Monthly Archives: January 2011

Second Tacoma Homicide of 2011 – Robert David O’Connell

Friday night, a little before 7pm, 42-year-old Robert David O’Connell walked into the 76 Station on Puyallup Avenue a few blocks away from Portland Ave. He’d recently been diagnosed with a mental illness. He’d also been put on leave from his place of work. In his pocket, he had a revolver. He decided to purchase a knife from the 76 Station. After this he walked around outside. Someone, perhaps the clerk, called the police because they thought he was behaving strangely. This was likely due to the fact that he had stopped taking his medication for some reason.

Two Tacoma police officers arrived in a patrol car. They saw him hanging around a phone booth by the gas station. As they approached him, one of them asked that he take his hands out of his pockets. When he did, he pulled out the revolver and began firing. One shot hit the patrol car. He fired two other shots, but it’s unknown what, if anything they hit.

The two police officers returned fire, striking Robert O’Connell multiple times. When the fire department arrived, he was already dead. While there was initial and unsubstantiated speculation that these events happened differently, both the evidence and most witness statements seem to back up this version of events. Witnesses say they heard a couple of shots followed by ‘a bunch’ of more shots. Any speculation that Robert didn’t have a gun can be disproven by the bullet hole in the police car. I have no doubt that whatever investigation as done will rule this shooting justified.

However, just because the two police officers responding to the scene were in a situation where they had to use lethal force, this doesn’t make it any less a tragedy. Robert O’Connell had friends, a family, and a job. At some point, he snapped. There’s talk that perhaps this was ‘suicide by cop’. It’s possible. We’ll never know for sure.

Mental illness is a tricky thing. It’s not something you can usually see. What the two police officers encountered Friday night was a man who pulled out a gun and started firing. What happened next took only a few seconds. There was no way to know that he was mentally ill and even if he did, that does not negate the fact that he was firing a gun at them.

It’s likely that if Robert had taken his medication, this tragedy would not have happened. Robert would still be alive and two Tacoma cops would have had just another Friday night on the east side of Tacoma. My thoughts go out to Robert’s friends and family and to those of the two police officers.

- Jack Cameron

Officer Involved Shooting In Tacoma

Last night brought the second homicide of 2011 in Tacoma. Two patrolmen found a suspicious person near a phone booth by the 76 Station near East Portland Ave. and Puyallup Ave. As they approached him, he pulled out a handgun and opened fire. The two patrolmen returned fire, killing him.

This is just the latest local police involved shooting and there are many people jumping to conclusions before all of the facts are in. At this point, there are very few facts. I’ll be writing about this in much more detail once more information has been released.

During KIRO 7’s newscast last night they talked to a guy who called himself ‘John’ who didn’t want his face shown and refused to talk to police. He said that the cops just walked up and shot the guy. There’s absolutely no reason to believe his story at this point. Let’s buy into his story for a moment.

Let’s pretend it’s true. You watch two cops shoot an unarmed man. Talking to the news is probably a good idea, but if you’re actually afraid of the police at this point, the thing to do is show your face to the world. If everyone knows who you are, then the odds of retaliation go down significantly. Of course this is all assuming you’re telling the truth and you really think the cops are just power mad killers. Then again, if you were just a guy who didn’t like cops and wanted to paint them in a bad light but didn’t really have anything on them, I’m willing to bet you might try to smear them with some made up story as to what ‘really’ happened.

Here’s a little secret. Cops are people. And they want to shoot people about as much as you or I want to shoot people. However, there are situations when the use of lethal force isn’t only okay, it’s outright necessary. A night where you’re fire your weapon at someone isn’t something any cop forgets. It’s a night that lives with them for the rest of their lives.

I’m not saying that every officer involved shooting is a good shoot. It’s just that there’s a fair amount of people out there that seem to assume the opposite. Too often people who weren’t in the situation and who don’t know the full facts of the case will spout off about how a cop didn’t need to use lethal force. Sometimes this is true. But the vast majority of the time the police officer involved used lethal force because their life or other lives were in direct danger.

This particular issue is a bit of a hot button locally. In 2009 six cops were killed in the line of duty in Western Washington. Four of them in an ambush in a coffee shop in Lakewood. In 2010, the amount of police involved shootings went up. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Any rational person could see and understand why a cop might be more willing to pull his piece after a year like that.

Of course, the first thing on anyone’s mind around here if they hear about a police shooting is John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver in Seattle who was shot last summer by a police officer seven seconds after the cop got out of his car. An inquest into the shooting determined that it may have been a criminal action the part of the police officer.

Sometimes the police feel they have to use lethal force. Are they always correct? Of course not. No one is. However, jumping to conclusions and just assuming that police officers are just shooting people for the fun of it is just stupid. The facts of the case will reveal themselves. They always do. Even in the case of John T. Williams, what really happened has come out. Until then, let’s give the police the benefit of the doubt. I for one say they’ve earned it for putting their lives on the line on a daily basis to protect the people of Tacoma.

Update: Police have identified the man who was shot as 42-year-old Robert O’Connell. More soon.

First Homicide of 2011 – Georgia Gunzer

Tacoma’s first homicide this year was 33-year-old Georgia Gunzer. Gunzer worked as a medical assistant and by all accounts was one of the happiest people you could ever meet. It seems that she was one of those people who always tried to see the best in people. In other words, she was the sort of person that makes Tacoma great.

Georgia had a daughter. She’s ten years old. Her daughter’s father got out of prison in October. He’d just done five years. During that time, according to court documents, Georgia Gunzer visited him six times. In October, she asked for a restraining order against him because she feared for her safety once he got out. This was not the first protection order she’d gotten against him. This order was denied because of her visits.

Friday, January 21st, Georgia Gunzer’s daughter had a slumber party at her apartment on in the 4200 block of South 50th Street. Georgia met up with her daughter’s 35-year-old father and they returned together to the apartment around 3am. While her daughter and friends were in the living room, Georgia and her ex-boyfriend argued in her bedroom. At one point, Georgia’s daughter knocked on the locked bedroom door and told them to quiet down so she and her friends could sleep.

Saturday morning, Georgia Gunzer’s ex-boyfriend arrived at Tacoma General Hospital in bloody clothing. He called 911 and said that he had gotten into a fight with his ex and that he may have “hurt her real bad”.

Georgia Gunzer’s daughter managed to open her mother’s bedroom door and found her in a pool of blood. She’d been stabbed at least twenty times. Police arrived and her ex-boyfriend was arrested. Monday morning her ex-boyfriend was charged with first degree murder.

There is already a lot of talk about ‘the system’ failing Georgia Gunzer. Friends say she’d done everything she could to protect herself within the law. I suppose it’s fairly easy to see it that way, but there’s really no evidence that a restraining order would have stopped this horrible crime from happening. Georgia’s ex-boyfriend was a career criminal. He wasn’t someone who behaved within the law and there’s nothing that says he wouldn’t have just violated the restraining order.

Similarly, there are those who want to blame Georgia Gunzer, her choice of men, and her apparent desire to keep this man in her life. Again, I think this misses the point. I didn’t know Georgia Gunzer, but from what I can tell from statements from her friends, she was someone who thought there was good in everyone and wanted to make things work. I can understand that. Similarly I can understand her ending up with a romantic partner who was just a bad person. This happens to almost everyone. Not all of us end up with murderers, but who among us doesn’t have at least one ex we can look at now and think how did we make such a big mistake?

The blame for Georgia Gunzer’s murder has to fall on her ex-boyfriend because by all accounts, he’s the one who killed her. Blaming the system and blaming the victim is counter-productive and incorrect. She was murdered by a murderer and she shouldn’t have been. That’s the sad truth.

NOTE: Chronicling Tacoma’s homicides is something I did a few years ago for a couple of years and I’ve decided to start doing it again. The idea behind it is to try to do a bit more than just a news story and focus on the victim of the crime. Whenever possible, I avoid using the name of the killer because it’s my opinion that such people don’t need or deserve any sort of publicity. I welcome comments, but warn that any threatening comments will not only not be accepted but will be reported as well. (I only add that last bit because the last time I did this, I received more than a couple of serious threats.) I especially appreciate any comments from friends or family who want to add or correct anything. Thank you.