Tex. deputy wounded in gunbattle

Civillian on "ride along" program radioed for help and fired shotgun at fleeing suspect.

By Cindy Horswell and Kevin Mora
The Houston Chronicle

SAN JACINTO, Tex. — After an early morning gunbattle that left a suspect dead, a San Jacinto County deputy wounded and a "ride along" companion distraught, two mysteries remain: what provoked the confrontation and who fired the fatal shot.

Residents in the Trails End subdivision about 50 miles north of Houston, awakened by barking dogs about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, watched in helpless terror as a deputy was run over and dragged 60 feet by a suspect he had stopped for driving without headlights.

The suspect, Dustin Klander, 24, who authorities said fought with and exchanged gunfire with the deputy, was found dead six blocks away, slumped over the steering wheel of his sport utility vehicle, which ran off the road near his home. Patrol deputy Sean Barnes suffered broken bones and a bullet wound to his hand that could cause him to lose a finger.

The incident lasted less than 25 seconds.

As investigators examine the patrol car's videotape and statements to reconstruct the deadly confrontation, their best witness may also be the hero.

Civilian Lee Ann Abernathy, of Coldspring, was participating in the sheriff's civilian "ride along" program when the stop turned violent. Abernathy, who had previous training in law enforcement, radioed for help, then jumped from the car and used the deputy's shotgun to fire at the fleeing suspect.

Abernathy showed tremendous courage under fire, San Jacinto County Sheriff Lacy Rogers said. He noted she had worked for him as a jailer for two years before being hired by the state.

"I think her actions may have saved my deputy's life," Rogers said. "But right now she feels very distraught about what's happened."

Until an autopsy is performed on Klander, investigators can't be sure whether Abernathy or Barnes fired the fatal shot.

What started the incident also is unclear, the sheriff said. The Texas Rangers did recover a small stash of marijuana from Klander's SUV and the sheriff said records show the suspect had a history of resisting arrest.

Harris County records show Klander was convicted in 2001 of assault causing bodily injury and possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana. He was placed on probation for a year and fined $200 on the marijuana charge. He was sentenced to two years in jail on the assault charge but given deferred adjudication.

In May 2003, Klander was sentenced to nine months in jail for violating his probation. The records did not give any details of the assault.

Abernathy could not be reached for comment about the shootout. Her supervisors at the Polunksy prison in Livingston, where she has worked as a correctional officer the past four months, have given her a few days off to recuperate.

Witness Kimberly Bell, who was home with her two sons and watched the confrontation through her window, said it began after the deputy frisked Klander and tried to cuff his hands behind his back.

"They began to struggle and it went downhill from there," she said. Klander "was a little bigger and stouter, and he hit the officer to the ground a couple of times."

Then the suspect ran to the driver's side of his vehicle where, investigators think, he retrieved his handgun.

"That's when I heard the first shot," Bell said.

Another neighbor, Gilbert Wilmot, a maintenance worker at Splendora High School, heard the dogs and witnessed the same thing.

After shots were fired, Klander jumped in his vehicle and backed it over the deputy, dragging him half a block before fleeing, Wilmot said.

Rogers said he feels sorry for Klander's family.

"I talked to his parents and they are good people. This is sad," he said.

Copyright 2007 The Houston Chronicle

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