by Vinny Vella,
On a summer day last year, Gregory Longenecker visited a cluster of 10 marijuana plants he had hidden in a secluded patch of state game lands in Berks County. He left hours later in a body bag.
Longenecker, a short-order cook and Grateful Dead fan, was crushed by a bulldozer driven by a state Game Commission maintenance worker at the command of state police troopers searching for him in thick brush. More than a dozen troopers were involved in that search, supported by a helicopter hovering above the wooded area in Penn Township, about 13 miles northwest of Reading.
Longenecker’s family has filed a federal lawsuit against the state police and the Game Commission, saying they used excessive and unreasonable force in killing him over a small amount of marijuana.
In court documents filed Thursday, the family’s lawyer, Jordan Strokovsky, says the troopers’ conduct on that day was “deeply flawed” and law enforcement officials’ version of how Longenecker was killed clashes with accounts from eyewitnesses. Strokovsky likened the investigation, which cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, to a cover-up.
“The family misses him dearly, and remains haunted by the gruesome and unnecessary death,” Strokovsky said in an interview Thursday. “They want justice for Greg and accountability for those who ran him over with a nine-ton bulldozer.”
Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams closed his office’s investigation in March, saying Longenecker’s death was accidental. The bulldozer was needed, Adams said, because the vegetation through which Longenecker fled was too thick to wade through on foot.
When confronted by police as he went to prune his pot plants, the 51-year-old Reading man was high on methadone, amphetamine, and marijuana, Adams said. Longenecker wasn’t run over by the bulldozer, but apparently had crawled under it in an attempt to elude capture and was struck by the machine when it made a sudden turn, the DA said.
“I recognize the sanctity of life above all values,” Adams said at a news conference announcing that he had cleared the officers. “It’s very unfortunate that a life was lost, and our condolences go out to the Longenecker family. However, I support the actions of the Pennsylvania State Police. Their actions were reasonable and conducted in a safe manner in this situation.”
At a time when Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and other officials have voiced support for legalizing marijuana in Pennsylvania, Longenecker’s death has spurred activists to call him a casualty of the state’s “war on weed.”
His friends and family spoke at rallies organized in his memory, often featuring posters with the logo of Longenecker’s favorite band. One rally featured a screening of the Grateful Dead’s 1989 concert film from the former JFK Stadium in South Philadelphia.
In court papers, Le previously said Longenecker “knowingly and consciously assumed the risk” by fleeing police. His negligence in the case, she wrote, is greater than any negligence on the part of the state police and Game Commission.
“It is my opinion that he didn’t crawl under there from the back, because I had guys walking down there behind it,” Taylor said, according to the complaint. Another trooper, who was piloting the helicopter, said in a deposition that it “would’ve been impossible” for Longenecker to crawl under the bulldozer, the suit says.
In the latest court documents, Strokovsky says the helicopter pilot, Cpl. Edward Stefanides, had expressed reservations about the search and said he had never seen a bulldozer used to pursue a fleeing suspect.
Mark Weiss, the Game Commission employee who was using the bulldozer to clear a nearby field when he spotted Longenecker and his marijuana plants and called police, told investigators he warned the troopers that they would be “driving blind” if they used the bulldozer in their search.
“Rather than call off this crazy and lethal act,” the lawsuit says, Cpl. Taylor rode on the bulldozer as Weiss sat at the controls and led it on its “warpath.”
In the documents filed Thursday, Strokovsky notes that “only a fraction” of the body camera footage from troopers on the scene was preserved, and that there was no record of communication between the helicopter pilot and the troopers on the ground. The helicopter brought in to assist in the search was equipped with a video camera, the suit says, but no footage of the fatal incident was produced.