LEBANON COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — An investigation by the Lebanon County District Attorney’s office into a November 2021 incident in which a Pennsylvania State Police Trooper fatally shot a man accused of violating a protection from abuse order has ruled that the trooper’s uses of force were justified.
The report was released Mondy along with a letter from Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf defending alleged conflicts of interest involving her husband, who previously supervised one of the troopers involved, according to a report from The New York Times.
In November of 2021, a woman reported an ongoing protection from abuse order violation, claiming her ex-boyfriend Andrew Dzwonchyk displayed a pattern of harassment, methamphetamine abuse, and volatile behavior.
The investigation report says that a woman referred to as “A.H.” contacted state police and said that Dzwonchyk was continuing to contact and harass her, despite the PFA order in place. She also said that their shared children were in his custody, and she was concerned for their safety, according to the report.
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Around 10:45 p.m. on Nov. 7, 2021, PSP Troopers Justin Achenbach and Jay Splain from the Jonestown barracks went to A.H.’s home, which was near Dzwonchyk’s residence in Union Township. A.H. told them that despite the PFA order, she had asked Dzwonchyk to repair her vehicle, which she dropped off at his home. She told police that Dzwonchyk then demanded that she go to his house alone to retrieve the children and the vehicle, according to the report.
While the troopers were at A.H.’s residence, Dzwonchyk drove to her home and through her yard and yelled out his car window, demanding she come outside and speak with him. The troopers believed his aggressive behavior was consistent with the use of methamphetamine, the report says.
When troopers approached Dzwonchyk in his vehicle, they observed additional signs that he was under the influence of methamphetamine. They attempted to arrest him for a PFA violation, but he resisted, according to the report.
The report says that Trooper Achenbach tried to physically take Dzwonchyk into custody, attempting to grab the steering wheel and unlock the car door through the open window, but with Achenback’s body halfway into the vehicle, Dzwonchyk accelerated forward aggressively, dragging Achenbach with the vehicle.
Trooper Splain drew his gun and chased the vehicle towards the driveway in front of A.H.’s home, where the parked police vehicle in the driveway blocked Dzwonchyk’s path. Dzwonchyk then stopped and reversed his vehicle, still dragging Achenbach.
Achenbach told Dzwonchyk that he was under arrest and needed to exit the vehicle, but Dzwonchyk did not obey the commands, according to the report. Instead, the report describes, Dzwonchyk started reaching past the gear shift, which the troopers worried meant he was searching for a weapon.
As Dzwonchyk accelerated the vehicle backward, Splain chased it and fired his gun, wounding Dzwonchyk in the arm. Dzwonchyk continued to resist arrest, the report says, so Splain attempted to tase him. Because of Dzwonchyk’s position within the car and heavy overcoat, attempts to tase him were unsuccessful, the report says.
Dzwonchyk again accelerated backward with Achenbach still trapped in the window. According to the report, Splain pursued and fired his gun at Dzwonchyk until the vehicle stopped moving, killing Dzwonchyk.
A search of the vehicle afterward revealed a claw hammer behind the passenger seat, according to the report. An autopsy showed that Dzwonchyk died from multiple gunshot wounds, and a toxicology report showed that he had consumed toxic amounts of methamphetamine and amphetamine that night.
The investigative report from the Lebanon County district attorney’s office says that Splain “acted lawfully and justifiably” when he first utilized deadly force, shooting Dzwonchyk in the arm, and again when he fatally shot Dzwonchyk.
Read the full report here:
In a two-and-a-half-page letter prefacing the investigating report, Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf wrote, in part:
“Most investigations of a police shooting result in a brief letter which states only the final outcome and determination – whether the shooting was lawful or unlawful. Given the attention this case garnered, such a result seemed deficient. A mere letter or brief press conference fails to explain to our citizens and Mr. Dzwonchyk’s family what really occurred. It also fails to explain the law and the legal standards that actually govern the case; biased media outlets may purport to know the law, but historically misstate applicable legal principles for their own purpose. The public deserves an authoritative and accurate discussion from the County’s chief law enforcement officer, the District Attorney’s Office.”
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This comes after The New York Times reported in May of this year that Graf’s husband previously supervised Trooper Splain while working as a corporal in the State Police and quoted a law professor who said Graf should have recused herself from the case due to a possible conflict of interest.
Graf’s husband had left his supervisory role before Splain shot Dzwonchyk, The New York Times article noted – the fourth time Splain had killed someone on the job in the past 15 years, the report said.
Graf noted in her letter, as well, that “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.”
In the letter, Graf said she and her first assistant came up with a policy when she became the district attorney that said that if her husband was a material witness or the affiant to criminal charges, she would have a conflict of interest and would refer the case to the attorney general. In the two State Police shootings Graf’s office has investigated, she says, “our office followed our conflict policy and properly investigated.”
In February of this year, the Lebanon County Branch of the NAACP filed a complaint against Graf with the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The complaint accuses Graf of “violating the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct and the canons of ethics that apply to her as a county district attorney.”
The complaint alleges that Graf’s office fails to rigorously investigate or prosecute police officers involved in misconduct, citing New York Times reporting on Splain from December 2021. The complaint references another incident in which Splain fatally shot Lebanon County resident Charity Thome in March 2020, saying the district attorney’s office “failed to consider the inconsistencies in the testimonies of the officers involved and the dash-camera footage from the scene.”
“The Board has a job to do, and I respect the goal of keeping attorneys in bounds with the law. 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,” Graf wrote in her letter.