Mentally ill man, prison escapee were the two shot by Wichita police officers

06/12/2012 4:57 PM

06/12/2012 4:57 PM

A recent escapee from state prison was shot by a police officer in east Wichita on Monday night when he pointed what was thought to be a gun at another officer, and about a half-hour later, a man with a history of mental illness was shot by a police officer when he moved toward another officer while wielding a machete.

Police officials released details of both officer-involved shootings at a briefing Tuesday morning at City Hall.

Motorists called 911 minutes apart shortly before 8 p.m. Monday to report a man was jumping in and out of traffic on Woodlawn near Central, causing motorists to brake suddenly to avoid collisions, Police Chief Norman Williams said.

A Wichita police officer arriving in the area recognized the man from callers’ descriptions as he stood in a parking lot at 6611 E. Central, so she pulled in and parked her patrol car. She began talking to him to see if he needed medical care, Williams said. He had his hands in the pockets of his black shorts, and refused several commands to show his hands.

An Eastborough police officer arrived at the scene to provide back-up, and watched as the Wichita officer continued to talk to the man, identified later as 40-year-old Michael Westendorff. As the officer continued to tell Westendorff to show his hands, “he’s mumbling, he’s nodding his head, he’s agitated,” Williams said.

He backed away from the officer, then started to approach her and pulled something from his pockets.

“He has an unknown object,” Williams said. “It looks like a large type of nozzle, that had one end which resembles a barrel of a gun, and it has a trigger. He puts it right in her face and as he puts it in her face, he turns and runs toward the Eastborough officer.”

The Wichita officer thought she had been shot and the suspect was about to shoot the other officer.

“They’re very clear in their interviews that they feared for their lives,” Williams said. “The officer not only feared for her life, but also for the Eastborough police officer.”

She fired several shots, hitting Westendorff once in the left thigh as he ran toward the Eastborough officer. The other officer saw that she was about to fire and moved so he wouldn’t be hit.

“They’re trained to move to get out of the threat zone, and then re-engage,” Eastborough Police Chief Danny Bardezbain said. “That’s what he did.”

When they finally wrestled the object out of the still-resisting Westendorff’s hand, they saw that it was a nozzle for a high-powered CO2 inflator.

Westendorff was taken to Wesley Medical Center for treatment, then booked into the Sedgwick County Jail upon his release. The Wichita police officer, who has been on the force for more than six years, has been placed on administrative duties in accordance with departmental policy, Williams said.

Westendorff, who was convicted last year of attempted burglary in Douglas County, escaped from the Wichita work release center on May 30, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections. A warrant had been issued for his arrest.

Williams called the incident “very disturbing,” because it went from a suspicious character case to a scenario in which officers feared for their lives in a matter of seconds.

“That’s something that all officers face: something that seems routine in microseconds can turn to something deadly or dangerous,” Bardezbain said.

Williams said Westendorff told investigators that he had been taking a combination of Valium, Xanax and a form of meth called Ice in recent days. Those drugs, he said, may explain Westendorff's erratic behavior.

Less than a half-hour later on the opposite side of town, more officers found themselves facing an incident that escalated into gunfire.

Dispatchers received a phone call at 8:10 p.m. about a disturbance with a weapon in far west Wichita.

Officers sent to the 1800 block of Denise Marie, which is near 119th Street West and 17th Street, were well acquainted with the 21-year-old man who was reportedly armed with long-bladed weapons, Deputy Chief Tom Stolz said.

In fact, they all know Robert McCosh by name, Stolz said, because officers have been sent to that address 14 times since 2010 for one reason or another. McCosh is being treated for mental illness, and on Monday night threatened his mother and then came after her with two machetes when she left their house and ran to a neighbor’s residence. They took shelter behind a locked bedroom door as McCosh attempted to chop a hole in a door of the house to get at them, a police report stated.

Upon their arrival at 8:29 p.m., Stolz said, officers surrounded the house. One came into contact with McCosh on the west side of the house. Hearing him tell McCosh to drop his machetes, the rest of the officers converged.

“They are confident they can de-escalate him,” Stolz said, and they keep trying to calm him down even after he throws one of the machetes at an officer and misses by four or five feet.

But then McCosh began closing the distance to an officer, prompting another officer to fire once, striking McCosh in the abdomen, Stolz said. McCosh was taken to Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, where he underwent surgery Monday night. He is in critical but stable condition Tuesday.

McCosh was 15 to 25 feet from the officer and closing in when he was shot at 8:37 p.m., Stolz said.

All four officers — three patrol officers and a supervisor — have been placed on administrative duties in accordance with departmental policy.

The incident on Denise Marie reflects a pair of “disturbing trends,” Stolz said.

One is a marked increase in the number of police cases involving mentally ill people. Wichita officers handled more than 1,900 cases involving the mentally ill in 2008. By last year, that number had risen to more than 2,600. This year suggests that number will be even higher, Stolz said.

“It is a serious situation, and we are fully cognizant of it,” he said.

Officers are trained to talk to the mentally ill and be as helpful and understanding as possible, he said. But when McCosh made overt moves to threaten the officer, Stolz said, the other officer had no choice but to fire.

“When we are confronted with weapons, we have to take appropriate action to protect ourselves and to protect others,” he said.

The other trend is the increase in officer-involved shootings — both in Wichita and across the nation.

There have been seven so far in Wichita this year, Stolz said.

That compares to one last year, four in 2010 and one in 2009.

“In any police-related shooting,” Stolz said, “there are no winners.”

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