Broken borough: Grudges, tribalism, and infighting rife in Pennsylvania borough that hired the cop who killed Tamir Rice

Infighting was rife among elected officials in Tioga, a tiny borough in northern Pennsylvania, when they hired Timothy Loehmann, the police officer who killed Tamir Rice. (Min Xian/Spotlight PA)

Infighting was rife among elected officials in Tioga, a tiny borough in northern Pennsylvania, when they hired Timothy Loehmann, the police officer who killed Tamir Rice. (Min Xian/Spotlight PA)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Standing in a nondescript corner of the Tioga Borough Council Room, Mayor David Wilcox read from a printout of the Pennsylvania police oath and swore in his small town’s new police officer. A few feet away, a clean-shaven man raised his right hand and took the pledge.

One day later, Wilcox stood on the back of a pickup truck in the parking lot outside the municipal building and told dozens of protesters he was deceived by the Borough Council, and that he knew nothing about the man he had inducted as Tioga’s only police officer the day before.

That man was Timothy Loehmann.

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Loehmann shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice — a Black boy who was playing with a toy gun at a park — in Cleveland in 2014. The shooting prompted national outrage and several nights of protest in Cleveland and other cities, but a grand jury declined to indict Loehmann. He was later fired for failing to disclose that his prior employer had deemed him unfit for duty.

Eight years later and 300 miles east, that history would thrust remote Tioga borough and its 700 residents into an intense but fleeting national limelight. But the story of what led to the controversial decision, and what it revealed about this place and its leaders, hasn’t been told — until now.

A five-month investigation by Spotlight PA found Tioga’s hiring of Loehmann and the ensuing fallout was only the latest episode in long-simmering infighting — fueled by hearsay, half-truths, and accusations — among the borough’s elected officials. The event almost completely imploded the borough’s small government.

“This was just the proverbial straw that broke the camel,” Wilcox told residents in July.

Between July 8 and Aug. 1, four of the seven members of the Borough Council, including the president, resigned as a result of the hiring controversy. The solicitor and borough secretary also resigned, citing untenable hostility among borough officials.

“This situation has now further deteriorated with name calling, cursing and physical threats,” Jeff Loomis, who said he’s been the borough’s solicitor for 17 years, wrote in a scathing July 11 resignation letter. “Quite simply, as elected officials you should all be embarrassed by how your meetings and interactions with one another are being conducted.”

Tioga elected officials’ decision to hire Timothy Loehmann as the borough’s sole police officer followed a long line of troubling actions taken by its leaders. (Min Xian/Spotlight PA)

Spotlight PA’s review encompassed more than 200 pages of meeting minutes and other government documents obtained from sources and four Right-to-Know requests, two years of Facebook posts and local news reports, and two dozen interviews with local and state officials and people familiar with borough business.

The investigation reveals how quickly a small-town government can collapse under the weight of personal conflicts and vendettas, and raises the question of whether taxpayers are best served by Pennsylvania’s more than 2,500 cities, towns, townships, and boroughs that sorely lack critical oversight of their workings.

The Mayor and the Borough

Tioga residents speak fondly of their town’s slow pace of life. The borough, a half square mile incorporated in 1860, lies in a county that once prospered from coal, forestry, and agriculture. Now, the county’s main industries are schools and restaurants, and the median household income in the borough is $37,656, roughly half of the statewide median.

On the north side of town is Tyoga Container, which retains an older spelling of the Tioga River in its name and is one of the biggest employers in the county. In the evenings, regulars roll into the cozy Rosie’s diner or Lynns Pub for cheesesteaks. On Main Street, an annual light parade and Old Home Day celebrations break the pattern of sleepy small-town life.

David Wilcox, head coach for the local high school’s wrestling team, was appointed mayor of Tioga in April 2021, after former Mayor Mark Rice died unexpectedly. Wilcox, who lives in town with his young family, was welcomed as an energetic leader who stepped into the role with ideas like creating a farmers market and improving the pool.

For that year’s municipal election in November, he campaigned to hold the job for a full term alongside residents Alan Brooks and Brennan Wood — who were write-in candidates for the council — with the slogan, “Make Tioga Great Again!”

He won 97 of 107 votes cast for mayor.

But hearsay, bickering, and ballooning hostility quickly soured the relationship between Wilcox and the Borough Council. Much of the divisiveness played out on Facebook, where officials and residents argued and accused each other of manipulations, often misunderstanding one another.

In March, Wilcox posted a photo on his personal Facebook page in which he and Wood (who lost his bid for the council) wore T-shirts that said “not my president” with a cartoon image of a frog with a mustache, a reference to then-Council President Steve Hazlett.

That same month, the council questioned the mayor’s eligibility to hold office because they said the affidavit of residency he submitted wasn’t notarized, according to meeting minutes.

Wilcox’s attorney, David Smith, responded with a letter to the borough solicitor saying the challenge was “based on the thinnest technicality and is obviously contrived to retaliate against him” because Wilcox had arranged for an outside audit of borough financial records.

In 2021, Wilcox had pushed for the audit after a special committee found discrepancies between the timesheets and paychecks of a former borough secretary.

“We have a Forensic Accountant who is willing to meet, view documents, draw up an action plan and price for his services. He is willing to do this for FREE,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

But in June 2022, the firm, Larson, Kellett & Associates, invoiced the borough $14,454.62 for its work on the audit, according to documents obtained by Spotlight PA.

Borough Council members wrote to Spotlight PA in an email that there has been no formal agreement to pay the firm, and said the auditors have not provided any findings to the borough.

Wilcox said a summary of the findings has been sent to the county district attorney, and that he cannot comment on the open investigation. In a post recapping the council meeting in March, he insisted Jeff Loomis, borough solicitor at the time, said “on multiple occasions” the district attorney should take over the audit, an account Loomis refutes.

Reached by Spotlight PA, the Tioga County Office of the District Attorney would not confirm or deny an investigation.

Also in June of this year, Joan Stone, borough secretary at the time, filed a formal grievance against Wilcox that alleged “ongoing bullying and harassment.”

“I constantly am concerned about when he will come in and what he will demand or accuse me of next, when I am doing absolutely nothing wrong and just fulfilling the roles of the job that I was hired for,” Stone wrote.

“This grievance letter was nothing more than a ‘shiny object’ to take the attention away from the corruption that was going on behind closed doors,” Wilcox told Spotlight PA in an email. He called Stone’s characterization of their interactions “absolutely absurd.”

Tioga Mayor David Wilcox speaks to residents from the porch of the municipal building on July 12, 2022. He insisted that several Borough Council members misled him on Loehmann’s hiring. (Min Xian/Spotlight PA)

The Hire

Robert Wheeler had lived in Tioga for more than a decade when he was appointed to the Borough Council in January to fill a seat that his wife, LuAnn, had vacated for health reasons.

Wheeler had worked for the borough as the code enforcement and zoning officer since 2019, but said the learning curve when he became a council member was steep.

“I had no clue where we were,” he said. “We had a bunch of new people on. Nobody really knew the true information on what we needed and how to get it.”

As the head of the council’s personnel and police committees, one of Wheeler’s first tasks was to update contracts for the police department. He was alarmed to find the borough’s only police officer, Michael Northup, did not complete a psychological evaluation and had been in the role since November 2021.

Pennsylvania’s Act 120 requires psychological evaluations of police officers as a condition of employment, but Northup protested, saying the borough failed to inform him of the prerequisite before he was hired. He sent the council a resignation letter Jan. 30.

“I took this position on good faith, and you have shown me the error of my ways,” Northup wrote in his resignation. “There is a reason you are not able to keep police officers, and you are that reason.”

Wheeler told Spotlight PA that the incident made him determined to hire the next police officer the right way.

A few months of searching went by before the borough had three candidates for its sole full-time officer position. One candidate from Philadelphia dropped out due to a family emergency, Wheeler said. Another worked for the borough previously and was let go in 2014.

The third candidate was Timothy Loehmann.

In the job application Loehmann submitted to Tioga borough, he described a “police involved shooting” in 2014, “where the suspect killed was later determined to be a juvenile armed with a replica handgun at an open recreation center.”

He wrote that investigators determined the shooting was “a reasonable and justifiable use of deadly force.”

A grand jury in Cuyahoga County, where the shooting happened, declined to indict Loehmann. Years later, the U.S. Department of Justice closed its investigation in December 2020, citing “insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges.”

Loehmann wrote in his application that he received an Act 120 certification in October 2020 after completing a basic training course required for Pennsylvania municipal police officers, a crucial step that allowed him to be considered for employment.

Loehmann went to Tioga for an interview in May 2022. The Borough Council’s police committee — Wheeler, Hazlett, Council Member Alan Brooks — and Wilcox, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the police department, met with him.

“I very well liked this man,” Wheeler wrote in his interview notes. “He seemed like he had a good head on him.”

The council unanimously approved Loehmann’s probationary hiring during its June 6 meeting. Loehmann then completed a physical exam and a psychological exam, passed a standard but comprehensive criminal background check, had his fingerprints taken, and submitted a form for the borough to request an Act 57 database check from the Pennsylvania State Police’s Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission, or MPOETC.

Act 57 is a 2020 law that requires the state to maintain employment records of law enforcement officers and note when they have been disciplined or fired for certain actions. By law, the database is supposed to be used as part of the hiring process, but Loehmann’s appointment would later expose its limitations.

In at least six Borough Council meetings in 2022, Tioga residents pressed the council about public safety. For a borough “in desperate need” of a police officer, as Wilcox wrote on Facebook, things seemed to be coming together as Loehmann’s application moved forward.

On the morning of July 5, Judy Krepich, an administrative assistant for MPOETC, wrote in an email to Tioga borough’s then-Secretary Joan Stone that “the officer can be sworn in before completing all requirements, he just can’t work as an officer outside the office.”

That evening, Loehmann took his oath.

The Finger-Pointing

A photo of the swearing-in ceremony posted on Facebook sparked immediate outrage online, as people inside and outside Tioga learned of Loehmann’s hire. Dozens gathered in front of the borough building the following day and protested the decision.

Tioga drew national attention as newsrooms across Pennsylvania and the country covered the ordeal.

Within days, Tioga borough became infamous as online commenters, who were convinced no background check had been conducted, called residents racist and the town backward.

Tioga’s demographic and political profiles intensified the vitriol. Ninety-five percent of the borough’s residents are white, and voters in the borough supported Donald Trump over Joe Biden by a 3-to-1 margin in 2020. All but one Borough Council member at the time of Loehmann’s hiring, as well as the mayor, were Republicans.

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But among some borough leaders, a political affiliation was the only thing they had in common.

“I want to personally assure everyone that I had zero knowledge of the candidate that we just hired for our police department,” Wilcox told demonstrators gathering outside the borough building on July 6, according to a video posted by the Wellsboro Gazette.

Several protesters held signs that said, “Black Lives Matter in Rural PA.”

Wilcox repeatedly told reporters and the public that he was misled by some council members about who Loehmann was, and posted a video in which Wheeler misspelled Loehmann’s last name, replacing the “e” with a “c,” during the council’s June 6 meeting.

Wheeler told Spotlight PA the misspelling was an honest mistake that he made in a hurry.

“I can’t pronounce names real well or spell,” he said. “And I couldn’t remember how to pronounce his last name. So that’s why I was trying to spell it, and that’s where all this came about.”

A June 7 story published in the Wellsboro Gazette about the hire printed Wheeler’s incorrect spelling and identified Loehmann as “Timothy Lochman.”

Wilcox told Spotlight PA that he attended Loehmann’s interview and insisted that the resume presented to him during the interview had Loehmann’s name spelled incorrectly. Spotlight PA obtained Loehmann’s application through a Right-to-Know request; his name was spelled correctly throughout.

The mayor attributed the mixup to Wheeler and Hazlett but not Brooks, who also interviewed Loehmann as a part of the police committee. Brooks told Spotlight PA he didn’t know who Loehmann was until after the July 5 council meeting because of Wheeler’s misspelling.

Though he maintains the misspelling was a mistake, Wheeler later told Spotlight PA he thought Loehmann deserved the job.

“He was in an incident that involved a shooting, and they proved he was innocent. Where does that make him a bad cop?” he said. “And my personal opinion, I mean, I’m sorry, but it’s been 10 years, the guy deserves a second chance and another break. And a lot of people in this town, a lot more than you think, agreed the same way.”

Facing overwhelming backlash online and from residents, Hazlett — who in 2015 had called Tamir Rice “dumb” in a Facebook post — wrote on Facebook on July 7 that Loehmann had withdrawn his application. But that didn’t end the controversy.

A day later, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, now governor-elect, wrote a letter addressed to Hazlett alleging the council president’s failure to run an Act 57 check on Loehmann was “a violation of state law.”

“Act 57 was passed to … prevent the type of circumstances that occurred in your borough with the hiring of Timothy Loehmann and his subsequent withdrawal of his application,” Shapiro wrote.

“MPOETC records show that this check was not performed when Tioga Borough hired Loehmann,” the letter continued. “To be clear, failure to thoroughly check a potential hire’s background, including searching the database for any past disciplinary activities, is a violation of state law.”

But Spotlight PA’s review found state law allowed the borough to employ Loehmann as long as he didn’t perform police duties before the database check was completed. Additionally, Spotlight PA’s investigation found the check would not have returned any information, as Loehmann had not previously been a Pennsylvania officer.

Municipal police officers are required to be Act 57 certified before they work as a police officer, specifically before they make arrests, carry a firearm, or conduct traffic stops, Myles Snyder, communications director for the Pennsylvania State Police, told Spotlight PA in an email. “They may be hired by a department at any time,” he wrote.

The only form that must be completed and submitted by an applicant for an Act 57 check is what’s called an LE-003 Waiver Form, according to Snyder.

“If Timothy Loehmann correctly completed and submitted a notarized LE-003 Waiver Form, MPOETC would have everything it required of Mr. Loehmann [to conduct a check],” he told Spotlight PA.

Loehmann completed such a form, which was notarized and dated June 8, according to a copy Spotlight PA obtained. Stone, borough secretary at the time, told Spotlight PA that she uploaded the form to an MPOETC website for review. In response to a Right-to-Know request, the state police said the agency was not in possession of that record.

Spotlight PA shared its findings with Shapiro’s office and questioned the key points in Shapiro’s letter — including if an Act 57 check would have prevented Loehmann’s hiring and what exactly Tioga did wrong in the process.

In response, Jacklin Rhoads, communications director for the attorney general’s office, reiterated what the letter said — that Act 57 was passed to “prevent the type of circumstances” that occurred in Tioga, but not Tioga’s hiring of Loehmann specifically.

“We never stated it would have,” Rhoads said.

Rhoads also refused to explain how exactly Tioga borough broke the law and said the state Office of Attorney General stood by the statements in the letter.

“They should know the law and that the database must be checked before officers take to the street to perform their duties,” she wrote.

June Spotlight PA report found that the database is hampered by loopholes and a lack of enforcement mechanisms when municipalities do not follow the law.

But Shapiro’s letter inflamed concerned residents. A woman asked about it after the Borough Council met for a special meeting on July 12. “So what the Attorney General said is true?” she said. “There was no background check done?” When Brooks replied that he was not sure, the woman asked again, “But [the attorney general] would have had no reason to lie, right?”

Subodh Chandra, attorney for the family of Tamir Rice, told Spotlight PA that Loehmann should not be eligible to be a police officer “anywhere in America.”

“Loehmann’s shameless, defiant insistence on being a cop come hell or highwater is downright pathological,” Chandra wrote in an email. “Any government official who concludes otherwise is a reckless ideologue unfit to serve, as the former Tioga Borough council president’s resignation affirms.”

Spotlight PA attempted to reach Loehmann for comment, but calls to a phone number listed on his job application went unanswered, and an email sent to the address he used to notify borough officials of his withdrawal did not get a response.

The Fallout

Tension within the borough quickly boiled over. Wilcox, siding with protesters, publicly called for resignations from Wheeler and Council Member Doreen Burnside, although Burnside was not directly involved in interviewing candidates or reviewing applications.

“In a borough, the mayor is weak,” Mary Jane Kuffner Hirt, a professor emeritus at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and local government expert, told Spotlight PA in an email. “The mayor asked the police committee to resign and the members did. … Was he acting as the moral authority of the borough?”

Residents accused certain council members of corrupting the town’s reputation. The home addresses of Hazlett — and his wife, Marybess, also a council member at the time — Wheeler, and Burnside were posted in the comments of a post on the mayor’s official Facebook page.

“Oh I’ll be lighting their fuses that’s for sure,” one commenter said.

Someone responded: “Let me bring the lighter.”

Wilcox told Spotlight PA he did not condone those threats.

The repercussions came swiftly. Steve and Marybess Hazlett resigned July 8. Burnside submitted her resignation three days later.

The Hazletts declined to speak on the record for this story, citing concern for their personal safety. Burnside could not be reached for comment.

Stone, the secretary who had accused Wilcox of bullying and harassment, gave her two-week notice July 18, citing hostility within the Borough Council and the negative attention Tioga was receiving from across the nation.

“From the beginning, the grudges that have made their way into the elected officials’ agendas have not only hurt the community but will continue to have lasting effects on this once tight knit community,” Stone wrote in her resignation.

Loomis, the borough’s longtime solicitor, handed in his resignation July 11, lamenting “endless arguments about what a Council member or the Mayor said or did.”

Brooks told community members in July that the hiring of Loehmann went so wrong because “it became a personal battle of who was in charge.”

“This is not personal for me. And it should not be made personal for anyone,” Wilcox told Spotlight PA. “But it’s just more about right or wrong. And if it’s wrong, it’s my responsibility to speak out against it.”

At the special meeting July 12, Wilcox and Council Members Holly Irwin, Bill Preston, Brooks, and Wheeler sat around a folding table on the porch of the borough building in the summer heat. So many people showed up for the meeting that the leaders had to move it outside.

The meeting was convened to accept Loehmann’s withdrawal of his application.

The crowd of about 60 watched closely and cheered as Brooks amended the agenda to also accept the resignations of the Hazletts and Loomis, as well as code enforcer Andre Reed.

As a motion was brought to the table, Irwin questioned the lack of hard copies and an argument ensued. “If we’re going to play this game,” Wheeler said as he got up from his seat, “I apologize to the borough. I’m out of here.”

“You risked the public safety by allowing that officer be hired!” someone in the crowd shouted at Wheeler as he crossed Main Street.

The council was left without a quorum and a solicitor to guide them, municipal legal experts told Spotlight PA. But Brooks incorrectly assumed at the time that “a quorum is half of all of the councilmen in office. To me a resignation is no longer in office. That makes the quorum two point five — three.”

With no objections, the vote continued. Though it may not have been technically valid, by the next council meeting, held Sept. 14, the point was moot because the resignations were automatically accepted.

Municipal lawyer Matthew Creme said state code doesn’t specifically address what happened in Tioga “because it didn’t think it might happen, so to speak.”

Each borough must consult its solicitor when conducting official business, according to the Pennsylvania Borough Code, as no central authority exists to readily hand out interpretations of which rules apply and how.

By the end of September, the Tioga Borough Council had filled all four vacancies with new members — Brennan Wood, Deb Relaford, George Lamprinos, and Lucas Sargent — and secured a new solicitor, Zachary Gates.

Nearly three months after Wilcox swore in Loehmann and claimed ignorance a day later, the mayor seems to have won the “personal battle of who was in charge,” as Brooks had said in July.

Relaford, who has supported the mayor’s leadership since he’s been in office, is now the Borough Council president. And Wilcox’s political ally Wood has joined the council.

Some residents who attended the September council restructuring meeting said they were pleased to see their local elected officials “getting along.”

The police position remained unfilled as of Dec. 12, according to Relaford. A county sheriff helped out on Halloween, however, to ensure trick-or-treaters were safe. The municipal building reopened to the public Nov. 14 after being closed for three months, according to posts on the borough Facebook page.

The borough is working to get back on its feet, said Relaford, by cleaning up unpaid bills and late charges that resulted from personnel turnovers, and by becoming more familiar with rules of its governance.

Wilcox pointed to a three-hour Borough Council meeting in October that had no “petty arguments.”

“It was a long meeting, don’t get me wrong, but it was refreshing to sit through that. … To see everybody bouncing ideas off each other,” he said. Maybe people wouldn’t always agree, “but they do it in a way that is good for all, [for] the benefit [of] everybody.”

“I believe we’re on the right track,” Wilcox said.

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