Poconos shooter had other options, neighbors say

Clay Borger and daughter Breanna , 11, of Saylorsburg, Pa., leave flowers at the Ross Township municipal building, where three people were killed Monday night. DAVID KIDWELL / Pocono Record
Clay Borger and daughter Breanna , 11, of Saylorsburg, Pa., leave flowers at the Ross Township municipal building, where three people were killed Monday night. DAVID KIDWELL / Pocono Record
Posted: August 09, 2013

SAYLORSBURG, Pa. - If only he'd sought help. Legal assistance, housing help, food to put on his table. Then, people in Monroe County say, the man accused in the shootings at a township meeting might not have opened fire over a property dispute.

"Somewhere along the line, he could have sought some type of [legal] advice," said Jim Mannello, publisher of West End Happenings, a newsletter that serves four townships, including Ross, where the deadly shooting occurred Monday night.

"There are a lot of people with problems," Mannello said. "It's just a shame when you see someone take the wrong action because they're in a tough way. He didn't have to go to that extreme. He just didn't."

Rockne Newell, 59, is being held without bail on murder and other charges after allegedly firing at Monday night's Board of Supervisors meeting, killing three people and wounding three more. He was upset over the recent condemnation and public sale of his land over zoning and sewer violations as well as unpaid taxes, police said.

Newell's father told WFMZ, an Allentown television station, that his son had been planning the attack after having been driven seemingly to the breaking point over the land dispute.

"He had been talking about this and we have been trying to talk him out of it, and he said, 'Dad, my life is over,' " Peter Newell told WFMZ.

The buildings on the younger Newell's Flyte Road property were dilapidated and appeared to be falling apart. The Pocono Record reported in June that Newell essentially lived in a shed on the property that lacked running water or plumbing, which violated zoning and sewage ordinances.

He also owed the township more than $8,000 for the violations and unpaid taxes after a judge ruled against him in 2002.

The home was sold July 25 at a sheriff's sale, after a protracted legal battle between Newell and local authorities. According to a file at the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, Newell received notice of the impending sale more than a year ago - along with numerous documents that urged him to retain a lawyer, and informed him that he could still stop the sale by taking steps to fight the decision in court.

Mannello and others said Newell could have sought a lawyer and worked out a solution with the township. Even after losing his land, Newell would not have had to be left homeless.

"It's common knowledge that there are churches [where Newell could stay] and there are food banks in the area. And why couldn't he just stay with his dad?" Mannello said.

State police said Newell had been living in a home owned by his father in nearby Hamilton Township.

Newell intended to shoot Ross Township's supervisors and its attorney, according to police, and said as he was being arrested that he wished he "had killed more of them." One of the victims was Supervisor Howard Beers, who suffered a hand injury during the shooting but survived. The dead included James V. LaGuardia, 64, and Gerard Kozic, 53, both Saylorsburg residents who were seeking zoning permits, according to the Allentown Morning Call.

The third man slain was David Fleetwood, 62, the township's zoning manager. Fleetwood was also a township supervisor in the neighboring township of Chestnuthill. He worked for IBM for 40 years in Virginia before retiring and moving to Pennsylvania.

"I can't say enough good things about Dave," said David Albright, Chestnuthill's township manager. Serving in local government, Albright said, "was just one of the things he did. He spent a lot of time volunteering as well. He just liked being involved and trying to help out."

Mannello said he hoped Monday's rampage does not dissuade people like Fleetwood from continuing to serve on local government boards. Such jobs in rural Monroe County and elsewhere around the state are often part-time and pay by the hour, typically $20 or so.

"They're not making a lot of money," Mannello said. "And it's unfortunate they have to worry about someone coming to a meeting and creating an incident. It's terrible to even think that way."

Hope Smith, director of the West End Community Alliance, said the West End is a tight-knit community in which people help each other out. She said the tragedy won't change that.

But, Smith said, "some people wonder if they could have helped [Newell]. If they could have helped him clean up his property. And other people say, 'We know the gentleman and he wouldn't have taken our help.' "

Contact Ben Finley at 610-313-8118 or bfinley@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Ben_Finley.

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