TRUMANN, Ark. - A man suspected of fatally shooting an Arkansas policeman during a traffic stop sounded like he was reciting a prayer as the young officer approached his car door, a witness who was in the car told The Associated Press.
"Tonight's the night. Tonight's the night," April Swanner recalled the suspected gunman Jerry Lard saying.
Swanner didn't know what her friend meant until the car door clicked and Lard lunged toward Officer Jonathan Schmidt, shooting him in the neck.
Investigators have named Lard, 37, of Trumann, as the gunman in the Tuesday night shooting. He was under police guard at a hospital recovering from unspecified wounds. Formal charges hadn't been filed late Wednesday.
But before the 30-year-old Schmidt died, he managed to shove his sergeant out of harm's way, said Swanner, who was one of three other people in the car that Schmidt pulled over after a quick license plate check showed the car might not have insurance.
"Jonathan Schmidt is a hero," said Swanner, 30, who went to school with the fallen officer. "He was down and wounded and still picked the other cop up to help."
It's not clear what drove Lard, 37, to shoot at Schmidt and Sgt. Corey Overstreet. Schmidt was patrolling the Delta community of some 7,000 people Tuesday night and pulled over Keith Elumbaugh, 33, of Trumann, authorities said. Overstreet arrived a few minutes later.
Elumbaugh told the AP that, during the traffic stop, he was handcuffed and told he was being held for failing to appear on a misdemeanor warrant. The accusation: he violated the town's leash law with his ex-girlfriend's dog, a Jack Russell terrier and Chihuahua mix named Rascal.
Elumbaugh said Schmidt was smiling and joking with the people in the car — after mispronouncing Elumbaugh's name.
"I'm under arrest and I'm sitting there laughing with the guy," Elumbaugh said.
Schmidt approached the rear passenger door where Lard was sitting, the witnesses told the AP, when Lard pulled out a gun and started firing.
"When he shot him in the neck, the blood started gushing out," Swanner said.
Yet, even with a wound to his neck, Schmidt pushed Overstreet toward safety behind his police car, Swanner and Elumbaugh said. Then, Schmidt turned back toward Lard and began to return fire.
While he was shooting, Elumbaugh said, Lard was cursing at Schmidt, saying "Die, (expletive)!"
"Please don't shoot me. Please don't shoot me," Schmidt cried out, Elumbaugh said.
In several interviews with the AP, Elumbaugh and Swanner said Lard, showed up at Elumbaugh's home Tuesday night and asked for a ride home. Elumbaugh said he didn't know where Lard had been and wouldn't say whether he believed Lard was intoxicated or high or held any animosity toward police officers.
"I'm not going to comment on that," he said.
Swanner, who was in the front seat of the car, said that despite being shot Schmidt was able to keep firing as he fell to the ground.
"Every time I close my eyes, I see it," Swanner said.
A friend of Lard's was in the rear driver's side seat.
Both Elumbaugh and Swanner said they didn't know Lard was armed until the shooting started.
"I was right in the middle of the gunfire," Elumbaugh said. "I had to run away, run out of the line of fire."
"All I saw was everybody run. I couldn't move. I went deaf 'cause the gunshot was right here," Swanner said, putting a hand to one of her ears.
Former and current officers commiserated Wednesday at the 15-officer Trumann police station, describing Schmidt as a dedicated father and committed officer who was always prepared.
Jonathan Skaggs, a former Trumann police officer who recommended Schmidt for the job, said his friend left a higher paying job at a steel mill to join the police force in 2007 in the city where he was raised.
"He said he just wanted to do his part to give back to Trumann," Skaggs said.
Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel visited the town to recognize Schmidt and his loved ones.
"He is absolutely a hero," McDaniel said. "That family has given a great sacrifice to the people of Arkansas. They lost a father, husband, a son. These officers lost a brother to protecting the people of this community."
Schmidt worked as a night patrolman so he could spend days with his three children, Skaggs said. Schmidt had a 12-year-old daughter and sons ages 10 and 18 months.
Schmidt recently received a commendation for saving an infant's life by giving the child mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
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"I'd put Jonathan Schmidt up against almost any cop in the state," Skaggs said.