Off-duty Milwaukee officer's body armor stops bullet during carjacking

By John Diedrich
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

An off-duty Milwaukee police officer has his body armor to thank for possibly saving his life after he was shot point-blank in the chest during a carjacking on the city's northwest side early Monday.

The officer, who was on his way home, was shot once by a 17-year-old suspect with a semiautomatic handgun, police said.

The bullet blasted into the vest with such force that the officer's chest was cut, though the bullet itself never struck flesh, said Deputy Chief Brian O'Keefe. It was lodged in the vest. After he was hit, the officer managed to return fire.

"Vests save cops' lives," O'Keefe said.

The officer, whose name was not released, is 36 and a five-year veteran who works on the south side in District 2. He was put on administrative duty, standard in police shootings. He was treated and released from a local hospital.

Police have arrested five people in the shooting, including the two suspected gunmen, both 17, and an 18-year-old man who drove the getaway van. Police followed their footprints in the snow to an apartment in the 7700 block of W. Hampton Ave., police said. There they arrested the three along with a woman, 24, and a man, 23. It was unclear what role, if any, those two had in the robbery.

O'Keefe said the suspects appear to have committed several other crimes. They were being interrogated Monday. Their names were not released by police, and they had not been charged.

O'Keefe gave this account of the shooting:

At 1:20 a.m. the officer, who had finished his shift at midnight, stopped on the way home at the Citgo station in the 8300 block of W. Appleton Ave. to buy road salt and fill up his Mitsubishi Montero SUV. He was wearing a civilian coat over his uniform and his gun.

The two 17-year-olds rushed up to him and pointed guns to his chest and neck. The officer offered his vehicle to the gunmen, but they ordered him inside and told him to drive. One sat behind him and one was in the passenger seat. At this point, it doesn't seem that the gunmen knew their victim was a police officer.

The officer drove as ordered to an alley in the 8100 block of W. Hampton Ave. A minivan, which police believe was stolen by the youths the previous day, followed with an 18-year-old man at the wheel.

Struggle in alley

In the alley, the two 17-year-olds and the officer got out and one of the gunmen told the other to "search him." At this, the officer began struggling with the youth, who was armed.

One of the suspects had apparently left his gun in the SUV. It was found there later.

During the struggle, the youth shot the officer, who then pulled out his police weapon and fired several times, hitting one gunman in the hand and the other in the shoulder. The two youths ran from the scene. The officer then called for back-up.

One of the suspects was treated and released from Children's Hospital of Wisconsin; the second was still at Children's late Monday.

The third suspect, 18, stayed in the van during the shooting, tried to drive away but crashed it into a fence, O'Keefe said. That suspect then jumped out and ran with the two 17-year-olds, he said.

The three suspects were either on probation or had warrants for their arrest, O'Keefe said. He said police will now recommend charges of attempted homicide, kidnapping, armed robbery and auto theft, he said.

The shooting is reminiscent of the killing of state drug agent Jay Balchunas in October 2004. Balchunas was also at a gas station late at night when he was held up. When the gunmen searched Balchunas and found out he was an officer, they shot him in the chest. He was not wearing an armored vest.

Copyright 2007 The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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