Matthew Toth Lebanon Daily News
A Pennsylvania State Police trooper “acted lawfully and justifiably” when he shot and killed a 40-year-old Jonestown man in Union Township in November, the Lebanon County District Attorney said.
In a report released Monday, District Attorney Pier Hess Graf said Trooper Jay Splain was justified in his use of lethal force, his fourth such incident in the line of duty. Splain shot and killed Andy Dzwonchyk, 40, in Jonestown in November 2021.
“In light of such circumstances, Trooper Splain reasonably believed that deadly force was necessary to prevent (Dzwonchyk) from defeating the arrest through resistance or escape,” Graf said in the report.
Why was suspect being arrested?
Splain shot Dzwonchyk as he and Trooper Justin Achenbach tried to physically take Dzwonchyk into custody. The troopers had been dispatched to Union Township on a protection-from-abuse violation against Dzwonchyk, when he turned up in his vehicle.
Dzwonchyk refused to submit to arrest and proceeded to accelerate and reverse with Achenbach stuck halfway inside the vehicle.
Officials said Dzwonchyk struck Achenbach, and said he was preforming a reaching motion. A search of the vehicle after the incident revealed a claw hammer behind the passenger seat.
As Achenbach was dragged, Splain shot Dzwonchyk in the arm. Afterward, Splain switched to his taser, which seemed to momentarily incapacitate Dzwonchyk. Officials stated in the report that Achenbach then attempted to take the keys.
Why police officer drew and fired his weapon?
“Despite being wounded, despite the attempted use of a taser, and despite the repeated commands of the Troopers to submit to arrest, (Dzwonchyk) resisted,” the report states. “He accelerated his vehicle and dragged Trooper Achenbach for a third time.”
It was at this point Splain chased down the vehicle and fired multiple rounds at Dzwonchyk until the vehicle stopped moving, killing him.
A toxicology report on Dzwonchyk showed the presence of amphetamine and methamphetamine. Interviews with unidentified neighbors said that Dzwonchyk was a “chronic drug abuser with erratic behavior,” according to Graf’s report.
Officials said they reviewed video recordings from Splain’s car. Those videos were not released with the report Monday morning.
In an accompanying press release, Graf alleged media bias and said that a “mere letter or brief press conference fails to explain to our citizens and Mr. Dzwonchyk’s family what really occurred.”
“Media articles written up until this point used eye-catching headlines to further an untrue and unfair narrative − namely, that our Office is unable to objectively and accurately rule in this case,” Graf said.
Officer has history of fatal police-related shootings
In December, The New York Times reported that Splain has been involved in four fatal police-related shootings, two of which happened in Lebanon County. The three previous shootings were deemed justified by various district attorneys.
Splain shot and killed Charity Thome in Jackson Township in March 2020. Splain and Mathew Haber were among police who pursued Charity Thome for 10 miles on March 16, 2020.
Subsequent reports have said that Graf is married to Cpl. Christopher Graf who was based in the same Pennsylvania State Police barracks as Splain and was in Jonestown during the Thome shooting.
“In both cases, my husband was not on duty, played no role in the incident, and had no factual information to offer,” Graf said in her statement. “Additionally, my husband transferred from the Jonestown barracks well over a year ago. He was thus not even employed at the local station at the time of Mr. Dzwonchyk’s incident.”
Graf said that if her husband is a material witness or affiant to criminal charges, then her office must refer such a case to the state Attorney General, under a conflict of interest policy.
The NAACP filed an ethics complaint with the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board in February against Graf regarding her investigation of the 2020 shooting of Thome. That board has yet to make a decision.
“The Board has a job to do, and I respect the goal of keeping attorneys in bounds with the law,” Graf said. “While our Office discussed deferring a release of our Report and our Findings until the board did its work, we believe the public’s right to know what truly happened outweighs any additional delay.”
According to various reports, Splain’s first fatal shooting was in Lehigh County in 2007 when a mentally distraught Joseph Rotkewicz pointed a gun at him.
In 2017, Splain shot and killed Northampton County resident Anthony Ardo who threatened to blow off his own head off with an explosive. The report notes that the 47-year-old had been addicted to drugs for years, getting over a breakup and had been recently evicted by his mother.https://www.usatodaynetworkservice.com/tangstatic/html/ppld/sf-q1a2z3be0d353f.min.html
The Dzwonchyk shooting was investigated by the Pennsylvania State Police Troop L Major Case Team, the Lebanon County Detective Bureau and the Lebanon County District Attorney’s office.
A copy of the district attorney’s report can be found at www.lebcounty.org/depts/DA.
Matthew Toth is a reporter for the Lebanon Daily News. Reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @DAMattToth.