Three weeks after the shooting that killed three and wounded four at a municipal meeting in the Poconos, questions continue to swirl about the shooter’s sanity and the wisdom behind the township’s successful efforts to take his junk-strewn property with its dilapidated Unabomber-esque shed.
It is not the first time mental health questions have been raised about Rockne Newell, 59, who is in Monroe County Correctional Facility without bail, facing three counts of homicide, among other charges, for the attack August 5 at the Ross Township municipal meeting.
In the early 1980s, Newell wound up in the Monroe County Courthouse on charges stemming from a high-speed chase he led police on after they tried to stop him for speeding on Route 611, where he clocked 75 mph in a 55 mph zone in Coolbaugh Township.
Besides speeding, Newell was cited for driving his VW Beetle without headlights and with a license plate that was registered not to him, but to someone in Cadillac, Mich.
There was more. He had hit another vehicle, injuring the passengers, while trying to out-run the police. And the police later found a loaded, .22 caliber Beretta in the VW. He did not have a license to carry the gun.
Newell had pleaded not guilty to all the charges but they were all sent to court following a preliminary hearing on March 25, 1981.
When the case landed in the courthouse, Thomas A. Natishyn, Newell’s attorney, stated in court papers that his client was in “need of psychiatric evaluation and treatment.”
Natishyn, in a court filing dated June 11, 1981, sought testing and treatment through the Monroe County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Unit “to determine competency to stand trial and presence of mental illness or disorder.”
Two months later on August 19, Newell formally dropped his not guilty plea and in an agreement struck with the district attorney’s office he pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and the other charges were dismissed. Natishyn was later seriously injured in an accident and left impaired. He was unavailable for comment.
Former Judge Arlington W. Williams sentenced Newell to 4-to-8 months, the time he had already served in the county prison, and he was released. There was no mention in the sentencing order about a psychiatric evaluation or anything else along those lines. Williams has since died.
E. David Christine Jr., the current Monroe County District Attorney, said his office is aware of the 1981 case but does not know if Newell ever received treatment, though he suspects Newell’s mental health no longer became an issue after he agreed to plead guilty.
ROSS TOWNSHIP SHOOTING
Newell’s 1981 run-in with the law was his first and only until Aug. 5 when he allegedly used a rifle to shoot up the township meeting from outside the building, and later with a handgun when he returned and came inside, sending people ducking for cover while the room was peppered with gunfire.
One of the people Newell apparently went gunning for was Dave Fleetwood, 62, the township zoning officer, one of the prime movers in the township’s push to get Newell off his property. Fleetwood pushed two women out of the line of gunfire and was shot and killed in the process, the women later told investigators.
Besides Fleetwood, Newell is accused of killing James V. LaGuardia, 64, and Gerard J. Kozic, 53, both of Saylorsburg. Newell also allegedly shot Kozic’s wife, who survived.
State police later said there would have been more fatalities had it not been for two men, Bernie Kozen and Mark Kresh, who subdued Newell while he fired his handgun.
One round hit Newell in the leg. If investigators had any problem determining a motive, Kozen gave them Newell’s own words, which he allegedly yelled while shooting up the room.
“You took my property,” Kozen said he heard Newell say during the rampage. Police cited another comment Newell allegedly made as he was led from the municipal building. Police said Newell seemed to have only one regret after the carnage.
“I wish I killed more of them,” Newell allegedly said.
Newell’s father, Lyndon Royce Newell, blames the township for what happened.
“If you keep pushing people, you’ll drive them crazy,” said Lyndon Newell, a trucker who lives in Hamilton Township.
Lyndon Newell said his son was “different,” but declined to elaborate. Asked if he had seen his son’s property in Ross Township, the elder Newell said he had.
“I’ve been out there,” the father said. “It wasn’t something I’d have myself.” He said there are “a lot of properties like his son’s in the Poconos.
Police said Newell made clear his intentions to kill the township’s solicitor, John Dunn, the lawyer who filed the paperwork that ended with Newell losing his Flyte Road property at sheriff’s sale, after a long process through the courts.
The township argued Newell had no business living on the property, even though he owned it, because he had violated a number of ordinances: building on wetlands, building without a permit on land that has no sewage disposal and, the township said, was dumping human waste on it, along with piles of debris scattered near a stream, tucked in the dense woods along a winding road.
The court battle between the township and Newell is extensive. In a court filing he wrote himself last year, Newell offers a glimpse into his increasing sense of desperation. “May it please the court I am on disability and have no money to hire a lawyer,” he wrote. “I am old & sick & I am trying to save my home for 20 years. If I lose my home I will never again have a home the money I get from SSI is barely enough to live on & I am broke at the end of the month each & every month, it would take all of it just for rent. I would not live long under a bridge.”
Newell, representing himself, filed a series of court papers that railed against Attorney Dunn, whom he accused of “playing fast and loose with the facts,” and even charged someone had altered township documents to get him removed from his property.
In another filing, Newell said the township’s case against him was “based on lies, forged documents and heresay.” Newell also claimed the township was allied with Butch Kresge, a neighbor who later became a township supervisor. In the filing, Newell claimed the township planned to take his property “so Kresge can have it.”
According to Newell, Kresge told him in 1990 when he bought the land that “they were not going to let me do anything on that land and the best thing I could do was sell it to him and move on down the road.”
Newell lost his property at a sheriff’s sale days before the shooting. The township bought the land for $1,806.
Ironically, Christine, referring to the 1981 case, said he cannot imagine how any lawyer representing Newell, 59, can come up with a defense strategy that doesn’t raise the mental competency issue.
Newell’s preliminary hearing is scheduled Sept. 13 at 10 a.m. in the Monroe County Courthouse. If the case goes to trial, the district attorney’s office has said it will seek the death penalty.