Family, prosecutor tell pardons board York County 'executioner' doesn't deserve 2nd chance

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
Deb Zink Whetzel and Joe Zink spoke on Dec. 20, 2019, at the pardon hearing of Robert Altland, who murdered their brother, John Zink, in York County in 1979. Altland was denied clemency.
(Liz Evans Scolforo photo)

Seated in Pennsylvania's supreme hall of justice, Joe Zink's face transformed from deep concern to relief as the five members of the state Board of Pardons voted not to recommend clemency for the man who murdered Zink's brother 40 years ago.

"Yes," he whispered to his sister, Deb Zink Whetzel, as her eyes filled with tears.

The siblings, along with Joe Zink's wife, Robin Zink, attended the Board of Pardons' clemency hearings on Friday, Dec. 20, accompanied by York County chief deputy prosecutor Scott McCabe.

All four urged the board to deny Robert E. Altland, 60, a commutation of his life sentence for what they called the savage execution of 22-year-old John Zink.

"My brother has no chance at a second chance," Joe Zink told the panel. "How is that fair?"

He said he was told that after Altland fired the first of numerous bullets into John Zink's body, the victim said, "Bob, I'm hurt. Help me."

Joe Zink begged the board not to "let this animal out of his cage."

"This is a person without a soul," he said. "He is pure evil. ... Knowing he's still breathing eats at me and eats at me."

Like her brother, Whetzel told the board that it's unfair for Altland to receive a second chance at having a life when he took that from John Zink.

"He knew it was wrong. It was his decision — his choice," she said. "I cannot go to the cemetery, dig (my brother) up and spend time with him."

Whetzel said she can still see the pain in her surviving brother's eyes every day and said the two brothers were best friends.

"He was with me when I shot my first buck," Joe Zink told The York Dispatch. He was 18 at the time of his brother's murder, and Whetzel was 14, they said.

The murder: Altland and co-defendant Bruce Scott Silar devised a plan to lure John Zink — their supposed friend — to a desolate area of Hellam Township to rob and kill him, which they carried out on March 8, 1979.

They drove to historic Codorus Furnace in Hellam Township, just across the road from the Codorus Creek, where Altland fatally shot John Zink at least six times.

Codorus Furnace in Hellam Township, Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Altland and Silar then wrapped John Zink's body in heavy chains, dragged him across Codorus Furnace Road and threw him in the Codorus Creek, officials said.

"One bullet behind each ear ... and four to the back of the head," McCabe, the prosecutor, told the panel, describing the murder as an execution. "This is not a case for clemency."

Altland was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life without parole. Silar, 60, was convicted of second-degree murder and also is serving life without parole.

Retired York County Common Pleas Judge John C. Uhler sent the Board of Pardons a two-page letter advising against clemency toward Altland after being contacted by the victim's siblings.

Before Uhler became a judge, he prosecuted Altland and had sought the death penalty.

Of the eight cases heard by the Board of Pardons during its 9 a.m. session Friday in the state Supreme Court's Capitol courtroom, Altland's request for clemency was the only case in which someone from a county prosecutor's office addressed the board. It also was the only case to be heard involving a York County conviction.

Robert E. Altland, 60, is incarcerated at SCI Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa., where he is serving a life sentence without parole.

The five-person panel, which includes Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, voted unanimously to recommend clemency in one of those cases, voted against recommending clemency in six and agreed to hold one case under advisement. The final decision on clemency in cases recommended by the board is made by Gov. Tom Wolf. 

Two memories: The victim's youngest sibling, Angie Landers, lives in Florida and was unable to attend Friday's hearing, but she sent a letter to the pardons board. She was 2 years old when her brother was murdered.

"I have two memories of my brother," she told The York Dispatch — one is of him chasing her around a desk. "And I remember his funeral."

Landers said she feels cheated that she never had the chance to really know her brother. She said as the youngest, she was in the family home the longest to witness their mother's grief.

"I watched my mom cry many tears that nobody else saw," Landers said. "I've seen her go through things no one should go through."

Bruce Scott Silar is serving a life sentence. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1979 robbery and shooting death of John Zink.

John Zink's parents, Patricia Zink and Robert L. Zink Sr., are both dead. On her deathbed, Patricia Zink told Landers, "I'm going to be with John now."

Landers said she thinks the murder tore her family apart and called Altland a monster.

"I just hope they keep him where he belongs until he goes to meet his maker and answers for what he did," she said. "He does not deserve to see the light of day."

Joe Zink described Friday's decision on Altland's case as the best Christmas present ever.

"In my heart, I really thought we would win this," he said.

Whetzel expressed her gratitude to the York County District Attorney's Office and various victim advocates who provided the family with support and kept them apprised of updates in Altland's case.

Altland will be able to seek clemency in the future, and the siblings said they fear having to attend pardons board hearings over and over in the years to come.

'Always happy': John Zink played defense for Dallastown Area High School's football team and was a gregarious young man, according to his siblings.

Joe Zink gives a thumbs up after he and sister Deb Zink Whetzel spoke on Dec. 20, 2019, at the state pardon hearing of Robert Altland, who murdered their brother, John Zink, in York County in 1979. Altland was denied clemency. 
(Liz Evans Scolforo photo)

"He was always happy," Joe Zink recalled.

Whetzel recalled a happy memory of her mother returning home one day to find it filled with Native Americans in full traditional garb.

John Zink had met them that day at a pow-wow and invited them home.

"He made friends with everybody," Whetzel said.

Eleven of Altland's family members and one inmate advocate walked to the front of the ornate courtroom on Altland's behalf, but only one spoke — his mother, Betty Sutton.

"I know Robert is very remorseful," Sutton said, adding that she's read young adults' brains aren't fully formed. "I'm sure that may have been Bob's situation at the time. ... I think he deserves a second chance."

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.