Wrong place, wrong time for one unlucky driver
Coincidence entangled Bruce Gundlach and Jacob Adams in the search for an armed robber in Armstrong County on Thursday.
Gundlach chanced upon a car stolen during a home invasion in North Apollo.
Adams and two friends spent part of the evening in handcuffs after they were in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong vehicle.
Soon after the 2 p.m. armed robbery, police began broadcasting a description of the distinctive yellow Chevrolet Cobalt with black racing stripes that was stolen from Derick Shaffer.
The 22-year-old victim was alone in his Cochran Avenue home when a man wearing a ski mask and armed with a knife and gun allegedly bound Shaffer and robbed his family's house of guns, jewelry and money.
Gundlach, a waterways conservation officer who patrols much of Armstrong County for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, was returning to his work truck when he heard about the robbery on his police radio.
“I caught the tail end of the BOLO (be on the lookout) for the Chevy Cobalt,” Gundlach said.
About a half-hour later he passed a yellow Cobalt parked on the West Kittanning side of the Allegheny River.
“I turned around and, as I'm coming back to it, I see the guy getting into the car,” Gundlach said. “We passed each other going in opposite directions.”
Gundlach turned around again and maneuvered his truck behind the Cobalt as they crossed the Kittanning Bridge.
Gundlach said he called Armstrong County 911 and confirmed the Cobalt's license plate number matched that of the car stolen from Shaffer. Officers from Kittanning and other departments were dispatched to the area.
Gundlach said he briefly lost sight of the Cobalt, which was a few cars ahead of him as it turned left off the bridge into Kittanning. Gundlach was further hampered because his large truck couldn't fit down all of the small alleys in the riverfront neighborhood.
A few minutes later, the car was found in an alley between North Water and North Jefferson streets, but the driver was gone. Gundlach isn't certain whether the suspect realized police were closing in.
Gundlach said it was pure chance he spotted the car for which police departments throughout the region were searching.
“Sometimes it just works out,” he said.
Gundlach caught only a glimpse of the suspect as he was getting into the Cobalt in West Kittanning. Another witness told police the man may have climbed into a dark sport-utility vehicle after ditching the Cobalt.
Unfortunately for Jacob Adams, he happened to be driving a black Jeep Cherokee through West Kittanning just as police were refocusing their search for an SUV.
Adams, 21, of Kittanning said he and two friends had just dropped off another friend at the Pizza Hut in East Franklin at about 4:30 p.m.
They were driving on Butler Road back to Kittanning when Adams noticed a police car heading in the opposite direction abruptly turn around and pull in behind him. But the police cruiser wasn't using emergency lights or sirens, so Adams didn't immediately realize anything was amiss.
But soon several more police cars surrounded Adams' Jeep and stopped it on the West Kittanning-East Franklin border in front of an AutoZone store.
“They got out of their cars and pulled guns on us,” said Adams. “They had us down on the ground in handcuffs.”
Adams said they didn't know about the North Apollo robbery until police told them why they were being taken into custody.
Adams said he and his two friends, who declined to be named, were kept in cuffs and questioned along the road for about an hour before they were driven to the Kiski Township police station for further questioning.
“I just kept telling them it wasn't us,” Adams said. “We had alibis.”
Adams said one friend had left work at an East Franklin grocery store at 2 p.m. and couldn't have been in North Apollo for the robbery.
The three friends were released about 7:30 p.m. Thursday and drove off in their Jeep, which had been towed to Kiski Township.
Kiski Township police Chief Jerrod Thompson on Thursday confirmed the three were no longer believed to be involved in the robbery.
Adams said he wasn't thrilled with their treatment by police.
“I didn't get an apology or nothing,” he said. “I was freaked out, especially when they had the guns in my face.”
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.