By Alyssa Choiniere firstname.lastname@example.org
When Crystal Dowdell told her husband she wanted a divorce on Aug. 25, he wrapped a belt around her neck and told her he would kill her and anyone else he had to, police said in a criminal complaint.
She talked him down, police said, calmed him by saying she’d stay. Then she fled and called 911.
On Wednesday, Patrick Dowdell, 61, was scheduled to appear before Fayette County Magisterial District Judge Daniel Shimshock for assault, strangulation and terroristic threats charges.
State police say he brought a gun with him, shooting a police officer and three others. His wife was among those shot just after 2 p.m., police said.
Patrick Dowdell was shot and killed by a German Township police officer who was nearby.
District Attorney Rich Bower said there were dozens of cases scheduled at Shimshock’s office, mostly preliminary hearings. Police officers, prosecution and defense attorneys, witnesses and others were in the building when Patrick Dowdell started shooting. He credited the action of four police officers, including Masontown police Sgt. R. Scott Miller, who was shot, for their swift action in stopping what could have been a major tragedy.
“In this case, as is so often the case, a German Township police officer ran toward danger, not away. He protected 30 to 40 people from danger or death,” Bower said.
Police said Miller was in the lobby of the office when Patrick Dowdell came in holding a handgun. Miller tried to stop him, but Dowdell shot the officer in the hand. Miller sustained non-life-threatening injuries. Police said Patrick Dowdell shot his wife and two men. Police have not identified the other two victims.
Three German Township police officers, Chief David Hromada, Officer Tom O’Barto, and the officer who fatally wounded Patrick Dowdell ran to help, Bower said, calling them and Miller “heroes.”
“That’s what these people do every day of their lives. These police officers and these emergency management people risk their lives every day going out. Today, they were all shining lights to our community. It goes without saying, but we must thank them for their heroic efforts in protecting everyone in that room,” Bower said. “They all did their duty.”
Police specified that neither Shimshock nor his staff or any attorneys at the office were believed to be targets in the shooting.
Hromada said the shooting left him with mixed emotions, but said he was thankful no other lives were lost.
“It’s unfortunate that someone lost their life, but I’m proud of my officer and I think everyone did what they were trained to do,” he said.
Witnesses were frenzied following the shooting, clustering in a few spots of shade to reflect on their close encounters and await interviews with state police.
An 8-year-old girl, Kylie Martelli, had just stepped out of the bathroom into the building’s lobby when the shooting started.
“I heard shooting and I didn’t know if I was OK. I was more concerned about my mom,” she said.
The shooter shoved her mom, Ashley Martelli, to the floor, the woman said. He pointed a gun at the girl’s dad, Bill Gaebler.
“I told him, ‘I ain’t do nothing, sir.’ He said, “I’m not after you. I’m after my wife.’ That’s when I heard glass breaking and everything. I laid down on the ground and made sure I wasn’t shot.”
A woman, Verna Ash, saw the girl walk out of the bathroom, grabbed her hand and pulled her outside.
When she saw the girl, she immediately thought of her 7-year-old daughter.
“There was no split second to think about it. I grabbed her hand and dragged her out of there.”
The girl said the bathroom was covered in blood, though she was not sure where it came from.
“I was never around something like this before,” she said, hugging her tiny arms around her small body.
Ash said she saw the shooter come in through the parking lot, shoot a woman through the lobby’s double doors, and then shoot a man in the arm.
Martelli said she heard the man fire shots, then reload.
“I was just trying to find my kid. I was screaming bloody murder.”
She found her hiding behind a car.
Gary David was waiting for a friend when he saw a man get shot.
“Somebody said, ‘Run!’ and I took off running,” he said.
He fled with a group of people into the municipal office where they huddled on the floor until police informed them the scene was secured.
Jackie Gardner said she was getting ready to go inside when she heard gunshots and saw a woman run. She said blood was “everywhere.”
“I’ve just been praying ever since it started,” she said.
Bower said that security at magisterial district courts and county courthouses is a concern.
“You’re never going to stop everything, but the problem is that a person can walk into any of these district judge’s courtrooms,” Bower said.
The building in which Shimshock’s office is housed also holds the borough’s municipal office. The borough’s police office is downstairs. Visitors to the building enter through glass front doors into a small lobby before going to either the borough or magistrate’s office on the main floor.
There’s no security to get into the building.
“You go straight ahead, and into the magistrate’s office,” Masontown Mayor Toni Petrus said. “They have a door that they can lock, but it’s not going to do anything to stop bullets.”
Masontown Borough Council President John Stofa said he was shocked the small borough was the scene of a mass shooting, but acknowledged domestic violence cases are volatile.
“With the domestic relations in a court, anything can happen,” he said.
The mass shooting was the second in Fayette County in 2018. In January, Timothy O’Brien Smith, 28, gunned down Chelsea Lou Cline, 25, Seth William Cline, 21, Cortney Sue Snyder, 23, and William Scott Porterfield, 27, before shooting himself. Both mass shootings were apparently spurred by domestic violence.
“It’s becoming way too common, and we’re going to try to get a hold of it,” Broadwater said of mass shootings.
Fayette County Commissioner David Lohr commended police for their quick response.
“It was a good response from good people,” he said.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” Commissioner Vincent Vicites added. “We just have to pray for the victims and the victims’ families.”
State Rep. Pam Snyder, D- Jefferson, whose district includes the Masontown area, said she has been on the scene talking to investigators.
“My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by today’s senseless act of violence at the Masontown magistrate’s office,” Snyder said.
State police Lt. Steve Dowlin asked for thoughts and prayers for all the victims, and asked that people consider the great sacrifice police make daily.
“The next time you see a police officer, walk up to them and thank them for what they do, putting their lives on the line every day,” he said.
Anyone who may have been a witness or had additional information on the shooting is asked to contact state police at 724-439-7111 or Fayette County Crime Stoppers at 724-320-2042.
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By Alyssa Choiniere email@example.com