Different accounts in Fairfield police-involved shooting

As the country waited last week for a grand jury’s decision in an officer-involved shooting in Ferguson, Mo., Jeff Surface watched with a heightened interest. The events in Ferguson hit close to home for the Fairfield father whose son was killed by a police officer last winter.

On Jan. 18, Caleb Surface was fatally wounded by a Fairfield policed officer who believed the 23-year-old had a gun. The incident began when the troubled young man tried to break into Jeff’s home on Spyglass Hill Court by pushing out a screen,was confronted by his father, grabbed scissors in the kitchen, and then tried to cut his wrists with a broken record before fleeing into the neighborhood on a snowy night.

Within minutes of the incident Officer Scott Conklin located Caleb Surface on St. Andrews Court. According to Conklin, Caleb initially would not stop when ordered and when he did, told the officer he had a gun and would kill him. Conklin said he fired two shots after Caleb put his hand in his pocket and made a furtive movement with his hand.

Caleb Surface died at the scene. He was found to be in possession of a cordless phone taken from his father’s home.

That grand jury declined to bring any criminal charges against Conklin.

Jeff Surface said the officer’s account and that of the only eye witness, Janna Craig, do not line up and he believes evidence presented to a Butler County grand jury was one sided.

“He (Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser) played this officer’s defense attorney in front of the grand jury,” Surface said. “Gmoser didn’t want to prosecute a cop.”

Surface described Gmoser as “confrontational” during the grand jury proceedings and people who had vital information were not subpoenaed to testify.

Gmoser refuted Surface’s claims, but declined to comment further, saying he could not discuss grand jury testimony because it is secret.

“We do not talk about grand jury proceedings here,” Gmoser said. “All the essential people were called.”

Gmoser has made it policy in Butler County that all officer-involved shootings be presented to a grand jury.

“And at the beginning of every grand jury session, I tell those on the grand jury that it is essential they maintain their independence. I say, ‘I demand that you be independent when considering the evidence.’ ”

Gmoser said having a grand jury consider a case that could result in a felony charge is a constitutional obligation and “the cornerstone of of our judicial system.”

Because defense attorneys are not permitted in grand jury, a popular sentiment from that side of the bar is that it is a one-sided proceeding and a prosecutor could get a “ham sandwich indicted.”

Gmoser says that theory is not an accurate portrayal of the grand jury system.

“The grand jury protects the innocent as well as the guilty,” Gmoser said. “If I indict a dog of a case, I am the guy who is going to have to try the case. What good is that going to do?”

Surface said his son suffered from depression and “a disease of drug addiction.” He was in treatment, but still struggling.

After arguing with his father on Jan. 17, Surface said Caleb was told to leave.

“I’m trying to do tough love. The doctors told me not to baby him,” Surface said.

On the night of the shooting, Surface was upstairs went he heard noises in the living room. He grabbed a hand gun and went downstairs to find Caleb pushing out a corner of a window screen. He let his son in the house and a confrontation ensued, he said.

“He was throwing a temper tantrum,” Surface said.

The father told police in a 911 call that Caleb was out of control and “I almost had to shoot him.”

When Fairfield Officer Todd Adamson arrived at the house, Caleb had left and Surface had put down his gun. Neighbors reported Caleb knocked on doors asking to come inside and one woman said he entered her home and she had to push him out, according to the BCI investigation file reviewed by this newspaper.

Janna Craig was outside shoveling her driveway on St. Andrews Court when she heard footsteps and saw what she thought was a jogger.

“He didn’t say anything … I thought maybe he was a cross country runner,” Craig said in a video taped interview with BCI.

About 15 minutes later she heard someone yell stop and she stopped shoveling.

“He said put your hand up,” Craig said, adding she did not know the man yelling was a police officer. “I see Caleb kind of raise his left hand and his right hand went right into his right jacket pocket and he was like fishing … there was movement and then bam bam”

She said the officer, which she now knows was Conklin, asked her what was the address. When the second officer arrived, Conklin told him, “I shot him, he had a gun,” Craig said.

“Well, that was a little bit of an embellishment, but that is what you have to assume when a guy puts his hands in his pocket,” Craig said.

Craig said Conklin did not say “stop police. He said stop put you hands up and bam bam.”

When asked by BCI investigators if she heard Caleb say anything, Craig shook her head.

“I heard nothing from him,” she said. Craig also told investigators Conklin asked her for the address after the shots were fired.

While it was dark, Craig said that area was well lit because there was a street light overhead.

Conklin’s account is different.

The officer said he was dispatched to the area to set up a perimeter and look for Caleb. He knew that there had been a domestic disturbance with the young man’s father.

“I had heard some of the radio (traffic) there was a firearm involved and some suicidal thoughts on Caleb’s part … wasn’t known at the time if he was armed or anything,” Conklin said.

After a resident approached his cruiser at Polo Woods Court stating a man had come to his door stating he was homeless, Conklin started following footsteps in the snow believing it was likely the suspect.

When Conklin found Caleb walking he said he called out “stop, I want to talk to you. Caleb stop for me.”

As Caleb continued walking, Conklin said he identified himself as a police officer and told him to stop.

“(Caleb) said, ‘I’ve got a gun. Leave me alone,’ ” Conklin said in his taped interview BCI investigators.

Then as Conklin followed Caleb through the yards he drew his weapon at his side.

“I advised dispatch of my location … that I believed I was coming up on St. Andrew’s Court,” Conklin said.

When he was about 30 feet from Caleb, Conklin said he told Caleb, “get your hands up in the air.”

Caleb answered, “Do you not listen to me? I have a gun and I will kill you,” according to Conklin. At first Caleb complied. “At that point I advised dispatch that he stated he had a firearm on him and I had him at gunpoint.”

Conklin said he asked a woman outside for the address.

“I advised dispatch of the address. At that point his hands were in the air. I was saying, ‘Keep your hands up. Keep your hands up. I’m going to have you get on the ground and I’m going to approach you,’ ” Conklin said. “At that point he reached in his right pocket and pulled his hand out like he was coming at me. I couldn’t see his hand and I fired two shots at him.”

One bullet hit Caleb’s spinal cord killing him. The second round was not recovered, according to the BCI report.

Fairfield Police Chief Mike Dickey and Gmoser said not all witnesses are going to remember incidents exactly the same way, especially given the darkness and snowy conditions.

“You have to consider it was dark, she was shoveling and bundled up,” Dickey said of Craig’s statement.

“What has been consistent is Conklin’s statements to investigators,” Dickey said, noting the entire incident has been reviewed independently.

Surface says the inconsistencies in the two accounts should have been presented to grand jury and he is considering filing a civil suit.

“The only person who said Caleb had a gun is Conklin and that is unsubstantiated,” Surface said.

At the time of the shooting, Conklin, a 10-year veteran, had been recommended for “separation from service” by the police chief.

“Officer Conklin has failed to correct his unacceptable performance and attendance. He has been in neglect of his duty by failing to appear for a court date and has violated police department rules,” Dickey wrote on Nov. 17, 2013, in a correspondence to the city’s assistant city manager. “… It is my recommendation that Officer Scott Conklin be separated from service.”

Excessive absence from work, going home early and talking on his personal cell phone too much, are a few of the violations cited by Dickey and supervisory officers.

As of Nov. 25, Conklin remains on “recuperative leave,” according to Dickey. He said an agreement has been reached with the union, and Conklin will be given a four-day suspension when he returns.

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