Author’s Note: Since this story appeared in Farmshine Sept. 13, the petition to drop charges against Tim Getz has grown to over 36,000 signatures and counting.
MYERSTOWN, Pa. — For Marlin and Gloria Getz and their sons Todd and Tim, of Myerstown, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, the events of the barn fire Wednesday evening, Sept. 4 are a blur that took a turn no one could have expected. Amid the heartbreak of loss, the cleanup, decision-making, and now legal concerns, it is the support of their community that is holding them up.
While part of the basement and the tiestalls are still standing, the rest of the two-story bank barn, and all of the feed, are a complete loss.
Of the cattle, 22 head perished in the fire, including 12 cows, 8 yearling heifers and 2 calves, with an additional cow euthanized from injuries the following day. The Getz family is milking their 45 remaining cows in nearby Schaefferstown where John Zimmerman, offered his now vacant barn while the family decides their future.
And then there is the legal concern facing Tim Getz, who was clobbered, handcuffed and arrested as he worked with his father, brother and others to rescue cows in their smoke-filled barn as the hay mow above them was burning.
A Pennsylvania State Police Trooper arrived just ahead of the firefighters, demanding they all leave the barn. He did not comprehend the dedication and knowledge of a family trying to save their cattle when they ignored him and he grabbed Tim from behind, resulting in a flailing throw of the arm interpreted by the officer as assault and leading to felony charges of assault on a police officer.
By the next morning, Carrie Boyer of Lebanon had started a petition online, now filled with 9,443 signatures and growing. 32 pages showing the first 8000 signatures were presented to Lebanon County District Attorney David Arnold on Tuesday, requesting the charges be dropped. It will be days before they learn the outcome, and a preliminary hearing has been set for October 3.
Neighbor Anna Furlow, 15, also wanted to help. She saw the fire trucks go by that night on the road that adjoins her family’s property and the farm. She started a Go Fund Me site, with a goal to raise $10,000 in donations for the family. So far $3,125 has been raised, and the link for donations can be found here.
“I have known the family my whole life, and they have always been really kind to me and my family, so I wanted to do something kind for them,” the teenager said. “They are just really good people, and now they have the financial concerns and decisions about the future.”
Anna and her mother Kristy report that many people from the community are helping out and bringing plenty of food.
“We are holding up,” says Todd Getz in a Farmshine interview Tuesday. His brother Tim is home after a friend of the family raised the $15,000 to bail him out of jail. “It’s kind of hectic, and it is heartbreaking, but we have a lot of people helping us through.”
Todd reflected on the night of the fire. “We were milking in the barn, and at a few minutes before 8 p.m., I was going to go mix feed. I saw fire at the eaves and yelled to my brother that the barn was on fire. He noticed it the same time and called it in,” Todd recounts.
“Everything became chaotic. I ran up back to see if there was something I could do to stop it and then came down and started letting cows out. I was at the near end of the barn and heard mom yelling that a police officer said we had to get out. The next thing I knew, the officer came in and told me to get out, but I kept working at untying cows until I got to the end of the row at the split and went out with him.”
Todd says he then re-entered the barn at the far end “because I knew my dad and brother were in there. The officer stood at the doorway yelling for us to get out, and so the cows we were trying to get out could not get out the doorway because he was standing there.”
Todd recalls his father yelling back to the officer that they weren’t leaving until they got the cows out. At this point, there was smoke but no fire where they were working.
“The officer walked past my dad and went to Tim, who ignored him and kept untying cows. The electric was out, it was getting dark, there was smoke. I don’t think Tim knew it was the policeman grabbing the back of his arm when he flailed his arm backward to break free. The next thing we knew, the officer took Tim down and put him in cuffs,” Todd reports, adding that there were three other people besides Tim at that end of the barn trying to get cows out and the firefighters were already working at the other end of the barn at that point.
In fact, for a few moments, Todd wasn’t sure who was being handcuffed. “I couldn’t see clearly to the front of the barn where they were. I thought they were arresting my dad.
“I want to be clear that we are not criticizing the trooper, it’s just that I don’t think he understood the situation. I think that is what it really comes down to. He didn’t understand. In fact, the area where he arrested Tim, that part of the barn, is still standing. The fire didn’t reach it.”
With his brother under arrest and the fire raging above them, family, firefighters, the herd veterinarian and others were still stepping in and out of the barn. “You could pick your way in, and the cows were still coming,” Todd recalls.
He says the firefighters were invaluable. One went back in the barn and cut every cow loose they hadn’t gotten to. “We have a pen of calves at Zimmerman’s right now that wouldn’t be there if not for the firefighters getting them away from that end of the barn.”
The family is grateful to their longtime veterinarian Dr. Gary Brummel of Lebanon.
“When I got there, most of the cattle were out,” says Brummel, who has been the herd vet for the Getz family’s Autumn-Mist Holsteins for over 20 years. “Within an hour, the fire chief had me come look at cows under the barn. We were able to get 8 to 10 more animals out, and there were still 4 trapped with the splits. I euthanized them. Others with burns and abrasions, I treated.”
It was an hour of looking at animals and euthanizing any trapped with severe injuries that were still in the part of the barn where Tim, an hour earlier, had been working to free cows before being arrested.
“When I finally went to Marlin and Gloria to let them know I was there, that’s when I learned what had happened with Tim,” said Brummel. “They asked me to go talk to Tim and the officer. One of the firefighters was with me, he knew where the squad car had been, but when we got there, the car was gone.”
Brummel notes the firefighters and ambulance crew didn’t know what happened or where they went. They got on central dispatch to talk to the officer and learned Tim was being taken to the Jonestown barracks and placed under arrest.
He was also taken to the hospital and treated but no one in his family was ever notified.
It was 12 hours later, the next morning, before the family learned that Tim had been taken to the hospital for the injury to his head where the officer hit him with the flashlight before placing him in handcuffs.
While the primary duty of a police officer is human safety, and that may mean telling people to leave a barn that is on fire, family, friends, professionals, and now the local community and dairy community at-large argue whether the officer had the right to physically try to remove one person, leaving four other individuals still in the burning barn doing what he was doing.
The family understands the officer thought he was doing the right thing, but the situation that transpired reveals a deep void in understanding when it comes to the handling of livestock.
When asked what can be learned from this situation, Brummel had some sage advice, “Have an emergency plan. Make sure fire extinguishers are charged and that you have multiple ones. Have an exit plan. Know how you will handle it if the unthinkable happens.”
And now this situation shows additional steps. Farmers and veterinarians should consider meeting and talking with local first responders and law enforcement to have some education and integration in the handling of livestock.
Brummel notes that as communities, including first responders, become farther removed from a farming background, efforts to integrate with first responders and law enforcement may be more important than ever, perhaps even designating a local first responder with livestock knowledge.
While one press report indicates the officer, Jorge DeJesus, may have been on the force less than a year, the majority of people interviewed for this report believe the main factor in this situation is the lack of understanding about farming and livestock. And while they appreciate that the officer was doing what he thought was right to save human lives, the lack of understanding for the situation has now presented a grave legal concern for the family.
What it boils down to is Tim Getz had not committed a crime. The officer had no warrant. This reporter can find no law on the books stating that an owner can’t be in his barn freeing cows during a barn fire.
By all accounts, Tim is keeping his chin up. He spent part of that night at the hospital, then at central booking at the Jonestown State Police barracks. He was told he would get a phone call when he was transferred to jail but was bailed out before that occurred.
A police report indicates a trooper interviewed Getz at Jonestown barracks at 9:50 p.m. In the interview, without counsel or a phone call, Getz related that he heard the trooper yelling, felt him reach the back of his arm, and he reached back and struck out, but was not sure where or who he struck with an arm up over the shoulder.
The family has hired a criminal defense attorney.
The fire marshal has not determined the cause of the fire, which started in the second story of the bank barn.
The Getz’s have insurance and are sorting out their future with so many mitigating circumstances amid an already difficult time in the dairy business.
“We can’t answer questions about what we’re going to do until we get answers to the questions we have. Our priorities right now are taking care of the animals we have and deciding where we go from here,” says Todd. “We love the cows and love milking and would like to keep doing that, but there is the matter of can we?”
The farm has been in the family four generations, and Todd says it is difficult knowing that his brother is facing charges mainly because people don’t understand that these dairy cows are not just their heritage and livelihood, “they are an extension of our family.”
“People have really rallied around us, and it is amazing and humbling, what that means to our family,” says Todd. “The number of people who were here that night to get cows loaded to go to another barn and coming here after cleaning up. It’s humbling and means the world to us right now.
Despite the heartache, Todd says, “We have seen how big everybody’s heart is in these past few days.”