Family seeks answers in death of student

More than eight months after a standoff with police ended with the tragic shooting death of former Seton Hill student Joseph Briggs, his family still contends with several unanswered questions from that horrific night.

By Sean Maiolo

Staff Writer

More than eight months after a standoff with police ended with the tragic shooting death of former Seton Hill student Joseph Briggs, his family still contends with several unanswered questions from that horrific night.

In June, state trooper Ronald Salandro, who fired the single fatal shot ending the standoff with law enforcement on the morning of February 15, received a commendation for his actions despite the ongoing nature of the investigation.

On New Year’s Day of 2006, Salandro was involved in a similar incident involving a gunman in Berlin, PA. Somerset County District Attorney Jerry Spangler ruled that shooting to be justified less than a month later.

This aspect, along with several other unresolved mysteries surrounding the circumstances leading up to Briggs’ death, has left the family anxiously seeking answers. Marley Wilkinson, Briggs’ older sister, first addressed the issues the family wants resolved in the case.

“It’s like every day we wake up and we’re just waiting,” she said. “It’s a perpetual state of waiting to find out what happened that night and this commendation is like insult to injury. The fact that they gave the commendation so quickly is very alarming to me. I think it seems inappropriate in its timing. I was just shocked when I saw it. I couldn’t believe It,” said Wilkinson.

“It seems a little premature,” said Christina Mason, a grad student and friend of Briggs since the two were freshmen. “You can’t really blame [Salandro], but it does kind of make you wonder why so early.”

“You would think they would be able to figure out something other than shooting, but at the same time, they did what they thought they had to do.”

Mason also said that while she sympathizes with the family, she thinks it best to try and move on with her own life.

The family’s frustration also stems in part from a series of inquests sent over the past several months seeking answers. Every inquest was met with the same response.
“Every time I called them it was another six to eight weeks, another six to eight weeks,” Wilkinson said. “I just feel like they weren’t upfront from the beginning.”

Gloria Briggs, Joe’s mother, has been especially bothered by the lack of responsiveness she’s seen from officials surrounding the case.

“No one’s called us to give us updates,” Briggs said, referring to the state police. “We’ve had to initiate and make every call.”

When she made attempts to gather information, she was told that because the case is ongoing, no details could be provided to her.

“The last time we spoke with someone was in September,” she continued. “When we called they said it might be October or November [until we hear something].”

Calls made from the Setonian to the state police for comment were not returned. However, John Peck, Westmoreland County District Attorney, defended the state police by urging patience from the family to allow the state police to conduct their investigation thoroughly and completely.

“Unfortunately, the state police are tasked with a number of investigations, and the ballistics expert simply hasn’t had time to complete the analysis of the firearms and the casings,” he said. “In this area the state police have limited resources in terms of being able to analyze this material as quickly as we’d like to have it done.

“What’s important is that we get a complete investigation done, and if that takes an additional amount of time then that’s just a fact of life.”

Adding to the perplexity is that Briggs’ background gives no evidence to expect that anything like the shootout was even remotely possible. At the time, Briggs, an avid and responsible hunter with no criminal history, was only months away from graduating with a degree in criminal justice and had just finished an internship with Jeanette patrolman Justin Scalzo.

“This is just so out of character,” said Briggs. “There’s no explanation for it. I guess we’re just looking for why [this happened].”

Both Briggs and her daughter confirmed that the family was made aware of the situation around 6:30 a.m. and were told that Joe was willing to speak with his father. However, that conversation never came to fruition and he was fatally shot at approximately 7:00 a.m.

The family was left in the dark until two Montgomery County, Maryland police officers arrived at the family farm to inform them of Briggs’ death at around 9:15 a.m.

“We just want our questions answered and why they make it sound like three hours is such a long time,” continued Briggs. “It’s not a long time. Why wasn’t something done sooner and what happened to make him so angry that night?”

Mason believes that while the inquests may help clarify the situation, the family will still be left with unsolved mysteries.

“I really can’t see much more coming out of this,” she said. “The sad part is the person I really feel who could answer the most is the one we already lost.”

Although they feel they may never truly get any closure from their inquest’s results, Briggs and her husband Fred feel that it may still help them to some degree.

“Fred and I are still grief torn,” she said. “We don’t think we’ll be able to even start to come to any closure ever in our lives, but we think once the inquest [is completed] that that might help.”