Gary cop shot to death; ‘person of interest,’ two others in custody

Written By By TERESA AUCH SCHULTZ AND MICHELLE L. QUINN Sun-Times Media Posted: 08/08/2014, 06:21am
Array Officers search 2600 block of Van Buren Lane looking for the gun used in the shooting of Gary Police Officer Jeffrey Westerfield in Gary on July 6, 2014. | Jim Karczewski/For Sun-Times Media

GARY — The shooting death of a veteran Gary police officer and “happy family man” early Sunday morning shocked the city, and set off a manhunt that resulted in “a person of interest” and two others being taken into custody by late afternoon, officials said.

Police had not identified the person as of late Sunday night because he had not yet been charged, but they expected to release more details at a press conference Monday, police said.

Patrolman Jeffrey Brady Westerfield, a Gary resident and father of four who was engaged to be married next month, was found unresponsive in his patrol car in the Northwest Indiana city after a citizen called police at 5:45 a.m., police Chief Wade Ingram Jr. said.

Sunday was Westerfield’s 47th birthday. He had been with the department since Aug. 29, 1995, Ingram said.

In a news release issued Sunday night, Ingram said the person of interest in custody of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department had been brought to police’s attention “as a result of a domestic call.” He did not elaborate, saying police expected to release more details Monday.

Police took the three people into custody after raiding a Gary home about 3 p.m. One was taken to Methodist Hospitals Southlake with a gunshot wound to the leg, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t clear who shot the person or whether it was the person of interest.

Police were unsure whether Westerfield was specifically targeted and about how many times he was shot, but bullet shells were recovered, Ingram said.

Ingram said Westerfield had responded to a call in that area about a couple of hours before he was killed. He said he believes the call was for shots fired. He did not know the last time Westerfield made contact with anyone else.

A local resident who noticed the car shortly before 6 a.m. and that Westerfield was not responsive called police, Ingram said.

Patrolman Daniel Perryman discovered the scene about 5:50 a.m.

Westerfield was pronounced dead at 6:36 a.m. of a gunshot wound, and his death was ruled a homicide, according to the Lake County Coroner’s office.

Ingram said Westerfield had “four lovely daughters.” His fiance, Denise Sheaks-Cather, said he also was like a father to her five children, who were to become his stepchildren when they got married next month.

Ingram said the Major Crimes Task Force and Indiana State Police also assisted. Agents from several federal departments, including the ATF, FBI, DEA and U.S. Marshals also offered their help.

Off-duty Gary police and even some on vacation rushed to the area to help in the investigation.

Ingram said his department is in “deep mourning.”

“They are taking it extremely hard,” the chief said.

The last Gary police officer killed in the line of duty was Patrolman Benjamin Wilcher Jr., who died in August 2007 when his car crashed during a pursuit, police said. The last Gary officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty was Dorian Rorex, who was killed in 1998 while pursuing a drug suspect. That killing occurred near the 2500 block of Polk, which is just about four blocks from where Westerfield was killed.

Councilwoman Kim Robinson, D-5th, who lives within walking distance of the scene, said the shooting was senseless.

“I know Jeff … anybody out here putting their lives on the line, and to have it taken so senselessly is a huge concern,” Robinson said. “It could be some young kid on a dare, so then you throw one life away and another becomes worth not much anymore. And for what?”

Robinson worked with Westerfield when she was a probation officer. She said he was a happy family man.

“He loved his job,” she said.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said he was also personable with his fellow officers.

“I know he loved his job but he also loved his other officers,” she said.

Ingram said that as of 10 days ago, homicides in the city were down 54 percent compared with last year. But Westerfield’s death was the second homicide in Gary this weekend.

“It’s discouraging,” Freeman-Wilson said, noting that an officer’s killing can be especially concerning to citizens.

She also called it a “blow” to recent efforts the city has taken to fight crime. However, she said the fact that Gary has had long periods of time between homicides shows the city can fight the violence.

“We know that we can push back on this because we have,” she said.

Ingram noted the timing of Westerfield’s death, after the shooting death of an Indianapolis police officer Saturday.

“There’s a lot of gun violence,” he said.

Sam Abegg, president of the Gary Fraternal Order of Police, said he was shocked by the news.

“It’s surreal,” he said.

Abegg worked with Westerfield for five years when he was in patrol and said everyone loved working with him.

“He was someone you wanted to have there with you,” Abegg said.

Officers are sad but also angry, he said. Although officers face risk no matter what, he said, the city’s low staffing of officers doesn’t help. Ingram said the city is authorized to have 246 officers but currently employs somewhere in the low 230s.

“It shouldn’t have come to this,” Abegg said of getting the city to hire more officers.

He hopes the city administration will now push for more officers, he said.

“If it’s not a wake-up call, then the problems with the city are more serious than I had thought,” Abegg said.

Funeral services for Westerfield are pending.

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