A stolen burrito ended in a fatal shooting after police say the suspected shoplifter pulled a gun on the police officer who responded to the reported theft Sunday morning in Centralia.
While the investigation is still ongoing, preliminary information released by the Centralia Police Department indicates the officer’s police dog, which was involved in the fight preceding the shooting, delayed the 43-year-old Centralia man from pulling the gun out of his pocket, which may have given the officer time to draw his weapon first.
The man’s name has not been released.
The altercation began when Officer Ruben Ramirez arrived the Chevron gas station on the corner of South Tower Avenue and East Cherry Street shortly before 10 a.m. to a report of a man who stole food.
Ramirez, a 15-year veteran officer and K-9 handler for police dog Lobo, spotted the shoplifting suspect across the street in the parking lot of Anchor Bank at 604 South Tower Ave.
The man, who was known to local police, was also a person of interest in a felony assault that occurred two days prior, said Centralia Detective Sgt. Pat Fitzgerald. The man allegedly assaulted another man with a “sharp object,” which gave the victim a cut over his eye.
When Ramirez got out of his patrol car to talk with the man, the man became belligerent, according to Centralia Officer John Panco, public information officer for the department. When Ramirez approached him and tried to place him into custody, a fight ensued.
Ramirez called for backup and deployed Lobo, his K-9 partner, to assist subduing the man who had become violent, according to Panco. As the fight continued, the man tried to reach into his pocket, but the dog grabbed ahold of his arm and prevented him from pulling his hand out.
When Lobo momentarily let go of the man, he put his hand back into his pocket, then pulled out a handgun, according to Panco. Lobo bit the man again, and Ramirez saw the weapon, pulled his own gun and fired at least one round.
The 43-year-old man died on scene.
By the time back-up officers arrived, the shooting was over, said Centralia Police Chief Bob Berg.
“I am grateful he was not harmed, and I am thankful that his K-9 was there to protect him,” the chief said.
Lobo is a five-year-old purebred German Shepherd who has worked alongside Ramirez for more three and a half years. Lobo is trained in narcotics detection, tracking and detaining suspects and, most of all, officer protection.
In a May 2012 interview with The Chronicle, Ramirez said working with a police dog puts his family, in particular his wife, at ease because of the added safety.
In the hour following the shooting, the man’s body was covered with a white sheet, with only shoes visible, in the parking lot of Anchor Bank in full view of traffic on South Tower Avenue. The gun, located next to the man’s body, was also visible. It is unclear whether the handgun was loaded or not.
“While the investigation is preliminary and continuing, I believe the officer acted properly and within policy,” Berg said. “More will become known as the investigation is completed.”
The Region Three Critical Incident Investigation Team, made up of detectives from surrounding counties, is investigating the shooting, Berg said. Ramirez is on paid administrative leave until the conclusion of the outside investigation, per department policy.
Nicole Escalante, a clerk at the Shell station on the southwest end of the intersection, said she saw the confrontation between the officer and the man take place. She said it appeared the man had been partially handcuffed and tried to wiggle free.
“He just pulled a gun, and then the cop shot him and that was it,” Escalante said.
Escalante said she called 911 immediately after seeing the incident, which she estimated happened sometime shortly after 10 a.m. She said she recognized the man from previous incidents at her store.
“He’s been banned from here before,” Escalante said.
A crowd began to form in the parking lot of the Shell station as police put up crime scene tape Sunday morning. Officers drove a woman away in handcuffs from the scene, but it isn’t clear what her connection to the incident was.
Denise Larson, who said she lives just down the street from the station, said she heard the gunshot from her porch.
“I heard the shot, ran down and saw them going over him,” Larson said. “He wasn’t moving.”
Investigators do not believe the deceased man was involved in the armed robbery of a Centralia convenience store, which occurred the previous evening.
This is the second officer-involved shooting in Centralia this year. Officer Phil Weismiller shot and killed a 48-year-old man who wielded a knife early in the morning of Feb. 13 in the 1200 block of West Mellen Street.
That shooting was ruled as justified months later.