HOLLIDAYSBURG - The East Freedom man accused of setting a fire in November that killed 3-year-old Darrel "DJ" Etchison Jr. hanged himself early Friday in a suicide prevention cell at the Blair County Prison.
Aaron Wilson Dishong, 62, spoke to a corrections officer about 6 a.m., but when the officer returned to the cell at 6:12 a.m., he found Dishong hanging from a vent in the cell, jail officials said.
Jail officials summoned an ambulance, and Dishong was rushed to Altoona Regional Trauma Center where he died.
Mirror photo by Amanda Gabeletto
Aaron Wilson Dishong, 62, was found hanging from a vent in his cell at 6:12 a.m. Friday.
"I believe ... all indications are ... the prison followed appropriate policies and procedures. He [Dishong] had supervision and interaction with mental health professionals. We have full confidence in the decisions with respect to the care, the treatment and supervision of the inmate," said Blair County Commissioner Chairman Terry Tomassetti, chairman of the Blair County Prison Board.
Darrel Etchison Sr., 52, DJ's father, was informed early Friday about Dishong's death.
"I wanted to see him suffer a little more, but it spares my wife [Brandy] and daughter [2-year-old Madison] from having to go though a lengthy trial," Etchison said.
Dishong was charged with entering the first floor of the Etchison's half of a duplex at 111-113 S. Second St. on Nov. 15, and setting the structure on fire.
The fast-spreading blaze engulfed the house, forcing Brandy Etchison and her children, sleeping on the third floor, to attempt to flee. Brandy Etchison and her daughter survived.
Police said they quickly learned about Dishong and his anger with his ex-paramour, who is a friend of Brandy Etchison and had been staying at the duplex. Faced with a protection-from-abuse hearing that day, police contend Dishong set out to kill the woman, who was not in the duplex when he set it ablaze.
The prosecution in the case, led by Blair County Deputy District Attorney Wade Kagarise, during the preliminary hearing presented a letter to the girlfriend that was found on Dishong just after his arrest in which he stated, "You will die by my hand."
Dishong allegedly celebrated when he learned that someone died in the fire, insisting it was the former girlfriend.
Defense attorneys Thomas M. Dickey and Steven P. Passarello, who had met with Dishong a week ago and then represented him during a five-hour preliminary hearing on Wednesday, were stunned by the turn of events.
"It's a shock," said Passarello, who said there was no indication after the hearing that Dishong was in a state that he would take his life.
Dishong discussed pretrial motions to be filed and seemed involved in his case, Passarello said.
Passarello said that he had petitions already prepared, which were lying on his desk, to request a mental health evaluation by a forensic psychiatrist for use during the trial and possible death penalty stages of Dishong's trial.
"It's just a tragedy all around. It's sad," he said.
Passarello said he was on his way to a court hearing in Bedford when he was informed of Dishong's death. He said he pulled to the side of the road as the details were explained to him.
Dickey reacted by saying the death was "bizarre, surreal."
"I am grieving as any human being would with compassion for his fellow man," he said.
People tend to think that defense attorneys don't care about the victims, in this case a 3-year-old boy, Dickey said. Dickey said his heart went out for DJ as well.
"This brings to an end a tragic series of events," he said.
Mental health a concern
Dishong was initially placed in a Level I suicide cell on the first floor of the Blair County Prison, according to Blair County Commissioner Chairman Terry Tomassetti, chairman of the county prison board.
It meant that Dishong was dressed in a paper-like "dress" and was given a blanket that was also suicide-proof. Officers regularly checked him.
The murder suspect was in contact with mental health personnel at the jail.
Prime Care Medical provides the medical and psychiatric services at the jail, and Dishong met on Nov. 30 with a Prime Care psychiatrist, Dr. Terri Calvert, who said he could be moved to a Level II cell, a Prime Care official said.
On Level II, Dishong was permitted to wear a prison jumpsuit and to have bedding. He was subject to checks every 15 minutes, Warden Michael M. Johnston said.
The goal was gradually to place Dishong into Level III, the main prison population.
Dishong talked on Thursday to a jail mental-health specialist "who saw no need for more aggressive care," Tomassetti said. Dishong reportedly used his bedding to hang himself.
It's tough to determine what is in somebody's mind, particularly an individual accused of doing what he did, the commissioner said.
Reviews to be done
Three investigations of the suicide are under way.
Hollidaysburg Borough police are undertaking one investigation. They referred all questions to District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio.
Johnston and his staff are conducting a second investigation late Friday afternoon. He said prison officials will meet with police to see if the two investigations agree or disagree.
Todd Haskins, the vice president in charge of operations for Prime Care, said his company will also review what occurred.
The prison board approved a two-year extension of its contract in August with Prime Care with the provision that mental health services be upgraded by providing a certified mental health clinician to work in the prison and to provide more hours of service from a psychiatrist.
Tomassetti, at the time, called the mental health upgrade as "tweaking the system, not a major overhaul."
Dishong's death is the third suicide in the county jail in the last 74 months.
Jeremy Corbin of Bellwood committed suicide in October 2006. Nathan Aughenbaugh of Clearfield hanged himself with his bed sheets in June 2007.
Both cases resulted in lawsuits in the U.S. District Court in Johnstown, with Corbin's case settled and Aughenbaugh's case still pending.
Note left behind
Dickey said that Dishong was a man who liked to write and speculated that his client might have written a note before killing himself.
Kagarise said that Dishong did leave a note. It was short and it referred to his family. He has a grown son in Blair County and a brother in Bedford County.
The note did not mention the homicide and other charges he faced, Kagarise said.
The prosecution was leaning toward asking for the death penalty for Dishong, based on the fact the victim in the fire was a child under 12 years of age and on what Kagarise said was an extensive criminal history.
DJ's family initially favored the death penalty but after learning the lengthy process that would be involved, the family seemed to favor a sentence that would keep Dishong in prison for life without parole, Kagarise said.
Dickey said he was going to discuss with the prosecution a possible agreement that would have Dishong pleading to second-degree murder, a killing during the commission of a felony.
Kagarise said his first thought on learning about Dishong's death was to call police and tell them to inform the victim's family.
"I'm a strong believer in the death penalty. I believe this case was headed toward that. Death is a serious subject. Any time we face that, it's serious. It's in God's hands now," Kagarise said.