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1939: Corporal kills girl in cruiser with 8 shots

Published June 05. 2010 09:00AM

Last week, tragedy unfolded on Wild Cat Mountain near Tamaqua when a man was killed by shots fired by state police and an off-duty municipal police officer.

Although police routinely get into very dangerous situations, it's very seldom they open fire and it's extremely rare they cause fatal injuries.

We can assume the situation must have been very extreme on the Wildcat Mountain for police to react the way they did.

It brings to mind the incident which happened on June 7, 2009 in Coolbaugh Township, Monroe County, when Trooper Joshua Miller of the Swiftwater barracks was shot and killed by Daniel Autenrieth who had kidnapped his 9-year-old son. Another trooper, Robert Lombardo, was injured from shots fired by Autenreith. The police officers rescued the child unharmed, but Autenreith was killed in the exchange.

One of the most sensational crimes to ever occur in Carbon County involved the shooting of a teenage girl by a police sergeant while she was in the back of a police cruiser.

It happened on the night of June 5, 1939, in front of Wagner's Store in Nesquehoning. The police officer, Corporal Benjamin Franklin, fired eight shots into Joan Stevens, who was just 14.

Cpl. Franklin and another officer, Trooper Edward Swatji, met Stevens in Nesquehoning to obtain information on a planned bank robbery.

The police said Stevens, while in the back seat of the police car, pulled out a gun and ordered they drive her to Lansford.

This resulted in Cpl. Franklin fatally shooting the girl. He didn't know the gun was only a toy.

Initially Cpl. Franklin said he fired "about four" shots, but the body of Stevens was exhumed and an autopsy conducted. There were eight shots that entered her body.

The state police officer was arrested and charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter.

A court trial was held for Cpl. Franklin in January 1940. It lasted several days and was attended by news media from around the nation. It was deemed one of the most spectacular cases ever heard in Carbon County Court.

Cpl. Franklin took the stand in his own defense. He was asked several times if he thought his life was in danger when Stevens had pulled the "gun" on him. At one point he responded, "Yes, it wasn't the first time a gun was pulled on me."

"The gun looked real to me," he said. "I could see the barrel and top of it when she held it in her hand."

Stevens was branded a "wild child" during the trial.

A jury found Cpl. Franklin not guilty of the charges, ruling that he acted in self-defense.

On March 15, 1940. Monroe County Judge Samuel Shull, who presided over the Carbon case, quashed the indictment against Cpl. Franklin, clearing his name once and for all.

Before this, the only reference we can find of a fatality from a bullet fired by a police office happened on Aug. 27, 1924 when patrolman Frank McGinley of the Mauch Chunk Police Department shot and killed Charles Sitler, a college student who was the son of Attorney Daniel Sitler of Mauch Chunk.

The Sitler youth reportedly pulled a gun and fired four shots at McGinley before the police officer returned fire.

We don't know what all happened on Wildcat Mountain last Tuesday morning, but we do know that a man stole two vehicles, first a truck tractor, which he crashed, then a pick-up truck after going into a residence and taking the keys.

He proceeded to ram the pick-up into a police cruiser, state police.

The Schuylkill County Coroner feels the police will be released of responsibility for the shooting.

That Schuylkill County incident was not nearly as sensational in nature as the above two instances of police shootings. Still, a human being's life was taken.

Police generally don't shoot unless they feel they are in imminent danger. This was the case in both the Stevens and Sitler shootings.

Maybe there have been other local incidents involving police shootings which we didn't find in our research. Still, such incidents are few and far between.

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