Jamaican immigrant Peter Bernardo Spencer was killed on a cabin trip. His family vows to uncover the truth.

·National Reporter & Producer
·7 min read
Peter Bernardo Spencer, left; with fiancée Carmela King, right
Peter Bernardo Spencer, left; with fiancée Carmela King, right. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: courtesy Spencer family [2])

Peter Bernardo Spencer, a Jamaican immigrant who lived in Pittsburgh with his (now pregnant) fiancée, loved nature so much that his friends and family say he would walk up to wild animals in the woods and pet them.

“He was a force of nature,” his brother, Tehilah Spencer, told Yahoo News.

So when a former co-worker invited Spencer, 29, on a cabin trip in December, he jumped at the chance, his family recalled. Little did he know it would be his last excursion.

Just hours after Spencer was dropped off by his fiancée at the cabin in Rockland Township, Pa., about 80 miles north of Pittsburgh, police were called to the home. At about 2:30 a.m., officers discovered Spencer dead on the cabin’s lawn with “apparent gunshot wounds,” according to the police report. The Venango County coroner said he had been shot nine times.

Pennsylvania state trooper vehicle
Pennsylvania state trooper vehicle. (Getty Images)

Four men, one of whom was Spencer’s former co-worker, were found at the home unharmed. Spencer’s family said he did not know the other three men at the cabin prior to his arrival. Spencer was the only Black man in the group, according to his family, who called his death a “modern-day lynching.”

There had allegedly been a confrontation between Spencer and the men at the cabin, according to police. According to Spencer’s family, his former co-worker, who has not been identified by officials, admitted to killing him, but said the shooting was in self-defense.

Spencer’s family says they have little faith that officials are giving this case the attention it deserves. Instead, as more details are revealed, the family feels that law enforcement is bracing for the worst.

“Something about this case is different,” Tehilah said. “They don’t want another George Floyd. They want to sweep it under the rug.”

“Confidence in the legitimacy of this investigation went out the door pretty much immediately, as soon as they didn’t charge anybody,” said Paul Jubas, a Pittsburgh civil rights attorney who is advising the family. “We have no other option, and everybody, quite frankly, has no other option, but to look at this investigation as extraordinarily skeptical and suspicious.”

The dome of the Pennsylvania State Capitol
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Cyril Wecht, a renowned forensic pathologist who is also advising Spencer’s family, questions the idea that Spencer could have been killed in self-defense. Wecht told the Philadelphia Inquirer that, after studying the autopsy report, he believes many of the bullets that entered Spencer’s body came from behind him.

“My initial thought is that it’s absurd to talk about self-defense with nine gunshot wounds,” said Wecht, who has also investigated the deaths of President John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley and JonBenét Ramsey. Wecht told the Daily Mail that Spencer’s wounds are consistent with “someone who got hunted down, which is absolutely horrifying.”

Pennsylvania State Police say they also found multiple guns, drugs and “ballistic evidence” at the cabin. The four men were detained and questioned, but eventually released after consultation with the Venango County district attorney’s office.

Neither the district attorney’s office nor the Pennsylvania State Police returned multiple requests from Yahoo News for comment, but the police said in a press release earlier this month that investigators are still awaiting the results of a toxicology report on Spencer’s body.

“The PSP is committed to seeking justice for all parties involved and requests the public to remain patient until all forensic updates have been received and evaluated,” the release read in part.

Pennsylvania state police
Pennsylvania State Police in riot gear in 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Venango County District Attorney D. Shawn White issued his own statement last week that was shared with Yahoo News on Monday, saying his office is "committed to provide this information publicly to the media and the family of Mr. Spencer in an ethical, timely, and responsible fashion.” White added: “Accordingly, the need for public information must be tempered with the obligation of our office to conduct a complete and thorough investigation.”

White also addressed the family’s concern that Spencer's race was connected to the shooting.

“This office also takes seriously any possibility that a crime may be fueled by hatred toward a person because of their race, color, religion, or national origin,” his statement read. “Rest assured, the Venango County District Attorney’s Office will take every measure to ensure that justice is sought wherever it may be found.”

But for the family of Spencer, six weeks after his killing, patience is running out.

His brother, Tehilah, recalled that one of the officers on the case told him that “someone had to play the hero.”

“[The officer] made him sound like he was an animal and that someone had to put him down,” said Tehilah.

Pennsylvania state trooper car
Pennsylvania state trooper car. (Getty Images)

Jubas, the lawyer, told Yahoo News that the details of this case are unprecedented, particularly because of Pennsylvania’s felony murder law.

According to Jubas, all four men should have been arrested and charged because illegal drugs were found at the cabin where a man was killed. He called the case a “slam dunk.”

“If you have all this contraband that's discovered by law enforcement at this scene, along with this dead body, with nine bullets in it, with what appears to be no other injuries to other parties, you have an absolute slam dunk,” Jubas said. “This is the easiest conviction of your life in a high-profile case on every single one of those defendants. So there is no excuse as to why you would not charge somebody.”

For many critics of how the police handled the case, the details of Spencer’s death are eerily similar to those of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old Black man who was murdered by three white men while on a jog in Brunswick, Ga., on Feb. 23, 2020. The three men weren't arrested and charged with murder until months after Arbery’s death, after widespread social media outcry and cellphone video of the pursuit was revealed.

Venango County, where Spencer was found, has a population of about 55,000 residents. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 1.1 percent of its population is Black.

Spencer’s family has created two GoFundMe campaigns, one by his fiancée and the other by Tehilah, to investigate the case themselves. The family has already hired their own private investigator and obtained their own independent autopsy.

Those closest to Spencer remember him as a hard worker with big dreams. He was a self-taught construction worker with experience working on major projects, his family said.

“He wanted the American dream for himself,” Tehilah said. “He was always trying to improve himself.”

Peter Bernardo Spencer (Family photo)
Peter Bernardo Spencer (Family photo)

Some family members called Spencer “the mad scientist” for his propensity for taking things apart and putting them back together.

Icilda Spencer-Henry, his mom, said her son encouraged everyone around him to be their best selves.

“My son was not perfect, but he did not like anyone around him who did not work,” Spencer-Henry told the Gleaner, Jamaica’s oldest newspaper. “He worked hard, and he was always encouraging others, motivating them to do better.”

Tehilah said the family just wants accountability.

“You can’t treat a human being like this and think you’re going to get away with it,” Tehilah said, followed by a long pause and deep sigh. “They messed with the wrong family.”

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Family photo (2)