Fatal shooting by officer near McDowell addressed

Wednesday, September 6, 2017
A drawing created by the Missouri Highway Patrol Drug and Crime Control Division, showing the location of the vehicles and shell casings from gunfire in the pursuit of Thomas Eugene Sekscinski, who was fatally shot on Aug. 31, 2016, near McDowell.

Communications, training, policies changed by Aurora police

A year ago on Aug. 31, Aurora Police Officer Weston Welch shot Thomas Eugene Sekscinski on a remote road in McDowell following a high speed chase.

Sekscinski, 38, an Aurora resident, died of his wounds on Sept. 6. Barry County Prosecutor Amy Boxx declined to press charges against the officer.

With the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s report into the shooting complete, it is possible to see changes in the past year that could have affected the outcome of the shooting, and other conditions that remain unchanged. The Patrol was called in to provide an independent investigation. Welch did not have a body camera, nor did his vehicle have a camera.

Personnel changes

Officer Welch left the Aurora Police on March 2. Serving two-and-a-half years in Aurora, Welch took an officer’s job with the Bolivar Police Department, his hometown.

City Manager Mike Randall left the City of Aurora in May. Randall and Police Chief Rich Witthuhn mutually agreed to not release Welch’s name to the public as the responding officer.

“There were threats against the officer and his family,” said Witthuhn. “[Those making the threats] did not know who the officer was. They thought they knew. They had identified the wrong officer.”

Witthuhn said he is not aware of any current threats against officers.

Unknown identity

According to the Highway Patrol report, Sekscinski was never properly identified until after the shooting. Welch began pursuing Sekscinski for speeding. The vehicle identification number also did not match the red 1995 GMC Suburban he was driving, suggesting to Welch the vehicle was possibly stolen. The vehicle failed to stop when Welch attempted to pull the driver over for a license plate violation, then sped out of the city with Welch in pursuit, driving through several intersections marked with stop signs. The pursuit started at 2:09 a.m.

Welch said he thought he was dealing with a known methamphetamine dealer, Matt Winfrey, who had outstanding warrants.

Sekscinski, according to friends with whom he lived, had an equally unstable record. A user of Xanax, Seroquel and Paxil, Sekscinski had mental health issues, did not like to take his medications and had a history of threatening to harm himself. He failed to keep appointments with a psychiatrist. His friends confirmed he smoked methamphetamine.

Unknown to Welch, Sekscinski had two active warrants out for his arrest, one from Lawrence County for a probation violation and another for a misdemeanor traffic violation from Christian County.

Sekscinski never recovered from the shooting to speak with officers, other than mumble “Gene,” spell his name, and made two or three word quips while being moved to Cox Hospital South in Springfield. His identity was confirmed by his fingerprints.

Precarious pursuit

Leaving Aurora, Sekscinski accelerated to more than 80 miles per hour down country roads. At one point his vehicle struck a tree in passing, but was able to continue. Welch acknowledged by radio traffic that he was driving in unfamiliar territory.

Sekscinski continued to drive in an erratic manner, swearing at Welch, who attempted to pull alongside, and at one point tossing something out the window that appeared to be a mist. Welch later thought the substance may have been powdered meth.

Aurora Police Officer Kyle Houck joined the chase with Welch heading south on Wolf Road. Houck stayed with the pursuit for nearly 10 minutes, following it from Farm Road 2030 to 1180 and back to 2030 before losing visual contact with Welch. He remained in the vicinity, hearing the shots fired at 2:36 a.m. Dispatch officers were unable to secure GPS information on Welch’s location to pass to Houck.

Chief Withhuhn said at no time had Welch been told to stop his pursuit.

“Our policy has been without supervisor approval, an officer is not to leave the city,” the chief said. “If a supervisor is not available, it depends on who you are pursuing, like a homicide suspect [on whether pursuit continues]. If a radio fails or if you lose communication, our policy is stop pursuit. At that point pursuit becomes a danger to the officer and the person he’s pursuing.

“I’ve stressed the policy is going to be adhered to. There’s not a lot of leeway anymore.”

Communication issues

Welch maintained communication with the Aurora dispatchers until shortly after identifying that he was turning onto Farm Road 1170. He followed Sekscinski into what he described as a field off the road and drove up while Sekscinski attempted to turn around. In this spot, Welch stopped his vehicle in the path of Sekscinski, anticipating a foot pursuit.

At that moment, Welch had no radio communication or cell phone capabilities. He had lost Houck and was unaware that two Barry County deputies were closing in on the scene from the west.

Mike Phillips, director of the Barry County 911 service, acknowledged that McDowell, long recognized as a low spot in the county, represents a perpetual challenge for radio communications.

In the past six months, Phillips has placed additional repeaters in the Jenkins area for fire protection which has improved some communication into the McDowell area, but even that has limits.

“Unless you put a repeater down in that hole, you’re not going to get much coverage,” Phillips said.

The county communications center, while maintaining regular radio traffic with area police departments, does not manage communications between officers in the Barry County Sheriff’s Department. Phillips said the sheriff’s office signed up to have its communications run by the Missouri Statewide Interoperability Network (MOSWIN).

Limitations in officers communicating with each other, Phillips said, falls back on what MOSWIN can provide, not the Barry County 911 center. Deputies are also set up to communicate with city police operating on a different frequency.

Phillps noted the sheriff’s department added in-car repeaters to improve reception between vehicles, which has expanded their reach. MOSWIN also added a repeater near Roaring River, further enhancing communication around Table Rock Lake. He was not aware of any MOSWIN plans to address issues in the McDowell area. The next closest MOSWIN repeater is in Freistatt.

Deputies Christopher Hutson and Taylor Lombard were approaching the scene from Purdy. Hutson, unfortunately, had a collision with a passing Mitsubishi van, two minutes before the shooting, delaying both officers while Hutson heard shots fired.

Chief Withhuhn said he subsequently addressed the inability of officers to speak with deputies with MOSWIN.

“I hate to say it comes down to money, but it does,” Withhuhn said. “Those issues have been and are being addressed. The radio gurus are working on a solution.

“Do I consider it a solution? No. You still have to switch frequencies in the middle of an incident, and dispatchers have to go to another station. It’s not solved but it’s better than what we had.”

Leonard Collins, chief deputy with the Barry County Sheriff’s Department, said that under Mick Epperly, the previous sheriff, the department signed up for MOSWIN, as did all the other municipal departments in Barry County except Monett. City and county officers can talk to all of those on the MOSWIN digital system.

Deputies continue to monitor Monett and Lawrence County radio traffic through an analog system, which will not link with digital equipment. Deputies keep a second analog radio in their vehicles to communicate with Monett and Lawrence County. There is no special frequency designated at the present time for Aurora. Collins thought that a patch through Lawrence County would reach Aurora officers in the field. He noted communicating in the middle of a incident is not as simple as throwing a switch.

Bonnie Witt-Schulte, director of the Monett/Lawrence County 911 center, said Monett considered joining MOSWIN when the service was first offered.

“The system, as described to me, is based upon a goal of 90 percent coverage via mobile radio communications,” Witt-Schulte said. “Based upon our needs in that we rely a lot on portable radio coverage as well, it was decided to continue with the analog system. We do have MOSWIN capability in our center. It has been integrated into each dispatch console. Our center has the capability of ‘patching’ two radio channels together. With this capability we could, if needed, patch any of our monitored channels to the MOSWIN channels so that each entity would be able to communicate and hear all traffic on those channels.

“The MOSWIN system does provide us with the ability to communicate on the system with agencies such as the Barry County 911 Center and the Troop D Highway Patrol Communications center. As per state mandated protocol our center monitors a regional call talk group 24/7 to ensure that anyone in the state operating on the talk group would receive a response if needed.”

Witt-Schulte also cautioned that no communications system works flawlessly. Weather conditions, topography and radio interference can all become factors.

Confrontation strategies

Considering himself alone after a 25-minute chase, Welch decided he would face down Sekscinski. He was in a dark wooded area at a dead end where a creek is closest to Farm Road 1165, a spot where Sekscinski frequently camped.

With his car blocking Sekscinski’s exit, Welch told the Highway Patrol he got out of his car and immediately stumbled among logs piled near his door. Regaining his footing, he unholstered his sidearm, walked in front of his vehicle with his siren still activated. He recalled yelling as loudly as he could to “Please stop.”

Sekscinski drove his vehicle toward the police car, with the passenger headlight in line with Welch.

“Officer Welch fired an unknown number of shots from his sidearm, and observed the rounds hitting the windshield,” the report stated. “After those shots Officer Welch stated the vehicle then turned directly at him, and he lost sight of Sekscinski in the Suburban’s headlights. At this point, Officer Welch stated he slipped and fell down in the mud. Additionally, he saw Sekscinski’s hands up and heard Sekscinski state, “OK, OK, I’m done,” but the vehicle was still coming at Officer Welch. He regained his footing and fired several more shots until he heard his gun click.

“[After reloading,] Officer Welch stated the vehicle kept coming at him and he jumped out of the way. Officer Welch added he could see Sekscinski was slumped over inside the vehicle. He stated he slipped and fell a third time while jumping out of the way of the Suburban.”

A few minutes later, Deputy Hutson arrived. Welch asked Hutson to provide cover in case Sekscinski, who could have been armed, was still a threat. Welch then removed Sekscinski from the vehicle, after which Hutson took over, tended to the wounded man and directed Welch back to his vehicle.

Welch fired a total of 18 shots. All struck the vehicle, eight of which entered the passenger compartment.

Purdy firefighters as first responders followed officers to the scene. Sekscinski was transported to Springfield by Barry-Lawrence Ambulance. The paramedic told investigators he was surprised Sekscinski was able to speak, considering the severity of his injuries. Sekscinski said he had been shot five times.

“Monday morning quarterbacking is a lot easier than being there,” Withhuhn said. “You can say you have to do XYZ in this situation every time, but that’s impossible. No two situations are the same.

“My supervisors and I have stressed officer safety must be taken in consideration. Sometimes there are accidents. Sometimes you do the best you can. Since then, we’ve increased training and tried to express different ways of responding. I hope that we’ll be better prepared.”

Aftermath

In February, Barry County Prosecutor Amy Boxx sent a letter to the Aurora City Manager Randall saying she had decided not to prosecute Welch in the case. Boxx did not reply to and email asking about the decision.

“I’m glad she didn’t press charges,” Withhuhn said. “I don’t think ‘vindicate’ is the proper word. The entire situation was unfortunate. No one wants to take a life. It would have been best for everybody if it had never happened.”

Withhuhn placed Welch on leave after the incident and sent him to counseling. Welch returned to duty “quite a while” later, when he was considered fit for duty again.

“There’s pain on both sides and it’s still there, pain Mr. Welch will carry with him,” the chief said.

Welch left the department on good terms.

“He’s a good young officer,” Withhuhn said. “He has a bright future ahead of him. Every day we learn from our mistakes.”

The Missouri Highway Patrol released its investigation report in April, nearly eight months following the shooting, after Welch left Aurora.

In an introductory interview as a new city officer with the Bolivar News, Welch was asked what was the most memorable call he had responded to as an officer. He answered, “Would love to answer that question, but I probably shouldn’t.”

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