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November 02, 2016

Anger and tears in Bucks County as neighbor confesses to tearing down roadside memorial

Hit-And-Runs Controversies
Rearick Hit-and-Run Memorial Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

The memorial for John Rearick, who was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver in July 2012, was visible across a busy stretch of New Falls Road between Middletown and Bristol townships. Until a neighbor removed it two weeks ago, that is.

Sharon Rearick’s husband was driving her to the Zumba class she teaches one Tuesday night in October when all the pain came back.

“I just gasped, and he slammed on the brakes, asking me what was wrong,” she said of what happened on the busy road that serves as the border of Middletown and Bristol townships in Bucks County. “The memorial’s gone.”

When you hear the story behind the memorial, you’ll better understand why what she saw that night sent her into a tailspin.

On July 22, 2012, a hit-and-run driver struck John Rearick as he walked along that sidewalk-less stretch of New Falls Road. The 23-year-old would die from his injuries six days later.

A grieving family – led by his mother Sharon – would soon embark on a years-long effort to burst through bureaucratic and community red tape to get local and state agencies to sign off on a $1.7 million project to get sidewalks installed along that busy stretch.

All the while, a roadside memorial to John – complete with a cross, rocks, mulch and spotlights – sat on a patch of grass near where he was struck by a red Cadillac, despite a nasty note from a nearby property owner who wanted it removed.

That neighbor's wish was realized two weeks ago, as Sharon noticed that the “lights, flowers and cross were gone and thrown in the overgrown weed pile next to the memorial.” (While cameras which captured the hit-and-run from across the street when it happened, there was no such luck with getting footage of the memorial being removed.)

As the start of the sidewalk project was delayed until 2018, she reached out to local officials and police seeking information about “this heart-wrenching finding.” 

That started a process of filing police reports and making contact with state Rep. Tina Davis’ office.

“I spoke with Charlie Metzger at PennDOT about this and asked him to look into it,” responded Bryan Allen, Davis’ chief of staff, via email to Sharon. “He said that if a PennDOT crew had to remove a roadside memorial for any reason, they would collect it and reach out to the family to ask them if they’d like it returned to them.

“He said they would never toss it aside or in the trash and believes, based on this account, that it was an act of vandalism. I’m so sorry you had to deal with this ugly incident.”

As their investigation proceeded, the Rearick family learned that it wasn’t an isolated case of vandalism. In fact, the resident whose property borders land that will soon become a sidewalk admitted he’d done so.

That came to light during a Middletown Township Police Department (MTPD) probe into the memorial’s October 17 removal. John Rearick’s sister, Shana Jugler, reported the incident to authorities, noting that the family had received PennDOT permission to place it there. She told police that she thought the resident was responsible, so officers went out for an interview.

“Upon speaking with the resident,” reads a MTPD report, “he stated that he did take the memorial down as it was making it difficult for him to maintain the area for mowing and cleaning. Due to this being a civil issue, (the resident) was referred to PennDOT in regards to the property and memorial.”

Attempts to reach the property owner on Wednesday were unsuccessful – a voicemail indicated the mailbox for the number listed for that home was full and a Facebook message went unreturned – but suffice it to say, the Rearick family is none too pleased with what’s happened.

Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

Seen here sporting a Sidewalks Are For Everyone (SAFE) T-shirt, Sharon Rearick tried for years to have sidewalks installed along the Bucks County roadway where her 23-year-old son was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver in 2012.

“It ripped my heart out,” said Sharon. “They just took it and threw it in the bushes like it was nothing. I know my son’s not here anymore, but they could have at least called before they did that. If they’d have broken the cross, all bets would have been off. Luckily, they didn’t.”

Ironically, the land itself doesn’t belong to that neighbor, but to PennDOT. Middletown Township maintains it, and the size of the memorial met local ordinances governing the size of such displays.

As things stand, Sharon – along with her Sidewalks Are For Everyone (SAFE) group – plan to replace that memorial as soon as they raise the money necessary to cover all the components. It may seem like a small thing to some, but not to the Rearicks, who pass that site regularly.

“According to the township ordinance, we’re allowed to be there. So, the plan is to put it right back up,” she said. “I mean, it’s only going to be there for two more years. Once the sidewalk’s in, we’ll have a plaque installed to remember him.”

Mark Zlock, a family friend and attorney, said Wednesday that since the property didn't belong to those who removed the memorial (the names are being withheld in this story as criminal charges aren't involved), they acted wrongfully.

"This is about more than a memorial for John Rearick," he said. "It was a constant reminder about safety to everyone who drives by on New Falls Road."