11/07/2007

Robber points gun at N.C. officer; suspect fatally shot

By Stanley B. Chambers Jr.
The News & Observer

DURHAM, N.C. A Durham police officer shot and killed a robbery suspect early Tuesday after he pointed a gun at officers, police said.

Later in the day, Police Chief Jose L. Lopez Sr. said he thinks the officer, B. D. Opitz, made the right decision when he fired.

The slain suspect was one of four in a vehicle that police pursued from East Durham to downtown. Two 16-year-olds were arrested at the scene of the shooting, and police captured a third suspect Tuesday night. As of late Tuesday, police had not disclosed identity of the person who was killed.

Opitz was one of several officers who joined the call for a vehicle pursuit after an attempted armed robbery in East Durham. Police later found out that the vehicle, a 2007 Jeep Commander, had been taken in a carjacking in Raleigh.

The Jeep's owner, Dennis Medley, 45, had returned to his Lexington Drive apartment in Raleigh about 11:20 p.m. when three men approached him.

One pointed a handgun at him. Medley said he immediately recalled that his brother had been fatally stabbed during a robbery in Virginia 14 years ago.

"Kind of a reminder as to how you can think everything's fine and how quickly that can change," Medley said.

The robbers took Medley's wallet, cell phone and the the Jeep, police said. Then they drove to Durham.

About an hour later, Durham undercover officers saw the Jeep being used in an attempted armed robbery of a woman near the intersection of Holloway Street and Guthrie Avenue.

The officers followed the vehicle, described it and called out a "signal 20" the possibility of a dangerous situation over a police radio and requested that uniformed officers respond, according to 911 tapes released Tuesday afternoon.

Officers pursued the vehicle through East Durham. One of the Jeep's tires blew out on Holloway Street. The vehicle then traveled the wrong way on Liberty Street before stopping near the Durham County Library's main branch downtown.

Three suspects got out of the Jeep while one stayed. One of the suspects ran in front of the Jeep, turned and pointed a gun toward the officers, police said.

Opitz fired. At least one bullet hit the suspect in the chest. He was pronounced dead at Duke Hospital.

The two other fleeing suspects Jesus Acre and Steaphan Ascencio Vasquez, both 16 and from Raleigh were caught after a brief foot chase. Nelson Rafael "Luciano" Hernandez, 19, of 3301 Lake Woodard Road, Raleigh, stayed with the Jeep and was caught but was able to kick out a police cruiser's back window and escape. He was arrested in Raleigh on Tuesday night.

Durham police charged the two 16-year-olds with attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon, possession of a stolen vehicle, conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon and resisting, delaying and obstructing officers. Ascencio Vasquez, who police say was driving the stolen vehicle, was also charged with possession of stolen property and various traffic violations. Raleigh police charged the two teenagers with robbery with a dangerous weapon, conspiracy to commit robbery and larceny of a motor vehicle. Both remained in the Durham County jail Tuesday and have combined bail from Durham and Wake counties -- $750,000 for Acre and $800,000 for Ascencio Vasquez.

Rafael Hernandez is charged with possession of a stolen vehicle, attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon, conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon and injury to personal property.

A search of court records showed that Ascencio Vasquez was charged this year with disorderly conduct in Greensboro. Rafael Hernandez has been convicted of larceny, resisting a public officer and several breaking and entering charges.

Durham investigators are trying to determine how Rafael Hernandez escaped and whether Opitz followed department procedures. The State Bureau of Investigation, which conducts an inquiry whenever a law enforcement officer shoots someone, will look into whether Opitz committed any crimes during the incident, Lopez said.

Opitz, who joined the department in 2005, was placed on administrative duty with pay, which is standard in officer-involved shootings. "I'm hopeful that the community is patient in allowing the SBI to conduct their investigation," Lopez said. "This was not a win-win situation."

Copyright 2007 The News & Observer

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