- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A St. Mary’s sheriff’s deputy had “no choice” but to fire gunshots killing a California man last month outside his Wildewood home, the county’s elected prosecutor said Friday outside the courthouse, as he awaits an autopsy report and the sheriff’s office continues its own investigations.
Sheriff’s Cpl. Michael George remains on administrative leave with pay, the county sheriff said Monday at his headquarters, as detectives and internal affairs officers conduct separate inquiries into the death of 38-year-old Stephen Robert Wycoff. The sheriff said that Cpl. William Rishel, another deputy accompanying George, returned to work on Saturday.
Detectives reported last week that the two uniformed deputies went to Sugar Maple Court shortly after 2 a.m. on Sept. 29 in their marked patrol vehicles on a report of a disturbance, called in by someone who told dispatchers that they heard yelling in the condominiums’ parking lot.
An obituary last week for Wycoff described the decorated Army veteran as an active church member who loved singing and playing hymns and memorizing Bible verse. But the prosecutor said the caller’s account of what Wycoff was doing, and evidence at the scene, suggested a sudden change in character that preceded a violent attack on the two lawmen.
“Apparently, he was off his medication and just flipped, ... threatening to kill Americans and set the pages of what we believe was a Bible on fire,” St. Mary’s State’s Attorney Richard Fritz (R) said after a briefing on the police investigation. “We think he may have been burning the Constitution and pages of the Bible. Later, they found the scraps.”
The Rev. Chad Laird, a brother-in-law of Wycoff and the pastor of Truth Bible Church, said Tuesday at his office in Hollywood that the slain man suffered from mental illness, and his family wants an independent investigation of the matter by Maryland State Police. Laird said that law officers gave the media and a judge issuing a search warrant conflicting accounts of the matter, that the unarmed man was shot just outside his door and that police cursed and waved a gun at his father as they made him stay inside the residence for almost four hours.
“We know Stephen made some mistakes that night,” Laird said. “Were they enough to warrant the death penalty? Did Cpl. George have the authority to make that decision himself — [as] judge, jury and executioner?”
Given Wycoff’s love of his country, family and God, “the last 30 seconds don’t define his life,” Laird said. “There is a lot of contrast” with his alleged actions during the last few minutes of his life.
Laird said that questions remain about a police account that “in 30 seconds, Stephen was Tased, pepper sprayed, [involved] in a struggle and killed.”
Fritz said that the two officers initially asked Wycoff questions to determine if he was the person they had been called to check on.
“The guy just went wild on them,” the prosecutor said, and Wycoff began by “kicking the breath out of” Rishel, before he started “just whaling” on George as the pepper spray the officers tried to subdue their attacker with wafted over all of them.
Wycoff outweighed George, the prosecutor said, and George felt that he was on the verge of being knocked out before he took out his police gun and fired three times — striking Wycoff in the chest, stomach and groin.
Laird said that Wycoff was angry about “bullying, intimidation ... and people making fun of him” at a store where he worked as an inventory associate, and that he was outside his home expressing that anger when he got home after his shift.
“He was yelling to himself, but was that a crime? Stephen was not committing a felony,” the pastor said, adding that the later affidavit to search the residence indicates that the police made the initial contact with Wycoff, as opposed to him confronting them.
“He was not someone [who would] go pick a fight,” Laird said. “He doesn’t have a history of being an aggressor. He’s a fearful person. He was retreating back to his home because he was afraid. You have an unarmed man, shot to death four feet outside his door.”
Detectives report that Wycoff died at the scene, and that both deputies were treated at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital for injuries from the confrontation, and were released.
Fritz said that Wycoff was a schizophrenia patient, and that police found an unloaded pistol and clips loaded with ammunition concealed in his vehicle.
“This may well have been a person looking for a place to happen,” the prosecutor said. “It’s tragic when a human life has to be taken, but under the circumstances, the police officer had no choice.”
Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) said his agency’s investigations will determine the force continuum that the two officers used, including their reliance on the law-enforcement equipment they had.
“We can determine what was deployed in what manner,” the sheriff said.
Laird said that Wycoff and his father moved from Colorado to St. Mary’s last March, and that the family’s concerns include how police are prepared to deal with people who have mental health issues.
“Does that mean that they’re in more danger of being shot to death than anyone else?” Laird asked. “I don’t think Cpl. George and Cpl. Rishel came there to execute Stephen. They were doing their job. They have a hard job. I think they found themselves in a very difficult situation. If there was excessive force, we don’t want another family to go through what we’re going through.”
Laird said the family doesn’t want to jump to conclusions about what happened, and is not looking for financial gain.
“Christ calls us to forgive,” he said, but “anytime there is a taking of life, there should be an accounting of why that life was taken. Our goal is not money. It’s the truth. It should be all of us toward the truth.”