WARSAW — Craig Allebach and Tony Ciriello will likely always remember the date — June 29, 1994 — when David Swearingen killed Det. Sergeant Phil Hochstetler and Swearingen’s own two young children.
They will also recall the excruciating 45 hours that followed, as a massive manhunt for the 25-year-old suspect that gripped Kosciusko County until he was killed in a massive shoot-out in downtown Warsaw two days later.
But they would prefer to focus on the supportive public reaction following the capture of Swearingen, who died hours after his capture.
Hochstetler was shot and killed by Swearingen after Hochstetler stopped by Swearingen’s house on East Clark Street, just a block from where the 32-year-old officer lived, to ask about some stolen firearms.
MInutes after arriving, Swearingen ambushed Hochstetler, shooting him three times, and then turned the gun on his 14-month-old and his 4-year-old before running from the scene.
The event marked the first and only time a police officer in the county has been murdered in the line of duty and it set off the most intense manhunt in modern local history. Dozens of officers fanned out around the house and to the north where they thought he might have been lurking in the swampy wetlands near Pike Lake. Helicopters circled above with spotlights and police canines were brought into the area, but with no success.
The search continued until nearly 3 a.m. that night and resumed the next morning after officers — many of whom were grieving the loss of their friend — regrouped. Police spent the next full day running down tips, searching vacant houses and watching the area close to his home.
The search transitioned into a strange and harrowing slow police chase the following day after Swearingen was spotted near his home in a stolen red pickup truck. Police began pursuing Swearingen, who was seen laughing and then began firing at officers. The chase ended in a barrage of gunfire at the corner of Market and Detroit streets. Police fired dozens of rounds at Swearingen when his vehicle came to rest against a pole. Swearingen died shortly afterward. He was the only one injured.
Swearingen’s capture and death came on a Friday night, and the ruckus of gunfire and police activity at the intersection made it clear to many what was happening. The search was over. Dozens of officers responded to the scene and throngs of people gathered nearby to get a glimpse of the aftermath.
Craig Allebach was the Warsaw Police Chief at the time. He was at the scene and joined then-sheriff Al Rovenstine in a joint news conference after the shoot-out. Both men looked drained when they exited the city council chambers where the media had gathered and were then greeted with applause from the crowd — the first sense of public reaction.
Allebach, who retired from law enforcement six years later and became town coordinator for Winona Lake, said the three days transformed his career in police work.
After the shootout, five Warsaw police officers were placed on administrative leave and a large amount of counseling was made available to officers in the city and county departments. Allebach looks back and says the Swearingen murders coincided with an emergence and realization across the country that more support was needed for officers facing trauma.
The following day, Allebach participated in the BalloonFest Parade and witnessed an outpouring of gratitude. He heard applause and saw people waving flags and offering words of appreciation.
“They were so grateful,” Allebach said. “I didn’t realize until then the impact of that event and the stress and fear the community had over those couple days.”
Tony Ciriello, a patrolman and DARE officer for the county sheriff’s department at the time, went on to become the Syracuse Police Chief and currently works as the county coroner. He and just about every officer from the sheriff’s department was called to the scene after Hochstetler was killed. And he was there when the two-day saga ended.
He said the reaction from onlookers that night stands out in his mind.
“The outpouring that night was just overwhelming,” Ciriello said.
“Not only did we bring closure to a cop killer and a child killer that night, but we brought back a sense of security in the community,” Ciriello said.
Allebach and Ciriello said they both often visit Hochstetler’s grave west of Nappanee when the anniversary of the slain officer’s death arrives each year.
Ciriello said he and Hochstetler used to golf together in Syracuse. He recalls him as an “overly friendly guy who loved his work.”
Ciriello said he always takes note of the memorial to Hochstetler outside the main entrance of the sheriff’s office each time he visits.
“It serves as a warning. A friendly reminder that that could happen to you,” Ciriello said.