Turnpike shootout takes terrible toll on Midstate man who survived

ETTERS, Pa. (WHTM) – Mike O’Keefe lays out an aerial map of a turnpike toll plaza on his dining room table in Etters, York County.

“So, I come off the westbound ramp into the Fort Littleton Interchange,” O’Keefe said while moving his finger along the map to show the exact location.

The 16-year Turnpike employee is pointing to the place where his life changed forever. It was March 20, 2016. It was Palm Sunday just before 7 a.m. He recalls driving up the ramp.

“I said, ‘what’s he doing with a gun?'”

Mike was driving a Chevy van. It was his job to pick up the cash from the sleepy toll plaza at Exit 180, on a sleepy Sunday that became sleepy no more.

He could see a frantic toll collector in her booth.

“I can hear her on the intercom calling Highspire that they were just robbed,” Mike recalled of a robbery that was about to go very wrong.

Retired state trooper Clarence Briggs, who used to work on the turnpike, had now come to rob it. He was heavily armed. He took a pistol to take two toll collectors hostage. He had planted an AR-15 under nearby trees.

Briggs forced the toll collectors into the turnpike building and tried to tie them. He was awaiting Mike and his money van. But there was a struggle. One of the toll collectors got Briggs’ handgun. Briggs ran outside. The toll collector followed him out.

That’s when Mike’s van, with an armed security guard in the passenger seat, rolled up. The armed guard got out of the van, drew his weapon, and went looking for Briggs, who was retrieving his planted rifle.

“The first three shots that I heard was the robber,” said Mike as he paused and fought back tears. “He was shooting my guard.”

The turnpike employee who wrestled away Briggs’ gun followed the guard and ran right past Mike’s van.

“He got shot. He turned like 180 and dropped the gun and went down right in front of me,” Mike said.

The next bullets came for Mike in his bright red, unarmored van.

“Right then, a round comes in right to the left side of my head and the windshield. I tried to get out of the van. I can’t get out of the van. The toll booth’s there.”

Mike says he ducked below the dash and threw the van into reverse blindly backing up until he can open the door.

He got out of the van, but he wasn’t out of the woods.

“The robber relocated to the corner of the building and shot nine rounds as I was running,” Mike said adding that at one point he pulled a hamstring and went down in a heap. He got up and hobbled off to safety.

Mike survived. His guard and the turnpike employee did not. Neither did Briggs who was killed by state police in a shootout.

But Mike O’Keefe is still dodging bullets.

“Everything’s different, Dennis,” said Sharon, Mike’s wife of 20 years. “He used to go for walks. He goes for a walk now and he cries.”

Mike says the complications vary from day to day. “You lose your concentration. You lose your memory.”

Mike can’t work, can’t sleep and just can’t get past that day. Doctors have diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“If you really want to understand PTSD, it’s hellish. I don’t know if I can say that word but it’s terrible, it’s just terrible,” said Malinda Myers, a mental health professional with Jewish Family Services who is not treating Mike but treats patients with PTSD.

Myers said PTSD sufferers aren’t physically hit in the head, but it’s as if they were.

“It releases all these chemicals and hormones and it releases them at toxic levels to your brain which causes the brain to change. That’s really the damage of PTSD,” Myers said.

“My husband deserves a fair chance,” Sharon said while wiping away tears. “He deserves a fair chance for whatever his future is gonna be.”

But fair is hard to find in the O’Keefe case. His workman’s compensation gives him just 65 percent of his pay, which is procedure. He’s a member of the Teamsters’ Union which ended his dental and vision coverage 30 days after the incident, which is also policy. Because he hasn’t returned to work, his health insurance expires in March, one year after the incident date.

Mike’s pension clock has also stopped, his tenure is no longer accruing. But abc27 has learned that the killer’s wife is collecting $2610 a month, a survivor benefit from Briggs’ state police pension.

“I’ve asked for extra help and I’m not getting it,” Mike said. “I need a higher level of help and there’s no support for it.”

Mike sees a psychologist twice a week, which is covered by  insurance. Sharon got him a therapy dog, Jemma, which brings some relief but Mike is convinced he needs to check in to a full- time facility to battle his demons. O’Keefe’s doctor agrees and wrote a letter in October to UPMC recommending a higher level of care for Mike and Sharon. The O’Keefe’s say they’ve gotten no response from the Turnpike or its provider UPMC.

“Where’s the compassion? Where’s the help?” Mike asks. “It’s just not there.”

Turnpike CEO Mark Compton is aware of Mike’s case. “We’re working hard to be alongside him and his wife and his family every step of the way,” Compton said.

Has he been to see O’Keefe recently.

“Not recently, no” Compton concedes.

As CEO, Compton oversees 2,000 employees. He says his hands are tied.There are processes in place with the provider, Turnpike procedures to follow and collective bargaining agreements to honor. He and the Turnpike may also be cautious because the O’Keefe’s have hired a lawyer.

Has the Turnpike done enough in Compton’s mind to help his suffering employee?

“I can’t make the pain go away, so no,” said Compton, who also choked up.

But Compton did make unarmored vans driven by Turnpike employees go away. Cash pickups are now done by Brinks armored cars with armed guards. Compton promised to personally visit the O’Keefe’s, who feel abandoned by the Turnpike.

“I will commit to you to do that, and I’ll make the call within the week and set it up,” Compton said.

While the O’Keefe’s await a visit from the CEO, Sharon waits for the return of the man she married.

“I want my husband back,” Sharon said as her eyes filled with tears.  “I want him back.”

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