Written by Eric Wise
Middletown Acting Police Chief Don Foreman and Detective Richard Brandt were nearing the end of their work week Friday, June 11, 1982, when a postal carrier walked into the police department.
“I think I just found a dead person,” the carrier said, remembers Richard Brandt, recently retired after 28 years with Lower Swatara Township Police Department, where he landed after two stints in Middletown.
It was the most memorable case of Brandt’s career. Because Brandt was a Middletown native, he knew the location, the stone house beside Alfred’s Victorian restaurant, where Brandt had visited his family doctor on the first floor for the first decades of his life.
Brandt said he found a body on the bed in a second-floor apartment of the stone building at 28 N. Union St. and began his investigation. The person was clearly dead. Brandt said that he realized the body must have been there for some time because decomposition made it difficult to tell if it was a male or female at first. The insects and maggots on the corpse were so active that it made it appear the body was moving.
Despite the odor in the apartments, employees of the businesses on the first floor had not noticed anything, according to a Press And Journal report days after the discovery.
Brandt dealt with the odor and began investigating, concentrating on the body.
“I was in there for 15 minutes, walking around and making notes, when I realized there was a second body on the floor.”
“It took us several days to identify them,” Brandt said, recalling that a tattoo helped identify one victim. They had discovered the bodies of Crystal Henderson Ruth and Randy Sinisi, both 24. Despite his earlier thoughts about leaving the office in midafternoon and beginning his weekend, Brandt ended up working until 11 p.m.
“When I got home, my wife asked me to strip down outside because of the odor,” he said. “I immediately got out of that clothing and got a shower.”
“I was still a young detective,” Brandt said of his investigation. “I learned a lot from that case.”
Brandt took a lead role in the investigation with help from Foreman, state troopers and the State Police crime lab. On July 28, Middletown police had arrested Robert Ruth on first-degree murder charges.
“He looked like somebody’s grandpa,” Brandt said. “He didn’t look like a killer.”
“We found out the girl was married to a man in his 60s. She had married a guy she met in a massage parlor,” Brandt said. It appears Crystal Ruth had thought Robert Ruth to be a wealthy man, and she counted on him to support her drug habits.
Initially, Sinisi had been introduced as a gay man, not her boyfriend, Brandt said. During the trial, Robert Ruth admitted taking the pair to buy drugs and waiting in the car, according to the Press And Journal archives.
Ultimately, it appears Robert Ruth had learned of the true nature of this relationship, and found out about this apartment they used on North Union Street.
“One of my witnesses was the guy who made a key at Reider’s Hardware to the apartment for Mr. Ruth,” Brandt said.
Ruth then provided money for the couple to score the drugs they craved, and entered the apartment hours later and killed them with a Smith & Wesson .38 Special, probably when they were passed out or sleeping, Brandt said.
“Ruth placed the gun against Crystal’s forehead and fired, killing her instantly,” Brandt said. “We assume the shot startled Randy awake and he instinctively started moving away from the gunfire. Ruth only had to move the gun a few inches and fired again, hitting Randy in the side of the head and killing him instantly also.”
Ruth withdrew $10,000 in cash on June 8, 1982, and left on a cross-country trek that took him to Florida, California and Davenport, Iowa, where he was apprehended in possession of Crystal’s purse and Sinisi’s pager, according to Press And Journal coverage of the time.
Ruth was convicted Dec. 9, 1982, of voluntary manslaughter in the killings with a sentence of 10 to 20 years. “For a man his age, that seemed like a life sentence,” Brandt said.
Online records of graves show a man named Robert J. Ruth, 1915-1999, is buried in Camp Hill.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 January 2017 13:09
Written by Eric Wise
Setting out for a day of work in a police uniform was a bit different in 1978, the year Richard Brandt started on the force.
Back then, Brandt — who retired July 1 as chief of police in Lower Swatara Township — said officers carried little more than revolvers and batons.
“Our radio was our lifeline back in 1978,” he said.
Today, officers also rely on radios, cellphones and computers.
“Technology has had a tremendous effect on life in general, but also made for big changes in law enforcement,” Brandt said.
Mobile data terminals are in nearly all cars, so officers can quickly check the status of a vehicle they are following and the background of the driver.
But advances also apply to weapons, he said.
Brandt joined Lower Swatara’s police department in 1988, and rose through the ranks as a detective and sergeant. Over that time, he noted the switch from .357 revolvers to 10 mm semiautomatic handguns, as well as the change to the practice of keeping rifles and shotguns in each car for all shifts. Today’s officers also carry pepper spray and Taser stun guns.
The addition of Tasers provided a big benefit for police, Brandt said.
“The Taser allows subduing a person without injuring the person or the police officer,” he said.
Brandt said he plans to spend time working on projects improving his home in Royalton, what he said are the kinds of things he had not found time to do while he was working. He also started making travel plans with his wife, Amy, with his eyes set on Greece and Australia for two of his first destinations. As weather allows, Brandt said he plans to spend time kayaking, shooting, fishing, bicycling and riding his motorcycle.
A changing township
Brandt has seen the township grow in his 28 years on the force, with many businesses sprouting up along Fulling Mill Road and the construction of several neighborhoods, including Twelve Oaks and Old Reliance, Brandt said.
“When I started, the World War II generation lived in Shope’s Garden and other areas of the township, but that has changed,” Brandt said.
As the township grew, the police department grew with it, Brandt said. In 1988, Lower Swatara had a police chief and nine patrolmen, which grew to 13 by 1994 and stayed that way for 11 years. Former Chief Richard Wiley took over in 2005 and named three new sergeants, including Brandt, and he named Randy Richards as the first school resource officer. Wiley’s changes increased the department to 16 officers.
Brandt was named acting chief as Wiley accepted a job in West Melbourne, Florida, in August 2012, and the position became permanent a few months later.
Brandt retired after a tense period between the Lower Swatara board of commissioners, led by Tom Mehaffie, and the township’s police department.
“I could do two more years,” Brandt said. “If Mehaffie hadn’t been around, I would have stayed two more years.”
In his position as chief, I know he shouldered a lot more stress than he let on to the men,” said Randy Richards, a patrolman with Lower Swatara Police. “In typical Dick Brandt style, he kept his cool, shook his head and made the best of things. Although I wish him the best in his retirement, he is greatly missed in the department.”
Finding his calling
Brandt said it was not easy to find well-paid jobs that directly related to his bachelor’s degree in psychology, and he decided to apply for other jobs, including with local police departments.
“I thought it would be interesting to try it out,” he said. “I tried it and liked it.”
He landed in Middletown, where he had lived growing up. He then left police work in 1983 for a job at Three Mile Island. He spent about four years there, including two in security and two in a plant job.
“I got the police bug again,” Brandt remembers.
After returning to Middletown in a part-time role, full-time police work literally came calling. Brandt said both Derry Township and Lower Swatara Township offered him a job on the same day, and he accepted the first, the Lower Swatara position, immediately. He hit the beat as a patrolman, before serving as a detective, sergeant and chief for the township’s force.
“Chief Brandt was one of the most intelligent, methodical and well-rounded police officers I ever had the pleasure of working for and with,” said Robert Appleby, a detective with Lower Swatara Police. “He effortlessly mastered every role a police officer can have.”
Richards said he started with the township, learning from a crew of seasoned officers including Brandt, who had joined Lower Swatara from Middletown.
“I was fortunate enough to work side-by-side with then Patrolman Brandt, who taught best not by word, but by example,” Richards said. “He was one that always conducted himself in a professional manner with the public, never letting his emotions dictate the proper course of action. As a cop, he had a good sense of humor and found the lighter side of life in almost all situations, helping those that served with him put things into proper context.”
“I learned a great deal from him over the years — too much to list!” Appleby said. “Everything I learned from him is part of who I am today as a detective. The support and trust he gave me over the years as an investigator helped me to learn the ropes and become better at what I do.”
Police Sgt. Scott Young also recalls training under Brandt, and then he and Brandt were named sergeant at the same time under Wiley.
“He has been a great friend and one of the best chiefs I have ever worked for,” Young said. “He certainly is a big part of how I do police work. My prayer for him is that he enjoys retirement, and God continues to bless him and his family.”
Despite some mistrust that has developed among a segment of the public and law enforcement in the past few years, Brandt said he still recommends it as a career choice.
“It’s always going to be a dangerous choice for a profession, but it’s an excellent one,” he said. “It has relatively good pay, benefits and a pension that private industry doesn’t have.”
Police still receive enough quality candidates for their openings in this area, even as the total number of candidates has fallen. Today, nearly all municipal police hiring is handled through a countywide consortium. The consortium’s list of candidates regularly contained about 300 to 400 candidates who had made it through the process, but now it’s just 200, Brandt said.
Within the pool of candidates for police officers, the representation of African-Americans, women and other ethnicities remains low, despite some targeted recruitment efforts, Brandt said.
Riot provided tense nights
The most terrifying experience in his career in law enforcement came 27 years ago this month, when he was sent to help at the Camp Hill prison riot, which began when some inmates overpowered and took guards hostage. By the time the riot was over, about 130 prison employees and 70 inmates would be injured, and the riot caused about $17 million in damages, much of which was due to the fires set by inmates.
“Back when Camp Hill happened, I was there both nights,” Brandt said.
He was inside the prison the first night and assigned a perimeter detail the second.
“Most incidents (in police work) happen quickly, and you don’t have time to be afraid,” Brandt said. The prison riot was different, because it was an ongoing situation filled with tension, strain and uncertainty. “We knew we were going into a bad situation,” Brandt said.
Ultimately, local police officers like Brandt supported the State Police and correctional officers who were in command of the scene, reporting to Maj. Jim Hazen of the State Police. Assault teams of more than 100 total state troopers and corrections officers wrestled control back from the inmates without any deaths.
Aside from the experience with the prison riot, Brandt said the scariest situation in Lower Swatara Township came when he was in a police car, blocking a lane of Route 283. “Cars are coming at you at 60 or 70 mph,” he said. “If they hit you, you are going to die.”
Bar fights once regular
During his early days as an officer in Middletown, Brandt said the bars in town — more than the borough currently has — provided regular calls for bar fights.
“It was a constant in Middletown,” he said, especially in the years when a lot of construction workers and others from out-of-town were here to work on Three Mile Island. “We would circle the bars and wait for trouble.”
“It never bothered me, actually it was sort of amusing,” Brandt said. “When people are drunk and try and fight, they are not good fighters.”
Bar fights proved less of a problem in Lower Swatara, Brandt said. For a few years of its heyday, “Shane’s was our problem child,” Brandt said. The former Shane’s Flight Deck, across Route 230 from McDonald’s, got progressively worse over time, leading up to a drug-related shooting. Brandt said no one was killed, but they did make an arrest in the shooting. Shane’s has now been closed for more than 10 years.
Lower Swatara crime
Brandt said that as he retired, crime in the township was not terrible.
“We don’t have the crime patterns of the past,” he said. The biggest crime problems that continue to be a problem are thefts and fraud, neither of which are anything new, although fraud is almost all electronic, he said.
He remembers one tough case in which he was able to arrest a con man, Troy Lojak. A woman had reported Lojak scammed her for a few thousand dollars to buy a used mobile home.
“I found he had done it to multiple people,” Brandt said. “It took me almost a year to put the case together.” In court, prosecutors showed Brandt’s evidence of how Lojak ripped off 12 people for more than $100,000 total. The Lojak case was maddening in its scope because Brandt had to chase down information for so many different scams involving Lojak.
“At one time, most burglary cases were drug addicts,” Brandt said. Heroin has gone through cycles of being a major problem, like it is now, the difference is that currently, sustaining a heroin addiction today costs a fraction of what it cost an addict in the 1980s.
“We have also seen more child sex cases,” he said, adding that today these crimes are simply more likely to be reported than ever before.
A book of police experiences
Not every police call is an emergency, and a few turn out a bit bizarre.
“We always joke at the station we should write them down,” Brandt said. “People wouldn’t believe it.”
“One lady we used to get calls from all the time, well, she thought the State Police helicopter was spying on her,” he said. Another man wrote letters telling Brandt “the FBI is trying to poison him.”
“That’s what keeps the job interesting; you never know what you might get,” he said.
On the increase in the past 10 to 20 years are calls from residents because children are not behaving. It may be siblings fighting, or kids fighting with parents, he said.
“We can’t solve the problem for them,” Brandt said.
Brandt said another common call that may fall into a repeated pattern doesn’t lead to easy solutions.
“We can’t do much for neighbor disputes,” he said. “It can be frustrating.”
But that’s simply part of what he signed up for in law enforcement.
“It’s all just part of the job,” Brandt said.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 January 2017 13:11
Written by Dan Miller
Lots of us dream of going to exotic places someday, but we don’t let ourselves go.
We come up with all kinds of reasons and excuses for why we can’t do something, or go somewhere, so we don’t do it. And that’s that. You go to your grave wondering what might have been.
But if you are reading this, it’s obviously not too late to change that. And the place to start might be to spend some time with John Kerecz of Lower Swatara Township — after which you might find yourself thinking, if this guy can do it, why can’t I?
Yeah right, you’re thinking, maybe if I was rich. But Kerecz says he’s never won the lottery and that he isn’t independently wealthy. He works for the state.
Yet within just the past two years he’s flown to outer space in a Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jet, and more recently hiked to the base camp of the tallest mountain on the planet.
Maybe it’s because when Kerecz puts his mind to something, he just does it. Some people read books about self-help and stress relief; Kerecz writes them. For more on that, go to Amazon.com and search for John Kerecz.
And at the end of the day, Kerecz will tell you two things: taking the trip of your dreams — and doing it more than once in your life — doesn’t have to be that hard. And you will probably find that the most satisfying part of any voyage lies in the journey getting there.
It is true that these big adventures often follow something traumatic that has happened in Kerecz’s life. After his father died in 2014, Kerecz decided he would realize his boyhood dream of going to outer space by going to Russia and hitching that ride on the MiG-29.
His father’s death had made Kerecz, then 52, start thinking of his own mortality.
Two years later, he found himself in a similar situation. His mother had just died, and on top of that Kerecz had to have his own hip replaced. Again faced with thoughts of his own mortality, he decided it was time to realize another dream — this one an adventure to the Far East that would combine training at the Shaolin Temple in China with visits to the temples of Tibet.
And if you are going to be in the neighborhood anyway, might as well stop by Mount Everest.
Citing what may be the first of Kerecz’s many rules of world traveling, he advised, “I’m real big that if you are going on a trip, go to other places while you are there, because you never know when you will get back.”
He went to China first, then to Tibet. The first sign that you have arrived in a place that is really different is when you get off the plane in Lhasa, the capital city, and feel the impact of the altitude change of being over 3,600 meters above sea level.
He visited temples and palaces on the Tibetan side, including the palace that the dalai lama lived in before he was exiled to India.
The buses filled with tourists are a big source of income for the region. Outsiders come hoping to be inspired by holy men who have forsaken anything having to do with the civilized world.
Well, almost anything.
“You’d be in places where they had no plumbing and they were living in tents but they would have cellphones and wifi,” Kerecz said. “The monks are on their cellphones and their wifi and their iPads. There is a monastery near the base camp on the Tibetan where (a monk) only had a flip phone. Our tour guide said the monks who get paid more have better technology. That was kind of disappointing to me.”
It reminded Kerecz of a scene he saw in the new “Doctor Strange” movie not long after returning home from his exotic journey. A man is given a word that he thinks is his mantra that he is to meditate on to attain enlightenment.
“They said ‘No, it’s your wifi password. We’re not savages,’” he said.
The night before hiking to the base camp of Mount Everest was spent in a tent with a bunch of other people.
“They are burning yak dung to keep warm,” Kerecz said. “They use yaks for everything — they eat them, make clothes out of them, burn their dung for heat, insulate their homes.”
Outside, diesel-burning vehicles add to the pungent odor and make breathing even harder in the oxygen-deprived thin air.
Among a traveling party of 20 people, only Kerecz — the 55-year-old with a hip replacement — and a 125-pound Bulgarian guy who couldn’t walk right because of a birth defect get up in the morning to hike to the base camp.
Some of the others in the group were taking shots of oxygen to cope with the thin air, others were taking medication. Kerecz and the other guy bought some of the medication in Lhasa but they never used it.
Starting out they were already at about 4,800 meters above sea level. It would take them about an hour and 45 minutes to hike another 400 meters — about 1,300 feet — to get to the base camp.
“We didn’t always feel the best” during the climb, Kerecz said. “You are breathing really deep and you are really expanding. It reminded me of when you are in grade school and they make you do sports you haven’t done before, and you are like dying.”
Once they had the base camp in sight adrenalin kicked in and they picked up speed. The reward is the view of the peak of Mount Everest, and the “sense of accomplishment” one gets from being that close to the tallest mountain in the world.
But as with a lot of things, standing there seemed “anti-climactic,” Kerecz said. “You know what they say, it’s the journey not the destination.”
Perhaps it was more satisfying just to know that he could do it.
“You feel as you are getting older and things start getting replaced that you are losing part of yourself, and you worry about what you can do anymore — what might be next? What if something happens and I am stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of my life or paralyzed?”
As for the more practical stuff, the most expensive part of the trip was the airfare. Otherwise, eight whole days of lodging and food in Tibet came to no more than about $1,000.
The U.S. dollar is high right now relative to other currencies in the world, which helps. Traveling alone, Kerecz also cut his costs when stopping off at cities like Cairo, Athens, Istanbul and Rome by basically living off of the airport.
“When I went to the different countries I just got on and off the airplane and slept in the airports,” which worked pretty well up to a point. “We got chased by some police in China, I forget what city it was. There was a bunch of us sleeping in the airport. They told us to go down a couple levels. They were military guys with rifles.”
One of Kerecz’s favorite photos from his recent travels is one that shows him walking around Seoul, South Korea, with his shoes untied.
“I stopped tying them because I kept taking them on and off in the airport. I said, ‘Screw it, I’m tired of it.’”
It wasn’t the money but his physical discomfort that would probably dissuade Kerecz from ever going back to Tibet again. After returning he found out that he had sprained his abdominal wall sometime during the hike, which led to “a touch of pneumonia” that was a memory he’d just as soon forget.
Besides going to outer space and China and Tibet, Kerecz over the years has scratched several other trips off his bucket list — including the Grand Canyon, going cross-country on his motorcycle, and hanging out underwater with sharks. He’s never gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and doesn’t sound like he plans to.
But there’s more on the list to get to. Next up could be a trip to the ancient ruins in Peru at Machu Picchu. South America is one part of the planet he has not explored.
Machu Picchu should be “a little mild” compared to some of the places he’s been to. The trip will probably also be more expensive, as he’s planning to take someone else along.
But it’s a pretty safe bet that Kerecz won’t let money — or anything else for that matter — stop him from realizing yet another dream trip of a lifetime.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 January 2017 12:51
Written by Dan Miller
It was an unusually hot day in May 2015. The late afternoon sun was blinding, and the sweat was pouring down Mayor John Hoerner’s face as he pushed a broom to sweep the stones and debris off the sidewalks of downtown Highspire, alongside a group of young people from the Harrisburg Rugby Club.
Hoerner had made this happen, like he made so many other things happen in Highspire.
The club wanted to do something to repay the town for allowing the club to play in Memorial Park. Hoerner came up with the idea of having the club come out to help beautify the sidewalks and streets of the town he loved.
But he didn’t just set it up. He was there, sweating and working as hard as everybody else.
Hoerner was the type of small-town mayor who seemed to be everywhere, all the time.
In fact, the borough itself doesn’t know all the things that Hoerner was doing on a routine basis.
“There is a lot of stuff he did that I think we don’t know about,” said John McHale, the Highspire Borough Manager who is also the town police chief.
Now, the town’s going to find out the hard way. Hoerner died unexpectedly at age 62 overnight Dec. 23 into Christmas Eve.
A lifelong Highspire resident, Hoerner was first elected mayor in 2005 after serving on borough council for six years. He was re-elected in 2009 and in 2013, and would have come up for re-election again in 2017.
Hoerner took care of the big things that Highspire mayors before him had always done, such as putting together the annual veterans observances at Memorial Park.
Mayors under the borough code are responsible for the police department.
“He wanted to know what was happening, and if there were any major (police) events he asked to be called” to them, McHale said.
Hoerner would show up, not in the sense of trying to take over, but just trying to make sure that the chief and the police had what they needed to do their job.
Once during a major flooding event, Hoerner directed traffic for 24 hours straight at the corner of 2nd and Broad streets, McHale said.
He knew that all of the town’s regular fire police would be busy with flood-related emergencies all over Highspire, so he took it upon himself to get trained in directing traffic, McHale said.
That was one example of Hoerner seeing something that needed done, and doing it.
Another time, a resident came to a borough council meeting asking if something could be done to help some elderly folks who could no longer shovel the sidewalk by themselves.
“His (Hoerner’s) answer was ‘I will have the men’s organization from the church next door take care of the snow,’” McHale said. “We all kind of knew that meant that he was going to take care of the snow.”
Hoerner loved to recognize people and businesses who had done good things for the town. The town has two awards that are presented annually; one the Citizen of the Year and the other the Business of the Year.
The awards were started before Hoerner became mayor, but Hoerner did much to continue the tradition.
In 2008 it was the Champions Sports Bar’s turn to be recognized as Business of the Year. Champions supported Hoerner on projects and concerns that were near and dear to him, such as the condition of Memorial Park located next to Champions along Route 230.
In 2008 Champions donated $6,500 toward helping maintain the park, followed by another donation of $6,000 in 2009. All the money was raised through a golf tournament that Champions held for the town each year. Hoerner never missed an opportunity to promote the event, said Tyler Schmidt, the owner of Champions.
“He would stand up on Hole 10 at Sunset Golf Course and greet every golfer before they hit their ball,” Schmidt said.
Hoerner lived near Champions. He and his wife Brenda often ate dinner at the sports bar, Schmidt said.
“He was a great guy, a fantastic guy,” Schmidt said of Hoerner. “He was a big part of the borough — like the backbone of the borough. He will be greatly missed.”
Hoerner made it a practice to attend meetings of other nearby municipalities, such as Steelton Borough Council.
He also regularly attended Steelton-Highspire School Board meetings. Hoerner was a Steel-High grad, as were his children.
But in early 2014, when a group of Highspire residents started a petition seeking to withdraw from the Steelton-Highspire district to send their children to Middletown Area School District schools, Hoerner was willing to sign on to represent the group as spokesman.
“I’m worried about Highspire and our children. If we can do something, we need to,” Hoerner said at the time. “We’ll always be Rollers, but there are times that you have to look at what’s best for our children in Highspire, for a better education.”
Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 January 2017 12:45
Written by Dan Miller
Fifty service dogs and their handlers were part of a special training event that was held for service dogs at Harrisburg International Airport on Saturday, Dec. 3.
The service dogs — all with Susquehanna Service Dogs — were run through all the activities that go with taking a flight at HIA; including going through security, riding the long-term shuttle, practicing going up and down stairs and using the elevator, and going out on the runway and boarding a Dash-8 aircraft that was provided by Piedmont Airlines.
Piedmont is a subsidiary of American Airlines that provides service at HIA.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 January 2017 11:23