Officer testifies on fatal shooting

The Easton police officer at the center of a grand jury investigation into the fatal shooting of officer Jesse Sollman inside police headquarters testified Thursday for two hours here.

"Not a day has gone by since March 25 that I haven't thought about Jesse's family, especially [his wife] Carin and her two young children, and Jesse," Matthew Renninger said as he left Strawberry Square late Thursday with his wife, Michelle, and his attorney.

Renninger declined to discuss his testimony on how Sollman was shot on March 25.

"He can't talk now," said Easton attorney Gary Asteak. "It's been a long day."

Earlier in the day, the grand jury listened to testimony from Trooper James Bruchak, the lead investigator from the Pennsylvania state police who is assigned to the Belfast barracks.

The grand jury has heard testimony from nearly two dozen city police officers since it began probing the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Sollman by Renninger's gun in a gun-cleaning room inside the police station.

Renninger, who has been on paid leave since Sollman was shot, and Asteak said earlier in the day that the shooting was an "accident," though they would not explain how it happened.

The shooting happened at the end of their shift after Sollman, Renninger and fellow SWAT members had completed training at a gun range in Palmer Township.

After Renninger testified, Asteak said, "We hope the grand jury will swiftly conclude their business and find that Matt [Renninger] acted neither intentionally nor recklessly.

"It's a tragedy for all concerned, for Matt and his family and for the Sollman family," said Asteak.

Sollman's father-in-law, retired Philadelphia police Lt. Charles Hentz, has maintained Renninger should be charged with involuntary manslaughter, a first-degree misdemeanor that involves killing someone in a "reckless or grossly negligent manner."

It will be up to the grand jury to decide if the shooting was a crime when it completes its investigation, possibly next month.

Asteak said Renninger had given statements to state police, to city police conducting an internal investigation and to investigators with the state attorney general's office.

Asteak estimated Renninger has spent "over six hours, perhaps more" with the various agencies who have investigated the shooting.

On Thursday, Asteak said, "We're glad we finally had an opportunity to talk to the grand jury."

Because grand jury proceedings are secret, it was not known if more subpoenas will be issued when the panel reconvenes next month.

"The investigation is continuing," said Kevin Harley, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.

In addition to the Sollman shooting, the grand jury is investigating a break-in in the police chief's executive suite. The break-in happened within days of the issuance of subpoenas to members of the department's Special Weapons and Tactics team, who were the first wave of officers called to appear before the grand jury in Harrisburg in July.

Whoever entered the executive suite pried open a cabinet and riffled through a file containing awards and certificates for Sollman, police said. As part of the burglary investigation, state agents began giving polygraph tests to city police officers.

The lie-detector tests were given to everyone who worked in the executive suite, including the police chief, and the president and vice president of the city police union, who had been warring with Police Chief Stephen A. Mazzeo until his forced resignation in September.

In the wake of the Sollman shooting, the SWAT team was disbanded and a series of independent studies found the department lacking in a number of fundamental ways.

In addition to the grand jury investigation, the department is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which is looking into a possible pattern of police brutality cases outlined in several civil rights lawsuits.

joe.mcdonald@mcall.com

610-559-2152

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