Driven by heroin addiction, an otherwise well-liked and intelligent Jess D. Keck, 29, of Whitneyville, went on a weeklong robbery spree across the city last October.
He was sentenced Tuesday to seven to 14 1/2 years in state prison and five years consecutive probation by Judge Marc F. Lovecchio.
Between Oct. 7 and 14, 2013, Keck held convenience store clerks at gunpoint and robbed the following establishments: Nittany Minit Mart, 1430 E. Third St.; Uni-Mart, 1944 W. Fourth St.; and the Smokes-To-Go outlets at 1930 Lycoming Creek Road and 1725 E. Third St.
"When I heard (Keck was arrested for robbery), I couldn't believe it. That's not the (Keck) I know. Without this heroin, (Keck) never would have committed these crimes," Keck's longtime friend Chris Kurby testified.
Keck's crimes blind-sided the dozens of friends and family members who packed the courtroom to support him at the sentencing hearing. They described Keck as "responsible," "gentle" and "soft-spoken," and begged Lovecchio to consider rehabilitation over incarceration.
Keck's victims, on the other hand, asked Lovecchio to throw the book at him. The clerks said that memories of the robbery have made them afraid to come to work. One wrote that she now "feels uncomfortable every time the bell rings when a customer comes through the door."
"They threaten your life for some money. I feel that person shouldn't be allowed freedom and should be given the maximum punishment," one victim wrote in her statement.
None of the victims attended the sentencing, although Keck told Lovecchio he wished they had.
"What would you tell those people if they were here today?" Lovecchio asked Keck.
"I would tell them I can't express how sorry I am," Keck said. "I try to imagine myself in their shoes - what it would be like to have someone do to me what I did to them - and it's terrifying."
Keck has no significant prior criminal record and chalks up his crimes to fear.
"I was scared and couldn't think of anything else to do. I didn't know how to tell people what was going on with my life," Keck said.
Even Keck's mother didn't know he had a heroin problem - until he was arrested for armed robbery.
"He hid it so well," Keck's mother Theresa Gile said. "Responsibility was at the top of his list. No one knew this was going on in his life. If we have known, we would have done something about it."
Gile said she was proud of her son because he confessed to his crimes.
"Confession: that's what a good man does with his conscience," Giles said.
Lovecchio expressed his sympathy to Giles and told her, "You have to remember this with addition: you didn't cause it, you can't cure it and you can't control it."
Keck's first exposure to opiates was at age 27, when his gas industry co-workers offered him the prescription painkiller percocet.
"The gas industry brought many great things to our community. People went from dirt poor farmers to driving Cadillacs. But it also brought drugs," Keck's Uncle Wade Gile testified. "I know that one pill on a well platform can lead to prison."
When Keck's company began laying off workers, his percocet supply diminished and he turned to snorting heroin. He eventually developed a $50-per-day intravenous heroin habit. When he was laid off from work too, he had no funds to support his expensive addiction.
Whereas typical heroin addicts might fund their habit by stealing from a relative or selling stolen scrap metal, resorting to armed robbery is extremely uncommon, Assistant District Attorney Martin Wade argued.
"I've met dozens of heroin addicts and rarely do you see a heroin addict who will put a gun to someone's head once, let alone four times in one week," Wade said.
Lovecchio agreed Keck's crimes were more severe.
"There was a higher degree of risk, danger and sophistication. There was planning. There was a danger beyond the typical offense of simply taking things to get money," Lovecchio said.
While Lovecchio said he accepted Keck's remorse, calling it "palpable," he still believed Keck must be held accountable for his actions.
"The impact to these victims was life-altering," Lovecchio said.