KELSO, Wash. (KOIN) — A 27-year-old man well known to the Kelso Police Department was shot to death by an officer after he attacked 2 people and the officer at a gas-and-grocery store Wednesday morning.
Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson said the shooting happened at the Flying K gas station at First Avenue and West Main Street.
The incident began around 8 a.m. when the suspect allegedly shoplifted. Officer John Johnston responded and spoke with 2 women clerks. One clerk went with the officer into the office to look at surveillance video while the other clerk stayed at the counter.
The suspect — known to be a transient — then returned and began assaulting the clerk and a customer.
The sheriff said the suspect brought what was “described as a pole, likened to a walking stick” and “swung it like a club” at the clerk, customer and officer.
That’s when Johnston stepped in and shot the suspect, the sheriff’s office said.
At an afternoon press conference, Nelson said the clerk and the customer were treated and released, but Johnston — who is now on standard administrative leave pending the investigation — has a number of injuries to his head, arms and legs.
Asked why Johnston shot him instead of Tasered him, Nelson said he was “not sure a Taser or a baton would have been an appropriate response.”
Over the course of his 22 years on the force, Johnston has “literally had tens of thousands of contacts and stressful situations. When an officer gets to that point and he says this requires that level of force, well, I’m just glad he’s here to talk about it.”
Johnston went by himself to the Flying K and another officer was arriving around the time of the shooting, Nelson said.
Kelso police do not have body cameras, and the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office is just “in a test phase” with them, he said.
But the store had surveillance cameras and Nelson said, “We hope there is available video” of the incident.
The suspect was well known to Kelso police, Nelson said. The suspect had been contacted 2 or 3 times in the last several days and was arrested a few days ago, Nelson said. He was contacted again Tuesday night, but Nelson wasn’t sure why — perhaps a driving violation, he said.
A woman who was at the Flying K early Wednesday morning said she saw the suspect try to pay for something but his card was declined.
“He seemed a bit agitated about that,” said Julie Moberly.
That’s when she says the man took off with the bag and the clerk threatened to call police.
“I stuck around with the clerk until about 4 o’clock this morning because I just had an uncomfortable feeling he wanted to come back here,” Moberly said.
Moberly said her heart sank when she heard that he did return.
“I’m here all the time. So yeah, it’s kind of like someone that’s close to you,” she said. “I think the whole town is a little shaken.”
As the investigation continued into the evening, a group of men gathered for a “vigil of unity” to pray for the man who died.
Teams finished their initial investigation and returned the store to its owner around 10 p.m. Wednesday, August 17. The store will remain closed until at least Friday.