Baltimore County officer believed shot in friendly fire, police say; man killed by police didn't fire gun

and The Baltimore Sun

Detectives believe a Baltimore County police officer was shot and wounded by friendly fire — not by an elderly gunman — in a Parkville home Thursday.

They also believe 76-year-old Robert Uhl Johnson intended to commit “suicide by cop” when he lifted the handgun from his lap and pointed it at officers, without bullets.

“I’m sorry I have to do this,” he said, according to police. Their body cameras captured the deadly encounter.

Four officers opened fire, and Johnson was killed. One officer was shot in her upper body and wounded. She remained in stable condition Friday at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Her injuries are not life-threatening.

Officials identified her as Officer T. Hays, a 13-year veteran of the force, assigned to patrol in Parkville.

“We don’t know how Officer Hays was shot, but she was not shot by the suspect,” department spokesman Cpl. Shawn Vinson said Friday.

Neighbors were shocked and saddened by the police saying Johnson was suicidal.

“If I’d been here 20 minutes earlier, I would have told police I could talk to him, I know him,” said John Wheeler, 67, who lives next door. “He was a great guy, a good neighbor.

“He would always watch out for stuff in the neighborhood,” he said.

Melissa Picone, 48, who lives across the street, said Johnson once left a note for her to warn about a possible problem in the neighborhood. Now she wishes she could have returned the favor and helped him.

“He was such a nice guy,” she said. “You kind of wish he could have reached out to the neighborhood.”

The neighbors said Johnson was a Vietnam veteran and lived in the home with his mother, who died some years back. He was known to work on his garden, which was blooming with flowering plants, and his truck and minivan. He liked to kayak or canoe in the Gunpowder River in the summer, Wheeler said.

Wheeler said he didn’t know of any serious illnesses or other problems that would have made his neighbor want to end his life, just “aches and pains” related to getting older. Wheeler said Johnson had recently seen a doctor after returning from a boating trip on the C&O Canal with friends.

“He wasn’t feeling as well as he used to. He was a little more bent over,” Wheeler said. “He would walk every day, but said he was not able to walk as far as before.”

Thursday’s shooting brings yet another blow to the county police’s Parkville precinct, and particularly to the squad Hays works in. Officer Amy Caprio had served in the squad before she was run over and killed by a teen in a stolen Jeep one year ago this month.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. recognized the grim anniversary when he arrived Thursday at Shock Trauma.

“Here we are, one year later,” he said. “It’s a tragic reminder of what our law enforcement community has to face day-in and day-out.”

Police commanders recognize the trauma this particular squad has faced and have offered counseling, Vinson said.

In fact, Hays and Caprio were friends. Hays spent the past week attending the trial of Caprio’s killer, officials say. The West Baltimore teen, Dawnta Harris, was convicted of felony murder in a courtroom crowded with Caprio’s family and fellow police.

Hays comes from a long line of cops. Her mother — a fourth-generation officer — works as the police chief in Sarasota, Fla. Chief Bernadette DiPino previously served as chief of the Ocean City Police Department and started her career as a Baltimore County cop in 1985. She traveled to Maryland to be at her daughter’s side.

“The Sarasota Police Department appreciates the outpouring of prayers, support and thoughts that have been sent for Chief Bernadette DiPino and her family,” department officials said in a statement.

Thursday’s deadly encounter began around 1:30 p.m. when officers were called to Johnson’s home in the 3000 block of Linwood Ave. Police believe Johnson made the call himself, calmly telling the 911 dispatcher that an intruder had broken in and was waving a gun.

“It’s peculiar, the tone of his voice,” Vinson said of the call. “He seems calm.”

Officers arrived at the home and saw him inside, seated in a chair facing the front door, police said. One officer tried to strike up a conversation with Johnson, who refused to get up or leave the home, police said.

Johnson told officers he called 911 and no one else was inside. Police entered the home and directed Johnson to keep his hands in the air, police said.

He allegedly lowered his right hand to his thigh, picked up a handgun and pointed it at the officers. Detectives later discovered the gun was not loaded.

“There is no way in that time frame they had any idea,” Vinson said.

Online court records show no previous criminal record for Johnson. Police said he was alone in the house.

Johnson also left his will and last requests for burial out, Vinson said. One theory being investigating is suicide by cop, he said.

“The circumstances definitely make it appear that way,” the spokesman said.

Three other officers who fired their guns were placed on routine administrative leave. They are J. Hummel, an 18-year veteran; A. Burns, a 17-year veteran; and J. Deford, a 10-year veteran. Baltimore County Police operate under an administrative policy under which they keep confidential the first names of police officers.

The three officers have no history of other shootings, police said.

Friendly fire shootings are not unheard of in the chaos of police work.

In March 2016, a plainclothes Prince George’s County detective, Jacai Colson, 28, was accidentally shot and killed by a fellow officer when a man opened fire on the police station. Investigators said that gunman had intended to die in a shootout with police.

Sun reporter Jean Marbella contributed to this article.

lireed@baltsun.com

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Baltimore Sun reporter Jean Marbella contributed to this article.

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