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Investigators Detail Ind. Police Shooting Tragedy

December 15, 2003
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Investigators Detail Ind. Police Shooting Tragedy

Robbery victim saw events from squad car

By Bryon Coppens, South Bend, Ind. Tribune

MISHAWAKA, INDIANA -- One man alone was responsible for the shooting deaths Saturday of Mishawaka, Ind. police officers Cpl. Thomas Roberts and Patrolman Bryan S. Verkler, according to investigators.

And though he was shot four times by Sgt. Michael Cleveland, the bullet Raymond M. Gilkeson put in his own head following the exchange of gunfire at 1012 Sarah St. proved to be the fatal one.

Investigators and St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak released those and other details about the investigation at a news conference Monday at the County-City Building in South Bend.

Dvorak and Timothy Corbett, the commander of the St. Joseph County Metro Homicide Unit, hailed Roberts and Verkler and the other officers who were at the scene as heroes.

Mayor Robert C. Beutter also was on hand and echoed their comments and extended condolences to the officers' families.

"I think we're all safer and better because of the job they did," Beutter said.

Dvorak and the investigators said the events began at about 12:55 a.m. Saturday, when police were called to a home at 125 E. Battell St. on a report of shots fired.

They learned that the man who had fired the shots had stolen a young man's necklace and fled in a red car to 1012 Sarah St.

They found Gilkeson there, but they did not have positive identification of him as the person who had stolen the young man's necklace.

After bringing the young man to identify Gilkeson, police again approached the porch of the home.

The officers at the house included Verkler, Roberts and Cleveland as well as Lt. John Dawson and Sgt. Joseph Makowski.

As Verkler and Roberts attempted to grab Gilkeson on the porch, he struggled, pulled out a handgun and shot Verkler, Dvorak said.

He said Roberts was shot in the head when he either tried to tackle Gilkeson or take the gun away from him.

Upon hearing the shots fired, Cleveland drew his gun and shot Gilkeson four times as he ran back inside the house.

Cleveland and Dawson then carried Roberts away from the porch.

Verkler managed to run to a nearby alley. He was later taken to Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center in South Bend where he died of his injury while in surgery.

Dvorak said Verkler was shot just above his protective vest and the bullet went through the top left of his lung.

More gunshots were heard inside the home shortly after officers had retreated from the home and called paramedics.

Another officer arriving on the scene saw Gilkeson through a window in the back of the house. The officer broke the window, but Gilkeson, who was sitting in a chair, did not respond.

He had shot himself in the head.

Dvorak said another bullet was shot into the floor of the home, but it was believed Gilkeson had fired the gun in a reflexive action and none of the other seven people inside the house, including children, were injured.

Meanwhile, the young man whose necklace was stolen remained in a police vehicle outside the Sarah Street home and watched the events unfold in horror.

He spoke to The Tribune on Monday at his home, but did not want his name used.

The young man, who is 18 years old, said he was on his way to a friend's house on Grove Street when he drove by the Battell Street home and was waved down by an acquaintance there.

The young man said he got out of the car to talk to the acquaintance for a couple minutes and saw other people sitting on the porch of the home, including Gilkeson whom he did not know.

The young man said Gilkeson approached him acting "like he was all doped up" and put his arm around him.

Gilkeson noticed the necklace the young man was wearing and said he liked it. The young man said he bought the necklace earlier this year at the mall for $39.99.

The young man had just taken the necklace off when Gilkeson snatched it out of his hands and put it on himself, the young man said.

"He's like, 'Hey, this looks pretty good on me.' "

When the young man asked for the necklace back, Gilkeson refused.

The young man again asked for the necklace back as Gilkeson and others got into a car.

The young man said Gilkeson again refused, pulled out a gun and shot it three or four times into the air.

Despite the display, the young man said he tried to physically take the necklace back, but Gilkeson pushed him away and got inside the car which then drove off.

Later, when the young man was sitting in the squad car outside the Sarah Street home, he watched as the officers approached the house where Gilkeson was standing on the porch.

He said saw a flash of gunfire and heard a shot fired.

"I just froze," he said.

The young man said that because there was little light, he could not see who shot whom, but he soon learned when he heard "Officer down! Officer down!" over the radio in the squad car.

He said he then watched as the two officers placed Roberts' body next to the car.

The young man said he does not think any of the officers had their guns drawn when they approached the home to apprehend Gilkeson.

At the news conference Monday, Corbett declined to answer if any of them did.

"I'm not going to get into tactics," Corbett said, adding that the focus at this point should be on the heroism of the officers involved.

He did say the officers were all wearing bullet-resistant vests.

Mike Samp, investigative division chief of the Mishawaka Police Department, added the officers exercised appropriate precautions.

"I know there will be a review of the incident itself because it is department policy to review every incident in which an officer discharges his weapon, but there's nothing at this time to indicate the officers involved did anything inappropriate or anything less than heroic."

Investigators are still waiting for some ballistic test results and a toxicology report, but they expect the case to be closed shortly thereafter.

Samp said the department remains in shock and sorrow over the incident, but is finding strength in the support it is receiving from the community, other police agencies and each other.

How to help:
A fund has been established at MFB Financial branches for financial contributions to the families of the slain officers. The address of the main office in Mishawaka is:

MFB Financial
121 S. Church St.
Mishawaka, IN 46544
Phone: (574) 255-3146

How you can help:

Mishawaka, Ind. Mayor Robert Beutter said the city's flags have been moved to half-staff and he urges businesses and residents to do the same.

He also said citywide holiday flags will be replaced with American flags out of respect for the two officers killed in the line of duty early Saturday.

Residents can show support by adding blue lights to their Christmas window decorations.

The two officers' patrol cars are parked in front of the Mishawaka police station, at 200 N. Church St.

Residents may show respect by placing cards, flowers or any mementos near the vehicles, Beutter said.

South Bend police Capt. Phil Trent echoed Beutter's comments, urging county and South Bend residents to show respect by flying their flags at half-staff.

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