Unhoused in York: Wrongfully convicted, Ernie saw life through rose-colored glasses

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

EDITORS NOTE: York County is home to at least 300 unsheltered people, according to the most recent point-in-time count, although experts say that estimate likely reflects an undercount because of the transient nature of life on the streets. There's no one single type of homelessness, just as the unhoused don't easily fit popular stereotypes about them. Over the span of more than six months, reporter Meredith Willse and photographer Daniella Heminghaus reported on our region's unhoused population. This week, they will tell the stories of three people they followed over the course of their reporting.

Ernie Simmons saw the world through rose-colored glasses — literally.

“I spent most of my life in jail,” the 65-year-old said from behind the pink shades he wore in honor of one of the attorneys — Mary Hanssens — who helped free him from Pennsylvania’s death row. She died of cancer in 2010.

Simmons said he was in and out of detention from the time he was 7 years old for various small crimes — for stealing everything from swimming trunks to credit cards and cars. As a teen, he remembered stealing cars from Harrisburg, where he was raised, and joyriding them south to York and back in his bell-bottom jeans and platform shoes.

In 1992, the son of 80-year-old Anna Knaze found her brutally murdered — with a severed spine — in her Johnstown home. Her purse was the only item missing from the house, according to investigators.

Neighbors reported that a Black man had claimed that his car broke down nearby and that Knaze invited him into her home, according to newspaper reports from the time. Those tips eventually led police to Simmons, who was reportedly in Johnstown visiting his girlfriend at the time. Several people identified him from a lineup and, at trial, Simmons was convicted and sentenced to death.

“There’s one time I didn’t do something — and you want to kill me," Simmons remembered, raising his voice. Simmons said he’d always owned up to his crimes if he did them and served the time.

Ernie Simmons at Union Lutheran Church in York on July 7, 2022.

Simmons was insistent on his innocence.

What insulted Simmons was that he was accused of murdering a woman, which he said he would never do. 

Simmons said he believed men should never lay a hand on women or children. If they did, they were a coward and deserve to have their “manhood” taken.

“You don’t do it,” he said.

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Looking at the case: Eventually, his cause was taken up by reporters from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as well as lawyers — including Hanssens, who became an attorney after spending 16 years in a convent. Their efforts showed that the trial lacked evidence and that some of the witness testimony didn’t hold up to scrutiny. For example, hair samples didn’t match Simmons’ DNA. Nor did fingerprints found in Knaze’s home. One of the prosecution’s star witnesses later admitted to lying on the stand.

Gov. Tom Ridge signed Simmons’ death warrant in 1996 but, after a series of appeals, a new trial was ordered in the case. Simmons took a plea deal that released him on probation in exchange for a no-contest plea to third-degree murder.

Simmons ended up back in prison again — on charges he threatened a man — before his final release in 2019.

“Took 30 years of my life,” Simmons said.

But, eventually, he was free.

Getting out of prison: Simmons’ memories of Aug. 18, 2019, were vivid.

His adoptive father picked him up from prison with a carton of Newport cigarettes and a meal from Sheetz: fries, a milkshake and a cheeseburger topped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise and pickles.

Sometimes, he said, he’d sit all night in a parking lot, listening to the sounds of passing cars, just because he could. In prison, he had to be in his cell by 9 p.m. On the outside, there were no such limits.

“I don't have no guards telling me to do this and do that,” he said.

Not easy: But life on the outside also was difficult.

First, there were the regrets. The system locked him up during the prime of his life, Simmons said, and he regretted never being with a woman through her pregnancy, delivery and raising a child.

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While settling into his new life, Simmons moved in with a girlfriend who, he said, got into hard drugs. He would leave for work with acquaintances getting high in their shared home. They would still be there when he returned at the end of the day.

Simmons said the woman took his money and sold all of the furniture, his belongings and 15 custom-made Men’s Wearhouse suits. She also allegedly drove his car without a license before totaling it. 

“My problem?” Simmons said. “I didn’t know how to say no.”

Accepting help: At one point, his friend Barbara Abel told Simmons straight: He was in an abusive relationship. But Simmons didn’t know men could be abused.

Last March, Abel helped him leave.

He had nothing — no money, no possessions and few job prospects, given his complicated criminal history and a 30-year-long gap on his resume for the time he spent in prison.

Pastor Joel Folkemer, on right, joined by other members of the community who work to help the unhoused at the vigil for the unhoused lives lost this year at Union Lutheran Church in York on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

Simmons spent three months in the men’s shelter at LifePath Christian Ministries, a time that gave Simmons newfound respect for the homeless.

“In this day and age, nobody should be homeless,” he said.

In order to support himself, Simmons started giving people rides across the state — a service he described as  “ghetto Uber” — because it wasn’t officially sanctioned by an app. He went on job interviews, but most companies turned him down because of his jail time. Or they didn’t respond at all.

'I just want you': Abel, who became Simmons’ girlfriend in the last year, said he never gave up trying to get a job because he wanted to work. Part of the reason he kept fighting to get a job was because of her.

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“He always said 'I want the best for you,' and I said 'I don’t want the best,'” Abel recalled. “I just want you. I don’t need things.”

But that was how he was raised, Simmons had said. The man should contribute.

Simmons was a regular at Union Evangelical Lutheran Church, where he would dispense with advice and good-natured jokes to the people around him. The Rev. Joel Folkemer, the church’s pastor, said Simmons’ story was one of perseverance — and, ultimately, sadness.

“He seemed grateful for those who gave him what he needed to survive," Folkemer said. "He wasn't out to take or get more than what he truly needed."

Pastor Joel Folkemer at Union Lutheran Church in York on Nov. 22, 2022.

Health issues: Abel believes Simmons pushed too hard and was too stubborn. He was often sick due to kidney ailments she suspected he developed in prison. In his last months, Simmons spent several days each week at a dialysis center to remove waste products and excess fluid from his blood.

Simmons also broke his hip. While it was mending, his heart stopped for 10 seconds. Abel recalled the doctors kept pushing him to stay in bed, but Simmons “broke out of the hospital.”

At one point, the doctors asked him what he wanted. 

“I want another 30 years of life,” Abel recalled him telling the doctors. 

He wanted more than what his body gave him, she explained.

Then his hip broke again this fall.

“That was the one that got him down,” she said. 

He was in the hospital for two weeks before he was discharged again. Simmons moved in with Abel about a week before he died on Nov. 9.

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'A good man': Through all of that pain, Simmons never stopped smiling. He even smiled, Abel recalled, as he spent 90 minutes walking from his car to her front porch and another 60 from her porch to the bed. He stubbornly pushed on, as he’d always done.

“He was a good man right to the end,” she said. 

The day before he died, Simmons called her while she was away, out of state. She didn’t want to go, but he insisted. He said she needed a break from the stress in her life. The couple talked about his dream to take an RV and travel together one day when he was feeling better.

“There’s one time I didn’t do something — and you want to kill me," Ernie Simmons said of his time on death row.

That day never came.

Simmons was “always trying to look out for the best part of life,” Abel said, her voice cracking as she remembered him. “He never got a fair shake at life.”

But Abel believes Simmons died happy.

“He finally knew what love really was,” she said.