Photo via Elvert Barnes
Gregory A. Longenecker was pronounced dead on Monday, after Pennsylvania law enforcement officers pursuing an illicit cannabis grow ran over the 51-year-old man with a bulldozer. In the immediate aftermath of the tragic incident, local officials have deemed Longenecker’s death an accident, while marijuana legalization advocates have criticized an excessive use of force in the minor cultivation bust.
According to Lehigh Valley Live, the ordeal began on Monday morning in Reading, Pennsylvania, when an employee from the state Game Commission began bulldozing through thick forest underbrush. Clearing roads for local hunters, the state employee noticed a car parked far off any road and called the suspicious activity into local police. When nearby officers arrived, they investigated further and uncovered a clandestine cannabis grow containing 10 pot plants. At that point, the cops encountered two men, Longenecker and his friend, David Light. Light, 54, turned himself over after police requests, while Longenecker reportedly took off running.
At this point, details become a little hazy, and the only explanation currently available involves taking the police officers involved at their word.
With Light in custody, local cops, state troopers, and the Game Commission employee who originally discovered the grow began searching for Longenecker. After an hour on the run, a state police helicopter had been deployed on the scene and reportedly identified Longenecker hiding in the underbrush. After relaying that information to a state trooper on the ground, who had since commandeered the Game Commission bulldozer to better traverse through the thick foliage, the trooper operating the industrial vehicle soon discovered that Longenecker had been crushed beneath the machine.
"An attempt to hail the other male was unsuccessful," state police spokesperson David Beohm said in a news release. "The helicopter lost site of the male and was giving directions to the bulldozer of his last location. The Game Commission employee and a Trooper were on the bulldozer driving through the thick underbrush. The bulldozer stopped in the underbrush. The second male was located under the rear of the bulldozer deceased."
It is still not clear how Longenecker was run over without either the state employee or trooper first noticing he was in their path, but preliminary police reports give no further insight. In an apparent attempt to cover up their own negligence, Pennsylvania state police have refused to confirm a cause of death, claiming that Longenecker could have died of a heart attack before he was trampled. An autopsy has since confirmed that Longenecker died of “traumatic injuries.”
Whatever the precise cause, it’s clear that Longenecker’s untimely passing was directly tied to police actions Monday morning. And with the discovery of only ten pot plants and two middle-aged growers, leading to a helicopter chase and pursuit by bulldozer, cannabis advocates around the country are understandably appalled by the unnecessary show of force.
“As a former prosecutor and practicing criminal defense attorney, it is inconceivable to me that a man lost his life during an investigation of a very small grow,” Patrick Nightengale, Executive Director of Pittsburgh NORML, said in a press release questioning the police's tactics. “Had he been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted, Pennsylvania’s sentencing guidelines would have provided for a sentence of probation. The heavy-handed tactics employed cannot be justified by the seizure of ten plants. I do not understand why law enforcement couldn’t simply wait. A vehicle was on scene and another individual was taken into custody. Rip the plants, run the plate and ask the arrestee what his friend’s name is. How difficult is that?”
As the dust continues to settle around the bizarre incident, police say that Longenecker was the owner and caretaker of the small pot plot, while Light, who told police that he was there to help his friend trim the plants, has been charged with possession of narcotics with intent to distribute. Light was arraigned in court Monday, and has since been released on $25,000 bail.
Pennsylvania legalized cannabis for medical use in 2017, and opened retail dispensaries to serve qualified patients this year. In the months since launching its medical marijuana program, Keystone State legislators have already expanded access to the plant, while local activists advance plans to pursue recreational legalization in the coming years.
Still, no matter how much progress is made, Monday’s incident in Reading is yet another example of the unexpected consequences of marijuana prohibition. Until cannabis reform efforts reach a national level, police officers across the country will still be incentivized to pursue growers and dealers to the full extent of the law, even if that means the death of an otherwise innocent man.
“This awful event could have and should have been prevented,” said NORML National Executive Director Erik Altieri. ”This tragedy is a direct result of our nation’s draconic and failed criminalization of marijuana. Not only was the use of resources in this matter excessive and the tactics highly questionable, but more importantly a man lost his life over the act of growing a plant that is now legally regulated in a majority of US states. No matter your opinion on marijuana legalization, the penalty for growing cannabis should never be an extrajudicial death sentence.”