HAMILTON, Ohio -- Wounded officer Chad Stafford acted appropriately when he fired two fatal shots at an 18-year-old man armed with several hundred rounds of ammunition and an apparent death wish.
That was the message delivered Thursday morning at a joint news conference that announced a Butler County grand jury had cleared the Hamilton police officer of any wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of Brandon Keeler on Feb. 16.
"The events of this past weekend were tragic and sad… but it could have ended up much worse. (Stafford) stopped the threat and did an outstanding job," said Hamilton Police Chief J. Scott Scrimizzi, commenting on the incident that took place near the intersection of 11th Street and Sipple Avenue.
Scrimizzi was joined at the event in Hamilton by Butler County Prosecutor Michael T. Gmoser and Jim Deir from the local office of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Each took turns discussing the incident and the findings listed in the grand jury report. The results were released at 10:15 a.m. Thursday.
Gmoser said it’s his office’s policy that a grand jury review all investigation findings for all officer-involved shootings to ensure transparency. There are "no exceptions" to that rule.
“While the facts of this case appear clear to the casual observer… we can’t assume anything," the county prosecutor said.
Gmoser said the investigations are conducted quickly and immediately turned over to a grand jury so they can show critics the "independence" of the investigation.
What the grand jury found was that Keeler, of Southern Hills Boulevard, was firing an AK-47 into the air on Sipple Road at about 7 a.m., prompting multiple residents to call for assistance from local law enforcement.
When he arrived at the scene, Stafford, the first responder, leapt from his squad car to escape being pinned down by gunfire from Keeler. Moments later, the wounded 16-year veteran of the force called dispatchers and stated he had been shot in the head and needed a medic.
Scrimizzi said they believe Keeler fired four shots at the officer and nine total.
In the heat of the moment, Stafford was able to return fire, getting off two rounds from nearly 70 feet away, both of which struck Keeler. The 18-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene.
“Stafford fired two shots fired from 68 feet away … after Chad was struck in the head. He returned fire even though he was bleeding,” Scrimizzi said. “The bullet went all the way to his skull. A millimeter or so more it probably would have penetrated his brain.”
After the incident was over, investigators found that Keeler was armed with a civilian model AK-47 and had more than 200 rounds of ammunition on him. He also possessed a Glock 10 millimeter pistol loaded with 14 rounds and an extra magazine.
"If you can imagine what would have happened if this 7.6 millimeter firearm was just sprayed in the neighborhood with these bulets these high powered copper jacketed bullets," Gmoser said.
He also said while Keeler's exact motive can’t be determined, there’s a strong possibility he wanted to be killed by police.
"He left notes to his friends that he'd been staying with that there was no changing his mind that they could have the AK after it was pried from his hands by 'whoever shot me, hoorah.'"
Scrimizzi agrees, saying, "I think there is a suicide-by-cop element there."
Authorities said Keeler had a history of psychological problems and a fascination with firearms. Gmoser also highlighted the fact he liked playing violent video games like “Grand Theft Auto" that have a "great deal of violence and lawlessness behind it.”
They also believe drug use played a part in the shooting incident but that won't be confirmed until the toxicology report is returned.
Regardless of those findings, Gmoser said he will use the incident as a profile to help others in recognizing “telltale signs" of someone who is going “off the ledge.”
His office made a video available to assist in the "profiling of young people who may be involved in guns, violence…,” he said, adding that copies were given to the county's juveniles office and the attorney general.
If mental health was an issue, some in attendance at Thursday’s news conference wanted to know deadly force was the only way to subdue Keeler.
While he didn’t say so directly,Scrimizzisaid his officer had no other option and did what he was trained to do.
“(Keeler) tried to kill a police officer; he didn't raise an empty gun up towards him to be shot. He tried to kill this police officer," he said. “The protocol (in that situation) is to shoot for center mass, the objective is to stop the combat.”
Scrimizzi said Stafford is on paid administrative leave and recuperating at home. The police chief said he is doing well but still recovering from his physical wounds and the emotional duress from taking Keeler’s life.
“There are two tragedies in this case: a police officer did his duty and is now burdened with the fact he had to take someone’s life in the performance of his duty. The second tragedy is that someone lost their life.”
Hamilton's top cop said Stafford can take "all the time he needs" before returning to work.
In the meantime, ATF investigators are working to determine how Keeler acquired his arsenal of weapons.
Because he was under 21, he could not legally purchase a Glock handgun in the state of Ohio so Deir said his agency is "working aggressively" to figure out where the gun came from and who purchased it for him.
While he couldn't comment on the specifics of the case, Deir said the report will be turned over to the attorney general's office once it is finished to determine if anyone should be charged.
"We're following the guns," he said.
The investigation is ongoing.
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