In a surreal scene, a Velda City police officer who had just been charged in a shooting stumbled upon an outdoor press conference about his case and started calling out questions to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell.
Officer Matthew Schanz and his partner Christopher Gage are accused of illegally shooting into a car during a traffic stop in February.
This afternoon, Bell announced charges of first-degree assault and armed criminal action and explained the case to reporters gathered outside the St. Louis County Justice Center in Clayton. It was broadcast live on Twitter by KSDK.
At one point, a reporter asked Bell if he knew if Schanz and Gage were in custody.
"My understanding is they are either in custody or will be very shortly," Bell replied.
In fact, Schanz would later tell reporters, he was on his way just then to turn himself in at the jail when he realized he was passing a press conference, and Bell was talking about him. He listened for a bit, and then decided to ask his own questions.
"Mr. Wesley Bell, I have a question for you, sir — considering I’m one of the officers," Schanz called out.
Bell declined to answer, and at one point, a staffer hurriedly said they were going to wrap up the press conference, but Schanz asked his question:"I would like to know that, when that car passed me, that citizens or other officers were not in fear of their lives."
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell is talking to the media about recent incidents https://t.co/D4jprCh1dj— KSDK News (@ksdknews) July 24, 2020
Bell didn't answer, instead advising that it would be best for the officers' lawyers to do the speaking for them. So Schanz hung around and listened to the rest of the news conference, which proceeded in pretty standard fashion. He later conducted something of his own press conference, answering questions near the door to the Justice Center.
Schanz and Gage stopped a car in February for expired plates. According to the probable cause statement — and Schanz himself — Schanz smelled marijuana and ordered the driver out of the car. Bell says the officer told the driver he planned to search the car, despite not having probable cause. The driver, listed as A.A. in court documents, drove off, but he soon came to a dead end. A.A. turned the car around and started driving back down the road.
By this time, Schanz and Gage were out of the road in a parking lot. Bell says Schanz called in on his radio and said the driver was trying to run them down. The officer then stepped into the path of the oncoming car.
Schanz says he was "yelling, screaming" for the car to stop. When it didn't he opened fire. Bell points out that the car veered around Schanz and Gage, who had joined him in the road, and both officers fired on it after it went by without hitting them.
"This was at best a misdemeanor, a code violation," Bell says of the initial stop.
Schanz says his and Gage's actions during the encounter were "textbook" and he only shot because he feared for his life.
"We are trained to neutralize that threat, and that’s exactly what we were trying to do," he says.
It wasn't the first time Schanz had fired at a car, he told reporters. He claims in 2018, he was off-duty but still in uniform when a car behind him lost control and turned around so that it was facing the opposite direction.
"That driver kicked it into gear and started coming at me, at which point I fired my weapon," he told reporters. It's not clear what happened next.
This is also not the first time Schanz has been charged with a crime. In 2013, when he worked for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, he was arrested following a car chase and charged with domestic assault and resisting arrest. According to the allegations, Schanz drunkenly beat and choked his boyfriend, and then went out to his car with his service weapon. When officers arrived, he sped off as they chased him with their lights and sirens going. He eventually pulled over and was arrested.
The city fired him but then spent more than two years fighting with the Civil Service Commission, which tried to overturn the decision. Then-police Chief Sam Dotson eventually got his way, and Schanz was forced out. In the meantime, the criminal charges had been dropped.
He landed in Velda City a couple of years ago. Schanz told reporters he has been on medical leave for the past five months because he has PTSD from the shooting in February.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly reported the officers had been indicted. Prosecutors had issued warrants.