Ex-trooper who killed 2 in heist had filed for bankruptcy

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Pennsylvania Turnpike officials say the suspect shot and killed by police after a robbery attempt that turned violent was a retired state trooper. (WPVI)

A retired Pennsylvania trooper who fatally shot two turnpike employees at a toll plaza, then was killed trying to unload money from a toll collection van, had filed for bankruptcy last year after running up huge credit card debt.

Clarence Briggs, 54, killed toll collector Danny Crouse and Ronald Heist, a former police officer working as security, on Sunday morning at a rural toll plaza in central Pennsylvania, police said.

Police said Briggs was shot in an exchange of gunfire with state troopers after driving the toll-collection vehicle to a spot nearby where his own car was parked.

PHOTOS: Scene of shooting on Pa. Turnpike

Briggs and his wife, Donna, had debts of $315,000, a good chunk of it owed to credit card companies, when they sought bankruptcy protection in March 2015, according to court records. Their bankruptcy lawyer, Chad Julius, said the couple's repayment plan had been approved and they were making the required installments.

"I didn't know him well, but I did meet with him several times," Julius said. "The man that I met with was certainly not capable of the crimes that were committed. I'm in shock."

State police gave the following account of the crime:

Just before 7 a.m., Martha Delores Berkstresser was finishing her overnight shift taking tolls at the Fort Littleton exchange on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, about 60 miles west of Harrisburg.

Briggs, displaying a gun, approached her tollbooth on foot and ordered Berkstresser and her relief, Crouse, to go into a nearby building, where Briggs directed her to tie Crouse's hands with cord. Berkstresser told investigators she purposely left the cord loose, and Crouse tried to grab Briggs' weapon, giving her an opening to run from the building.

Berkstresser called turnpike headquarters for help and saw two men in a turnpike-owned fare-collection van that had just pulled up. Heist jumped from the van, after which he and Crouse were shot.

RAW VIDEO: Scene of fatal shooting on Pa. Turnpike
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See raw video of the shooting scene on the Pa. Turnpike.

Briggs also fired several shots into the van, prompting the driver to back up. The driver got out and was evading gunfire when he pulled a hamstring and then sought cover behind a concrete barrier.

Briggs then commandeered the van and drove it a short distance to where his blue 2004 BMW 325xi was parked. State police came upon Briggs loading bags of money into the trunk of his car. He was shot in the upper left leg during an exchange of gunfire with troopers.

"We're very confident in stating that Mr. Briggs was acting alone, from the evidence that was obtained from the scene," Fulton County Coroner Berley Souders said.

Crouse, 55, who had recently begun working for the turnpike, died from a gunshot to his upper torso, an autopsy concluded Monday.

State Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, who employs Crouse's wife in his district office, called Crouse a fun-loving man who was devoted to his two children - a son in high school and a daughter who is planning a wedding. Crouse lived in Needmore and had served on the local school board.

"Typical Fulton County guy - you know, he liked to be outdoors," Topper said.

Heist, 71, a former York police officer, was working for Schaad Detective Agency, a turnpike contractor, when he was killed.

Former York County Coroner Barry Bloss, who knew Heist from their days together on the city police force, told The York Dispatch he was "a great guy" who had been a patrolman for decades, starting in the 1960s.

Briggs joined the state police in 1988 and spent his entire career working out of the Newville station, which patrols the turnpike. State pension records indicate he withdrew $112,000 upon retirement in 2012 and was collecting a $5,200-a-month pension.

His bankruptcy filing said he had been working as a range master at a weapons manufacturer in the Harrisburg suburbs, IWI US Inc. The company's CEO said Briggs had been hired in 2013, working in customer service.

Briggs had been charged with domestic violence in 2014. Court records show that charges of simple assault and harassment were dismissed, however, four months after they were filed.

The victim in the case was his wife, Donna Briggs, who told investigators that he had broken down the locked door of a bedroom in their home as she hid during an argument, then caused an injury by hitting her in the head.

His defense lawyer, Corky Goldstein, said the matter was settled before a district justice.

"My records indicate that he never had any criminal problems before that domestic dispute. I have not seen or heard anything about him until the horrible events of yesterday," Goldstein said.
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