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A small town mourns its slain police officer

Sunday, February 21, 1999

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

KANE, Pa. - His title was borough patrolman but, really, Steve Jerman was more, much more, in this town of 4,600 people.

He was big brother to teen-agers - confessor, adviser, the pal who urged them to stay off drugs and alcohol and promised them some woe if they didn't.

"He was one of the most awesome, coolest police officers I know," said Paul Herzing, a 16-year-old 11th grader at Kane Area High School. "Kids listen to him."

So, yesterday morning, when this mountain top in McKean County woke up, it recoiled in disbelief. Steve Jerman was dead.

On a roadside pull-off along Route 66, 150 yards south of town, Jerman stopped a car that had been weaving and tailgating. And with no warning, police said, the 18-year-old boy at the wheel - drunk, his companions told police - fired at least one shot from a 9 mm pistol into Jerman's chest.

Jerman fell, but not before firing into the car, seriously wounding the suspected gunman, Timothy James Williams of Couders-port, 90 minutes east of this northern tier town.

There, on the ground, Jerman died. Williams lay in the car, pistol in his lap, too wounded to move, his companions too frightened to leave the car until other police arrived.

Williams was taken to UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland, where his condition was not available last night. He was charged with criminal homicide and other offenses.

State police investigating the case offered no motive.

An affidavit filed in Kane with a criminal complaint last night said the two other occupants of the car - Coudersport residents Becky Lucrezi and Matthew Seely - told police that Williams was drunk, driving erratically and tailgating another vehicle.

A state police spokesman was siphoning out information very carefully as the investigation continued. Lucrezi's step-father, Allen Faulstick, of Coudersport, the owner of the car, refused to say what the group was doing an hour-and-a-half from home at 4 a.m.

"We don't have a clue," state Trooper Jamie LeVier said last night.

Kane, on the eastern edge of the Allegheny National Forest, is a town built on the logging that once consumed this county that abuts the New York State border.

Yesterday, it all seemed beyond belief.

There had not been a homicide here in two decades and no policemen had been shot here since just after the turn of the century, according to police Chief William "Yogi" Osmer.

And now, Kane was struggling to believe that the victim was this hometown boy, this stocky man, who had been a fixture on local patrol duty for half of his 46 years.

The flag at the local post office was dropped to half mast. When local country music radio station WLMI-FM played country singer Vince Gill's requiem, "Go Rest High on that Mountain," 540 people called in and asked that their names be read as part of the tribute.

A local flower shop was taking orders for red ribbon to deck local parking meters. And youngsters were telling each other that tomorrow they should go to school wearing the T-shirt they got as part of the drug prevention effort Jerman oversaw.

"He was one of the finest people you'll ever meet in this town," said Chuck Crouse, radio station owner.

"This just makes you sick," said Edgar "Jessie" James, Kane's mayor for 30 years. "My heart aches for his family."

Jerman was married and the father of a student just finishing nursing education at the University of Pittsburgh's Bradford Campus, and a son, a high school senior, who recently became an Eagle Scout.

And he loved to volunteer, said Osmer.

That's why Jerman was even on the road in the predawn yesterday.

"He liked to work at night," Osmer said. "That gave him more time to volunteer."

And so he did. Two summers ago he took his week's vacation to take his camper and stand guard when a portable replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall came to town.

Every May, at local ceremonies honoring police officers killed on duty, Jerman was the main cook.

But his main draw was teen-agers - trying to counsel them, trying to keep them away from drugs and alcohol, said Linda Reigel, a local flower shop owner who has known Jerman since they were kindergartners together.

Kane feeds off a pipe line of drugs from Buffalo, N.Y., 90 miles away, according to local police. And Jerman was there to fight that, volunteering to teach local fifth-graders under the D.A.R.E. program.

"He was like one of the kids when he was dealing with the young people around here. But when it was business for him, it was business, and he was serious about drugs," said Toula Bechakas, as she helped tend a counter at her Texas Hot Lunch, in downtown Kane.

Bechakas said she was so upset, "I just cried all morning." And then she sent off a check for, "several hundred dollars" for a project to turn an abandoned McCrory's Discount Store into a local youth center.

Sometimes, Jerman's efforts weren't as structured as D.A.R.E.

"He wanted to help kids," said local high school senior Becky Gayley, 17. "A friend of mine was in trouble . . . for under-age drinking . . . and was probably going to drop out, but Officer Jerman said, 'If you stay out of trouble and graduate, there won't be any charges.' "

Yesterday, no funeral arrangements had been announced. So passers-by left flowers on a rock at the roadside pull-off where Jerman had been killed.

At that spot, Karen Herzing, Paul Herzing's mother, crossed herself, looked at the flowers and said, "He was a beautiful man."

"The kids feel really bad," said Tricia Brzezinski as she tended the Record Shop, a local magnet for youngsters. "Probably the only kids in this town who didn't think a lot of him were the ones he busted."

But even some of those were grateful.

"Several of the people who called in to offer tributes said, 'He busted me in the past,' " said Crouse, the radio station owner. "And they said, 'He set me on the right path.' "

Freelance writer Ted Lutz contributed to this report.

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