Yellow Springs villagers seek answers over death
- Published: August 15, 2013
According to friends who knew him well, Paul E. Schenck was a complicated man. And the circumstances under which he died last week in a gun fight at his home on High Street are no less complex. While an investigation by the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) continues, family members and neighbors have a host of questions and concerns about what happened the night and early morning of July 30 and 31.
At a joint press conference last Wednesday, Village Manager Laura Curliss gave an outline of the previous evening, which began with a 911 call at about 10:45 p.m. from someone at 280 North High Street, Schenck’s home, claiming there had been an assault. Shortly after Yellow Springs police arrived at the residence, they reported shots fired on the property. Police immediately requested assistance from the Greene County Combined SWAT Team. They soon received aid from about 63 units from 10 jurisdictions in the area.
Schenck’s son Max, 19, was taken by Miami Township Fire-Rescue to the hospital for minor injuries. A several-hour shoot-out followed, during which Schenck fired extensive gunshots with some police response. The next morning the Greene County Coroner confirmed that Paul E. Schenck had died in his home during the standoff.
The BCI, an agency of the Ohio Attorney General’s office, is conducting an independent investigation of the incident to evaluate whether there was any wrongdoing on the part of the law enforcement team that responded. While BCI spokesperson Jill Del Greco said on Tuesday that it would be several weeks to months before a complete report is submitted to the Greene County Prosecutor and the Yellow Springs police, Attorney General Mike DeWine said on Tuesday that he decided to release some initial findings from the six-day investigation conducted on and around the North High Street property immediately following the incident.
“Though this is not normal procedure, I know people are very concerned, and we thought it would be helpful for the community to know what we know,” DeWine said this week.
According to the release, on July 31 Yellow Springs Police Chief Tony Pettiford and Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer requested that the BCI investigate Schenck’s death. The agency sent 10 agents from both its Special Investigations and Crime Scene units who, as of Aug. 5, had interviewed approximately 30 neighbors, family members and responding law enforcement officers, taken 1,200 photos of the crime scene, collected and listened to the incident 911 recordings, and observed the autopsy.
Based on BCI ballistic analysis and shell casings found, Schenck is believed to have fired throughout the night at least 191 bullets in all directions from his home and property. The weapons believed to be involved include one Glock 22 (.40) handgun, one Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun, two AK47-style rifles and one Springfield Armory 1911 pistol. Investigators found that at least 107 bullet holes had been fired from within the house, of which two struck Sheriff cruisers, one struck an armored SWAT vehicle, and at least three struck neighbor’s residences. The team also found approximately 2,000 rounds of various types of ammunition in Schenck’s home.
BCI investigators completed a “comprehensive search of the scene” and found five (.223) shell casings behind and outside the residence which they believe were fired by a Greene County SWAT member at Schenck. The team believes that one other law enforcement shooter fired one additional round, but the shell casing could not be located.
The rest of the BCI report will be forthcoming after the coroner rules on the cause of death. According to the coroner’s office this week, the autopsy report (being contracted out to the Montgomery County coroner) won’t be completed until toxicology and microscopic slides have come back from the laboratory, which could take four to eight weeks.
Questions about the response
In the meantime, family members and neighbors have plenty of unanswered questions about police procedure and events leading up to the Schenck’s death. It’s still unclear, for instance, whether Schenck died of a self inflicted bullet wound or one fired by a law enforcement agent. According to the police log from Xenia Central Dispatch, the agency coordinating with Yellow Springs Police dispatch to help manage the scene, Schenck had been firing out of his house at intervals throughout the night, including at 11:25 p.m., 12:21 a.m., 12:29, 12:34, 1:09, 2:09 and 2:21. According to the log, at 2:09 a.m. Schenck was heard “yelling profanities and threatening to kill everyone,” followed by an entry at 2:21, “Multiple shots fired, possible subject down per YS radio.” Those were the last shots fired that night, according to the log.
Schenck’s parents, Uta and Paul D. Schenck, who live in the house next door to him, also want to know why they weren’t used to negotiate and help draw Schenck out of his house. Both parents and Paul’s teenage daughter pleaded with police to be allowed to speak to Schenck (and they say immediate neighbors, some of whom stayed in their homes all night, heard Schenck ask for his parents), they said. He was a mentally troubled person, Uta Schenck said, and he had consumed alcohol that night, which the police knew about and noted in the dispatch log.
According to Major Kirk Keller, a lead SWAT commander from the sheriff’s office, there are circumstances under which family is sometimes used to negotiate, and others when they are not, such when a family member may have angered the suspect in the first place. He was not aware whether Schenck’s family had been asked to help negotiate.
Police did everything they could to negotiate with Schenck, Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer said, including calling Schenck on the phone to try to negotiate and bringing several armored vehicles up near his house to allow negotiators to talk to him “from a safer vantage point.” However, several neighbors, who wished not to be identified, confirmed that they heard Schenck yell repeatedly that he didn’t have a phone.
Police heard Schenck say that he did not have a phone, according to Major Keller, but that “wasn’t in our estimation a plea to get him a phone. He continued to make threats…to kill us,” Keller said. “If he wanted to communicate, he didn’t need a phone…[however] that is a futile effort if he continues to shoot.”
But villagers are also wondering why the law enforcement response ramped up as heavily and as quickly as it did. Though the Yellow Springs police report says that Schenck “fired several bullets from the residence at the responding officers,” the central dispatch log and the law enforcement joint statement both said only that “shots were fired.” According to Yellow Springs Chief Pettiford last week, when local police are dealing with a barricaded person firing shots, police protocol is to call in SWAT officers who are trained to deal with those specific situations. And the fact that Schenck was intoxicated does not change the response protocol officers use against someone applying lethal force against police, Keller said. And still, he said, the officers used significant restraint not to return the fire they were receiving.
“The officers on scene, to sit there and take rounds while we tried to negotiate — the officers weren’t firing at this person, and that takes great discipline.”
According to police they didn’t know for sure whether Schenck was dead until at 4 a.m., when they received a warrant to send a robot with a video camera into his house and confirmed that he was unresponsive.
Schenck was involved in at least one other incident involving guns in the village in 2009, when Yellow Springs police were again called to his High Street residence due to an altercation with a neighbor. According to the Yellow Springs News archives, when police arrived, Schenck was standing in his driveway, intoxicated, with a loaded hand gun. Police arrested Schenck, and at the family’s request, obtained a warrant to search his home, where they found and confiscated five handguns, 12 rifles and 26 boxes containing thousands of rounds of ammunition. Schenck was charged with two felony counts of carrying a loaded weapon under disability, which would include while intoxicated, and/or with prior convictions for drug offenses and/or having been adjudicated mentally incompetent.
According to the family, Schenck served three years probation in lieu of conviction. And according to Yellow Springs Police Chief John Grote, six months after the incident, a Greene County judge ordered the local department to return the weapons to his father.
Schenck a father, friend
Contrary to the context surrounding his death, according to those who were close to him, Paul Schenck was not a violent person. “He was troubled,” Uta Schenck said, and “complicated,” according to a former partner, Shayna McConville.
Schenck and friend Ben Whitmer both moved to Yellow Springs as high school students, whose mutual love for punk rock and the band The Gits quickly threw them together.
“He was the coolest person I ever knew,” he said of Schenck, who had lived in Belgium with his family, wore camo and listened to cool music, Whitmer said.
Later, as an adult Schenck remained a generous and caring person whose two children “meant the world to him,” former partner Jaimie Wilke and several other friends said this week. He was a gifted artist who loved to cook and watch Hayao Miyazaki movies with his family.
“His favorite thing ever was to nurture the people he loved by cooking up something special for them, especially his kids…his kids loved his cooking, and I know they will miss him so much for this way he nurtured them and spent time with them,” Wilke wrote in an email this week.
“Paul’s kids were the most important thing to him in the world, which is why we now must hold them in our hearts,” she wrote. “He made it very clear the kids were number one to him. He had a creative, off-the-wall sense of humor that kids and teens loved. He could make anyone laugh.”
Though he “never had any money,” according to Wilke, Schenck was innovative enough to make creative use of the materials around to design his own toys, benches, kites and tools. He also felt a deep sense of obligation to defend human and animal rights, she said.
“The injustices of the world deeply concerned him. He loved kids and animals, and if he heard of someone being treated unfairly, he saw this as a very important matter. He would drop everything to help anyone in need, even if it cost him something he needed.”
Just after Hurricane Ike, when many trees were down around the village, Schenck went around in his truck helping to move limbs and clear debris from the roads, McConville said.
Schenck loved hiking in the Glen, Clifton Gorge, at CJ Brown reservoir, Hocking Hills, New Mexico and Colorado. He graduated with honors from Hocking College in 1999 and studied to be a forest ranger. He did some independent contracting and worked on the Village crew for a few seasons. But he later developed health issues, including gout and knee trouble, and he suffered “incredible amounts of physical pain, which he probably drank to cover up,” according to Whitmer, who also said Schenck did not have health insurance.
“There wasn’t a whole lot anyone could do, but in a lot of ways, Paul’s situation seemed like a community failure,” Whitmer said.
Wilke also alluded to mental health issues Schenck struggled with.
“I feel what he had on his plate was too big for him to handle. He had issues that were too much for him, and he tried to manage them the best he could, but it was too big.”
Though the situation and Schenck himself were both complicated, many feel that last week’s gun fight did not have to end the way it did. Those who knew him said he never meant to hurt anyone and was just very scared.
“It wasn’t cool what happened…63 people against one guy, one guy who was scared,” McConville said. “He just wanted to be left alone.”