By Keith Gushard
Though three young men each will spend 19 years or more in jail for the 2011 killing of a Conneautville area man in a robbery, the victim’s family members said there never will be adequate justice for the death of Ronald Shreffler.
“You caused an inexplicable amount of pain,” Danella Schroeder of Conneautville told Brandon Todd Tracy, 19, of Titusville; Austin Lee Taylor, 19, of Harmonsburg; and Alan J. Watkins, 20, of Harmonsburg, as each came forward Monday afternoon for sentencing in Crawford Court of Common Pleas by President Judge Anthony Vardaro.
Schroeder is the sister of murder victim Ronald Shreffler, 46, of Conneautville, who was gunned down at his Summerhill Township home on Abbott Road on Aug. 30, 2011, in a robbery attempt by Tracy, Watkins, Taylor and Taylor’s younger brother, Dakota L. Taylor, 17.
Tracy, 19, was sentenced to an aggregate total of 25 to 50 years in prison for guilty pleas to charges of third-degree murder and conspiracy to commit burglary. He was given 20 to 40 years for third-degree murder to be followed by five to 10 years for conspiracy to commit burglary. Taylor was handed down a sentence of 20 to 40 years in jail by Vardaro for a guilty plea to third-degree murder while Watkins received 19 to 40 years in jail also for a guilty plea to third-degree murder. The men also were ordered by Vardaro to pay the family a total of $7,540.84 in restitution for reimbursement of funeral expenses.
Their sentences were in line with plea agreements worked out between the Crawford County District Attorney’s Office and the men’s attorneys.
Tracy, Watkins, Taylor and the younger Taylor all were charged by state police in September 2011 with going to Shreffler’s home with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to rob him of a large amount of marijuana and cash, neither of which was found inside Shreffler’s home.
Tracy and Austin Taylor both entered guilty pleas in county court last month, while Watkins entered a guilty plea Thursday. Dakota L. Taylor, 17, was processed through county juvenile court Nov. 1 and sentenced to a juvenile facility until he is age 21.
Tracy was the one who shot Shreffler while Watkins supplied the rifle and 20 rounds of ammunition used in the robbery and Austin Taylor was the one who hatched the plot.
Each man was transported individually to and from the county jail in Saegertown for sentencing under tighter than normal security. There were two sheriff’s deputies inside the courtroom as well as two county jail corrections officers plus one sheriff’s deputy stationed outside the courtroom.
Taylor, Tracy and Watkins spoke only briefly at their respective sentencings — each expressing remorse for what had taken place.
“I am sorry for what happened,” Austin Taylor said. “Nothing I can say or do will bring your loved one back.”
“I can’t begin to say how sorry I am,” Tracy said. “I know all the apologies in the world won’t matter.”
Tracy said he had other choices that fateful night, but “I chose the wrong one.”
Watkins said he knew his actions caused pain for everyone involved.
“I take full responsibility for them,” Watkins said of his actions and apologized to Shreffler’s family as well as his own.
When each of the three men came forward for sentencing during the nearly four-hour court session Monday, Ms. Schroeder did as well. Dressed in dark clothing and with her voice firm but slightly wavering at times, Schroeder read the same prepared speech to each about what they had inflicted upon her and the rest of her family.
“On Aug. 30, 2011, four young men made a conscious decision that would change many lives forever,” she said. “Justice can never be truly served for my brother,” said Schroeder, noting the incident has left her and other family members with emotional scars that won’t heal.
“I’m forever haunted by the memory of him lying there lifeless,” she said.
Shreffler’s parents, David Simons and Martha Wheeler, each came forward at each sentencing as well.
Simons said he was doing his best to speak on behalf of his dead son and asked Vardaro to impose stiff penalties on each man.
“Right is right and wrong is wrong,” Simons said. “Put the full weight of the law on them. I lost my son. He’ll never draw another breath.”
“The minimum is not enough,” Simons said when it came time for Tracy to be sentenced. “It was cold-blooded murder of another human being.”
Wheeler also asked each man be sentenced “to the full extent of the law.”
The case broke when Tracy contacted the Meadville barracks of the state police Sept. 20, 2011, and admitted to shooting Shreffler, but Tracy also alleged to police that Austin Taylor was pointing a gun at Tracy’s head during the incident. Tracy claimed to police he was forced to take part in the plan and shoot Shreffler or be killed himself.
At Monday’s sentencing, District Attorney Francis Schultz said all three men were culpable in the case and if it weren’t for them Ronald Shreffler would be alive today.
Schultz said Austin Taylor was the “the architect” of the plot.
While the four plotted to go to the home, Schultz said Taylor was the one who lured Shreffler to the door with a tale of vehicle trouble from hitting a deer when the quartet went to Shreffler’s house.
Watkins was the one who supplied the rifle and 20 rounds of ammunition — and loaded the rifle in the presence of the other three, Schultz said.
Tracy was the one who eventually volunteered to carry the rifle up to the home, Schultz said.
In pronouncing the prison sentence on each man, Vardaro said retribution was required from each man due to the nature of the case.
“Society is entitled to be protected from the likes of you,” Vardaro said.
Following sentencing, Schultz said he was pleased with the sentences handed down and did ask for a slightly lighter sentence for Watkins because he and Dakota Taylor were cooperating witnesses in the case.
Dakota Taylor’s case went through county juvenile court and he was adjudicated on Nov. 1 as an accomplice to third-degree murder, Schultz said. Dakota Taylor will serve in a state juvenile correctional facility until he is 21, Schultz said.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.