Baltimore County police shot and killed a man suspected of shoplifting a $10 bottle of liquor yesterday morning after he pointed what turned out to be a pellet gun in their direction, police said.
Phillip James Lamberson, 44, who lived at the Vagabond Motel on Pulaski Highway near Harford County, died of a single gunshot wound to the torso at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, said Lt. Kevin Novak, a police spokesman.
Lamberson was shot in or near the doorway of his motel room, a short walk from the liquor store where a clerk said he stole a fifth of Jim Beam about 8:20 a.m.
He had slashed his wrists before he confronted the officers, Novak said.
Midway Liquors in the 12300 block of Pulaski Highway called police to report a theft and directed the two responding officers to the motel, on the other side of a wooden frame house from the store, Novak said.
When officers knocked on Room 4A, Lamberson shouted threats through the closed door, Novak said. The officers took cover behind a nearby parked car.
"Shortly after that, the suspect opened the door to the motel room and began raising a weapon in the direction of the officers," Novak said. "It ended up being a pellet pistol. The officers were obviously not able to tell that at the time."
The officers fired several rounds each, and Lamberson was struck once on the left side of his chest or abdomen, Novak said.
The parking lot outside the motel room was marked with at least eight Xs, typically used to mark spent shell casings.
Before he opened the door, Lamberson slashed his wrists in the bathroom of his efficiency unit, Novak said. Police said the slashing was serious, but it was not clear if it contributed to his death.
"That's a question for the medical examiner to answer," Novak said.
Novak would not identify the officers, saying the pair should have the chance to tell their families about the shooting. The officers will be given a few days off to recover from the incident, he said, "then, depending on where we are with the investigation, they may come back to limited duty."
Lamberson had lived alone at the run-down, $85-a-week motel since 1998. A neighbor, Mike Barnes, said Lamberson was a bricklayer who struggled with a drinking problem and chronic unemployment.
"He had trouble keeping up on the rent. I've seen yellow papers stuck on the door," Barnes said, referring to eviction notices.
A gun collector, Lamberson had been forced to sell some firearms in the last year to cover the rent, Barnes said.
Despite his troubles, Lamberson made small talk with neighbors and occasionally had friends over to play dominoes, Barnes said.
"He was a very personable fellow," Barnes said. "He wasn't like a roughneck. I think it was a textbook case of drinking and depression."
Lamberson was a familiar face at Midway, where clerks said he showed up two or three times a day in a baseball cap and bedroom slippers.
Cashier Janet Piper knew him by his first name and used it to confront him yesterday about the $9.99 bottle of Jim Beam she believed he'd stolen. Piper followed Lamberson outside the store after he had paid $1.19 for a bottle of Budweiser and asked him about the whiskey.
"I walked out the door and said, 'Phil, you intend to pay for that bottle?'" she recalled. "And he said, 'I'll be back later.' I said, 'No, you're banned.'" Then she called police.
Richard Delabre lived next door to Lamberson and awoke yesterday morning to shouting.
"I heard a voice and I heard one of the police officers saying, 'He's got a gun,'" Delabre said. "And then they said, 'Phil, drop the gun. Show your hands.' And then I heard, like, four shots. I just rolled on the floor and stayed there."
Delabre said when he got up his nerve later to pop his head outside his door and saw two officers one female, one male standing over Lamberson. The female officer was pointing a gun at Lamberson and the male officer was telling him to roll over from his stomach to his back, Delabre said. Barnes said he felt sorry for Lamberson and for the officers.
"Now they're going to have to deal with that all the rest of their lives."