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Troubled life defines Delco man killed by police

Fights with his mother, landlord, bouncers, and police, and anger at religious leaders and society in general, marred the last few years of Joseph A. Pacini's life.

Joseph A. Pacini in 2011. (photo via Facebook)
Joseph A. Pacini in 2011. (photo via Facebook)Read more

Fights with his mother, landlord, bouncers, and police, and anger at religious leaders and society in general, marred the last few years of Joseph A. Pacini's life.

And he may have been battling Huntington's disease, a disabling, hereditary neurological disorder that, friends say, hastened his downward spiral.

A day after Pacini died in a hail of police gunfire when he tried to ram an officer's car in a Drexel Hill neighborhood, a fuller picture began to emerge Wednesday of the 52-year-old Clifton Heights man.

Police said that while they were seeking a mental health evaluation, they had no knowledge Tuesday, when Pacini was confronted with a warrant, that he may have suffered from Huntington's.

His family had long feared the worst.

"We don't know for sure that [Huntington's] was the diagnosis," a family member said. "But we suspected."

Pacini grew up in Delaware County, took several tries to complete college, and had bounced between the Philadelphia area and Florida in recent years, according to friends and the details of his life he shared online.

He called himself "a business owner in professional services," and may once have had success as a recruiter in the pharmaceutical industry.

He was also a bodybuilder and a gym rat, and it was a visit to the gym Sunday that launched the string of events that led to his death.

According to an affidavit filed in District Court in Haverford Township, Robert Marino, a patron at LA Fitness on West Chester Pike, called police Sunday after a disturbing conversation with Pacini. Marino said Pacini, who previously had crowed that he was being watched by the FBI and once had been sentenced to two life terms in prison, told him that he was going to "take some FBI people out" and that he would "grab a squat bar and start hitting people."

That, friends said, was Huntington's disease talking. A rare brain disorder that can affect physical mobility and ability to reason, the disease plagued Pacini terribly, they said.

"It is very often confused with schizophrenia, especially with those who do have the mental disorder predominant in the beginning," said Louise Vetter, chief executive officer of the Huntington's Disease Society of America.

"Paranoia, anxiety, really, really strong fixation on things," Vetter said.

Over the years, Pacini's friends suffered along with him.

"My heart is broken," said Lauren Vachon, 43, of Grays Ferry, who said she had known Pacini for more than 20 years.

The two had talked about marriage, but she wanted children and he didn't want to pass the disease on, she said.

"I knew for a fact he had the blood test," said Vachon, adding that Pacini never officially told his family its results. "He was a proud Italian man."

Pacini's father, who family members said had Huntington's, committed suicide when Pacini was 21, Vachon said. Pacini's paternal grandmother, she said, also had been diagnosed with it, as well as Pacini's younger sister.

Vachon said she started to notice changes in Pacini's behavior 17 years ago, around the time they broke up, she said. He married another woman and later divorced. He then moved to a duplex he owned in South Philadelphia and started to renovate it, she said, but never finished.

"That is when he became a different person," Vachon said. He had a hard time keeping a job and moved to Florida to be with a girlfriend. He was committed for mental health treatment while there, she said. When he returned, he moved in with his mother.

Lately, Vachon said, she had noticed changes in his speech and mobility: "I could see his motor skills were way off."

Anthony Giello, a friend of Pacini's who said he had known him for more than 30 years, said he had noticed that Pacini had gotten "very delusional."

The men used to socialize and worked as bouncers at bars in Upper Darby and Ardmore. He was in Pacini's wedding, Giello said, adding, "I loved him like a brother."

In the last year, Pacini began to talk more openly about the FBI and CIA following him, Giello said.

"He wasn't a violent person," he said, "and he didn't own a gun."

Tragic end

On Tuesday, Haverford Township police went to Pacini's home in Clifton Heights to serve a warrant for recent public threats against law enforcement. Pacini, however, had just left in his Nissan.

Police followed and stopped him at Shadeland Avenue and Garrett Road in Drexel Hill.

On Wednesday, Michael Chitwood, police superintendent in Upper Darby, gave this account of Tuesday's events, as provided by two of his officers:

After being stopped by police, Pacini was ordered by Clifton Heights Police Chief Tim Rockenbach to get out of his car. In response, Pacini started yelling and drove in reverse into the chief's unmarked cruiser.

He then left a two-foot patch of burned rubber on the road as he attempted to speed away. Autopsy results are pending, but preliminary information, Chitwood said, indicated that the five responding officers fired at least 22 shots at Pacini as he tried to leave the scene.

Chitwood said the officers who fired included one from Haverford, two from Upper Darby, and two from Clifton Heights. He did not name the officers or say who fired the fatal shot.

At the scene, it appeared as if Pacini was shot in the neck and both shoulders, but Chitwood was not certain that was the extent of the injuries.

"From my perspective, based on everything I know, I think the shooting was justifiable," Chitwood said. "As unfortunate as it may be, and as tragic as it is, people should understand, police don't like to be shooting at people and killing people."

No weapon was found on Pacini or in his vehicle, Chitwood said, and police have no information indicating Pacini owned a firearm.

Long history

That Pacini was capable of causing trouble was not new to police.

Court records show Pacini was arrested in Philadelphia twice in the last decade, most recently in February 2009. That resulted in a guilty plea to disorderly conduct in April 2009, dismissed on appeal that August.

In that incident, police arrested Pacini when he was thrown out of a bar after an altercation with a bouncer.

He had also been charged in 2005 with terroristic threats, possessing instruments of crime, simple assault, false imprisonment, and recklessly endangering another person, but those charges were all withdrawn.

In that case, according to court records, a dispute between Pacini and the landlord of his apartment on Pine Street in Philadelphia escalated into a confrontation at the landlord's office on Walnut Street.

Records show Pacini also was troubled in December 2013, when his mother contacted Clifton Heights police to report a domestic disturbance. She "sought assistance in dealing with his outbursts," records show.

Self-published book

Friends said Pacini was a graduate of Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield, Delaware County. He studied business at Rosemont College until 1998, when, his Facebook page states, he left the school. It is unclear whether he received a degree.

In 2012, he self-published a book, Roman Catholicism: From Confusion to Understanding, that he said he wrote to help Christians explore and understand the truth about religion.

"We set out to discover and prove a two-thousand-year historically significant underworld organization," he wrote, "with a long history of corruption, murder, deceit, illusion, and power plays to support imperialism and authoritarianism."

In December 2012, Pacini founded a group on Facebook called the Spiritual Life First Foundation. He described it as "dedicated to creating a clear pathway to understanding the universal truth directly from God, The One."

Despite all the trouble Pacini created, Vachon and Giello said that police could have handled things differently and that there was no need to kill Pacini.

"This was a man who suffered from a rare mental disease," Vachon said.

Police said they had hoped an arrest would eventually lead to Pacini's being referred to Mental Health Court.

Giello recalled that about two years ago, Pacini enrolled at Drexel University to study marketing, but did not finish.

But he never stopped going to the gym, Giello said.

"It was the only thing he didn't give up."

About Huntington's Disease

Huntington's disease progresses differently in different people, but the outcome is grim for everyone afflicted.

The illness is caused by a genetic mutation, and those with a parent who has Huntington's have a 50 percent chance of developing it.

The disease slowly kills the brain, usually within 15 to 20 years of its emergence. It will eventually affect a person's motor function, intellectual capacity, and emotional state. But it isn't consistent in which part of the brain it attacks first.

There is little that can be done for the 30,000 Americans suffering from the illness, and some people with parents who have Huntington's choose not to be tested for the disease. They would rather not know.

Recent years have seen progress in research, said Louise Vetter, chief executive officer of the Huntington's Disease Society of America.

There are 10 pharmaceutical companies doing research to effectively slow or stop the progress of the illness. Those treatments, Vetter said, could begin being available in five years.

- Jason LaughlinEndText