Chesterton Tribune

Luke Oil murder prompts renewed concerns for convenience store worker safety

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By KEVIN NEVERS

A former employee of Luke Oil Company Inc. is wondering whether Barbara Heckman might be alive today, if a corporate safety policy implemented after Kathryn Pokorny’s murder in 1999 had not--as the employee alleges--been allowed to fall into abeyance.

On Monday the former employee told the Chesterton Tribune, on the condition of anonymity, that immediately after Pokorny’s death at the old Luke Oil store at 2 W. U.S. Highway 6 in Liberty Township--across the street and kitty-corner from the current Luke Oil where Heckman was murdered on Friday--the company enacted a twofold safety policy: two employees must always be on duty at the same time; and all employees must wear or otherwise have on their person “body alarms” which, when activated, “go straight to the Porter County Sheriff’s Police.”

But Heckman, as Pokorny was on the night of her death was working alone at closing on Friday, and the former employee claims that sometime within the last two years the safety policy was either discontinued or simply no longer enforced.

This morning Tom Collins Jr. of Luke Oil released the following statement: “The life of an amazing person and friend has been taken by a senseless act. The thoughts and prayers of our entire organization are with the family. We are cooperating fully with the authorities and their investigation. As a group we are devastated and heart-broken.”

But Collins declined to comment directly on the former employee’s allegation.

“The girls who work for (Luke Oil) have made them a lot of money over the years,” the former employee said. “What is it going to hurt to pay a little extra to prevent this from happening again?”

The former employee noted that the body alarms are expensive and that, when the safety policy was enforced, employees who were found not to have one on their person while on duty could be “written up.”

“Regular customers know the routine,” the former employee said. “Our back is always turned. We’re in the cooler. We’re sweeping the floor. Maybe if someone else had been on duty, this would never have happened.”

In fact Steven Jorden, 19, of 1118 Winterpark Drive--who, with Bruce Guess, 18, of 51 E. U.S. 6, has been charged with Heckman’s murder and with robbery--appears to have been a regular at the Luke Oil at 3 E. U.S. Highway 6 where Heckman worked. A witness who initially discovered Heckman’s body at 11:20 p.m. on Friday had earlier observed Jorden in the Luke Oil parking lot and, recognizing him from the business, had even spoken with him, and it was that witness’s identification which gave investigators their first solid lead, according to the probable cause affidavit filed by Det. Timothy Manteuffel.

In related news, Porter County Coroner Vicki Deppe confirmed today that Heckman’s death was a homicide caused by multiple blunt force trauma to the head, after an autopsy conducted by Dr. Joseph Prahlow on Monday at the St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in South Bend.

Manteuffel stated in his probable cause affidavit that both Jorden and Guess admitted luring Heckman into the men’s room at the Luke Oil, where Guess struck her on the head with a “mini sledge hammer.”

Jorden and Guess are being held at the Porter County Jail without bond and were scheduled to appear via video at an initial hearing today.

On Aug. 10, 1999, Chesterton High School graduate Kathryn Pokorny, 18, was shot and killed at the old Luke Oil store in the course of a robbery while working alone on the night shift as duty clerk. In November 1999 Region Deon Slater was charged with her murder, criminal deviate conduct, and robbery. Two years later he pleaded guilty to all charges in exchange for the state’s withdrawing its request for the death penalty. Slater was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Several years later that Luke Oil store was demolished and the site remains vacant.

Two months after Pokorny’s murder, the PCSP announced that it was extending what it called “a survivability seminar” originally designed for banks in unincorporated Porter County to convenience stores. Dave Lain--now Sheriff, then Porter County Deputy Chief--noted at the time of the announcement that, “like banks, convenience stores have their own set of risks. It’s an inherently riskier set of risks than (those of other) businesses.” Among other things, convenience stores usually employ no more than two clerks--or only one--per shift.

They also operate late into the night or all night and are often located at remote or isolated sites and by their nature are quick to enter and quick to exit. And they are ready sources of cash.

 

Posted 12/23/2008