An O’Fallon Police Department officer uses his pistol to smash the window of a Honda Accord on Jan. 23, 2022. Still from St. Charles County Police Department video.
Despite the release of what he called a “disturbing” video detailing the “tragic” Jan. 23 death of a 17-year-old driver of a stolen car in Missouri, St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar insists the two cops at the scene did nothing illegal and won’t be charged for any crime.
“The officers based their actions upon their reasonable belief that the occupants posed an immediate risk to the safety [of] the officers and others and were actively attempting to evade arrest in a dangerous manner,” Lohmar stated in a letter explaining why he refused to charge O’Fallon Police Department Officers Matthew Vegovisch and Michael Manzella.
Neither the O’Fallon officers nor their department’s representatives replied to Coffee or Die Magazine messages seeking comment.
“We never want to victim-blame, but in a situation like this, if the deceased young man could’ve made one or two decisions differently, we wouldn’t even be here,” Lohmar told reporters during an April 29 briefing.
Released by investigators at the St. Charles County Police Department, the roughly four-minute video begins with Vegovisch and Manzella being dispatched to the 500 block of Prentice Drive in O’Fallon just before 11 a.m. on Jan. 23.
A homeowner had reported a suspicious vehicle that was left idling, partially blocking his driveway. The car had no license plates but extensive driver’s side damage.
The emergency dispatcher told the officers that at least one male Black passenger was inside a white Honda Accord sedan, apparently asleep. According to investigators, the first responding officer approached the Accord, saw two male passengers in it, and then retreated to his cruiser until a second officer arrived.
To understand what happened after that, Coffee or Die reached out to both prosecutor Lohmar and Stuart Guidry, a retired Los Angeles Police Department officer with three decades of law enforcement experience.
Guidry said “to sum it up quickly, it’s a clusterfuck,” but he agrees with Lohmar that the suburban St. Louis officers didn’t commit any crime and shouldn’t be charged.
About 40 seconds into the video, a camera mounted on an officer’s body armor captures both officers meeting behind the Honda. A police cruiser is parked directly behind the suspicious car.
The officers decide to open the doors on both the driver’s and passenger’s sides of the Accord. According to a written summary of the incident, Vegovisch explained that the officers suspected they were confronting a “medical case or overdose.”
Guidry disagreed with that approach. He explained that the Accord’s appearance alone would automatically cause him to suspect it was a stolen vehicle, which requires more cautious tactics.
“If it’s a possible stolen car, you definitely don’t want to walk up on it and try to open a door yourself,” Guidry said. “You would want to call the people out from a position of cover.”
Vegovisch, the officer on the driver’s side of the Accord, pulls on the door handle. It’s locked. His body-worn camera shows the driver sitting up in his seat while the officer pulls on the door handle.
The driver was later identified as 17-year-old Christopher “Chris” Jones. In his written summary of the event, Vegovisch said that as he moved closer to the car for a better view, he “saw a hand on the center gear shifter and simultaneously saw a hand holding a black handgun,” so he shouted, “Don’t. Hey, don’t.”
Vegovisch’s written account did not specify who was holding the gun or who had their hand on the center gear shifter. Lohmar told Coffee or Die the officer was never sure who actually held the handgun because of the Accord’s tinted windows, but an analysis of the weapon after the incident revealed the passenger’s DNA all over the firearm.
Coffee or Die is not identifying the passenger because he was an adolescent at the time of the incident. He later was charged as a juvenile for his role in the car heist.
Lohmar believes Jones never had the pistol in his hand during the incident.
Guidry said it’s odd that Vegovisch didn’t immediately tell Manzella he saw a gun in someone’s hand, but he suspects the officers might not have been trained to do that. Announcing that an officer sees a weapon during an incident is a common practice in law enforcement, he said.
Vegovisch then smashed the driver’s side window with his pistol. Lohmar said authorities don’t consider the officer’s decision to be a “best practice,” but he believes the cop’s instinct kicked in, and “he was going to do whatever he felt like he had to do to try to minimize the threat.”
Guidry said it’s “never advisable” for a police officer to smash a window with the barrel of a firearm.
“He risked accidentally shooting the driver,” Guidry said. “I’ve never seen any training where it involves using your firearm to smash out a window.”
In the video, Jones quickly tosses the Accord into reverse, where it bumps the squad car parked behind it. He then lurches the Honda into drive and begins to drive away. Both officers fire multiple rounds into the car.
Investigators believe 15 rounds were fired. No one in the Accord returned fire.
Guidry said the Los Angeles Police Department bans blazing away at a moving vehicle, so the incident would have been marked as a “bad shooting” there.
Lohmar believes “in that moment, the officer is justified to do whatever he believes he reasonably and necessarily must do to preserve his life or the safety of others around him.”
The video picks up with Manzella pursuing the Accord to the intersection of Mexico Road and Aspen Pointe Drive, where it crashed.
“Show me your hands! Show me your fucking hands now!” the officer yells. “Show me your hands, driver! Show me your fucking hands!”
Backup units flock to the scene. Officers continue to vainly call for the driver to surrender. The passenger is ordered to exit the Accord and he complies, hands on head.
According to investigators, two minutes elapsed before officers began to approach the driver’s side of the Honda. In the video, the driver is unresponsive, his arm held limply by the officer who first approaches him. Multiple officers then swarm the car, and the driver’s door is opened through the smashed window.
“The gun’s on the floorboard,” one officer announces.
Officers handcuffed Jones and began administering first aid while an ambulance rushed to the scene. Jones was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Guidry cautioned about analyzing violent and stressful incidents with 20/20 hindsight, but he insisted the O’Fallon officers used “very, extremely bad tactics” and questioned the quality of the training they received prior to the shooting.
They didn’t commit a crime, but he believes better police tactics and training might have prevented the need to shoot the teen driver in the first place.
“Because in 2022, man, that type of police work, or I should say that type of police tactics, just won’t fly,” Guidry said.
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Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion.
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