District Attorney Jack Thorp said Tuesday that the February officer-involved shooting of a suspect was justified, but findings suggest the fatal wound was self-inflicted.
Thorp announced his findings June 15 after reviewing the investigation of the Feb. 26 shooting of James Gilbert Thompson Jr. in Tahlequah.
“After reviewing the investigation, including interviews, videos, photographs, physical evidence, and laboratory tests, it is my opinion that the actions and use of deadly force by Cherokee County Deputies Brad Baker and Richard Berry; OHP Troopers Matthew Williams and Stacy Howze; and Deputy U.S. Marshal Phillip Gilliam, were justified under Oklahoma Statute 21 O.S. 732 (A)(2)(a & b),” Thorp said.
On Feb. 23, U.S. marshals were searching for Thompson after he shot at a Fort Gibson officer during a traffic stop. Police had tried to pull Thompson over after they noticed the tag didn’t belong to the vehicle. That‘s when the suspect fired shots at the officer and took off. The officer found the abandoned car, along with a cell phone. At the time, officials considered Thompson armed and dangerous.
“After numerous searches, Deputy Brad Baker and Berry sought the aid of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, specifically Troopers Matthew Williams and Stacy Howze,” Thorp said. “Baker and Berry, driving an unmarked police vehicle, asked that Williams and Howze perform a traffic stop of a vehicle Thompson was a passenger in.”
Williams and Howze tried to stop a Ford Explorer in which Thompson was a passenger.
“It is notable that this coordinated law enforcement effort was planned to occur in an area of the State Highway 51 bypass. [This area is] generally less populated by civilian traffic than areas within the more populated residential and business area of Tahlequah proper,” Thorp said.
Once a traffic stop was initiated, the Explorer's driver began behaving erratically and failed to yield.
“The driver of the vehicle attempted to stop, but according to their interview, Thompson produced a firearm and pointed it at [the officers] and ordered, ‘Don’t f**king stop. I’m not going to jail or prison. I’m going to f**king die today,’” Thorp said.
The driver said she was in fear for her life, so she didn’t pull over. Williams attempted a Tactical Vehicle Intervention, but that failed, and the driver stopped the vehicle in the middle of the highway.
Thompson jumped from the vehicle, brandishing a handgun. Witnesses said Thompson ran to a fence and tried to climb over as Baker, Berry, Williams, and Howze gave chase on foot.
“Seeing the danger of the situation, Gilliam drove his unmarked vehicle into the fence that Thompson was climbing,” Thorp said. “After hitting the fence and grazing Thompson, Thompson fell to the ground, stood up and pointed his firearm in the direction of the pursuing deputies, troopers, and deputy U.S. Marshal.”
Baker, Berry, Williams, and Howze fired their weapons, and Thompson was fatally wounded. Law enforcement officers quickly secured Thompson’s Ruger 9mm semi-automatic and began lifesaving efforts. Emergency personnel were called to the scene and Thompson was pronounced dead.
“Evidence discovered at the scene indicates that Thompson did fire the pistol at some time – at least once – during this melee,” Thorp said.
Investigators determined Thompson’s weapon matched a shell casing found at the scene of the shooting on Feb. 23 in Fort Gibson. Forensic pathologists removed a projectile from Thompson’s body that matched the same 9mm pistol found at the scene.
“It appears, from the medical examiner’s report, that Thompson either shot himself volitionally or accidentally during this encounter,” Thorp said. “It is clear to me that deputies Berry and Baker, Troopers Williams and Howze were justified in firing their weapons at James Thompson when he turned around and pointed his firearm at them.”
Thorp said U.S. Marshal Gilliam was justified in using his vehicle with potentially deadly force by ramming the fence where Thompson was found.
“Thompson was attempting to escape from apprehension, and by pointing the 9mm pistol at pursuing officers he appeared to be endangering the life of the pursuing officers,” Thorp said. “While it is notable that Thompson received numerous wounds from the law enforcement personnel, it is especially noted that the wound that was self-inflicted was also a ‘fatal’ wound.”