For the Fourth Time, a Trooper Is Cleared in a Fatal Shooting

A Pennsylvania state trooper who has killed four people in separate on-the-job encounters over the past 15 years was cleared on Monday of any criminal charges in his most recent shooting.

Pier Hess Graf, the district attorney of Lebanon County, Pa., spent almost 10 months in reaching the decision not to charge Trooper Jay Splain, who last fall fatally shot a motorist who had allegedly dragged another state trooper in his vehicle.

In a 46-page decision, Ms. Graf, who is married to a corporal in the State Police who once supervised Trooper Splain, appeared to have relied extensively on the statements of the trooper and his partner about what happened that night. The dashboard camera from the patrol car did not show the shooting.

Andrew Dzwonchyk, a 40-year-old metalworker, arrived in his Volkswagen Beetle on Nov. 7 at the home of his ex-girlfriend, who had filed a protection order against him. He was looking for a thermometer for one of their two sons, the ex-girlfriend said in December.

In a report on her decision, Ms. Graf described Mr. Dzwonchyk’s car as “flying up” near the home. She said troopers had observed that Mr. Dzwonchyk was “wide-eyed” with a “thousand-yard stare.”

Trooper Justin Achenbach approached the vehicle and tried to coax Mr. Dzwonchyk out. But Mr. Dzwonchyk looked around, making the trooper think that he was going to try to escape, the prosecutor’s report said. Trooper Achenbach then leaned into the vehicle through the driver’s side window to try to grab the ignition keys, the report said. This practice — grabbing the ignition keys as a way to disable a vehicle — has long been questioned, precisely because it puts an officer at risk of being dragged.

Ms. Graf concluded that Trooper Splain had fired his weapon at Mr. Dzwonchyk after Mr. Dzwonchyk had driven back and forth, dragging Trooper Achenbach, and had then reached for what might have been a weapon, according to the troopers. Trooper Splain tried unsuccessfully to use his Taser; he then shot Mr. Dzwonchyk five times, twice in the head and three times in the area of his left shoulder.

Mr. Dzwonchyk resisted “despite being wounded, despite the attempted use of a Taser, and despite the repeated commands of the troopers to submit to arrest,” Ms. Graf wrote in the report. She added that Trooper Splain had “reasonably believed” deadly force was necessary to stop Mr. Dzwonchyk “from defeating the arrest through resistance or escape.”

Trooper Splain told investigators that he had known that if he didn’t end the confrontation, he or his partner was “going to get seriously injured by this car or killed.”

Mr. Dzwonchyk’s 1999 Beetle had a stick shift, making it difficult to go forward and backward quickly. At a news conference the day after the shooting, Trooper David Beohm said Trooper Achenbach had not been injured. “It wasn’t like a real fast back-and-forth,” Trooper Beohm said.

Many large police departments bar their officers from shooting at moving vehicles because it is often dangerous, ineffective and unnecessary.

A forensic pathologist found that Mr. Dzwonchyk had ingested toxic levels of methamphetamine and amphetamine on the night of his death, the report said. During a search of his vehicle, troopers found a claw hammer behind the passenger seat.

Ms. Graf said in an email that she would not comment beyond the report and a letter announcing her decision. Trooper Splain did not respond to a phone message, and neither did a spokesman for the police union.

A spokesman for the State Police said Trooper Splain is no longer working as a patrol officer.

Trooper Splain has killed four people in separate shootings while policing a largely rural part of Pennsylvania over the past 15 years, a total first disclosed by The New York Times last year. He has now been cleared in all of the shootings, the last two by Ms. Graf, who has been outspoken of her support for the police. She hosts an annual fund-raiser for a nonprofit group that helps the families of slain officers.

The New York Times’s reporting on Trooper Splain found inconsistencies between the evidence of what occurred and what the police said had happened. The trooper appeared to have departed from police protocols in several of the fatal confrontations. In the first two encounters — in 2007 and 2017 — he shot men who had threatened to kill themselves and whose family members had called for help.

In May, The Times reported that Ms. Graf had exonerated the trooper in his third shooting, in March 2020, without publicly disclosing that her husband was Trooper Splain’s supervisor at the time. In that case, Trooper Splain killed an unarmed woman after a high-speed chase.

Ms. Graf, in the letter announcing that she would not charge Trooper Splain in the most recent shooting, said her office had followed a conflict-of-interest policy and that her husband had “played no role.”

“To anyone who knows or has worked with me, the notion that I am incapable of rendering decisions based on what I know to be correct is absurd,” she wrote. “I was a prosecutor before my marriage; I remain a prosecutor after my marriage.”

David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting.



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