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Heckman ending almost 30-year career with the Pennsylvania State Police

April 7, 2017 GMT

When David Heckman walks out of the door at the state police barracks in North Bethlehem Township later this afternoon, he will be stepping away from a career that spanned almost three decades as he moves away from being captain and commanding officer of one of the largest troops in the state to life as a civilian.“It was a tough decision,” the 51-year-old Heckman said of his move to a job in corporate security. “I came on when I was 21. I grew up on this job.“Heckman was a student at Penn State University majoring in electrical engineering when he and a friend were discussing a posting about testing to be a trooper. He took the test early in 1987.“I did well because I ended up high on the list,” he said. “I got an offer in January of 1988. I turned 22 while I was still in the academy. It all seems like yesterday.“He did not get the degree in electrical engineering, but returned to school about eight years ago and earned his degree in criminal justice at California University of Pennsylvania.Heckman grew up near Brookville and Punxsutawney in Jefferson County. As a youngster, he spent time working with his grandfather on his cattle farm and also helped his dad, who did drilling work to place surface charges for mining companies.“I come from a real blue-collar background.“Although no one in Heckman’s family was involved in law enforcement, he became interested in it while working through a summer youth employment program.His assignment was at the state police barracks in Punxsutawney, spending summers doing anything from cutting grass to painting railings.“Growing up in a rural area, the state police was our department,” Heckman said. “The state police had a reputation of being impressive. I got to interact with the troopers and talk with them on a more personal level. I think I always had it in the back of my mind.“When he graduated from the state police academy, Heckman was assigned to Troop B at the Uniontown barracks.“It was while I was working in Uniontown when I met my wife, Pamela, on a blind date set up by my friend, the late District Judge Michael DeFino, and his secretary,” Heckman said. “We met for dinner and have been together ever since.“She’s never said anything when I worked long hours. I remember one time when I was in vice and I was gone for about 24 hours, and that was before cellphones. The job sometimes gets in the way, and she accepted that,” he added. “We have a good, trusting relationship.“Throughout his career, which included stints in the vice unit and criminal investigations, Heckman said his wife has always understood the demands of the job and the hours away from home. The couple has two children, U.S. Navy Ensign David Heckman Jr., a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who is stationed at Norfolk, Va., and Donetta Heckman, who is a high school sophomore.Less than a year after meeting his wife, Heckman was seriously injured in a crash while chasing a suspect in his patrol car in March 1991.“It was on Flatrock Road in Wharton Township in Fayette County,” Heckman recalled. “I went off the road and hit a tree. It took them an hour to cut me out and fly me to Pittsburgh.“The doctors told me I had nerve damage to my right arm and that I may never be able to use it again,” he added. “But by the grace of God and the skill of the surgeon I got my strength back.“Not long after his return 10 months after the wreck, he started working undercover in the drug unit in Greene County.“They told me that I’d fit right in,” Heckman said. “If someone asked about the scar on my arm, I’d tell them I got it when I laid down my bike. We made a lot of arrests working with David Pollock, who was the district attorney, and his task force.“Heckman was promoted to corporal. He was working in the patrol unit when the captain at the time, Lyle Szupinka, suggested he put in to be the vice unit supervisor.“We had an eight-man unit that accounted for 10 percent of the drug arrests in the state,” Heckman said. “We worked a lot of cases. I loved it.“He was promoted to sergeant in 2001. Later that year, he was among the dozens of troopers called to Shanksville on 9/11 to secure the perimeter after the crash of Flight 93.“We were up there for a couple of weeks. It was so tragic.“A photographer captured Heckman and another trooper saluting as the buses carrying family members of those on the airplane went passed them.“Saluting just seemed like the right thing to do,” he said.A year later, he was promoted to sergeant and became a crime section supervisor at the Uniontown station.“There is a big difference between drug and criminal investigations,” Heckman said. “If you don’t get the drug dealer, keep trying because you will get another bite at the apple. Crimes like homicides and sexual assaults are horrific. As an investigator, you have to make sure you get it right from day one, because there are victims.“As a criminal investigator, I felt a serious responsibility because you are dealing with people who have really been victimized,” he added.It was during his time with the crime unit that he tackled the toughest case of his career, the murder of state police Cpl. Joseph Pokorny, who was not only a colleague but a friend. Pokorny was shot and killed Dec. 12, 2005, during a traffic stop off the Parkway West near Carnegie.“I can remember getting that call in the middle of the night,” Heckman said. “The dispatcher couldn’t pronounce his name. When I said Pokorny and they said ‘yes,’ I couldn’t believe it.“Heckman recalled driving as fast as he could in horrible weather from his Fayette County home to Carnegie.Heckman said he and the other investigators worked nearly around the clock for the next three days. “It was important for us to get an arrest as quickly as possible and do it before he was buried.“Leslie Mollett was arrested Dec. 14, two days after Pokorny was killed. He was found guilty during a 2007 trial. His appeal seeking a new trial was thrown out in November by an Allegheny County judge.Heckman was offered a promotion to lieutenant, which would have stationed him in Harrisburg, but he turned it down because it came during the prosecution of Mollett. In January 2008, he was again offered a promotion. He was initially made station commander at the Pittsburgh station. During his tenure, Pittsburgh hosted the G20 summit. Heckman became station commander at Uniontown in the fall of 2009.“I liked the opportunity to guide the new troopers,” Heckman said. “I tried to instill a sense of professionalism and pride.“In 2012, he was promoted to captain. Heckman transferred to Harrisburg and was asked by Col. Frank Noonan to revamp and restructure the drug unit. “Heroin was really starting to come in strong,” Heckman said. “When I was working undercover, it was mostly crack. We see more deaths with heroin.“He said the unit focused on interdiction efforts on highways across the state. During that first year, state police confiscated 28 kilos of heroin. Last year, they confiscated 90 kilos.“The drug arrests doubled,” Heckman said. “What we were doing became a model that other states are using.“While he loved that work, when the opportunity came to move back and become the first captain at the North Bethlehem Township Troop B headquarters when it opened in August, it was too good to pass up. Heckman said the troop has 375 enlisted and civilian personnel.“They are really great people in the troop. The state police attracts top-notch ones,” Heckman said. “It has been great to have been a part of maintaining and building on the reputation of the state police for the next generation. It is not about me, it is about us.“Heckman said he has had several good mentors along the way, including the late Szupinka, who retired as a major, as well as retired lieutenants John Davidson and Richard Sethman and retired captain Roger Waters.Heckman said he has always tried to interject a little humor to alleviate stress.“You don’t have to scream and yell at someone,” he added. “Everyone makes mistakes. Deal with the issues, learn from it and move on.“It was a big honor to work for this organization,” Heckman said. “The state police offers so many different positions, the opportunities are limitless.”