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Officer is assaulted for 2nd time

July 31, 2014

Harrisburg — A state wildlife conservation officer suffered his second alleged assault-by-vehicle in two years in Bradford County, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

In the latest incident, June 7, conservation officer Jeffrey Oleniacz was injured in State Game Land 12 in Overton Township when the operator of a utility task vehicle tried to run him over, the commission said, noting the suspect had a young child seated next to him in the UTV.

Oleniacz was the officer injured last November when a wildlife violator rammed his vehicle head-on into Oleniacz’s patrol car in an attempt to avoid apprehension for spotlighting deer in Bradford County, the commission said.

The June 7 incident occurred when Oleniacz stopped a group of individuals operating UTVs, all-terrain vehicles, and dirt bikes on a game land road near Shrader Creek posted closed to motorized traffic.

“Some of the subjects stopped and some fled. Our officer [Oleniacz] was dealing with the ones that had stopped – processing them and getting citation information – when a subject who had fled came back and started interfering, making verbal threats and running doughnuts around our officer,” said Rich Palmer, the commission’s deputy executive director and former head of law enforcement.

The violator ignored Oleniacz’s commands to stop, but because he had a child with him in the UTV, Oleniacz refrained from exerting force, Palmer said.

As Oleniacz was attempting to go to his patrol car, the UTV driver accelerated and tried to run him over, Palmer said. “Our officer heard the offender coming and was able to get out of the way. The UTV did strike him on the arm and caused injury.”

Steven Harold Neilson, 43, of Monroeton, was eventually apprehended and charged with two felony counts each of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of children.

Neilson also was booked on numerous other charges, including recklessly endangering another person and fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer. The UTV he was driving was seized as evidence on a search warrant. 

Neilson was remanded to the county jail, bail was set at $10,000, and a preliminary hearing was scheduled for July 16.

“The charges are pretty significant,” Palmer said. “Felony assault on an officer could mean major prison time.”                   

“Resistance” encounters in which an offender pulls a gun, refuses to drop a firearm, or scuffles during an arrest occur about 15 to 20 times a year, but direct assaults on officers have always been rare, although that may be changing,” Palmer said.

“It used to be an innate thing, that you don’t assault police officers, but that inhibition no longer holds. A lot of people we’re dealing with now are intoxicated on various substances, which removes their inhibitions, and a certain element of society has no respect for law enforcement of any type.”

In 2010, conservation officer David L. Grove was killed by a man who tried to resist arrest in a poaching incident near Gettysburg. Christopher Johnson, 29, of Adams County, was tried and sentenced to death for that slaying, which was the first line-of-duty homicide of a Pennsylvania conservation officer in 95 years.

Grove was patrolling alone the night he was killed. Although deputy officers are required to work in pairs at night, conservation officers often work without a partner, Palmer said. “We suggest they have a secondary officer with them, but it isn’t required.”

Conservation officers are now armed with Taser guns, which has given them added protection, Palmer said. “They have been a very, very big benefit, especially when you’re dealing with someone who may be intoxicated and isn’t obeying a command.”

Oleniacz “tasered” an intoxicated suspect last fall after the man refused to be taken into custody.

Legislative efforts are currently underway to add body cameras to conservation officers’ duty gear. They previously were allowed but an update of the state’s Wiretap Act earlier this year did not include conservation officers in the definition of a law enforcement officer.

The Senate is expected to vote on a bill that would restore the devices for both game and fisheries officers.

When a suspect knows he is being recorded, it can make the arresting officer’s job easier, said Palmer. “In the recent case with the UTV, though, I’m not sure it would have made much of a difference.”