Pennsylvania man charged in brutal 2016 killing of school bus driver, former grocery co-worker

PINE GROVE MILLS, Pa. — More than five years after a Pennsylvania school bus driver was found slain in her home, a former colleague from her second job at a grocery store has been charged in her killing.

Christopher Gordon Kowalski, 34, was arrested Monday in Isle of Palms, South Carolina, where he moved shortly after the crime. He remained Tuesday morning in the Charleston County Jail, awaiting extradition to Pennsylvania on a fugitive warrant for murder.

Kowalski is accused of fatally shooting Jeannie Lamb Tuggy, 60, in her Pine Grove Mills home on Jan. 21, 2016. Investigators from the Office of the Attorney General and the Ferguson Township Police Department believe the younger man killed Tuggy after she spurned his advances.

The pair had worked together at Wegmans in State College. Tuggy left that job in 2014 due to health issues.

A neighbor told the Centre Daily Times in 2016 that Tuggy had overcome cancer for a second time shortly before she was killed.

“Jean died more than five years ago, and her family has not had closure since,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement. “Thanks to the diligent efforts of our lawyers, investigators and fellow members of law enforcement who never gave up on this case, the arrest of Christopher Kowalski is the first step toward putting her murderer behind bars.”

Jimmy Bellis, the store manager at the Wegmans where Tuggy worked, described her after her death as “very kind-hearted and well-liked by her co-workers and customers,” the Times reported. Students in the State College Area School District, for whom Tuggy worked as a bus driver for 16 years, loved her.

Her neighbors also adored her.

“She was just a very sweet lady, who loved listening to Christian music and who would help anybody if she could,” Todd Wheeler told the newspaper. “She was a once-in-a-lifetime neighbor.”

Her kindness and sweet nature may have allowed her to get close to the man who would ultimately kill her.

A probable cause affidavit in the case states that Ferguson Township police officers were called to Tuggy’s home shortly before 3 p.m. the day of the homicide after friends became concerned when she failed to show up at one of their homes as expected. When the women went to Tuggy’s Irion Street home, they found her blue Honda Civic in the driveway and the house locked up.

They found a basement door unlocked and went inside to find their friend lying dead in a large pool of blood, according to the court records.

Responding officers found Tuggy on the living room floor, her sweatshirt pulled up to reveal her stomach and her sweatpants pulled partially down.

An autopsy showed that she had been shot twice, including once in the left side of her face near her neck. The bullet cut through her spinal cord and embedded in her spine, the affidavit states.

The second bullet was found in her left hip. Both bullets, identified by ballistics experts as 9 mm hollow-point ammunition, were preserved as evidence.

The tips of hollow-point bullets expand on impact, causing a greater amount of damage as they travel through a person’s body.

From friends to lovers?

Kowalski became a person of interest in the case less than a month after the homicide, authorities said. A friend of Tuggy’s, Maile Peachey, told detectives the slain woman had told her about trouble with a former co-worker at Wegmans.

Tuggy had worked at the State College store from July 2006 to October 2014.

“Peachey advised that Tuggy told her about a male co-worker from Wegmans,” the affidavit states. “(The witness) stated that Tuggy told her that the male was in his 20s and that he and Tuggy had developed a friendship.

“Peachey further advised that Tuggy told her that the male became romantically interested in Tuggy.”

No arrests were made in the case, but Kowalski’s name came up again in January 2019, when Peter Coray, another of Tuggy’s friends, described the co-worker as a man named “Chris” who had a “Polish-sounding” last name.

Tuggy had told Coray about an incident in which “Chris” had rubbed her back while visiting her at her home, according to the affidavit. Coray believed the Polish-sounding last name ended in “ski,” and he said Tuggy’s unidentified co-worker was in his late 20s or early 30s and attended a local Lutheran church.

A few days after talking to Coray, detectives interviewed Cindy LaBarca, the parish administrator at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in State College. Based on their description of “Chris,” LaBarca identified Kowalski as a former congregant of the church.

At the time he attended, he worked at Wegmans and lived with his parents in State College. According to the affidavit, investigators were able to confirm Kowalski’s identity through internet and database searches.

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Kowalski worked at Wegmans from November 2007 to October 2015, roughly the same time frame as Tuggy’s employment there.

Detectives also found that Kowalski was among Tuggy’s Facebook friends.

A forensic examination of the hard drive of Tuggy’s computer turned up Facebook chat logs between her and Kowalski. In the conversations, both talked about having experienced loneliness, and they discussed setting sexual boundaries.

It was unclear from the logs who sent which messages, but one message said it wouldn’t be a good idea to “go to one or another house for hanging out alone, because then it becomes too sexually tempting or vulnerable to other kinds of adultery,” according to court records.

Read the probable cause affidavit in the case below.

In May 2019, detectives went back to Tuggy’s friend, Peachey, who relayed information about a sexual encounter between Tuggy and her co-worker at Tuggy’s home. When Tuggy made the co-worker stop, he became upset, Peachey said.

“Tuggy told Peachey that she did not know what to do, as she had to go to work and see him, and (she) disclosed to Peachey that she believed that this male wanted more of a romantic relationship,” the affidavit states.

Meanwhile, the male co-worker, who by this point in the investigation had been identified as Kowalski, kept pressuring Tuggy to spend time together, Peachey told detectives.

Tuggy had told her friend she was planning to invite Kowalski over to again talk to him about their relationship remaining platonic.

“Peachey told Tuggy that she did not think that this was a good idea, and (she) suggested that she find a quiet place at work and just tell him frankly,” detectives wrote.

Tracing the gun

Around the same time of the second interview with Peachey, detectives reached out to the Pennsylvania State Police to determine if Kowalski had owned any firearms while living there. They learned he had bought six 9 mm handguns — the same caliber as the gun that killed Tuggy.

Kowalski had sold two of the weapons prior to January 2016, and a third was bought following the homicide. Records showed that he still owned two of the weapons, both of which he’d bought in 2012.

“The sixth firearm is a Walther CCP and was purchased by Kowalski approximately one month prior to the homicide and sold to a dealership approximately eight months after the homicide,” the affidavit states.

The investigators tracked the Walther pistol to its new owners, who had bought it from a Pennsylvania sporting goods store about 10 months after Tuggy was slain. In June 2019, the owners allowed them to take the gun for testing at the Pennsylvania State Police’s Harrisburg Regional Laboratory.

A firearm and tool mark examiner compared the bullets taken from Tuggy’s neck and hip to bullets test-fired from the gun. The bullets from the killing were too damaged to conclusively match them to Kowalski’s one-time weapon.

There were, however, “significant similarities” noted in the comparisons, including the fact that it “matched the bullets in all class characteristics, including the pistol caliber, rifling type and direction of twist,” according to the court documents.

The bullets also had “unusual marks” left behind by a gas port in the barrel of the gun.

“The combination of 9 mm caliber with polygonal rifling and the presence of a gas port in the barrel is rare, being found only in a small number of pistol models,” the affidavit states.

The Walther CCP is one of those models.

The firearm expert explained to detectives that the differences between the bullets taken from Tuggy’s body and those test-fired by Kowalski’s Walther could have been created if someone cleaned the weapon’s barrel with a steel bore brush sometime after the homicide. When the investigators again spoke to the owner of the store that bought the gun from Kowalski, the man said he had used a steel bore brush to clean it after the purchase.

‘Blood sprayed ‘like a hose’’

Detectives caught up with Kowalski in South Carolina on Monday. After being advised of his Miranda rights, he agreed to talk to them, but he initially denied being more than friends with Tuggy.

His story soon changed.

Editor’s note: The following contains disturbing details of a homicide.

Kowalski admitted that he’d been involved in a sexual relationship with Tuggy.

According to the affidavit, Kowalski told detectives he’d gone to Tuggy’s home around 4 p.m. on Jan. 21, 2016, to watch movies with her. He told the investigators that he’d gone to the bathroom while Tuggy made tea.

Initially, he claimed he’d killed Tuggy accidentally.

“He said that he was taking his coat off and attempting to hang it on the coat rack as Tuggy was walking into the living room from the kitchen,” the affidavit states. “Kowalski stated that he had a gun in his coat pocket, which fell to the floor, discharged and struck Tuggy in the area of the lower left back.”

Kowalski said as Tuggy screamed for help, he picked up the jammed gun and, as he was trying to clear the chamber, it fired a second time, striking his friend in the neck.

“Kowalski stated that blood sprayed ‘like a hose’ from Tuggy,” the detectives wrote. “He stated that he did not attempt to help Tuggy because he knew it was too late.”

Kowalski said he picked up the spent shell casings, locked the deadbolt on the front door and left through the unlocked basement door, disposing of the casings outside a pizza restaurant.

Incredulous detectives told Kowalski that his story of two accidental discharges did not make sense. What he told them next was chilling.

“The truth is, I killed her,” Kowalski said, according to the affidavit. “I killed her because I was depressed, down and hopeless. I was having a mid-life crisis.”

Kowalski said he shot Tuggy in the back, “racked” the gun and shot her again in the neck.

He then told detectives he had a “secret fetish” about watching women in a state of undress.

“He said that he had thought about killing Tuggy prior to the day of the murder,” the affidavit states. “He chose Tuggy because she was an ‘easy target’ that wouldn’t be able to fight back.”

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When he shot her in the back, Kowalski said, Tuggy fell over the arm of her couch. His gun did jam, but he was able to clear the jam.

“He said he then shot her a second time toward the back of the head,” the court records state. “Kowalski stated that he turned Tuggy’s oxygen off to ensure she was dead.”

Kowalski told the detectives he pulled Tuggy’s pants down a bit.

“He said he had initially planned to undress her entirely and take pictures of her, but he was scared to get blood on his clothes,” the affidavit states.

Shapiro, the attorney general, mused on Tuesday about how cold cases leave the families of the victims without any kind of closure, which “can only make their loss more difficult.”

“The Tuggy family has waited too long for justice, but we hope this news helps them heal,” Shapiro said.

Tuggy’s sister, Ruthie Lamb Coverston, wrote on the Ferguson Township Police Department’s Facebook page that the dedication of investigators over the years has given them answers.

“Your determination to find her killer does help our family,” Coverston wrote. “I am finally able to look past all the questions and look forward to when I will see Jeannie again in heaven.

“Thank you to Jeannie’s friends and neighbors and church family. We will always miss her.”