Widow of slain policeman adamant in support of death penalty
BY NICOLE C. BRAMBILA, December 13, 2015
The early morning doorbell chime changed everything.
Hours before, Tricia Wertz had packed for a weekend getaway, a family beach
trip planned with friends from the police department. Sometime after 2
a.m., she dragged herself out of bed to answer the doorbell.
Peering out of bleary eyes, Tricia said she struggled to understand why her
husband’s colleagues were standing outside her door in the middle of the
night when the beach trip was still hours away.
“Why are they here so early?” Wertz said she thought at the time. Then she
saw the uniformed officer with them, and the reason became painfully clear.
Reading police officers were there to inform her that her husband had been
Scott A. Wertz was shot and killed on Aug. 6, 2006, responding in plain
clothes with his partner to gunshots near a convenience store at Eighth and
Walnut streets. The nine-year department veteran had been working
undercover on an auto theft detail at the time and was not wearing a
bulletproof vest. He was 40 years old.
Her shrieks woke up her eldest son, Jared, who said he wasn’t sure at first
whether the screams he heard were the TV or his mother crying. Once
downstairs, the two cried together at the kitchen table.
“I never thought to myself, ‘I wonder if he’s going to come home,’ ” said
Jared, now 21. “I was just so ignorant to the possibility of it.”
In 2008, a Northampton County jury – bused in to Berks County because of
the intense news coverage the killing garnered – found Cletus C. Rivera
guilty and sentenced him to death.
Rivera, 33, is one of 181 condemned inmates in Pennsylvania, making the
commonwealth’s death row the fifth largest in the nation. He is one of 11
death row inmates prosecuted for murders committed in Berks.
More than 400 people have been sentenced to death in the commonwealth since
1978, when capital punishment was reinstated. Only three have faced the
needle, all after giving up their appeals and begging to be executed.
The state hasn’t executed anyone since 1999.
In February, shortly after taking office, Gov. Tom Wolf called the death
penalty system in Pennsylvania “error-prone, expensive and anything but
infallible” when he called for a moratorium on executions.
“The system is definitely flawed, but I don’t feel it’s flawed for the
criminals,” said Tricia, 45, of Spring Township. “It’s flawed for the
victims and their families.”
The average Pennsylvania inmate has been on death row for more than 16
years, six years longer than in Texas, the execution capital of the U.S.
Without significant changes, it is unlikely Tricia will see Rivera’s
sentence carried out any time soon.
Tricia has said she sometimes wished she lived in the Lone Star State,
which by far has executed more prisoners than any other state, so the
process would not drag out for many years to come.
She said: “Why aren’t we putting more people to death? Why is Texas so
different than Pennsylvania in that they execute people and we aren’t?”
‘Got what he deserved’
Prosecutors with the state attorney general’s office had offered Rivera a
plea deal that would have given him life in prison.
Tricia said she and her family were sitting in court the day Rivera was to
plead guilty when he instead did an about-face and pushed for a trial.
“We had a deal in place that would have avoided the trial,” Tricia said,
noting she had supported the plea deal because it would have saved her
family the uncertainty of a trial and its emotional toll.
At trial, Rivera asserted that he did not know Scott Wertz was a police
officer and, after the foot chase, shot and killed him in self-defense.
The jury didn’t buy it.
“He changed his mind, so I feel he definitely got what he deserved,” Tricia
She has been outspoken in her support of capital punishment, especially
after Wolf announced his moratorium.
Though she agrees Pennsylvania’s death penalty system needs scrutiny, she
disagrees with the governor’s moratorium. Wolf has said he would grant
temporary reprieves until a long-overdue state Senate report on capital
punishment is complete sometime next year.
Since 2011, the state has been studying a laundry list of issues that
include, among others, its fairness and accuracy, racial bias and cost, of
which a Reading Eagle analysis conservatively estimated at $350 million.
“I do think it needs to be looked at,” Tricia said. “I don’t think there
needs to be a moratorium while the system is being looked at.”
The Berks widow wants to see Rivera executed, she said, not so much in the
hopes of finding closure as much as to ensure justice is served for her
“I want his killer to know that he (Scott) is not forgotten and never will
be,” she said. “I feel like he can no longer speak, so I feel like I have
to be and should be the voice for him.”
She’s not alone.
The majority of victims’ family members with their loved one’s killer on
Pennsylvania’s death row want an execution.
A March survey by the Pennsylvania Office of the Victim Advocate found:
Nine out of 10 family members support the death penalty.
94 percent said the imposed death sentence should be carried out.
Nearly two in three disagreed with abolishing capital punishment in the
The Office of the Victim Advocate is a state department dedicated to
representing and protecting the rights and interests of crime victims.
“Everyone has their opinion,” Tricia said. “Some are not for the death
penalty and they’re entitled to their opinion.
“Until you’re a victim of a crime and you go through it, they just don’t
know what it’s like, and I hope they never have to.”
Since Scott Wertz’s death, 44 police officers in the commonwealth have died
in the line of duty.
Six Reading Police Department officers have been killed since 1905,
according to data compiled by the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks
officer deaths nationally.
Scott Wertz was the most recent officer in Reading killed in the line of
“I think when we lose an officer, the impact on the community is
overwhelming,” said Berks District Attorney John T. Adams. “It’s just
something that should not happen.”
‘You learn a new normal’
Tricia had asked him not to go into work that fateful night. But Scott
insisted he must.
“You always think about the what ifs,” she said.
What if she had pressed him more to stay home that night? What if he had?
What if he’d been wearing a bulletproof vest? What if he had stayed in the
car and not chased Rivera? What if?
His shift was supposed to be routine – sitting in the car running license
plates, searching for stolen vehicles. He was supposed to come home that
“He always wanted to be a cop,” Tricia said. “He grew up in the city. He
loved the city.”
The Wertz boys – Jared and Joshua – were 12 and 7 at the time their father
was killed. Joshua, now 16, would not, until recently, sleep over at
friends’ homes, as he was the night his dad was killed. He suffered from
separation anxiety in the months and years following, fearing something
might happen to his mother.
Tricia walked around in a fog, trying desperately to hold her now fractured
family together. She’s been in counseling since her husband’s murder and
continues to take anti-anxiety medication.
“Eight years ago, I would have been a blubbering idiot talking about it,”
she said last year in an interview. “You learn to live with it. You learn a
The milestones that have slipped by since the murder haven’t gotten any
easier with time.
Holidays, birthdays, their eldest graduating high school and attending
college, their youngest son’s 18-4 soccer season, ranking his varsity team
17th in the state – are all moments Scott Wertz should have shared with his
family. Those are moments Rivera stole from the Wertz family when he
squeezed off two rounds less than 100 yards from City Hall.
“It affects me every day,” said Jared, who is a senior studying management
at Penn State in University Park. “I haven’t had a dad since I was 12.”
Framed photos of Scott – playing softball, in uniform – dot the walls of
their home, and Tricia still talks about him with the kids. They faithfully
visit the cemetery where his tombstone sits next to his mother and
“Going to the cemetery for a birthday and a holiday just sucks,” she said.
“There’s no other way to say it.”
When Jared stops by the cemetery, he takes a bottle of Coors Light beer
Jared explained, “It’s not my favorite, but it was his.”