Investigation to dissect how handcuffed suspect shot Mo. cop underway
Police found and seized a 9 mm handgun from Chad Klahs before putting him in Officer Ryan O’Connor’s car, but he kept a .40 caliber hidden
By Christine Byers
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ARNOLD, Mo. — Officer Ryan O’Connor drove a handcuffed prisoner to police headquarters Tuesday just as he has done hundreds of times in his 20-year career in law enforcement.
It’s likely that O’Connor, another officer, or maybe even both, patted down the prisoner, Chad Klahs, before putting him in O’Connor’s police SUV, just as they had hundreds of others in their custody.
Klahs had just stolen a gun from a home he had burglarized, police said. The officers found and seized a 9 mm handgun from Klahs before putting him in O’Connor’s car.
But the gun Klahs stole from the home was a .40 caliber. He fired it to break into a car on an auto lot while running from police. Inside the car, police say, he found a 9 mm handgun. That was the gun officers found when they arrested him at a gas station and put him in handcuffs.
But he kept the .40 caliber hidden, police said.
And on Tuesday, Klahs’ decision to shoot O’Connor with that second gun before fatally shooting himself proved how even the most mundane of tasks officers do every day can mean the difference between life and death.
It’s a scenario many officers, especially those with long careers, have come close to facing themselves, Jefferson County Sheriff David Marshak said.
“At some point, this incident will require an honest introspection into our safety practices,” Marshak said. “It will be necessary not for the purposes of blame, but for the purposes of enhancing policies, procedures and safety practices so this doesn’t happen again,”
Meanwhile, the Arnold police department has asked the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the shooting as well as conduct the internal affairs investigation into how Klahs was able to conceal the gun, shoot O’Connor and himself — all while handcuffed.
Law enforcement family
O’Connor, 44, a married father of four boys, ages 4, 6, 11 and 17, is now clinging to life in critical but stable condition at St. Anthony’s Hospital with a traumatic brain injury.
He survived surgery Tuesday, but in a press release issued Wednesday, Arnold Chief Robert Shockey said O’Connor had a “long road to recovery and his condition could change by the hour.”
His wife, Barb O’Connor, said: “He is the most amazing, dedicated, loyal police officer, father and husband.”
Barb O’Connor is active among the St. Louis Area Police Wives Association and has sat with other spouses of killed or wounded officers many times before, friends said.
Ryan O’Connor’s father, Tom O’Connor, retired in 2012 as chief of the Maryland Heights Police Department, where he had served for 27 years. He also worked for the Illinois State Police and St. Louis police.
Current Maryland Heights Chief Bill Carson was unavailable for an interview Wednesday, but wrote: “We all know Tom was very proud of Ryan.”
Ryan O’Connor also served with the Ferguson police during months of civil unrest there in 2014. He joined Arnold three years ago.
O’Connor is the brother-in-law of a current Maryland Heights police officer, Carson wrote.
“We were all deeply saddened when we learned of the horrific assault and injury inflicted upon Officer Ryan O’Connor. … This impacts all of our employees,” Carson wrote. “Our heart goes out to the O’Connor family and we wish Ryan a speedy recovery.”
Gov. Eric Greitens visited O’Connor and his family at the hospital Wednesday.
University of Missouri-St. Louis Criminologist David Klinger points out that the national Officer Down Memorial Page has many examples of officers who have been fatally injured by handcuffed prisoners, some of whom weren’t even armed.
The database includes St. Louis Police Officer Bob Stanze, who was fatally shot by a handcuffed prisoner sitting inside a police car in 2000.
What’s not there are the many times when similar encounters didn’t end tragically because the suspect didn’t use their hidden weapon.
Klinger said that when he was a Los Angeles Police officer 35 years ago he once missed a small knife attached to a key chain during a search and his partner once missed a gun inside a woman’s purse.
But luckily, Klinger emphasized, those suspects chose not to use them against Klinger or his partner.
“Missing a weapon in a search is not that uncommon,” he said. “Officers miss guns and they die. Officers miss guns and suspects die. And officers miss guns and nothing bad happens.”
It’s a stark reality for police that out of the thousands of arrests made every day in this country, a hidden gun on a suspect can be missed, Klinger said.
“I can tell you I’ve interviewed officers from all over the country who have been involved in shootings, and it doesn’t have to be a cop who gets hurt, it could be a bystander or even the suspects, and officers will put themselves through the ringer about, ‘What could I have done differently?
“But the reality is, no one should shoot a police officer.”
Marshak, too, recalled his own close encounter as a rookie policeman in Pine Lawn 26 years ago. He was transporting three prisoners who had all been searched to the station in one day. While cleaning his police car at the end of the day, he found a .45-caliber handgun behind his seat.
“To this day, I have no idea which guy left it there, but they didn’t use it,” he said.
©2017 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch