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Riot rocks State College

Bottles and other debris rained down during a four-hour disturbance early Sunday morning that resulted in 20 arrests, more than $50,000 in damage and 16 injured police officers

Monday, July 13, 1998

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

STATE COLLEGE -- The way entering Penn State freshman Jacob Britten figures it, the crowd that jammed sidewalks along one of State College's busiest streets yesterday morning started out as "just sort of a street party, a really, really big street party."

But by 4 a.m., it had become the biggest disturbance this borough of 39,000 people has ever seen, State College Police spokesperson Lt. Diane Conrad said yesterday.

More than $50,000 worth of damage was done, with 31 of the 15-foot-high lamp posts that line one of the town's main streets reduced to six-inch metal stumps. Three storefront windows along East Beaver Avenue were smashed, and windshields and rear windows in two parked vehicles were shattered.

Sixteen police officers were injured, the worst including a cut forearm and another officer with a broken thumb.

A crowd estimated at more than 1,500 people didn't disperse until 120 police officers from as far as 107 miles away lined up and ran, 15 abreast, down the street.

After order was restored, State College Police Chief Tom King blamed the problem on "alcohol abuse. Without alcohol, this situation would never have occurred."

Scuffling started about 1:30 a.m. Sunday, as bars announced last call, police said. At the time, about 100 people had gathered on East Beaver Avenue, two blocks from Penn State University's main campus.

Then somebody started pulling down lamp posts. Hundreds more people joined the scene, hauling out anything from trash to furniture and setting it afire in the street.

Twenty people -- 11 of them Penn State students -- were arrested.

"It was a riot, but the destruction wasn't people trying to hurt anyone," said Joel Stout of South Hills, a Penn State senior whose apartment building was in the middle of the street-cum-war zone. "A lot of people were partying. They were drunk. It was poor judgment."

"People were throwing bricks and bottles and other objects," said Conrad, the police spokeswoman. "I'd say there was a lot of hostility."

The ingredients for the riot might have been a mix of time and place.

The time was the eve of the end of the local Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, a five-day tradition that draws a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 people -- some of them students who return from summer break to join in, Conrad said.

The place was a two-block stretch of East Beaver Avenue, where balconies from 69 apartments jut out over the sidewalk.

"You'll have partying going on here every weekend," said Britten, who plans to enter Penn State this fall. "But usually what happens here is confined to people throwing water balloons."

Some observers said that, this time, it began with about 100 students partying in the street and a beer ball -- a hard plastic beer container about the size of a beachball.

"Somebody just threw this empty beer ball down from one of the apartments below us," said Mitch Bernett of Ambridge, who watched from his eighth-floor balcony.

Stout said somebody hurled a streetside trash can into the avenue and lit the contents, touching off a parade of people contributing to what would become three bonfires burning at spots along a 90-foot stretch of street.

Small trees and pizza boxes were tossed onto the fires, observers said.

"People were bringing couches out of their apartments to burn. I saw a guy with a chair. People were throwing cushions off the balconies," said Penn State senior Todd Taylor of Greenville, Mercer County, who watched the unfolding scene from Castle Software and Computer Systems, a shop where he works.

"People were stripping off their clothes and throwing them on the fires. I saw a girl holding up her underwear. It was the whole nine yards."

And it was playing like a big party, Taylor said.

"I was kind of hooting and hollering for a while, until I saw the lamp posts come down," he said. "Then, I figured I better get inside."

Police shut down Beaver Avenue and called for reinforcements from surrounding communities and Penn State, but some people said they thought police used too much restraint in trying to control the situation.

"I called 911, but it was three hours before the police did anything," said Bruce Silcox, security manager at A.W. & Sons, owner of several of the apartment buildings along Beaver Avenue. "I think they should have had fire hoses in there and let them have it."

It was at about 4 a.m. when officers rushed forward, local police wearing helmets and carrying pepper spray, state police toting shields.

"The cops came down, 15 people across, and the people started running, taking off down side streets," Stout said.

"I saw someone stand up to police, like shouting profanities in a cop's face; he got knocked down," said John Lee, a sophomore from suburban Philadelphia.

Of those arrested, two -- Colin J. Devine, 21, of North Wales, Montgomery County, and Drew F. Pearsal, 33, of State College -- were charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

Eighteen were charged with disorderly conduct and failure to disperse, including four from southwestern Pennsylvania -- Jess Koegler, 19, of Oakland; Gary J. Ferrero Jr., 20, of Pleasant Hills; Thomas Van-Gemert, 23, of Murrysville; and Jeffrey J. Schroeder, 23, of Trafford.

The others arrested were Michael R. Brice, 21, of State College; Timothy P. Logan, 21, of Amherst, N.H.; Joshua N. Snow, 22, of State College; Joseph M. Procopio, 21, of Chatham, N.J.; Michael P. Allen, 22, of Bloomfield, Conn.; Daniel Maniscalco, 19, of West Chester, Chester County; William R. Pfeier, 23, of Kennett Square, Chester County; Nathan J. Deck, 22, of Lebanon, Lebanon County; Bradley C. Dumville, 23, of Wauwatosa, Wisc.; Michael T. Marshall, 27, of Bedford; Brian D. Atkinson, 21, of Hummelstown, Dauphin County; Kevin F. Lang, 19, of East Norwich, N.Y.; Brian R. Stile, 21, of Middletown, Pa.; and Seth R. Porter, 20, of Fairview, Pa.

Conrad said police might charge more people and were asking the public for videotapes of the riot.

By 8 a.m. yesterday, debris had been shoveled from Beaver Avenue, and the street was reopened.

A quarter-mile up Beaver Avenue is the heart of the two-mile-long trail of arts festival crafts booths, holding everything from handblown glassware to $7,500 watercolors -- all in canvas-covered booths that were shut down for the night.

"If the riot had gotten closer to that festival, we'd really have had trouble," Vera Musser, a borough police communications officer, said.

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