An off-duty guard at State Correctional Institution-Laurel Highlands died of a gunshot wound Sunday morning after a 12-hour standoff with police at his home in Berlin.

William Lee Leister, 38, is suspected of ramming a car and forcing it off a road near Confluence on New Year’s Eve, shooting and critically wounding a passer-by, abducting the car’s female driver and perhaps hitting a state trooper and neighbor in a hail of gunfire during the standoff.

Authorities were not saying whether Leister committed suicide or was killed in a shootout with heavily armed state troopers.

The standoff ended at 9:45 a.m.

An autopsy is scheduled for today at Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller said.

“His psyche last night would be of a psychotic and delusional nature,” said the apparent kidnap victim, Ashley Bittinger, 21, of Confluence.

“He was very disturbed.”

The passer-by, Larry Glover, 46, whose address was not immediately available, was listed in critical condition Sunday evening at Memorial Medical Center, a nursing supervisor said.

Though state police said gunfire only was exchanged between 4 and 5 a.m., neighbors maintained shots were fired throughout the morning until Leister was found dead.

Robert Coughenour, 46, who lives in an apartment next door, said he saw Leister lying near an upstairs bathroom door with his foot sticking out and an AK-47 assault rifle nearby on the patio roof.

“A couple minutes before 9, I heard bang, bang, bang, bang!” Coughenour said. “The door was open, his foot was out, and I saw the gun.”

Neighbors also said a state trooper was shot in the chest but saved by his bulletproof vest, while another neighbor sustained a gunshot wound to his shoulder when he peeked out a window. Neither of those shootings was confirmed by state police.

“I’d just dozed off about a quarter till 4 when there was shooting from everywhere,” said David Bittinger, who lives across North Street from Leister’s bullet-riddled house.

“About an hour later, it started again. About an hour and a half after that, it started again.”

David Bittinger is not related to the apparent abduction victim.

Neighbor Albert Hutzell, 58, was treated at Somerset Hospital for a bullet wound to his shoulder. Hutzell said he went into a room near his kitchen to see what was going on around4 a.m. when he was hit.

“I’m a little bit sore,” he said Sunday night.

Hutzell said the state trooper, whose identity has not been released, was shot “about the same time I was.”

Motive unclear

While authorities did not reveal a motive, Leister had posted bail for Bittinger in a domestic-violence case Friday, they confirmed.

Leister, an officer with the Berlin Volunteer Fire Company, had been a guard at the prison for 12 years, mostly on night shift, after working previously at the old Somerset State Hospital, prison Superintendent Fred Rosemeyer said.

In the days before the shooting, “there were previous conflicts among these people, conflicts that were apparently very serious to Mr. Leister for him to take this action,” said Lt. Dale Blasko, officer-in-charge Sunday of the state police’s regional troop out of Greensburg.

Blasko said Leister and Bittinger had a “previous relationship,” but added, “I’m not trying to paint them as boyfriend-girlfriend.”

State police released few details Sunday, saying the investigation is ongoing. A team from the agency’s research and identification bureau remained at the home Sunday afternoon, photographing the scene and collecting evidence.

Bittinger said Leister, a friend for about six years, posted the required $700 on her $10,000 bail to free her from jail.

That same night, she said she returned to retrieve personal belongings she had forgotten in his car when he grabbed her arm. She later called state police and filed a harassment charge against him, troopers confirmed in a press release issued a day before the shootings.

“We were always close friends,” she said. “He wanted more than what I wanted to give. He’d always ask, ‘Why don’t we date?’ ”

Forced off road

The emotions escalated around 7:40 p.m. Saturday when, state police said, Leister pulled up behind Bittinger and her cousin as they were traveling on Draketown Road in Lower Turkeyfoot Township, heading to her uncle’s New Year’s Eve party.

After swerving his Ford Escape into the driver’s-side door of the women’s car, Leister forced it off the road and fired a shot through its front windshield, police said.

“I didn’t know who it was at first,” Bittinger said. “I was like, ‘A drunk driver just hit me.’ Then I saw the firefighter’s license plate, and said to my cousin, ‘Oh my God, it’s Bill.’”

The passenger, cousin Candy Rugg, 20, of Confluence, was hit by Bittinger’s car as she tried to escape. Bittinger said Rugg opened the car door just as she was putting it in reverse and sustained minor injuries when she was inadvertently run over.

Moments later, Glover “happened by,” police said, and was shot repeatedly as he tried to intervene.

After Glover arrived at the altercation, Leister told Glover “to mind his own business,” Trooper Steve Barto said.

When he didn’t immediately back away, “Leister raised the weapon and shot Glover several times,” Barto said.

Authorities said Glover and Rugg were transported to the Johnstown hospital, while Bittinger was treated at Somerset Hospital and released. A condition report on Rugg was not immediately available.

‘Begging for my life’

Leister took Bittinger by force – striking her several times – and went to his home on North Street in Berlin. Bittinger said she was hit 10 to 15 times with the back of a revolver.

“I was begging for my life,” Bittinger said.

She said Leister was upset the two weren’t getting together for New Year’s.

“He said, ‘I just dumped all this money on you, and you haven’t seen me,’ ” Bittinger said. “It was all over New Year’s Eve plans.

“People got hurt and he killed himself over something so stupid,” she added, brushing away tears.

Once at his house, Bittinger said she convinced Leister to allow her to go outside for some fresh air, then saw a police cruiser nearby. State police said Bittinger walked out a back door after troopers from the Somerset turnpike barracks arrived for assistance.

“I said, ‘Bill, there’s a state cop up there,’ ” she said.

Tense standoff

About 30 troopers from a state police Special Emergency Response Team surrounded Leister’s home throughout the night, while a negotiator maintained telephone contact with the suspect.

Blasko said he spoke with Leister by phone during the standoff.

“Mr. Leister was very concerned about the incident that had occurred hours before,” Blasko said at a press conference at the state police barracks in Somerset. “He was distraught, upset.

“He was very concerned about his future – or lack of future thereof – because of this incident.”

During the standoff, authorities filed charges against Leister at the office of District Judge Douglas McCall Bell of Meyersdale. Leister was charged with attempted homicide, aggravated assault, simple assault and reckless endangerment.

“We very quickly identified Mr. Leister as a suspect,” Blasko said.

Blasko said Leister opened fire on troopers between 4 and 5 a.m., triggering what authorities described as a brief gun battle.

He said troopers had no contact with Leister between the shootout and when his body was discovered, though neighbors said Leister was firing shots from windows throughout the early morning.

“He kept yelling, ‘It’s a happy (expletive) New Year,’ ” Coughenour said.

State police tried to use an armored battering ram to gain entrance to the front door, evidenced by damage to the porch, neighbors said as they mulled outside Sunday night. All the windows to Leister’s home were shattered by gunfire or tear-gas canisters.

Troopers entered the home around 9:45 a.m. after spraying it with another round of tear gas. Leister was found lying in an upstairs bathroom with a rifle and handgun nearby, the coroner said.

Miller said Leister died from an undisclosed gunshot wound.

The coroner has not ruled whether it was self-inflicted.

Neighbors evacuated

Some residents in the typically quiet neighborhood were evacuated during the standoff, authorities said.

“This was a tragedy, but it could have been a far greater tragedy had it not been for the work of the SERT team,” District Attorney Jerry Spangler said.

Coughenour’s fiancee, Kathy Rizer, said the couple were awakened by what they thought were fireworks.

“We really didn’t know what was going on at first,” said Rizer, who along with Coughenour remained in their apartment because they lived too close to the line of fire.

“There were gunshots all morning. When the state cop got shot, we actually heard the gun battle.”

Doyle Paul, president of the Berlin Volunteer Fire Company, declined to comment through his wife Sunday night on orders from the state police.



Kirk Swauger can be reached at 445-5103 or kswauger@tribdem.com.

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