U.S. prosecutor's slaying shocks Pa. community

Violent crime uncommon in isolated townships of Lancaster County

December 06, 2003|By Lynn Anderson, Dan Fesperman and Scott Calvert | Lynn Anderson, Dan Fesperman and Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

BRECKNOCK TOWNSHIP, Pa. - The unsolved mystery of yesterday afternoon involved nothing more sinister than a mangled mailbox, and it didn't take long for local authorities to finger the chief suspect: a county snowplow.

That's the kind of trouble people are used to in this farming community in Lancaster County, a region famous for its Amish people and covered bridges. Worse crime is not unheard of here, or in the county, but the township's last murder came in a domestic dispute some 60 years ago, the county historian says.

So, as locals gathered yesterday at diners for biscuits and gravy on a wet, snowy morning, they grappled with a far more profound mystery: the murder of Baltimore federal prosecutor Jonathan P. Luna, found drowned in a creek here early Thursday with 36 stab wounds.

"It's very disturbing because we don't usually hear about this kind of stuff," truck driver Galen Martin said at the Silk City Diner in nearby Denver.

"This is big news for us," said Ben Mellinger, an employee at Weaver's Store, where customers swapped news amid stacks of Lee jeans and racks of tools. "It's a shock for this community. People are asking what's going on around here?"

Some residents sought solace in the fact that Luna was not from this area, that maybe the crime didn't have much to do with them.

"The reaction was, `Here?' " said Linda Leid, a waitress at the Lyndon Diner a few miles from where Luna's body was found. "But then people were saying, `Well, he was from Baltimore,'" suggesting the murder had been committed elsewhere.

"Still, it's close to home," she said. "My daughter used to play in that creek on a farm back there when she was growing up."

Kids play nearby still, and yesterday three were sledding on a hillside at a farm across Route 897 from the crime scene.

Even if Luna's killer or killers randomly chose this as a remote place to drop a body, some say the case offers a stark reminder that Lancaster County is not as isolated as many assume.

"The perception of a lot of outsiders and tourists is this is a bucolic landscape of Amish farms and farm families," said Tom Ryan, executive director of the Lancaster County Historical Society.

That remains true in many ways, he said, but Lancaster, a city of 56,000 about 20 miles southwest of Brecknock, has crime and drug problems along with fine cultural offerings and a vibrant farmers' market. The city of Reading, to the northeast, suffers similar ills.

On rare occasions, violence has spilled into rural parts of Lancaster County.

In 2001, a husband and wife in Ephrata Township - eight miles from where Luna's body was found - were tortured and murdered in their home. The same day, a bicyclist was shot in the neck in Fivepointville, a mile from the Luna crime scene. Four people were convicted in the related crimes; one is on Pennsylvania's death row.

Mostly, the crimes are nonviolent. Someone was charged with drunken driving, another person was accused of stealing from Wal-Mart. The local newspaper noted in September that someone scratched Marlin Longenecker's car.

No one was surprised that yesterday's edition of the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal blared the news of Luna's death across the front page: "U.S. prosecutor found slain."

Little was left of the crime scene yesterday. Only a wooden birdhouse stood sentry, the police tape taken down after a second, pre-dawn search of the area. Despite the falling snow, it was still possible to see the tire marks made by Luna's Honda Accord near the creek where he was found dead.

"It's just creepy to think he may have been killed on our property," said Mary Sensenig, 52, wife of one of the owners of Sensenig & Weaver Well Drilling.

An employee spotted the car at 5:30 a.m. Thursday, alerted by a red light on the dashboard, she said. He drove over to shine headlights on the car, a silver Accord with blood visible. He got out, saw a child's car seat, Sensenig said, but no body. That was left to a Pennsylvania state trooper who responded to a 911 call.

The snow began falling not long after the second search ended early yesterday. In nearby fields, the stubble of cornstalks poked through fresh snow. On Route 897, two Amish men squinted into heavy sleet as two big draft horses pulled a wagon loaded with logs.

Subdivisions have risen on some farmland in recent years, and the roads have their share of strip stores. But the township, home to 6,700, is a quiet place overall, and some locals believe it was no accident Luna's body ended up where it did.

"They could get away with it out there because no one was out to hear anything," said Dana Funk, who works at Procopio's Pizza.

That is not entirely true, even in the wee hours. Keely Johnston, a township police officer, noted that, "starting about 3:30 [a.m.], you do get the milk trucks starting to come in to the dairy farms."

Brecknock, one of the county's early townships, was named for the Welsh settlers who moved to an area later dominated by German immigrants. In the 1800s, a group of outlaws holed up on nearby Welsh Mountain, said Jack Loose, county historian. Known as the Buzzard Gang, the band "stole everything under the sun," but did not kill.

The last murder in Brecknock occurred in the early days of World War II, when Loose was in his teens. The murderer was a Mennonite man.

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