Hours later, their heated search came to an abrupt end when Longenecker was found dead — underneath the treads of the bulldozer that had been blazing a trail through the thick vegetation. While officials maintained that it was an accident, and an investigation by the district attorney’s office found no wrongdoing, the circumstances of his death have been hotly disputed.
On Monday, Longenecker’s family filed a federal lawsuit alleging that a state trooper and game commission employee behaved recklessly by chasing after him with the bulldozer and that their actions had gone against “all common sense and respect for life.”
“They must be held accountable for what they did. That’s the bottom line. They cannot get away with this,” Mike Carpenter, Longenecker’s uncle, told WFMZ. “He was very kind to everyone. Very kind, very passionate. Wouldn’t harm anyone.”
On the morning of July 9, according to official accounts, Longenecker had parked in a field that was supposed to be off-limits for motor vehicles. A Pennsylvania Game Commission employee who had been clearing brush with a bulldozer spotted the unoccupied car and called police.
When officers showed up shortly before 11 a.m. and began looking for the owner, they stumbled across an opening in the brush where a small path led to a clearing. There, they found 10 mature marijuana plants, several watering bottles, pruning shears, liquid fertilizer, several small seedlings and a bucket of leaves that had been carefully trimmed by hand.
Longenecker’s friend, 54-year-old David Light, had gone with him to the grow site that day. He was immediately arrested, while Longenecker disappeared into brush that was too thick for even a tracking dog to search. Later, officials would say that they believe he had been using his trimming shears to cut an escape route.
“I've never seen underbrush that thick ever,” Pennsylvania State Trooper David Beohm told LehighValleyLive.com. “It was crazy how thick it was."
For several hours, state troopers and officials from two nearby police departments searched for Longenecker in the hunting preserve, using a helicopter to track his movements before they lost sight of him. Meanwhile, another trooper jumped on the bulldozer the game commission worker was driving, and they began to forge a pathway through the overgrown bushes.
Later, Beohm told WFMZ the bulldozer had been necessary because “there is no way that you could walk through that stuff up there,” and added the brush had been so thick it would have been impossible to see someone lying on the ground. He also disputed the notion that Longenecker had died in a police chase, telling the Reading Eagle he believed there was no pursuit.
Initially, police also said it was possible that Longenecker could have had a heart attack while he was running. Two days later, however, preliminary autopsy findings revealed he had died of traumatic injuries. According to the lawsuit that was filed on Monday, virtually all of the bones from his pelvis to his collarbone were either crushed, broken or lacerated.
Even as the exact details surrounding Longenecker’s death remained hazy, critics questioned why a police helicopter and bulldozer had been deployed in response to a relatively small marijuana grow site that would have been legal in other parts of the country. Though Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana in 2016, and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of pot, recreational use remains illegal in most of the state. The American Civil Liberties Union labeled Longenecker “the latest casualty in the state’s war on weed,” while the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws pointed out the plants that police had found weren’t even enough to last a regular cannabis user for the whole year, and would have been worth less than $5,000 on the street.
“Had he been arrested, prosecuted and convicted Pennsylvania’s sentencing guidelines would have provided for a sentence of probation,” Patrick Nightingale, the executive director of Pittsburgh’s NORML chapter, said in a statement. “The heavy-handed tactics employed cannot be justified by the seizure of ten plants. I do not understand why law enforcement couldn’t simply wait. A vehicle was on scene and another individual was taken into custody. Rip the plants, run the plate and ask the arrestee what his friend’s name is. How difficult is that?”
Amid the uproar, the Berks County District Attorney’s Office conducted an investigation into the 51-year-old’s death. In late August, they ruled it had been a tragic accident, and the efforts of the state police “were reasonable and conducted in a safe manner.” Without the troopers noticing, Longenecker had intentionally crawled under the bulldozer to hide when it came to a brief 30-second stop, investigators said in their final report. The bulldozer had then started moving to the left, causing Longenecker to become stuck under the treads.
The DA’s office also revealed that a forensic autopsy had shown Longenecker was under the influence of methadone, methamphetamine and cannabinoids at the time, and that the “toxic level” of methadone and methamphetamine would have impaired his judgment. According to the Eagle, the autopsy report concluded Longenecker had died of acute compression to the chest, and that his injuries were in line with what he would have experienced if he had placed himself between the two treads of the bulldozer and gotten caught underneath as it swung left.
The explanation that Longenecker had intentionally climbed under the bulldozer to avoid capture was met with skepticism from his friends and family, who had honored his life with a special screening of the Grateful Dead’s 1989 concert at JFK stadium, then followed it up with a rally where they protested his untimely death. Todd Jones told the Eagle the theory made no sense to him, and Longenecker, a close friend of his, had probably been “hunkered down hoping they wouldn’t find him” when he died.
“They stopped the bulldozer when they lost sight of him, so why the hell did they start in again?” he asked.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of Longenecker’s estate also questions that version of events, contending that authorities had changed their story, since initial police reports hadn’t mentioned the bulldozer stopping and then starting again. It cites an affidavit in which Light, who was initially charged with manufacturing marijuana but later cleared, said Longenecker had not been high while they were at the grow site.
In addition, the suit argues that authorities had no reason to infer that Longenecker was a threat to the public. Court records indicate he had past misdemeanor charges for offenses such as possessing a small amount of marijuana, but had never been charged with a violent felony.
Law enforcement officials could have simply approached him at his home later on, or waited for him to exit the brush, the lawsuit claims, rather than placing his life in danger by chasing him in a bulldozer “with similar force and characteristics of a military tank.”
The Pennsylvania State Police, Pennsylvania Game Commission and the trooper and game commission employee who were riding in the bulldozer when Longenecker died are all named as defendants in the lawsuit, which was filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and seeks unspecified damages. Representatives of both agencies could not reached late Monday night, and declined to comment when contacted by the Associated Press.
But Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams, speaking to the AP this week, defended troopers’ decision to keep searching for Longenecker after he disappeared, arguing that his relatives would have been equally furious if he had gotten injured and needed medical treatment. “Something could have happened to him,” he said. “And if the state police would have picked up and left, then they would be [ticked] off: ‘Why didn’t the state police try to find him?’ So they were damned if they did or damned if they didn’t.”
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