Douglas County District Attorney Rick Wesenberg said Thursday that a Douglas County grand jury concluded that the use of deadly force by each officer involved in a shootout on March 9 in the Green District was justified.
The shootout happened after police tried to stop a vehicle coming out of Love’s Truck Stop onto Grant Smith Road, and a short chase ended in a gun battle in a field at the east end of the road. The car caught fire and burned.
The investigation found there were human remains in the car, but the body still has not been identified.
“After careful and thoughtful deliberation, the grand jury concluded that the use of deadly force by each of the officers involved was justified,” Wesenberg said.
Wesenberg showed video of the shootout that was taken by a citizen that showed flashes from the rifles coming from the shooter in the car and from the law enforcement officers returning fire and the loud pops of many shots being fired.
He detailed the timeline of the incident, which started with a stolen car from a Walmart store in Eugene.
On Thursday, March 7, Gary Swindler, of Eugene, drove his 2005 black Subaru Outback to the store and while walking inside, he accidentally dropped his car keys.
“An unknown male is seen on video surveillance picking up the keys and walking through the parking lot presumably clicking the button to see which car is going to light up,” Wesenberg said.
The male is then seen getting into Swindler’s car and driving away. Swindler reported the car stolen and told Eugene police he had two weapons in the car, including an AK-47 style rifle that had a 75-round drum magazine and a Glock 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
On March 9, at about 6 p.m., Douglas County dispatch received a call from a Wesley Edwards, who was at Love’s Truck Stop, and said he had located his friend’s car that had been stolen earlier in Eugene. Edwards reported that two people got into the Subaru Outback after they had been in Arby’s and fueled the car.
Wesenberg said police responded to the truck stop just as the suspect was leaving and pulling onto Grant Smith Road. Officers pursued the vehicle as it took a left turn out of the driveway. The car slowed and police saw the passenger jump out the right side of the car. The man, who was later identified as Sabre Eddings, was detained but later determined to not be involved. He had apparently met the driver of the Subaru just a few hours before.
Corp. Dan Schwenn, Deputy Brent Everett, both of the sheriff’s office, and Oregon State Police Trooper Sam Clayton all got there at about the same time. They pursued the Subaru which veered onto a gravel driveway near the old Starlight Drive-in location.
“The Subaru travels onto the field and turns to reverse direction and gets stuck,” Wesenberg said. “Schwen drives into the field and his patrol car also gets stuck and they’re separated by less than 50 yards.”
Wesenberg described the events that led to the shootout and car fire.
Schwenn assumed the driver was going to get out and flee on foot, so he jumped out of his car and ran toward the Subaru ordering the driver to show his hands.
“Schwenn sees something come out of the driver’s side window and the muzzle flash of gunfire. He sees the first round hit the ground in front of the Subaru and each round was getting closer and closer to Corp. Schwenn. He knew right then and there, the driver was trying to kill him,” Wesenberg said.
Schwenn then ran to the right and aimed his rifle at the Subaru and returned fire.
“(Schwenn) knew if he kept running toward the Subaru, he would surely be killed, and he’s in an open field and there is no cover,” Wesenberg said. “He knows the bullets are still flying at him, he can hear them and literally feel the heat as they’re passing him. He shoots all the rounds from his rifle.”
Clayton had run toward the Subaru with his weapon to try to help Schwenn. Clayton then heard gunfire coming out of the Subaru, so he ran back to his car, while hearing rounds from the AK-47 whizzing over his head.
Clayton retrieved his sniper rifle and through his scope, he could see the shooter in the car, so he fired three times but still saw movement from within the vehicle.
Meanwhile, Deputy Erik Johnson and Dep. Chelsea Thomas arrived at the scene and actually moved through the line of fire.
“During those harrowing moments, they have no choice but to speed through the line of fire in an attempt to get some cover,” Wesenberg said.
Once they found cover at a barn, Johnson said he could see the silhouette of the shooter and fired his rifle three times.
Then Lt. Jerry Tilley and Sgt. Andrew Scriven arrived at the scene and knew that Schwenn and Clayton were in immediate danger out in the open field. Both fired shots into the Subaru. The car began to smoke and burn and the officers form a tactical team to rescue Schwenn and Clayton from the field.
Wesenberg said at that point, it was determined that there is no longer an immediate danger and the scene was secured.
The Douglas County Medical Examiner removed human remains from the car and sent them to Portland for an autopsy.
Oregon State Medical Examiner Dr. Rebecca Millius determined that the shooter died before the fire started in the car. She also determined there appeared to be gunshot wounds on the torso, but she could not determine which, if any, particular shots were fatal.
Roseburg police are still trying to determine the identity of the shooter. Police have a photo of the man from a security camera at Walmart in Eugene.
“While we do not know who this individual was, we do know absolutely what his intent was,” Wesenberg said. “He wanted to escape arrest that day, and he was willing to murder as many police officers that it took to make that happen, and it is only through providence that he did not succeed.”
Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin said the incident demonstrates the inherent dangers that law enforcement officers are faced with every day.
“I commend the courageous actions of these officers as a harrowing shootout unfolded,” Hanlin said. “It was only after the suspect started shooting at officers that they were forced to end his threatening behavior with deadly physical force. They responded exactly the way we expected them to respond, and exactly the way they had to, to protect their own lives and to protect the lives of nearby citizens.”
Lt. Steve Mitchell of the Oregon State Police said he was pleased the way the different agencies worked together.
“The description of the events that unfolded on March 9 is a testament of how well the law enforcement agencies work together in our community,” Mitchell said. “The response and actions by all law enforcement involved in this event demonstrate our commitment to ensure the safety of the public.”
Reporter Dan Bain can be reached at 541-957-4221 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.