By Elizabeth Dunbar and Amy Forliti
KASOTA, Minn. — A plainclothes sheriff's deputy shot and killed an unarmed 24-year-old man wearing only swim trunks after an argument ensued when he confronted the man for erratic driving, authorities and witnesses said Tuesday.
Le Sueur County Sheriff's investigator Todd Waldron, 37, shot Tyler Heilman after the two scuffled Monday in Kasota, a town about 60 miles southwest of Minneapolis, when Heilman returned from a day of swimming with friends. Those who saw the argument said it wasn't clear the man he was fighting with was a law enforcement officer.
"This ain't right," said Heilman's father, Mark Heilman. "I think the cop just freaked ... Why didn't he just say 'Freeze' or something? Or shoot him in the leg? He shot to kill ... I think he just flipped."
Authorities said Waldron was working another case and driving an unmarked sport utility vehicle on Monday when he saw Heilman driving a car erratically, and at times speeding, so he followed him. At one point, Heilman drove his car off the road and up an embankment.
Investigators with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension believe Waldron fired four shots. Bureau spokesman Andy Skoogman said Waldron was not in uniform, but he had a sheriff's badge on his belt. Waldron was not working undercover, and Skoogman said authorities are investigating whether the deputy identified himself.
Witnesses give a similar account. Kris Hoehn, who was in the car with Heilman and other friends, said the group was on its way back from a day of swimming at the Minnesota River when they noticed an SUV following them. Hoehn acknowledged the vehicle may have swerved some, and he said Heilman drove up a sledding hill at one point.
Hoehn said the group didn't know Waldron was a deputy. When they arrived at the apartment complex, Waldron asked Heilman for a driver's license, and then the two started arguing, Hoehn said. He said Heilman and the deputy ended up wrestling on the ground.
Heilman ended up on top of Waldron, but got up and "that's when he seen the badge - as he's getting up," Hoehn said. "Then came the gunshots, just as my buddy's hands were going up.
"It was too late. ... We had no idea who he was. If we would have known he was a cop, none of this would've happened," said Hoehn, 24.
Hoehn said Heilman was gasping for breath and said, "I'm done, man. I'm done." He staggered a few feet and fell, face down, on the grass.
It wasn't clear if alcohol played a role in the argument. Tyler Heilman was treated for alcohol abuse while in high school, but his father said he had kicked the problem, though he still drank a little bit. Hoehn said the group of friends had been drinking "a little" on Monday, but not enough to affect Heilman's driving. Authorities are conducting an autopsy, which will include toxicology tests.
Summoned by a friend who heard about the shooting, Heilman's father arrived at the scene moments later to find the area sectioned off by police tape, and his son lying on the ground as firefighters attempted to revive him. Heilman said his son was shot twice in the chest while another bullet grazed his right side, and he made the sign of the cross on his forehead a few times.
"I just knelt down by his head, brushed his head, brushed his scar," Heilman said in a telephone interview, noting that his son had brain surgery in May to remove a blood clot.
Skoogman said Waldron suffered non-life-threatening injuries, but did not elaborate. The incident - from the time Waldron started following Heilman to the shooting - lasted less than 20 minutes, he said. There was no weapon found on Heilman or in his car, Skoogman said.
Waldron, who has been a deputy with the department for 10 years, has been placed on standard paid administrative leave, and the investigation could take six to eight weeks, Skoogman said. The BCA said Waldron has never been disciplined. Waldron's resume indicates he also worked as a jailer with the department. He was promoted to investigator in 2004 and focuses on narcotics, sexual assaults and robberies, Skoogman said.
Waldron also served as a patrol officer with three small-town police departments and has a degree in law enforcement from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He's taken several continuing education training courses, including training in use of deadly force, according to his personnel records.
A working phone number for Waldron could not be found and his parents, whose house he visited on Tuesday, declined comment.
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Heilman acknowledged his son had gotten into past trouble for stealing and getting into fights, but said he had no serious problems in the last five years. Court records show Tyler Heilman has more than a dozen convictions in recent years, mostly from 2004-2006, and mostly for traffic and alcohol violations. He pleaded guilty to burglary in 2004 and also has a petty misdemeanor drug conviction and a misdemeanor assault conviction. His most recent conviction was in 2008 for driving with a suspended license.