SWIFTWATER, Pa. - Both were fathers of three, one in pursuit of the other as their speeding cars dodged and weaved through the Poconos Sunday night, on opposite life paths.

Pennsylvania State Trooper Joshua Miller, in the words of his commander, was "one of our shining stars, a top gun" of his Monroe County barracks here, a man who received commendations at least weekly for his work.

Daniel M. Autenrieth was out of work and wrestling with drugs, court records say. Consumed by domestic strife, he had snatched his 9-year-old son Sunday evening and, as police gave chase, fled with the boy at high speed, armed with a gun.

Both lives ended dramatically in a point-blank shoot-out along Route 611 near Tobyhanna. After a 40-mile chase involving at least nine police vehicles, Miller, 34, had finally forced Autenrieth, 31, into a guardrail, prompting gunfire through a broken car window that killed both men and wounded a second trooper.

While the bullets were flying, two other officers on the opposite side pulled the 9-year-old, unharmed, from the passenger side of his father's car.

"What happened . . . is nothing short of an American tragedy," said Col. Frank Pawlowski, commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police. "An individual embroiled in a domestic dispute, for some reason, chose to escalate the violence. It resulted in a hero losing his life, a wife losing her husband, and three children losing a loving father."

Miller, a trooper since 2002, was shot in the upper chest and right thigh. He was flown to Lehigh Valley Hospital outside Allentown, where he died.

Autenrieth, of Palmer in Northampton County, was shot eight times and died at the scene.

Trooper Robert Lombardo, 35, was wounded in his side below an arm. He was released yesterday afternoon from Community Medical Center in Scranton and was recovering at home.

Investigators are still reviewing video from cameras attached to the police cars but said it appeared that Autenrieth fired first. The cameras also captured much of the high-speed chase, described by Pawlowski as "sheer havoc."

Nonetheless, the commissioner said, "we are convinced that the actions of our troopers and the local police saved the life of a 9-year-old boy."

Autenrieth, separated since February, had snatched the boy at gunpoint after quarreling with his estranged wife during a court-sanctioned visitation exchange in Nazareth Borough about 7:45 p.m.

Instead of returning the boy and his two younger sisters at curbside, Autenrieth had entered his wife's home, in apparent violation of a protection-from-abuse order. He had a handgun, also in violation of the protection order, police said.

Authorities are still investigating particulars of the quarrel, but said Autenrieth had brandished the gun and fled with the boy. The mother called Nazareth police, who began chasing him, soon to be joined by Miller, Lombardo, and others.

The chase "became increasingly dangerous" as Autenrieth's 2006 Honda Civic blew through intersections and forced other cars to the side of the roads, said State Police Lt. Robert Bartal, who is investigating. Police did not say exactly how fast Autenrieth's car was going. Efforts to block it or puncture his tires with obstacles failed.

In Coolbaugh Township, Miller managed to tap the rear driver's side of the Honda with his cruiser, sending Autenrieth into what police called a "controlled spin." The Honda skidded completely around, stopping beside a guardrail, which blocked the driver's door from opening.

Miller and Lombardo raced from their cruisers, hurtled the guardrail, and ran to the driver's side. They smashed the driver's window, trying to get to Autenrieth, police said.

Gunfire then erupted from "literally inches, not even feet," Pawlowski said. Simultaneously, a third trooper and a Tatamy Borough officer broke the passenger window and pulled the boy to safety.

Pawlowski said the troopers had "felt that this child was at risk. Sometimes quick, aggressive action to surprise an individual - you hope it will carry the day. . . . It was a split-second decision, made by these troopers, to aggressively extract this individual."

Autenrieth's gun was not his, police said. State and federal authorities are looking into who purchased it late last month, and how it got into his hands.

Police are also investigating the source of his anger.

His wife, Susan, had filed for a protection order in November, saying he had been abusing cocaine and was entering rehabilitation treatment. The rehab stay was confirmed by a fax from a hospital in New Jersey.

The couple separated on Feb. 15, and she filed for divorce March 2, alleging that he was unstable and had stalked and harassed her.

Autenrieth, in turn, filed court papers accusing his wife of drug abuse, untreated mental illness, and physical abuse of their son. Still, he contested the divorce.

Other records showed an ongoing foreclosure action on Autenrieth's house in Easton, and lawsuits over credit-card debt totaling almost $10,000.

In responses, Autenrieth blamed the debt on recent unemployment. The records did not indicate his line of work.

Miller, in contrast, was vastly respected by his peers and the community, including Pittston, where he lived, said his troop commander, Capt. James Murtin.

"The best way to describe him is as one of our shining stars, a top gun," Murtin said. "He was a friend and brother to everybody."

Murtin said he often joked "that I could crash my computer sending him e-mails for every good thing he does that is reported to me. Sending him commendations was a weekly, if not daily, event."

One such commendation, Murtin said, remains on his desk, unsent.

Contact staff writer Larry King
at 215-345-0446 or lking@phillynews.com.