HOLLIDAYSBURG — The Altoona man whose escape attempt led to the Nov. 17, 2021, fatal shooting of a Blair County Prison corrections officer will be spending the rest of his life in prison.
Christopher J. Aikens, 56, who rendered guilty pleas in October to second-degree murder of a law enforcement officer and related charges in connection with Rhonda Russell’s death, said nothing during Monday’s sentencing hearing in Blair County Court, where Russell’s family and friends spoke of how they still miss her.
“She was the sister I never had,” Russell’s lifelong friend Bobbi Lantz said. “This hole ripped open in my soul will never heal because she was part of my soul. … We were supposed to grow old together, and you took that away from me.”
Russell’s three sons referred to the loss of their 47-year-old mother as devastating.
Justin Reader, the oldest son, said it’s hard for him and his brothers, Richard and Aric, to acknowledge to people that it was their mother who was taken hostage at the Central Court building and murdered.
“You might think that you’re stuck behind bars for the rest of your life, but we have the rest of our lives to deal with this as well,” Justin Reader said.
Aric Reader echoed those sentiments when asking President Judge Elizabeth Doyle to sentence Aikens to life in prison without parole.
The family, Aric Reader said, was handed a life sentence too.
State police at Hollidaysburg charged Aikens with second-degree murder and related offenses based on an investigation indicating Aikens, in an attempt to escape from the Central Court building, overpowered Russell and pushed her into a room.
When Altoona Police Sgt. George Bistline confronted Aikens, the district attorney’s office maintains that Aikens pointed Russell’s gun at Bistline, prompting Bistline to fire at Aikens who moved Russell into the line of fire.
Court documents indicate that Aikens told investigators that he didn’t aim at Bistline and didn’t know why Bistline fired. But in court on Thursday, Aikens made no statements.
“There was nothing for him to say,” defense attorney Richard Corcoran said outside court. “He is the only party who has accepted responsibility.”
The Russell estate has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit with U.S. District Court in Johnstown, naming several defendants, including county and city personnel, as contributing to Russell’s death.
Stephanie Anthony, a friend of the Russell family, said outside court after Aikens’ sentencing: “There are still many who need to be held accountable.”
Doyle, after sentencing Aikens to life without parole for second-degree murder of a law enforcement officer, imposed concurrent incarceration periods totaling 60 to 120 years for offenses that include disarming a law enforcement officer, robbery, kidnapping, possession of a firearm in a court facility, assault and escape.
District Attorney Pete Weeks asked for the concurrent sentences. He said they will ensure that Aikens remains incarcerated, even if state laws are changed to provide relief for those convicted of second-degree murder.
“He is the poster child for why some people need to be removed from society,” Weeks said after the sentencing hearing concluded.
In a sentencing memorandum prepared for Doyle’s review, Weeks pointed out that Aikens is a repeat felon, with convictions for multiple robberies, burglaries, drug trafficking, witness intimidation and firearm offenses.
He was incarcerated for over 20 years on these offenses, Weeks said.
Doyle also told Aikens that he is legally and morally responsible for Russell’s death.
“This is punishment you richly deserve for a senseless, selfish, predatory and opportunistic act,” Doyle said.
Aikens, transported to the courthouse from the state prison at Huntingdon, where he is currently housed, was closely guarded in the courtroom, where he remained seated and shackled. He looked toward the front of the courtroom, except for a quick turn of his head toward Russell’s fiance, Donald LaGesse, who said: “Aikens, I want you to know you’re a f***ing coward.”
Aikens’ sentencing order includes restitution of $25,000 to cover Russell’s funeral and related expenses. In light of the anticipated sentence, Weeks said he advised Russell’s family that payments toward that restitution will likely be nominal amounts from any earnings Aikens has inside prison.
Weeks and First Assistant District Attorney Nichole Smith, who were prepared to put Aikens on trial until he rendered guilty pleas on Oct. 23 instead of picking a jury, issued a statement Monday recognizing state police for an investigation that paved the way for sentencing.
The prosecutors also asked the community to take a moment to recognize all law enforcement personnel who stand between citizens and criminals like Aikens.
“Today, in exchange for the life of Officer Russell, the court sentenced Christopher Aikens to be housed, fed, kept and clothed in a state correctional institution for the rest of his natural life,” the statement read. “While it will not return Officer Russell to the arms of her family, it will hopefully allow them the small comfort of at least knowing that her murderer will never walk free again.”
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.