By the Daily Post staff
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said yesterday (June 1) he won’t file criminal charges against a Redwood City police officer who shot a drunken domestic violence suspect who killed himself after chasing his estranged wife around a parking lot with a gun in March.
In fact, Wagstaffe said Detective Joseph O’Gorman should be commended for his professionalism in a stressful situation.
O’Gorman and his partner, Officer Roman Gomez, were in plainclothes and an unmarked car when they responded to a call about an armed suspect who had fired a shot around 2:15 p.m. on March 12 in the 200 block of Penobscot Drive on the east side of Highway 101.
They pulled over on the way so O’Gorman could get his SWAT gear and rifle out of the trunk before proceeding to the scene, where they found Robert Lee Eichen, 43, in the 300 block of Saginaw Drive and took cover behind two nearby trees, the DA’s office said.
Gomez repeatedly ordered Eichen to drop his pistol, which was later determined to be a loaded Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, but instead Eichen was repeatedly raising and lowering his weapon. As Eichen raised the weapon to his mouth and fired, O’Gorman fired a single shot at him from roughly 40 yards away, according to the DA.
The bullet struck the left side of Eichen’s lower back, traveling through his body at roughly a 45-degree angle and exiting through his right collarbone, according to the autopsy report, which also found that he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.43%,five times the legal limit for driving.
The bullet’s path of travel suggests that Eichen may have already been collapsing from the self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head when he was struck by the officer’s bullet, but it’s not clear who fired first, the DA’s office said.
Some witnesses reported hearing only one gunshot, leading investigators to suspect the two shots may have been fired more or less simultaneously, but none of the officers on the scene were equipped with body cameras.
Either gunshot wound would have been fatal by itself, however, according to prosecutors.
Eichen had been drinking “extremely heavily” in the month before his death. He and his estranged wife had been having marital problems, due in part to his belief that she had cheated on him, prosecutors said.
On March 8, he’d taken out an assault rifle and told her he was “going to shoot someone who deserved to be shot,” prosecutors said.
Then on March 9, Eichen was arrested on suspicion of being drunk in public when his estranged wife called police and reported that he was attempting to keep her and their daughter from leaving the house.
The following day, police served him with an emergency protective order and confiscated most of his firearms, but they were unaware of the .357 Magnum he’d inherited from his father and hidden in the backyard.
That was the weapon he later used to shoot himself in the head, according to prosecutors.
DA Wagstaffe determined that based on the circumstances, including O’Gorman’s fear for the safety of his fellow officers, the shooting was justifiable under state law and did not amount to criminal conduct.
“Officer O’Gorman exercised his police powers in a lawful manner against a person who produced a firearm and raised it toward officers,” Wagstaffe said in a letter to acting Redwood City Police Chief Gary Kirby.
“Confronted by a subject who was armed, public safety required responding officers to use deadly force to protect themselves and others in the immediate vicinity. Once the decedent (Eichen) leveled his firearm in a manner that caused Officer O’Gorman to fear for the safety of his fellow officers’ lives and the lives of those around them, Officer O’Gorman had no other reasonable choice than to utilize deadly force.”
“The community relies on our police officers to protect its members in such circumstances and Officer O’Gorman did appropriately provide such protection in this case.” Wagstaffe continued, “Officer O’Gorman is to be commended on his preparation for crises such as this one, as well as for his calm and steady demeanor, and professionalism under such stressful circumstances.”