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Search for answers goes on in car explosion that killed 3

October 12, 2019

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Drawn together by their love of music and dancing, Lenora Martucci Johnson and David Hallman began a whirlwind monthlong romance after meeting at the Sands casino in early September 2018.

Not only was the blond-haired Hallman as fun-loving as Johnson was, but he was handy around the house. After karaoke dates, he’d stick around her Whitehall Township home, fixing a broken gate he’d noticed or climbing onto the roof to repair a leak.

Johnson and Hallman, both 66, spent nearly every day together that month. He was at her house on the afternoon of Sept. 29, tinkering with her broken hot tub, when his cellphone rang.

Hallman told her the call was from a guy named Jacob, whom he described as a “kid from the neighborhood who had a baby.” Jacob wanted to see Hallman and return $150 he owed him.

Hallman agreed to meet Jacob in Allentown later that night. After ending the call, he turned to Johnson, bemused. “Boy, I never expected to get that $150 back,” she recalled him saying.

Unraveling a deadly plot

A year has passed since Jacob G. Schmoyer lured Hallman to Turner Street with a promise of $150, then detonated a powerful homemade bomb inside his 2001 Nissan Altima as both men and Schmoyer’s 2-year-old son sat inside.

The blast ended the lives of all three and carpeted the 700 block of Turner Street in Center City Allentown in shattered glass and gore.

Though the neighborhood today bears only a few traces of the atrocity that shook Center City, the healing process for family members still coming to terms with what Schmoyer did is more gradual ? punctuated by the realization that answers to some of their questions may never come.

The investigation into the murder-suicide, which captured national headlines, is nearly complete, officials with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said. Investigators are confident the 26-year-old Allentown man acted alone, but are still analyzing the two improvised explosives he used to carry out the deadly act.

Though Schmoyer explained his crime in a set of four letters mailed to family members and Allentown police just before he carried out the plot, he left many questions unanswered. Like why did he target Hallman, a man who lived nearby and was, family members said, barely acquainted with Schmoyer?

And why did Schmoyer feel the need to kill his only child, Jonathan Jacob “JJ” Schmoyer?

Schmoyer’s family members disagree on his mental health history, and why he wanted to end his life.

Schmoyer’s sister, Tina Schmoyer, recalled him as an inventive youth who crafted dolls for her out of spare household items. She said Schmoyer, who was three years older, began to change in his mid-teens.

He was prescribed medication for schizophrenia, she said, but stopped taking it about a year before the blast, and had threatened suicide before.

She said her brother worried endlessly about his son, who was showing signs of autism. But she never expected him to carry out such a heinous act.

“I can definitely say with everything that’s happened, that’s not him,” Tina Schmoyer said earlier this month.

Schmoyer’s step-grandmother, Kathleen Pond, who received one of his suicide letters, insists Schmoyer was not mentally ill. Pond, of Washington Township, Lehigh County, said Schmoyer had attention deficit disorder and was “searching all of his life to just be loved by those around him.” Schmoyer worried that his son was destined for a difficult life, Pond said.

“Jacob’s motives for what he did were not born of malice, but rather of desperation, helplessness and hopelessness,” Pond said.

Investigators also discounted the idea that mental illness was a factor in the bomb plot.

“We didn’t develop any lines of that in our investigation,” said Don Robinson, special agent in charge at the Philadelphia ATF.

But court records from Schmoyer’s lone arrest in 2010, a credit card theft, back up Tina Schmoyer’s description of her brother.

According to the records, Schmoyer was 19 when he used a South Whitehall man’s credit cards to purchase nearly $500 worth of items at Wegmans and two gas stations. The victim, who didn’t connect his credit card case to the Allentown car explosion before being contacted by The Morning Call this month, recalled police telling him that they had trouble tracking down the thief because he left a note threatening suicide and fled the state.

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“Jacob’s motives for what he did were not born of malice, but rather of desperation, helplessness and hopelessness.”

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The victim said Schmoyer lived on his street, but he didn’t know him.

Tina Schmoyer said she was the one who persuaded her brother to abandon his plan to end his life in 2010, staying on the phone with him for more than two hours. She said he wrote a suicide note in that incident as well, leaving it in a place that only she could find.

Before driving to Virginia, where he planned to carry out the act, Schmoyer made copies of his fingerprints, explaining that he hoped it would help investigators.

When Allentown police last year informed Tina Schmoyer that the department had received a letter, she said she was not surprised to learn that he’d included his fingerprints in that note too, as well as a detailed description of the explosives that he built in the basement of the rented Lumber Street home he shared with his father, girlfriend and son.

“He wouldn’t do something that would be leaving anything in question or blaming anyone else. If he did it, and he meant to do something, he’d make sure that they knew he planned it,” she said.

Tina Schmoyer said she got further confirmation that her brother intentionally took his own life when she and her father were finally permitted to go back into the home, after investigators collected Schmoyer’s computers and other evidence.

There, hanging on a coat hook, was Schmoyer’s fedora.

“Now, my brother, that was like his wallet,” she said. “He would never go anywhere without that fedora. Nowhere. So, seeing it hung up was like, immediate. He’s hanging up his hat. He’s done.”

Tina Schmoyer did read one of the letters her brother sent to another family member, but declined to share what he wrote. She said Schmoyer did not reveal why he killed Hallman.

Jealous of Hallman

David E. Hallman, 40, of Northampton woke up on the morning of Sept. 30 to news that there had been an explosion the night before in the neighborhood where his father lived since 1976. He immediately thought about the phone call he’d received from his dad the day before, which he hadn’t answered.

“I sort of regret that. Usually when he calls you, he talks your ear off for an half-hour or so,” he said.

Hallman’s father had recently retired after years as a machinist at Sarco Manufacturing and Victaulic and was enjoying his life. A free spirit who went dancing every weekend, Hallman had many girlfriends but his true love was his dog, Skippy, a 14-year-old Jack Russell terrier.

Hallman, of Northampton, said he had planned to call his father back, but was shopping with his wife and 2-year-old son and forgot. The rest of that night he was working in his basement, disconnected from social media, and was unaware of the horror unfolding eight miles away in Allentown.

The next morning, he finally heard about the explosion and saw the neighborhood where he grew up on the news. He could see his father’s car in the background, damaged by the blast.

David E. Hallman tried calling his father, but his calls went straight to voicemail. None of his father’s friends had heard from him. He checked in with police officers guarding Turner Street, which had been evacuated and cordoned off, only agents in hazmat suits allowed in. They couldn’t tell him anything.

Desperate to find his dad, Hallman eventually called the coroner’s office. The person who answered the phone told him to stay on the line.

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“He had anger toward my dad, he was jealous, for some reason.”

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“I knew right then and there,” he said.

While her husband was confirming his worst fears, Fanny Hallman was sending messages to Facebook and YouTube, trying to get the platforms to remove horrifying videos of the explosion’s aftermath before he saw them. She was too late.

“What are you going to do,” David E. Hallman said, recalling the images of flames and body parts that are still stuck in his mind. “It’s graphic, it’s crazy, but that is the world we live in now.”

The coroner asked him to provide a DNA sample to aid in the recovery of his dad’s remains. Police delivered the puzzling news that the blast was intentional, set off by Schmoyer, a man he had never heard of.

“My dad never mentioned him, ever,” Hallman said. “The first time I seen him was when they were interviewing me and they slid his picture to me and said, ‘Do you know this person?’”

ATF agents advised the Hallmans to stay inside their home, warning them that they could be targets. This was before Schmoyer’s letters, in which he claimed sole responsibility for the blast, arrived in the mail. For several days after the explosion, police were not sure if Schmoyer acted alone.

Though he did not get one of Schmoyer’s letters, David E. Hallman said officials briefed him on some of the contents.

“He had anger toward my dad, he was jealous, for some reason,” David E. Hallman said.

Robinson, the ATF agent, said Schmoyer wrote in the letters that he disliked Hallman, saying something to the effect that he thought the older man had a “sour” personality. But there was nothing in the notes about an ongoing feud between the two.

Hallman’s family did not know anything about him lending Schmoyer money.

A brilliant flash

The explosion occurred just before 9:30 p.m. on the corner of Turner and Hall Street, in the literal shadow of the PPL Center, where a preseason Phantoms game had just gone into overtime.

In a video recorded by a Turner Street business and reviewed by The Morning Call, Hallman was seen walking up to Schmoyer’s car, stopping at the driver’s side window before moving into the street toward the passenger side.

After waiting for a minivan to go by, Hallman opened the door and got in. Two seconds later, the car exploded in a brilliant flash.

The bomb, which officials have only said was made with widely available, legal components, was so strong that it dislodged the porch of the building closest to the car, a law firm, lifting it up and slamming it down in a gush of hot air and glass. Human remains were flung in every direction.

Attorney E. Keller Kline III, who owns the building, said his insurance company paid $50,000 to have his property cleaned by biohazard experts. Every surface, including the pages of hundreds of law books, had to be sanitized.

Allentown attorney Keller Kline, whose office was right near where the Allentown car explosion happened in 2018, talks about how it affected him and his office.

Though the building was off-limits to the public for more than 10 days, officials allowed Kline to go inside soon after the blast to retrieve his computers, helping him don a full-body hazmat suit before allowing him to walk through the wreckage.

A year later, Kline’s building and the rest of the block are mostly repaired. Freshly painted apartment buildings have been fitted with new windows, and several trees have been removed or trimmed. The only glaring sign of the explosion is a bright white patch of replaced sidewalk and a shallow gouge in the street.

Unlike some people who have carried out deadly explosion plots, such as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, there’s no evidence that Schmoyer tested his plan or built smaller bombs before crafting the two devices he used in the Allentown murder-suicide.

Though officials have steadfastly refused to release information about the bombs’ components, Robinson, the ATF agent, said blueprints simple enough for a high school dropout like Schmoyer to follow are all over the internet.

“Unfortunately, a lot of information is out there,” he said.

Robinson said the bombing took a toll on everyone who responded to the aftermath, including investigators who were just wrapping up their probe into a series of bombings in Austin, Texas, in March 2018, which killed two people and injured five others. The suspect, 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt, blew himself up with an improvised explosive device as police officers closed in.

Robinson said counselors were made available to law enforcement officers who seemed to be struggling. He said he hoped Schmoyer’s family had similar support.

“The family in this case, they can’t blame themselves because this is something going on in his mind,” Robinson said. “People do bad things, and it’s not anybody else’s fault.”

Coming to terms

Jacob’s girlfriend and the mother of his child, Jasmine Kerecz, declined to be interviewed for this story but shared a photo of JJ’s grave marker, which was donated by Keystone Memorial Company in Allentown. She said she wanted people to remember her happy child, not his horrific death.

“JJ was an innocent party in all of this, and I feel he deserves to be spoken about regardless of what his dad did,” she said in a Facebook message.

Tina Schmoyer said her brother’s funeral service was attended by “quite a few” people, who tried to console her and her 67-year-old father, who remains in shock over Jacob and JJ’s violent deaths.

“They didn’t look at what happened, but who he was as a person,” she said.

Now living in Berks County, Tina Schmoyer goes to great lengths to avoid driving near the explosion scene, skirting the entire city when possible.

At David Hallman’s funeral, his family met many of his neighbors for the first time. Some told stories of Hallman doing home repairs for them and refusing payment.

Johnson, Hallman’s intimate friend, was also questioned by ATF agents during the investigation. She attended the funeral, where she met Hallman’s family for the first time.

She is reminded of Hallman from the repairs he’s done around her house, the times they went dancing at the casino lounge on Tuesday nights, and whenever she hears someone crooning to a Frank Sinatra tune during karaoke, which they often did at one of their favorite bars in Coplay.

“That’s why I went, I felt I should tell them about the last weeks of his life,” she said. “To let the son know that on his last day, he was happy. He was feeling good because of the hot tub. He was worn out, tired, but happy.”

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“He was feeling good because of the hot tub. He was worn out, tired, but happy.”

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Online:

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Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com