ALTOONA, Pa. (WTAJ) — A correctional officer died Wednesday after state police say she was shot during a struggle over a firearm at Altoona’s Central Court building.
The incident took place at 3:15 p.m. at 615 4th Street when an inmate who was being held in a holding cell took a pistol belonging to Blair County Prison Correctional Officer Rhonda Russell, 47, according to state police.
The inmate identified as Christopher Aikens, 54 of Altoona, was transported from Blair County Jail to the court building for a preliminary hearing. Aikens took the weapon from Russell and assaulted her when he was being returned to the cell after using the bathroom. He was uncuffed during the incident.
An officer in the court building reportedly overheard the fight between Aikens and Russell. Troopers say the officer then opened the cell door and found Aikens holding Russell and pointing the pistol at her. The officer fired a shot at Aikens but ended up hitting Russell, who Aikens had moved into the line of fire, according to state police.
Aikens was subsequently taken into custody while Russell was sent to UPMC Altoona after life-saving measures were performed on her. She was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
The Blair County Prison Board released a statement Thursday expressing their condolences to Russell’s family.
“The Blair County Prison Board is sad to report of the tragic loss of corrections officer Rhonda J. Russell. We honor and respect our corrections officers and stand by them at this difficult time,” the statement read. “Our sympathies go out to her coworkers, family, and friends. The County has provided resources to our employees to help them through this difficult time. Prison Board will monitor the investigation and offer our full cooperation. We appreciate the support of the community at this difficult time.”
The City of Altoona also released a statement saying they will not offer comment during the investigation into the incident but informed that the police officer involved has been placed on administrative leave.
Inmates who reportedly remained in their cells during the incident later informed investigators that Aikens made several comments about his plan to escape what he expected to be a long prison sentence. Police say Aikens later admitted he intended to escape and became free from his restraint when one handcuff was left open. He also told police that he was surprised Russell was left alone with him.
Aikens was arrested by Altoona police on Nov. 10 when multiple guns, drugs and a police badge were found at his home during a state parole visit. He was arraigned in person at Magisterial District Judge Fred Miller’s office at 1:30 a.m. Thursday and is currently being held at SCI Huntingdon.
He now faces a slew of felony charges including second-degree murder, disarming a law enforcement officer, possession of a firearm, escape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, recklessly endangering another person, and other related charges.
State police in assistance with the Blair County District Attorney’s Office, The Blair County Coroner’s Office and other numerous Blair County Law Enforcement Agencies are investigating the incident.