Despite petition, reopening investigation into Penn State student’s death unlikely, DA says

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Centre County’s top prosecutor tempered Tuesday the prospect of reopening the investigation into the November death of a Penn State student who plunged 11 stories down a trash chute at her off-campus apartment.

Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna, whose office reviewed the State College police and county coroner’s office investigation into the death of sophomore Justine Gross, said a new investigation was unlikely absent new evidence or information.

“I’m not aware of any new information that would change the conclusions of the original investigation,” Cantorna said.

Hundreds of people signed an online petition that asked Cantorna to reopen the investigation. It was launched Saturday by Gross’ mother and sister.

Some of Gross’ family members have rejected the investigation’s conclusions, alleging in the petition that investigators relied on “spotty” video footage and did not thoroughly interview the last man who saw her alive.

“Justine’s family members do not believe that she voluntarily went into the trash chute and have asked for Justine’s case to be reopened in the state of Pennsylvania,” Gross’ sister, Jasmine Owarish-Gross, wrote. “... They feel like there are still a lot of gaps that remain in the account of her last night alive.”

Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna during a April 3, 2019, press conference at the Centre County Courthouse Annex.
Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna during a April 3, 2019, press conference at the Centre County Courthouse Annex.

Police in February ruled out foul play. Neither the police department nor the county coroner’s office gathered evidence that Gross’ death was “criminal in nature,” police wrote in a statement.

The 19-year-old from New Jersey fell after a man offered her a blunt inside his seventh-floor apartment at Beaver Terrace, Gross’ mother said in February.

Surveillance video showed her leaving the apartment after about 40 minutes, walking unsteadily. She ran to the 11th floor, rushed into the room with the trash chute and was not seen on video again, Francoise Gross said.

Her cellphone and flip-flops were found in a stairwell. Gross was alone in the hallway in the moments before her fall, police said.

The former captain of her high school cheerleading team and honors student died of blunt force trauma, the Centre County Coroner’s Office said. Her death was ruled accidental.

Autopsy results showed THC — the compound that gives pot its high — and an “elevated” level of alcohol in Gross’ liver tissue at the time of her death, police wrote. The examination, Gross’ mother said, did not check for evidence of sexual misconduct.

No charges were filed.

The Beaver Terrace apartment building on Beaver Avenue on Nov. 12, 2021.
The Beaver Terrace apartment building on Beaver Avenue on Nov. 12, 2021.
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