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Family plans to file constitutional lawsuit against the state police after damages to home

By BRIAN FERRY

bferry@timesobserver.com

“I’m totally disgusted with the police.”

When Pennsylvania State Police surrounded a home on Route 6 in Columbus Township on the evening of Wednesday, June 17, they were looking for murder suspect Cody Potthoff.

They knew he was there, or had been.

The homeowners, Blair and Sabrena Miller, say the situation was handled badly from the beginning and resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in needless damages to their home.

Blair Miller plans to file a constitutional lawsuit against the state police.

He said the first trooper to arrive at the scene handcuffed his pregnant step-daughter, Cassandra, who was only trying not to get killed by the man who had just told her he had shot seven people, had a gun with him and was counting money and doing drugs on the family’s patio. He even asked her for, and was denied, ammunition for the .25, she said.

He said police didn’t stop traffic past the house as soon as his family told them the suspect was there and didn’t notify neighbors there was a wanted felon loose in the area.

Miller said troopers waited for hours, that he told them he knew Potthoff wasn’t there, and then they fired far more than a sufficient number of tear gas canisters into his home.

“They never even said, ‘sorry,'” Sabrena Miller said.

And, once they were sure Potthoff wasn’t in the Millers’ home, they didn’t take steps to protect the family if he decided to come back.

“If it was a proven fact that this kid was in my house I would have had no problem with them tear-gassing my house,” Blair Miller said.

Police did fire numerous projectiles into the home.

And the Millers’ home is a wreck.

Many windows were broken and are currently boarded up.

Some projectiles hit window frames. At least one remained lodged in the wood.

“Pretty much everything that was in our rooms – any material – is a loss,” Cassandra Miller said. “When you move it, you reactivate it.”

“Carpets, clothes, beds, bedding…” Sabrena Miller said.

Most of her plants are dying. The dogs seem to be healthy, though one ran back into the house and may have been upstairs when the tear-gas was fired. A cat ran off. A chicken died within days.

Cassandra Miller can’t spend much time in any part of the house.

Blair and Sabrena are spending their nights in a hotel.

Even two weeks after the incident, the tear gas lingers upstairs to the point that stinging in the throat and eyes starts almost immediately. Within three minutes that minor irritation turns into burning eyes, noses that are running freely, and difficulty breathing normally.

Blair Miller said there was no reason for police to launch 26 canisters of tear gas into his home.

The perimeter was secured for almost 12 hours and police had had no contact with anyone inside, he said.

He said he knew Potthoff was gone when police told him the dogs were coming and going through the front door – which is always locked.

He said he told police that.

A stolen vehicle report at a neighbor’s home — it’s in sight and generally in a direction someone fleeing out the front door would head for — an hour after Potthoff was in their house, in an area where crime is infrequent, couldn’t have been a coincidence, he said.

“Did you ever think that could have been the guy in the house?” Miller said he asked police.

He said he was so confident Potthoff had left he told police he was “willing to go in there.”

“They swore up and down he was in my house,” Miller said. “I swore up and down he was not.”

“They knew by 7:30 that that kid wasn’t in this house,” he said. “They didn’t destroy my house until 4:30 in the morning.”

The delay was a security problem, the family members said.

“They put the whole community at risk,” Sabrena Miller said.

“He could have come back,” Cassandra Miller said.

She said she has had nightmares since the incident, but not of Potthoff.

“Flash bangs, missiles coming through my windows,” she said.

Blair Miller provided information to police to help them secure the house. He said he drew them a layout of the house.

The family said they have spoken to former military personnel who told them two tear gas canisters per room is appropriate. The handful of upstairs rooms could have been more than covered by half as many as the 26 Blair Miller said he counted being fired.

Family members continue to find pieces of those bomb-shaped projectiles. After piercing every upstairs window, the canisters continued on – some punching right through drywall and releasing their contents in the walls.

The family expects to have to tear out all of the drywall – at least upstairs – replace all the spray insulation and go to extraordinary steps to save any porous materials — hand-made wooden bed frames, for example — that they want to save.

“There was no reason to do $80,000 to $100,000 of damage to my house,” he said.

Miller has done much of the work himself.

“I spent 20 years redoing this old farmhouse,” he said. “This is a family-owned farm since the 1920s. It’s a 200-year-old farmhouse.”

Initially, the family was concerned about who was going to pay for the damages. Insurance will cover that damage.

“Our Nationwide agent said they’re going to go above and beyond,” Blair Miller said.

But, he believes the state should bear the responsibility.

“This is our whole livelihood here,” Sabrena Miller said.

In addition to being their home, it is their farm, and they run two businesses out of the property.

“This took a toll on my business,” Blair Miller said.

The family said they generally support police. Their problem does not extend to any agencies that were not at their house on June 17, “just the ones who did their job wrong,” Sabrena Miller said.

“They should be embarrassed for what they did,” Blair Miller said. “This was a total disgrace. They totally got schooled on Cody Potthoff.”

“My chin’s up,” he said. “I’m still looking forward. I’m never going to give up.”

The state government — and therefor the state police — is generally immune from lawsuits. However there are ways to sue the state. Miller said he is moving forward with a constitutional suit.

Citing the active investigation against Potthoff and others and the Millers’ indication that they intend to sue, Pennsylvania State Police provided limited comments regarding the incident.

“The incident at the Miller residence is part of a larger, on-going investigation against Potthoff and several other individuals; therefore, comments will be limited,” Pennsylvania State Police Troop E Community Service Officer Trooper Cindy Schick said. “PSP and local law enforcement agencies acted in the best interests of safety of the community. Their efforts resulted in the eventual capture of Potthoff without any further loss of life.”

“A damage report was completed as per department policy,” Schick said. “A copy was provided to the Millers within 12 hours of the incident. Damages will be addressed through the courts.”

Blair Miller said the Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) responded – a process that involves quite a bit of travel and time for the members – and they turned the incident into an exercise. “They were going to blow me up regardless of what was going on,” he said.

“We do not discuss the specifics of a SERT incident or their tactics,” Schick said. “Persons may file a RTK request if they desire.”

“The Pennsylvania State Police stands behind its core purpose to seek justice, preserve peace, and improve the quality of life for all,” Schick said.

“I’m just livid pissed,” Blair Miller said. “Am I not supposed to be pissed?”

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