San Jose’s police chief held a somber news conference Wednesday morning, hours after a veteran police officer was killed by a drunk, suicidal man during a welfare call – the first officer death in the city in 14 years.
“It’s unfortunate for any of our officers to lose their life,” Police Chief Larry Esquivel said, with obvious emotion even before the sun came up. “It’s something we are aware of, and that we need to address.”
The suspect in Officer Michael Johnson's killing – Scott Dunham of San Jose, a former groundskeeper – was “despondent” when family members called for help about 6:48 p.m. Tuesday because the female caller thought he might harm himself or others, police said.
According to the 911 call, the dispatcher said the caller worried about Dunham, who said "he'd kill her if she didn't leave," referring to Dunham's wife. The dispatcher also says Dunham "used pills five or six years ago" and may be bipolar. An officer is heard asking the dispatcher to do a weapons check on Dunham. The dispatcher confirmed he had a handgun, though no guns were registered in his name. Another officer is heard on the dispatch saying "I'm told there's all kinds of ammo in the house."
As Johnson and other officers approached the apartment building in the 2600 block of Senter Road, Dunham fired upon them with a high-powered rifle from the balcony, police said. Johnson died at the scene. His body was taken away from the scene early Wednesday, as a procession of patrol cars snaked through the streets of San Jose alongside him.
Dunham was found dead on the apartment balcony at 3:20 a.m. Wednesday. The 57-year-old had suffered at least one gunshot wound. It's still unclear, however, if he killed himself, or if he died as a result of the ensuing police gunfire. "It's possible he was dead the whole time," Esquivel said.
Esquivel added that there were no known previous calls to the address. Still, court records indicate Dunham was charged with three counts of assault and battery, which he plead no contest to in 1996. He spent three days in jail, and was ordered to probation and counseling, along with a protective order. He petitioned the court to have the no contest changed to a "dismissal," records indicate.
Foothill-De Anza College District's Acting Chancellor Kevin McElroy said Dunham worked as a grounds gardener for the district from October 1998 to June of 2012 when he "resigned for purposes of retirement."
Police officers all over the country expressed their condolences, as did Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown, who issued a statement Wednesday remembering Johnson's "courage and dedicated service."
His family emailed a statement, saying Johnson was killed "while trying to help the community he loved. We are deeply saddened by his loss and cannot express in writing how deep a hole in our hearts we are left with by his passing." The family thanked everone for "sharing our pain," and asked for time to "grieve and heal in private."
Until the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, the scene was chaotic along Senter Road, between Umbarger Road and Balfour Drive while police and MERGE units searched for the gunman, who they did not know he was dead on the balcony at the time. Police were heard shouting: "There is a man with a high-powered rifle who may be pointing it at you right now. You may be in the line of fire." Anthony Mancilla witnessed some of the aftermath and took video with his cell phone. He said he heard two gunshots. A man was heard in the street saying "He shot a cop. He shot a cop."
Esquivel thanked "the community," hoping residents would understand why they were evacuated because of the commotion.
Some residents along Senter Road were kept out of their homes all night, and even into the morning hours of Wednesday. Khoun Thoeuk, a mother of six, slept at her sister-in-law's house and only got two hours of sleep. Other aspects of local life were also distrupted due to the investigation; San Jose Conservation Corps Charter School on 2650 Senter Road was closed on Wednesday. And Mayor Sam Liccardo, who called this San Jose's "darkest hour," canceled a Rules and Open Government Committee meeting.
Johnson was newly assigned as a training officer, and was in the same police academy class as Jeffrey Fontana, the last San Jose police officer to be killed in the line of duty. Fontana, a 24-year-old Woodside resident, was shot in 2001 during a high-risk vehicle stop. That gunman, DeShawn Campbell, was convicted in a case that dragged out for seven years.
Johnson is 12th officer to be killed in the San Jose Police Department's 166-year history, according to Morales.
He leaves behind his wife, Nicole, who was out of town at the time, police said, and parents, Katherine Decker and Daniel Johnson.
After the chief's early-morning news conference, department spokesman Albert Morales took over for Esquivel, saying the chief was “broken up” and had the “very, very difficult” job of telling his officers “to do a good job” and protect the citizens of San Jose after what happened.
“Our hearts are heavy,” Morales said.
For information on how to make a donation to Johnson's family, click here.
NBC Bay Area's Kristofer Noceda, Lauren Inderhees, Gonzalo Rojas, Terry McSweeney, Jeff Clayton and Damian Trujillo contributed to this report.