ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A handful of protesters gathered Saturday at the site of a fatal shooting in St. Petersburg in which authorities say a sheriff's deputy fired after being threatened by a man with an assault weapon.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a news conference that 37-year-old Alton Witchard was shot overnight Saturday after threatening deputies with the AR-15 assault weapon.
Witchard had been a passenger in a van that deputies say was being driven recklessly and also matched the description of a stolen vehicle.
Officers and deputies on a vehicle-theft task force tried to stop the van, but it crashed into two police cruisers before taking off. The officers on the ground backed off of their pursuit and a helicopter tracked the car from air, said Sgt. Spencer Gross, a sheriff's office spokesman.
Deputies and officers again tried to stop the van, and this time, Witchard ran out of the vehicle on foot carrying the AR-15, according to Gualtieri. Witchard at some point turned and threatened the deputies with the weapon, the sheriff added, and the suspect was shot five times.
When asked if the suspect fired his assault rifle, Gualtieri said, "Not that we know of."
But Gualtieri later said that the gun had 17 rounds and had been switched to the "fire" position. The sheriff said the bullets would have been able to pierce the protective body armor worn by deputies.
"When anybody is carrying an automatic rifle and points it at the police, it's a very serious situation," Gualtieri said.
The sheriff said Witchard had an extensive criminal history. The van's driver, 31-year-old Cory Williams, was taken into custody and charged with aggravated battery and fleeing and eluding.
"It's a sad situation where people don't respect law enforcement," Gualtieri said. "They don't have any regard for the safety of anybody, including police officers. It's a disrespect issue. It's a lack of respect. It's a lack of fear of consequences."
Local media reported that the protesters at the shooting scene said it's only the latest chase involving Pinellas County deputies that resulted in death.
Three teenage girls drowned earlier this year after they stole a car from a Pinellas County Walmart parking lot, authorities have said. Though the county sheriff's rules forbid deputies from chasing stolen vehicles, some officers were trailing the car when the car plunged into a pond off a sharp turn in the road.
Some protesters say the deputies didn't do enough to rescue the teenagers, but Gualtieri said deputies waded into the water and tried to save the girls.