An elementary school music teacher walked into a church in the middle of Sunday services and shot and killed his ex-wife as she was playing the organ, according to police in Coudersport, Pennsylvania.
Gregory Eldred, 52, has been charged with first-degree murder and accused of twice shooting Darlene Sitler, 53, at the First United Presbyterian Church, where she served as organist and choir director.
Witnesses told police they saw Eldred pacing outside the 180-year-old church before the service and that other members of the congregation grabbed Eldred and held him until police arrived. Nobody else was injured.
Witnesses recounted the chilling incident to the Coundy News. They said that Eldred entered the rear door of the church at around 11 a.m. and then slowly walked up the middle of the church before shooting his wife who was sitting in the organ pit.
Eldred then apparently exited the church and went to his truck, where he placed his handgun on the hood of his car. Shortly after, witnesses said he reentered the church and demanded to see Stiler, saying ‘I want to see her’ and ‘I want to finish this.’
Though some members of the church attempted to hold him back, he said that he would shoot anyone who tried to stop him. He then went back over to Stiler, who was believed to still be alive at the time, and shot her once more.
At that point, parishioners managed to wrestle Eldred’s gun away from him and hold him down until police arrived. When they did, authorities took Eldred into custody and also found one .40 caliber FNX handgun, four .40 caliber spent casings and three discharged rounds.
Trooper Michael Knight told the newspaper there were no children in the church when the shooting happened, but that police bused all those who witnessed the shooting to a building which houses Potter County offices so they could be interviewed by police. Mental health counseling was also being made available to those witnesses, he said.
Potter County Commissioner Susan Kefover told the newspaper the shooting was ‘devastatingly tragic for the community.’
‘It’s hard to even comprehend it. You just feel this tremendous grief and you’re trying to process what happened,’ she said.
Shelly Butler, who grew up in Coudersport, told the Wellsville Daily that from her experiences with Eldred, she would not have expected that he was capable of doing what he did. ‘He isn’t one of those people that you thought, ‘Oh yeah, that [the incident Sunday] was just waiting to happen.’ It was mind-boggling.’
Meanwhile, Sitler was a music teacher at the Northern Potter Children’s School, an elementary school that neighbors the district where her ex-husband taught, for 30 years.
‘She’s just the consummate professional,’ Northern Potter Superintendent Scott Graham told The Associated Press on Monday. ‘The kids loved her. She just did so many things here for the school and the community.’
Sitler taught music to all students in the Pre-K through 6th-grade school, and also headed the chorus and band for 5th and 6th graders. She’s taught at the district since 1982, spending just one year after college teaching elsewhere before coming to Northern Potter, so the staff and students throughout the district knew her well, Graham said.
Meghan Palmatier, 22, was a former student of Stiler’s for four years and remembered her fondly. She told the Westville Daily that ‘Above and beyond the music, she was always someone you could chat with if you needed advice on anything.’
‘She did both band and chorus. She taught me how to play percussion. She took myself and four other friends to the sixth-grade district chorus,’ she said. ‘I guess she really helped me become less shy. She was very encouraging, getting me involved in the music. She gave me a love for music.’
Crisis counselors from surrounding districts and a member of the local pastors’ ministerium were at the district Monday.
‘There’s a lot of good things about growing up and living in a small community, and I believe we have a lot of help for the children and the staff members who may need it,’ Graham said.
Graham said the couple had been divorced for several years and offered no rationale for the shooting.
Officials with the Coudersport Area School District, where Eldred taught, did not immediately return a call and email for comment. Eldred also played clarinet for the Southern Tier Symphony Orchestra in Allegany, N.Y.
According to his biography on the symphony’s website, Eldred taught instrumental and vocal music for more than 25 years at the school district. He received his a Bachelors of Science degree in music education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He also joined the U.S. Army to perform with the Army Band of NYC.
The defense attorney listed in online court records did not immediately return a call for comment Monday.
Eldred was arraigned around 11 pm Sunday and was charged with one count of first-degree murder, one count of third-degree murder, simple assault, reckless endangerment and terrorist threats. He is due to return to court on December 12.
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