slusser/The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

Bedford County’s district attorney charged a man for firing a 12-gauge shotgun at civil rights marchers last August, striking one in the face. Photo credit: Thomas Slusser/The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

Linda Gunn, a resident who was on her way to the post office when she saw the mob, said she was afraid of the group that day: “I felt real fear.”

Garnell Washington was watching from a few streets over, stunned by the size of the mob, which inconsistent witness recollections estimated as anywhere from 50 to 200 people.

Washington is Black, and one of a dozen or so Bedford-area residents who describe themselves as “local activists.” The group asked for answers after the shooting and the show of arms at the courthouse, and Washington said its members had many discussions with neighbors around how race played a factor in the shooting.

They’ve had some support, but they’re also outnumbered.

Bert Veldhuizen, a Schellsburg resident, said the social media response after the shooting exacerbated the situation.

To Veldhuizen, fellow residents were easily provoked by rumors in August because they were fearful of “outsiders,” including Black people, who make up less than 1% of Bedford County’s population.

“This is a very conservative area,” he said in March, pointing to a row of Trump election signs still erected a block away. “You don’t see a lot of Black people around here — and there’s a reason for it, because they’re not welcome.”

Many residents between Schellsburg and Bedford still maintain that the marchers only came through “to start trouble,” despite any evidence to substantiate that claim.

Frank Nitty, who helped lead Black Lives Matter activists on their pilgrimage from Milwaukee to Washington D.C. in August, on the day after Orsino V. Thurman was shot in the face by Terry Myers. Photo credit: Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat.

Frank Nitty, who helped lead Black Lives Matter activists on their pilgrimage from Milwaukee to Washington D.C. in August, on the day after Orsino V. Thurman was shot in the face by Terry Myers. Photo credit: Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat.

To Andrae Holsey, an Altoona resident and outreach director for the local racial activist group Progress for People of Color, it’s easy for people to cling to false narratives because the region’s racist history is underreported and less talked about in Bedford.

Holsey remembers being at the courthouse in 2004, when his family moved to the borough temporarily, and seeing members of the Ku Klux Klan handing out pamphlets, similar to what was reported last year in Greene County.

“It is no secret that Bedford has some pretty deep-rooted racist ties,” he said. “People generally know that Black folks don’t go to Bedford. It’s the social consensus around here.”

Before Friday’s announcement, members of Bedford’s activist community questioned why Childers-Potts did not file charges when she got the investigation.

“The DA has the information she needs,” Peggy Reimann, a resident of Bedford Borough, said Thursday. “What we know is that shots were fired across a federal highway into a crowd, and the details we still don’t know.”

Some answers, more questions

For months, Alan Cashaw, the president of the Johnstown chapter of the NAACP, has viewed each of the marchers as victims in the shooting, noting that mothers and young children traveled with them that night.

He was pleased to see the charges listed in the criminal complaint reflected that Friday.

But they are not satisfying, he said.

“Why is a man who was being fired at being charged with aggravated assault if someone else shot first?” he said. “Was this in self-defense?”

Because Thurman, a Milwaukee man, was not yet arraigned on his charges, the criminal complaint against him was apparently still sealed Friday afternoon. The Myers’ affidavit listed on several occasions that people witnessed Thurman firing a gun — and one of Myers’ vehicles being struck — but did not add many other details.

Cashaw was also skeptical of the timing.

“After two months of the State Police’s report sitting there on her desk, I can’t help but wonder if the pressure of being revealed prompted this today,” he said. “That’s concerning.”

Some marchers were incensed with the results of the investigation.

“I don’t understand why [Thurman] would be charged with anything, because he was our security person,” said Kenneth McNair, one of the marchers. “If Myers didn’t come out, none of this would’ve happened.”

And though other marchers, such as Tory Lowe, are happy that Myers was charged, they say that Childers-Potts’ leveling harsher penalties against the lone victim in the shooting continues to add to the narrative that the marchers were in the wrong that night.

“Even though it’s great she charged Myers, her charging [Thurman] says there’s still something wrong with what we did, which is not true,” Lowe said. “She’s trying to make all sides pay for the wrong that happened because of Terry Myers.”

Reporter Patrick Buchnowski of The Tribune-Democrat contributed to this report.

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