Local Family of Slain Corrections Officer Demands Answers

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Courtesy photo

About a dozen on Rhonda Russell’s family and friends gathered outside the Blair County Jail and Courthouse to protest the lack of progress on the investigation into Russell’s death.

Three months after Tyrone resident and Blair County Corrections Officer Rhonda Russell was killed in the line of duty, her family continues to search for answers and demand accountability from local officials.

A group of Russell’s friends and family staged a public protest on February 8 at the Blair County Jail and Courthouse to draw attention to the case.

People don’t know what is going on. We didn’t realize the extreme amount of negligence. This was a preventable tragedy.”

— Protest organizer Stephanie Anthony

“I hope that the District Attorney does a thorough investigation and holds everybody and anybody accountable for each and every action that they took,” said Russell’s son and Tyrone Class of 2016 grad Ricky Reader.

Russell was killed on November 17, 2021, while transporting Blair County prison inmate Christopher Aikens and four others from the Blair County Prison to Central Court in Altoona. 

According to state police, Aikens assaulted Russell and wrestled control of her gun in an escape attempt. In response, an Altoona city police officer responding to the struggle fired a shot, striking Russell instead of the inmate. The inmate was then apprehended and Russell was transported to UPMC Altoona, where she was pronounced dead.

Aikens has been charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, disarming a law enforcement officer, possession of a firearm, and kidnapping.

Russell’s family says that while Aikens clearly should be held accountable, there was also gross negligence and reckless actions taken by both county officials and the police which also must be addressed.

“This was a preventable tragedy. We want safety measures put in place for our correction officers. Rhonda was one female corrections officer watching five male inmates, and that is just wrong,” said protest organizer Stephanie Anthony, who is the sister of Russell’s fiance. 

For the past several months, Russell’s family has been grieving and coping with the loss while waiting for the investigation to conclude. The Altoona Mirror reported on February 9th that Pennsylvania State Police Spokesperson Christopher Fox said that the investigation is ongoing with no updates available.

According to Anthony, the family has not received enough information from the police or the district attorney’s office. 

I feel that whoever pulled the trigger, meaning the police officer, should be held accountable for their actions. My whole family backs the police, we always have and always will, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be accountable for each and every action they take”

— Ricky Reader

“People don’t know what is going on. We didn’t realize the extreme amount of negligence,” said Anthony, “I understand that there is risk associated with that job, but this was above and beyond what anyone should ever be put into a situation. I just want to make the public aware that this is going on and we never want anyone else to experience it. We don’t want it to happen to them.”

Reader is also frustrated with the lack of transparency from local officials.  He wants the investigation to be thorough, and go wherever the facts take it. 

“I feel that whoever pulled the trigger, meaning the police officer, should be held accountable for their actions. My whole family backs the police, we always have and always will, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be accountable for each and every action they take,” said Reader.

Reader said that the loss of his mother has been on his and two brothers’ minds constantly and they will not rest until justice is served. 

“We have been trying to stay together and keep positive because that is pretty much all we can do through these tough times. We all are after the same thing and that is justice for my mother,” said Reader. 

Reader said that the group is planning more events in the near future.