1 arrested in slaying of game officer
It's a dangerous job. Along with checking hunting licenses, responding to nuisance deer complaints and disposing of road kill, wildlife conservation officers with the Pennsylvania Game Commission serve arrest warrants, confront armed trespassers and disarm wildlife poachers, sometimes while alone at night on remote country roads.
That's what Wildlife Conservation Officer David L. Grove was doing about 10:30 p.m. Thursday in a rural part of southcentral Pennsylvania when he was shot and killed by a suspected poacher. He was the first Game Commission official killed in the line of duty in 95 years.
Mr. Grove, 31, of Fairfield, Adams County, was responding to reports of gunfire and suspected wildlife poaching on Shrivers Road in Freedom Township, near Gettysburg, according to the Pennsylvania State Police and The Associated Press.
Mr. Grove pulled over a pickup truck with two people inside. Gunfire was exchanged, and the passenger fled the vehicle. Mr. Grove was shot four times and mortally wounded. Backup arrived two minutes after the shooting, and Mr. Grove died 45 minutes later.
Police said the driver was wounded during the shooting and left the truck. Limping on the road, he flagged down a motorist, who, at the suspect's request, drove him to a hunting camp in nearby Franklin Township.
Prior to the shooting, Mr. Grove had called in the truck's license number. It was "a critical piece of information," said state police Commissioner Colonel Frank Pawlowski. "That gave us somewhere to go."
Police apprehended the suspect at the camp Friday morning. He had an apparent gunshot wound of the side, the AP reported. It is not known how police knew of his destination, but at a news conference state police said the passenger of the truck is considered a witness, and they were not searching for anyone else related to the investigation. A dead deer was found near the spot where Mr. Grove was killed.
The suspect, identified by police as Christopher Lynn Johnson, 27, of Gettysburg, was arrested Friday morning and in the afternoon he was in police custody at York Hospital, awaiting arraignment. He faces charges including murder and fleeing apprehension as well as weapons and game offenses. Adams County District Attorney Shawn Wagner said he would likely seek the death penalty.
New laws have dramatically increased penalties for wildlife poaching in Pennsylvania, but Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said it was "unlikely" they contributed to Mr. Grove's killing.
"[Mr. Johnson] was a convicted felon already illegally in possession of a firearm. New game law penalties were the least of his concerns," he said.
Mr. Johnson's criminal record dates to 2002, when he pleaded guilty to two counts of burglary and criminal conspiracy. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of children and fleeing or attempting to elude an officer.
Mr. Grove graduated in 1997 from Grace Academy in Hagerstown, Md., and attended Appalachian Bible College in Bradley, W.Va., from 1997 to 1999. He was a deputy wildlife conservation officer in Franklin County from 2001 until 2007, and worked at the Penn State University Deer Research Facility from 2003 until 2004. Mr. Grove earned a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Penn State in 2004. He graduated from the Game Commission's Ross Leffler School of Conservation and was commissioned a full-time wildlife conservation officer on March 8, 2008.
On Friday, Gov. Ed Rendell ordered that Pennsylvania flags at all state facilities be flown at half-staff through Mr. Grove's interment. The last time a Game Commission officer was killed on the job was in 1915, when Game Protector Joseph McHugh was shot in Weatherly, Carbon County.
Game Commission law enforcement officers carry .357 SIG caliber Glock handguns. Twice a year they qualify with sidearms and shotguns on a law enforcement grade training course. Officers are issued Kevlar body armor. It is not known if Mr. Grove was wearing the armor at the time of the shooting.
Tom Fazi, Game Commission information and education supervisor for the southwest region, said living with the potential danger was a part of the job.
"You always know that's a possibility," said Mr. Fazi, who worked in the agency's law enforcement branch for 18 years. "It's always in the back of your head -- you don't get complacent. Even when you're doing routine license checks and the guy has no ill intentions toward you, he's still armed. You never know who you're approaching anytime you make a vehicle stop at night. You just don't know."
Sometimes, when responding to calls involving gunfire, Game Commission officers request backup from local or state police. But that's not always possible.
"In rural areas, sometimes there are no police," said Mr. Fazi. "If we get a call or we're out there patrolling for poaching activity, we respond. That's what a conservation officer does."
A small state agency with 705 employees, the Game Commission has sole jurisdiction over enforcement of the state Game Code. Following yesterday's news that it had lost one of its own, a pall fell over the agency, particularly the branch including 210 field officers and land managers.
"Everybody knows everybody here, or at least you've heard of them," said Mr. Fazi. "Somber is the best word to describe it. Shock is not the best word because we all know what could happen. This is the life we choose. We know the stakes. We're saddened. I don't know what else to say."
First Published November 13, 2010 12:00 am