COUDERSPORT - Just three weeks before Christmas, people in the Potter County seat are wrestling with shock and sadness after a gunman entered the First United Presbyterian Church on Main Street and shot his ex-wife to death as she played the organ during a Sunday morning church service, according to state police.
The alleged gunman, Gregory Lynn Eldred, 52, an elementary school music teacher here, fired a single shot at Darlene J. Sitler, 53, right in front of church Pastor Evon Lloyd, Trooper David Surra said in an affidavit.
Lloyd rushed to Sitler's side as she started screaming Eldred's name, Surra said. The gunman somehow exited the church.
The gunshot wound knocked the woman to the floor of the organ pit, Surra said.
"Lloyd said Sitler was breathing and speaking to her, but she was not moving," the trooper said.
State police and emergency medical technicians were called.
A few minutes later, Eldred, still armed with a gun, re-entered the church through a door on the Fourth Street side and threatened church members who pleaded with him to put down the gun.
"I want to see her. I want to see if she's dead," Eldred told one parishioner.
"I want to finish this," Eldred told church member Dr. Beverly Prince, who was in a pew at the back of the church.
"When Prince begged him to put the gun down, Eldred told her 'I will have to shoot you, too,' if she didn't allow him to pass," Surra said.
As Eldred walked closer to the area of the organ, Lloyd also attempted to intervene by trying to keep him away from Sitler, but he told the pastor "I could shoot you, too," Surra said.
Eldred then fired two more shots at Sitler as church members startled wrestling the gun from him. During the struggle, the gun went off a fourth time, the bullet landing "in the wooded back of a pew at the rear of the church," Surra said.
Church members were able to break Eldred's grip on the handgun during the struggle, Surra said. The pastor secured the gun as members restrained Eldred and held him until Trooper Michael Delp reached the scene and took him into custody.
Sitler, of Coudersport, also was a music teacher. She taught for 30 years at the Northern Potter Children's School in the Northern Potter School District based in Ulysses.
"She was killed as a result of multiple gunshot wounds and was pronounced dead at the scene by Potter County Coroner Kevin J. Dusenbury Sr.," Surra said.
Prince's husband, Leslie Rolfe, who also was attending the service, told investigators that after the first shot was fired, he saw Eldred exit the church and watched him from a doorway, Surra said.
Eldred momentarily put the handgun on the hood of a car parked on Fourth Street only to pick it back up minutes later, Rolfe told police.
When Rolfe saw Eldred walk toward the church door from where he was watching him, Rolfe "attempted to hold the door shut, but Eldred still gained entry," Surra said.
Rolfe was one of the church members who successfully wrestled the gun away from Eldred after Sitler was fatally wounded, Surra said.
Eldred, who lives just south of the borough at 447 Dutch Hill Road, was arraigned before District Judge Delores Weiss on charges of homicide, recklessly endangering, terroristic threats and simple assault. He automatically was committed to the Potter County Prison without bail.
He taught in the Coudersport School District since 1986, according to the Associated Press.
Potter County Commissioner Susan Kefover told the Associated Press that the shooting was "devastatingly tragic for the community."
"It's hard even to comprehend. You just feel this tremendous grief," she said.
Police said no children were in the church at the time of the shooting and that all those who witnessed it were bused to a building of county offices where troopers could interview them privately.
Northern Potter School District Superintendent Scott Graham said Sitler will be remembered as "the consummate professional," the Associated Press reported.
"The kids loved her. She just did so many things here for the school and for the community," Graham said.
Crisis counselors were on hand at the district, he added.
"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 staff members who may need it," Graham said.
Eldred, who also played clarinet for the Southern Tier Symphony Orchestra in Allegany, N.Y., and Sitler had been divorced for several years, Graham said. He told the Associated Press that he could not offer any rationale for the shooting.
Trooper Michael Delp arrived from a barracks outside town eight minutes after the 911 call. Delp told The Associated Press that state police cover for Coudersport police, who don't work 24/7 and weren't scheduled to patrol until 4 p.m. that day.
Nobody else was injured at the 180-year-old church, where police found a .40-caliber handgun and four spent shells. Police also found a bullet lodged in a wooden pew and another beneath a pillow that was under the victim's head, though police didn't immediately explain how it got there.
An autopsy was scheduled Monday. Dusenbury said it's clear Sitler died of gunshot wounds, though he couldn't immediately say how many and where.
Dusenbury, coroner since 1984, said he was shaken by the "unprecedented" tragedy and prayed the family, community and church would recover. "I've never encountered anything quite like it; it's terrible," he said.
Superintendent Alanna Huck, who heads the Coudersport Area School District where Eldred taught, issued a statement expressing condolences to Sitler's family and school district.
"There are no words that explain this event; however, we will focus on moving forward and taking care of those students who are entrusted to our care each day," the statement said.