Man shot, dies after car chase, standoff

Officers fire on driver they say attempted to hit them with car


Gainesville Police Department and Alachua County Sheriff's Office officers confer at the scene of a shooting in the Shores Animal Hospital parking lot at 3811 NW 13th St. on Tuesday.

JIM MATTHEWS/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 12:57 a.m.

A Gainesville man died after he was shot by Alachua County law enforcement following a high-speed chase and a standoff on NW 13th Street, investigators said.

Facts

Eyewitness accounts

While investigators pieced together what happened leading up to the death of William Christmas, eyewitnesses recounted what they saw:
Some people watched the scene play out through plate-glass windows across the street.
Police directed Edith Piercy, an employee at the Chevron on the northeast corner of NW 39th Avenue and NW 13th Street, to lock herself - and other employees and patrons - into the store until the matter was resolved. They were told there was a "standoff." Then they heard gunfire.

  • For Joann Hall, Tuesday was any other day. She stopped to pick up a a large cup of coffee at the Gate store on NW 13th Street before heading on to work at Ace Cartridge Exchange.
    She pulled out of the Gate heading north on 13th Street. When she approached NW 39th Street, she said she saw "red and blue" lights flashing so she slowed down and pulled into the left-turn lane.
    "I thought it was an accident," Hall said.
    Then she said she saw a car stopped in front of her, but straddling the median pointed toward the Wachovia Bank on the corner. And in front of the car, Hall said she saw a plain-clothes officer and a Sheriff's Office deputy with their guns drawn.
    "The car tried to run over the deputy and the deputy fired into the car," said Hall, who was visibly shaken about 15 minutes after the incident. "To my knowledge, they both fired," she said, referring to the two law enforcement officers.
    Then the car spun around as if to drive away, she said.
    "I did a U-turn over the median and went in the opposite direction," Hall said. "I said to myself, 'Oh God, I'm getting outta here before anything else happens.' "
  • George Griffith was driving east on NW 39th Avenue about 8:45 a.m. when he spotted a red car traveling extremely fast. He said the car passed him on the left just east of NW 34th Street.
    "I was about to call 911," said Griffith, who lost sight of the car until he came upon the vehicle and the officers at the intersection of NW 13th Street.
    With the idea of offering his eyewitness testimony of the car's speed to the officers, Griffith said he pulled into the Shell station at the southeast corner of the intersection.
    "I was going to tell them the guy was going very fast," Griffith said.
    He said he saw the sheriff's deputy approach the vehicle holding a gun to his side. Griffith said the deputy banged on the window of the car.
    "I hit the ground when all the gunfire erupted," Griffith said.
  • Environmental engineer Steve Cloutier paused in the left-hand turn lane of NW 39th Avenue when he saw the police cars to his right. He then turned north on NW 13th Street on his way to his employer, Koogler & Associates, which is located about a block north of the NW 39th Avenue intersection.
    After he was parked, he walked back to the intersection.
    "I wanted to see what was going on," Cloutier said. "I actually went out in the middle of the road and started directing traffic because cars kept driving through. They made me leave when the guys with shields came in. The cop was definitely justified in shooting."
    - Compiled by Janine Young Sikes

  • Officers fired several shots at William "Bill" Christmas, 59, 5510 NW 32nd St., after they said he accelerated his red Nissan 350Z toward a Gainesville police officer at NW 39th Avenue and NW 13th Street, investigators reported.

    A police officer and a deputy received minor injuries, investigators said.

    After shots were fired, the car slammed into the side of a waiting room at Shores Animal Hospital, 3811 NW 13th St., knocking a hole into the concrete block wall.

    "It was like the Wild, Wild West," said a woman who was sitting in her vehicle at the intersection but didn't want to be identified.

    The woman called the shooting by officers justified.

    "He was telling him to get out of the car," she said. "He hit the officer. He should have got out."

    Initial reports from the Florida Highway Patrol indicated Christmas had brandished a weapon, but investigators working the case late Tuesday had not reported he was armed with a gun.

    Joann Hall, who had stopped to get a cup of coffee at a store on NW 13th Street, thought she had run across an accident as she drove north toward NW 39th Avenue. Instead she saw a car straddling the median and pointed toward the Wachovia Bank on the corner. In front was a plainclothes officer and Sheriff's Office deputy with their guns out.

    "The car tried to run over the deputy, and the deputy fired into the car," Hall said. "To my knowledge they both fired."

    Police Officer John O'Ferrellcq and Alachua County Sheriff's Deputy Joel Coppock were trying to get Christmas to come out of the car and fired when the car began to move, according to law enforcement reports.

    O'Ferrell suffered a knee injury, Gainesville Police Sgt. Keith Kameg said.

    Coppock also received minor injuries apparently as he tried to get out of the way of the car.

    "Officers felt they were forced into a situation where they had to use deadly force," said Spencer Mann with the State Attorney's Office.

    Because both the Police Department and Sheriff's Office are involved in the case, the criminal investigation into the incident has been turned over to the prosecuting agency.

    State Attorney Bill Cervone said it's likely the matter will be turned over to a grand jury. Cervone noted that previous law enforcement shootings in the area have been reviewed by grand jurors.

    The cause of Christmas' death had not been released late Tuesday pending autopsy results. Sources close to the case, however, confirmed he had been shot at least once. Witnesses also reported seeing a wound to his neck.

    Details about how many shots were fired or who fired the shot that struck Christmas were still under investigation Tuesday. Investigators marked more than seven spots where casings from bullets were found. One witness to the incident said he heard six shots fired and that they hit the windshield.

    What happened

    Investigators continued to search the area around the intersection Tuesday night and to try to determine what sent Christmas driving at speeds of more than 120 mph through northern Alachua, Bradford and Union counties before 9 a.m.

    Initial reports from law enforcement put Christmas in northern Alachua County near LaCrosse about 8:15 a.m. where he was clocked at speeds of more than 120 mph.

    Union County Sheriff Jerry Whitehead said law enforcement in his county had been alerted about a speeding red car but didn't spot the vehicle when they first checked for it on State Road 231.

    Whitehead said Christmas apparently had already turned off the road into the North Florida Reception and Medical Center off State Road 231.

    The Union County Sheriff's Office received reports at 8:34 a.m. of the car driving through the prison's parking lot and along its perimeter. Two corrections officers were almost hit, the sheriff said.

    When Union County deputies arrived at the prison, the car had headed away from the facility. The Florida Highway Patrol, alerted about a person driving recklessly, spotted the car at the intersection of State Road 121 and U.S. 441 about 8:40 a.m.

    "Our troopers followed in observation or surveillance mode," FHP Lt. Mike Burroughs said. "We weren't actually pursuing the driver. We were basically observing at the rear and keeping traffic from encroaching too close to the pursuit."

    Mann said Gainesville Police and the Alachua County Sheriff's Office were involved in the pursuit.

    Burroughs said the initial information troopers had was that a weapon was brandished by the Nissan's driver and officers were investigating whether the case was a possible suicide.

    It's unclear exactly what path Christmas then took before ending up on NW 13th Street, Mann said.

    A witness placed him near NW 34th Street and NW 39th Avenue at one point before the shooting incident near the animal hospital.

    Mann said investigators were reviewing dispatcher logs, video from law enforcement vehicles and other sources to determine Christmas' route.

    O'Ferrell, Coppock and a second deputy, Greg Lyons, were placed on administrative suspension with pay after the incident, the two law enforcement agencies confirmed. Lyons apparently was directed to fire at a tire on the car after it hit the building to make sure it couldn't be driven. Officers then checked the car and found Christmas was dead.

    No people or animals inside the animal hospital were injured.

    Mann said investigators will be looking into Christmas' background to determine what led to his erratic behavior.

    Speculation among neighbors and law enforcement sources ranged from personal problems to news Christmas had not gotten a job at the North Florida Reception and Medical Center.

    Christmas, who had been working full time as a nurse at the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center, had applied for a job at the North Florida Reception and Medical Center, the Florida Department of Corrections confirmed.

    He was not selected and a letter notifying him of the decision had been sent out within the past two weeks. DOC records also show he worked at the Union County prison about 10 years ago.

    Dennis Gies, administrator at North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center at 1200 NE 55th Blvd., said Christmas was hired at the facility in 1993 and worked as a nurse. He was an employee in good standing, he said, and had been working a night shift.

    "The entire center is stunned," Gies said. "From what we've heard, it's just a tragedy."

    Christmas' wife could not be reached Tuesday.

    Neighbors react

    Neighbors said the Christmases had lived in the Northwood Oaks neighborhood for more than 20 years. Stephen Langer, who formerly headed up Alachua County's anti-tobacco program and a longtime neighbor of the Christmases, described the area as "a quiet, docile place."

    Former Alachua County School Board candidate and environmental consultant Bill Boe was shocked to learn the fate of his neighbor late Tuesday afternoon.

    "The neighborhood is stunned," said Boe, who lives just down the street from the Christmases. "He was mild-mannered and reserved."

    John Harris, a neighbor across the street for more than eight years, said Christmas was a nice man, but called him "an eccentric" who continually washed and polished all of his vehicles "the way some people can't stop washing their hands."

    He recalled an incident six months ago when Christmas blew up at him over the phone. Christmas had been trying to sell him an old Chrysler K-Car for more than Harris thought it was worth.

    "He was holding on tight, doing the best he can," Harris said, adding that Christmas' wife, Bernice, had survived a bout with brain cancer nearly two years ago. One neighbor commented on Christmas' fondness for the red Nissan, calling it "his pride and joy." Another said he had gotten the car, estimated at values ranging from about $28,000 to $40,000, about 10 months ago.

    Law enforcement released information about the incident slowly Tuesday as the different agencies compared information about what happened and officers involved in the shooting spoke with their attorneys.

    Investigators plan to sit down with the officer and deputies involved during the next few days.

    Motorists driving by stopped, and nearby residents walked along the yellow police tape marking off a section of NW 13th Street and watched the investigation from the parking lot outside Publix.

    After the shooting

    State Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, said he and Denise Ferrero with the law firm of Avera and Avera were acting as attorneys for Coppock and O'Ferrell through the Fraternal Order of Police.

    "My assessment was such that I feel that the shooting will likely result in them being vindicated," Smith said.

    Lyons is represented by Gainesville attorney Gil Schaffnit.

    "It's my understanding that my client was not involved in the discharge of a weapon that would have caused injury or death," Schaffnit said.

    He is representing the deputy through the Police Benevolent Association.

    O'Ferrell was hired by Gainesville Police in March 1997, said Kameg of Gainesville Police.

    Coppock has been at the Sheriff's Office for about 10 years, Alachua County Sheriff's Sgt. Keith Faulk said, and Lyons has been with the office three to four years.

    Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com. Sun staff writer Carrie Miller contributed to this report.

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