Turnpike worker recalls attack that left 3 dead, including retired York City cop
HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania Turnpike toll collector who survived a botched robbery attempt last month that left three people dead said she was terrified but her instincts took over during the attack by a retired state trooper, who was killed by police responding to her call for help.
Martha Berkstresser told The Associated Press in an interview last week that her “mind was going 24 miles an hour” after Clarence Briggs pulled a gun on her and co-worker Danny Crouse as they were counting money at a booth in the Fort Littleton interchange during the predawn twilight on Sunday, March 20.
“You don’t have time to stop and think, ‘What shall I do now?’” Berkstresser said. “You just kind of act.”
She said Briggs, who had run into money problems since his 2012 retirement as a trooper patrolling the turnpike, was “cool as a cucumber” as he marched her and Crouse into a turnpike building at gunpoint and ordered her to bind Crouse’s hands with a cord.
“Let’s just say we kind of worked together without talking to each other,” said Berkstresser, a 10-year turnpike employee. “I did the best I could to make it possible for Danny to get away, if he could.”
She purposely left the knot loose enough that Crouse was able to confront Briggs and somehow take his handgun.
“I saw him try to reach for the gun,” she said. “I left, I didn’t stick around.”
She took off at a full sprint for the phone in her toll booth.
Back inside the building, police say, either Crouse or Briggs fired a single shot. By the time the two men were outside, Crouse had the weapon and was wearing only one shoe. Briggs, who had multiple weapons on him, then shot and killed both Crouse and Ronald Heist, retired York City Police officer working as a private guard who pulled up about that time in a van on a fare collection run.
“It really could have been me that got shot, I could have been the one,” Berkstresser said. “People say that you’re a hero because you helped save lives. I don’t feel like I’m a hero because I lost a co-worker. You lose a co-worker, you don’t feel like a hero.”
Berkstresser told investigators she heard four shots fired, and police do not believe either Heist or Crouse fired any of them, at least not outside. Crouse’s body was later recovered between the building and the toll booths.
“He didn’t run from anything,” said Capt. David Cain, commander of the troop that patrols the turnpike. “He stayed there and my take on that was he was protecting Martha.”
Berkstresser credits her Christian faith with giving her strength to make it through the incident and cope with the painful aftermath.
Her supervisors encouraged her to take some time off, but she definitely plans to return to the job.
“I’m not a quitter. I’m not going to let this tragedy make me fearful of anything. In fact, it’s going to make me more determined to help train others, go out and speak,” she said.
She has offered some suggestions to turnpike management as officials begin looking for security improvements to help workers feel safer in the short term and develop permanent changes in the longer term.
“They’re relooking over all aspects of their security and everything out here,” Cain said. “Everybody takes an incident like this and tries to learn from it, no matter how tragic it is.”
Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo offered few details, citing concerns that security could be further compromised.
“Intelligence about the process is what got us here,” DeFebo said. “Keep in mind, the actor had insider knowledge about our process; we simply can’t risk another such incident.”
Police said Briggs commandeered the toll collection van and was transferring money to his own BMW, parked nearby, when two responding troopers arrived. Cain said Briggs fired first at the troopers, after which one of them shot and killed him with a bullet to his right thigh.
“They did what they are called to do every day,” Cain said of the two troopers. “They put their lives on the line, they ran in there and they stopped the action. Their actions probably saved lives.”
State police said they will not identify the trooper who shot Briggs, but Cain said he has returned to administrative duty. The Fulton County district attorney, who is reviewing the shooting, did not return several phone messages.
Police aren’t certain about what motivated Briggs, but his father-in-law John Perry told the Reading Eagle last month that the couple was “so far in debt that it was unbelievable,” spending money “something awful,” including on a gun collection.
Berkstresser said she thinks Briggs, whom she had not met before the attack, acted selfishly and should have considered what it could mean for his own family.
“I think he underestimated me,” she said. “I guess what he thought (was), ‘A woman, this is going to be a piece of cake.’”