PITTSBURGH – An elementary school music teacher shot his ex-wife while she played the organ during church service and, after leaving briefly, returned and shot her again to ensure she was dead, police said.
Congregants eventually overpowered Gregory Eldred, ending the shooting Sunday at First United Presbyterian Church of Coudersport, about 140 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.
The shooting was detailed in a criminal complaint filed Monday against Eldred, 52, of Coudersport. He remained jailed without bond on first-degree murder and other charges. Eldred’s attorney didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Eldred’s ex-wife, 53-year-old Darlene Sitler, the choir director, was seated at the organ when she was shot about 20 minutes into the 11 a.m. service, state police said.
Pastor Evon Lloyd told police Eldred entered the church wearing a hooded, beige jacket and “leveled a gun at the victim and shot,” according to the criminal complaint. The woman then fell into the organ pit. Eldred quickly left the building and put a handgun on the hood of his vehicle while those inside called 911 and aided Sitler.
Another witness, Leslie Rolfe, said Eldred picked up the gun about five minutes later, while Rolfe tried to hold the church doors shut but couldn’t. Rolfe and his wife, Dr. Beverly Prince, tried to persuade Eldred to drop his gun, but he instead threatened to shoot them and the pastor, telling Prince “I want to finish this,” the complaint said.
Eldred then walked toward his ex-wife saying, “I got to see her. I got to see if she’s dead,” before firing two more shots at Sitler, the complaint said.
Police said nobody else was hurt, though Eldred’s gun went off once when Rolfe and other members of the congregation struggled to subdue Eldred and take his gun.
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, and Potter County Coroner Kevin 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.
In addition to her church duties, Sitler taught music at Northern Potter Children’s School for 30 years. The elementary school is in a district that neighbors Coudersport Area School District where her ex-husband taught since 1986.
“She’s just the consummate professional,” Northern Potter Superintendent Scott Graham told the Associated Press on Monday. “The kids loved her. She just did so many things here for the school and the community.”
Northern Potter School District is based in the tiny borough of Ulysses, near the New York border.
Sitler taught music to all students in the Pre-K through sixth-grade school and also headed the chorus and band for fifth- and sixth-graders, so the staff and students throughout the district knew her well, Graham said. She graduated from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, where spokesman Martin Parkes said she was a regular donor to the school’s music program. She graduated in 1981 with a degree in music education.
Crisis counselors from surrounding districts and a member of the local pastors’ ministerium were at the North Potter district Monday.
Graham said the couple had been divorced for years and offered no rationale for the shooting. Police wouldn’t discuss a motive, except to say it didn’t appear the couple’s divorce was related to the shooting. The Potter County prothonotary’s office shows the couple filed for divorce in April 2010 and it was granted that August.
Superintendent Alanna Huck, who heads 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.
Eldred also played clarinet for the Southern Tier Symphony Orchestra in Allegany, N.Y.