One dead after purse snatching at Grand Central Mall

VIENNA – One person was shot and killed Tuesday afternoon after Parkersburg Police Department officers attempted to stop a robbery at the Grand Central Mall, authorities said.

The names of the deceased man, two who were detained for questioning, and the officers involved were not available Tuesday evening for various reasons, said 1st Sgt. Michael Baylous with the West Virginia State Police.

Two subjects were detained for questioning Tuesday afternoon after turning themselves in to the Parkersburg Police Department around 5 p.m., said Police Chief Joseph Martin. These two subjects were released Tuesday evening.

The incident began as an alleged purse snatching in the food court area of the Grand Central Mall, and escalated as it proceeded out of the food court mall entrance, through the parking lot, and around the mall premises to the Toys “R” Us parking lot, Baylous said.

The officers at the food court were participating in a surveillance class through the Homeland Security Office, said Chief George Young with the Vienna Police Department. The class participants were assigned to observe the actions in the food court when the incident occurred, Young said.

Because many of the area law enforcement agencies had officers present at the scene when the incident occurred, the investigation was turned over to the West Virginia State Police, which had no one involved in the Homeland Security class, Baylous said.

Two officers from the Parkersburg Police Department responded to the incident by giving chase, Baylous said.

“We have multiple witnesses to the incident, all who agree that the officers said ‘Stop! Police!’ repeatedly, while trying to stop the suspects,” Baylous said.

The chase led on foot into the parking lot nestled between the cinemas and J.C. Penney, Baylous said. Here, the alleged purse snatcher had a white Honda waiting to serve as an escape vehicle, he said. Details on the make and model of the vehicle were not available Tuesday evening.

Whether the alleged purse snatcher was the driver or a passenger in the vehicle was not immediately available, said Baylous. One other male and one woman were in the vehicle as well, he said.

One officer rushed up to the vehicle, reached into the car, and was attempting to remove the key from the ignition, Martin said.

When the officer attempted to remove the key, the suspect who was driving the vehicle accelerated, dragging the officer alongside the vehicle for some distance, Baylous said.

The officer was unable to remove himself from the vehicle because of the acceleration, Baylous said. “He wasn’t dragged for an extended distance, but it was far enough that he could have been thrown under the vehicle or run over,” he said.

When this officer freed himself from the vehicle, the driver of the vehicle turned the Honda toward the second officer and accelerated, Baylous said.

“By doing this, he turned the vehicle into a weapon and was threatening the life of this officer,” Baylous said. “When you are in a situation like this, you rely on your training and your instinct, and you respond to the threat,” he said.

The officer in the vehicle’s path opened fire on the driver of the vehicle, Baylous said. Multiple shots were fired, but the exact number was unavailable to Baylous Tuesday evening.

At least one of the shots struck the driver of the vehicle. Other objects, including a parked car, were struck as well, although it is uncertain whether the bullets traveled through the target to strike other objects or missed the target altogether, Baylous said.

“People always ask why multiple shots are fired in incidents like this,” Baylous said. “When you shoot someone, it doesn’t work like it does in movies. One bullet won’t always cause someone to just drop to the ground. It’s not uncommon to shoot someone and they continue coming at you, continue being a threat. When that happens, officers are trained to continue shooting until the threat stops,” he said.

The driver of the Honda then drove past the officer who had shot, and pulled into the outer road leading around the mall lot, Baylous said.

The Honda struck the decorative boulder at the edge of the Outback Steakhouse parking lot, dislodging it and sending it several feet into the parking lot, Baylous said. Shattered bits of the vehicle scattered across the area, Baylous said.

The driver continued to the Toys “R” Us parking lot, where the vehicle came to a stop, Baylous said.

Cameron Sparkman, 21, operations supervisor and server at Steak and Shake, reported seeing a police vehicle execute a pit maneuver on the Honda as it approached the Toys “R” Us parking lot. The pit maneuver is a move where the trooper’s vehicle strikes the rear corner of the suspect vehicle, causing it to spin out of control.

Officers surrounded the vehicle within seconds, with guns drawn, Sparkman said.

Baylous described the situation as “a felony traffic stop,” and said that having guns drawn during this situation is protocol.

When the vehicle stopped, the two non-driver subjects in the vehicle fled the scene on foot, Baylous said. They eluded police for several hours, eventually turning themselves in to the Parkersburg Police Department around 5 p.m.

Helicopters and K-9 units were called to the scene to assist in the manhunt, Baylous said.

The driver of the vehicle was pronounced dead at the scene, Baylous said. The driver’s name will not be released until authorities have a chance to notify the family, Baylous said.

The two subjects who fled the vehicle on foot were interviewed by the State Police at the Parkersburg Police Department and released Tuesday night, Martin said.

No charges have been filed against anyone involved in the case at this time, Martin said.

“All of this was over a purse snatching,” Baylous said. “Situations like this unfold so quickly, and it is very emotional for officers in these critical incidents,” he said. “It’s not (the officer’s) choice that it escalates, but rather the choices made by the suspect’s actions. These officers were in a very dangerous situation, and were doing their jobs.

“We are fortunate that no one else was injured. We hate that there was a loss of life, but it goes back to the suspect, who made a conscious decision to turn his vehicle into a weapon,” Baylous said.

Both officers involved from the Parkersburg Police Department have been placed on administrative duties until the investigation is complete, Martin said.

The officer who was dragged alongside the Honda was treated for his injuries at Camden Clark Medical Center and released Tuesday evening, Martin said. This officer’s injuries were described as “abrasions, soreness and swelling. A couple possibly strained muscles,” Martin said.

All officers involved in the incident will receive mandatory counseling before they can be eligible to return to full duty, Martin said.

An internal investigation into the incident will follow the conclusion of the State Police’s investigation, Martin said. This internal investigation will double-check that all department rules were followed during the incident, he said.

A total of 26 officers from various law enforcement agencies in the area were in the food court of the mall Tuesday afternoon when the incident occurred, said Martin. Fourteen of those officers were from the Parkersburg Police Department, Martin said.

The remainder of the three-day-long Homeland Security surveillance course, co-sponsored by the Parkersburg Police Department, has been postponed indefinitely, Martin said.

The Grand Central Mall, and all associated stores, maintained normal business hours after the incident, said Katrina Stephens, marketing director at the mall. Portions of the parking lot where the incident occurred were cordoned off until late Tuesday evening while the investigation took place.

(Staff writers Wayne Towner, Evan Bevins, Michael Erb and Brett Dunlap contributed to this story.)