Five years on, shooting death has profound ripples
- Published: August 9, 2018
When Kate Hamilton moved back to her hometown of Yellow Springs six years ago, she had no desire to reform local policing. Moving with her husband and three children from the sometimes unfriendly environment of Texas, Hamilton looked forward to an easy and peaceful life in the village. It was the sort of life she once had here, growing up.
She also looked forward to reconnecting with old friends. She’d become especially close to Paul E. Schenck, a high school classmate, who she sometimes called for support when she felt isolated and alone.
“He helped me through some rough times, including in Texas,” she said in a recent interview.
Ohers also counted Schenck as a close friend.
“He was a lot of people’s person,” Hamilton said. “That says a lot about him.”
But Schenck had his own problems. He struggled with bipolar disorder and sometimes drank too much, Hamilton knew. And she especially worried about his fascination with guns and knew he had guns in his home, a subject they sometimes argued about. She never worried that he would harm others, but that he could harm himself, she said. And he could be paranoid, especially regarding police.
So on the night of July 30, 2013, when Hamilton learned that police had surrounded the home of a local man who was firing guns from his house, her heart sank.
“When they said it was High Street, we knew,” Hamilton said of herself and Schenck’s other friends.
She initially tried calling Schenck over and over, but got no answer. Hamilton and Schenck’s other friends frantically texted and messaged each other, trying to find information. But the more they learned about what was going on, the more discouraged they became.
The High Street block was overrun with police — 83 officers from all over the county, along with three SWAT vehicles and several SWAT teams, according to the final report from the Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, or BCI. Many shots were being fired, although it wasn’t clear at the time who was firing. Hamilton and her friends grew increasingly despondent.
“We knew he’d be dead when we listened to how they were doing things,” she said.
They were right about the outcome.
A Greene County Sheriff’s sniper shot Schenck at around 2 a.m. that night after a four-hour standoff, according to the BCI report. After sporadic but consistent gunfire throughout those four hours, several hours of silence followed, after which a robot was sent into Schenck’s home, where his body was found. Early in the morning hours of July 31, police packed up their gear and left town, returning to their posts in Beavercreek, Fairborn, Dayton and 14 other vicinities.
Five years on, the ramifications of Paul E. Schenck’s death are still playing out in Yellow Springs.
For many High Street neighbors, the night is seared in their memory.
“It was a traumatic thing to me,” said Kathryn Hitchcock, who lived across the street and a few houses down High Street. She recalled the sound of gunfire and SWAT teams running through her yard. “Every July I think about it. It was an experience you never imagine.”
For Amy Harper, who lived across the street from Schenck, “It was scary. It seemed like a war zone.”
While neighbors experienced the brunt of the event, many other villagers were also shaken and disturbed. This ongoing concern became clear to Village Council President Brian Housh, who, in the months following the shooting, was campaigning for Council. When talking to villagers, he repeatedly heard their concerns about the Schenck shooting, he said recently.
“People were shocked,” he said. Especially, he said, they were shocked at what felt to many like a militarized police presence in Yellow Springs, along with its violent outcome.
“It quickly became apparent that there needed to be a focus on policing,” he said.
Council Vice President Marianne MacQueen agrees with Housh that the impact of the Schenck shooting was substantial.
“I think the Paul Schenck shooting was a wake-up call,” she wrote in an email this week. “It was the type of ‘it can’t happen here’ event. It is still a wound that hasn’t healed. It brought home the understanding that, yes, it can happen here. It did happen here.”
Five years after Paul Schenck’s death, much has changed in Yellow Springs policing.
Many were galvanized by the event, including Kate Hamilton and Kathryn Hitchcock. Both joined the Human Relations Commission, or HRC, in an effort to focus attention on policing. With the support of Housh, the Council liaison for the HRC, the group sponsored several community conversations on policing to identify issues the community considered priorities. Questions raised included whether local police had, in the Schenck incident, escalated a situation involving a local man known to have mental health issues, ultimately leading to his death.
And Council, which previously had a hands-off attitude to police issues, began taking a proactive approach.
“I do believe it [the shooting] was part of what energized Council to start looking critically at our police department and not just have a hands-off approach,” MacQueen wrote in an email.
Out of those HRC-sponsored community conversations arose several priorities, and most of those priorities have now been addressed, according to Housh.
For instance, all local officers have now been trained in CIT, or Crisis Intervention Training, which gives officers tools for de-escalating crisis situations, and a social worker, called a community outreach worker, has been hired by the department. The Village dropped out of the ACE Task Force, a county-wide drug task force considered too militaristic by many villagers, and also dropped out of the Greene County SWAT team. The Justice System Task Force, or JSTF, a citizen group formed almost two years ago, recommended changes in taser policy that have been implemented, along with required training for officers in implicit bias, which is scheduled soon. And new Police Chief Brian Carlson, hired a year ago, has embraced these changes, along with other progressive policing strategies.
“While we’re far from where we want to be, I’m happy with the changes we’ve made,” said Housh.
Another Council member with a focus on policing, Judith Hempfling, the Council liaison to the JSTF, agrees that the Schenck tragedy energized many villagers to question policing practices. “There was increased interest in the community after Paul’s killing,” she said in a recent interview.
According to the BCI report of the investigation into the Schenck shooting, at 10:48 p.m. Tuesday, July 30, Greene County Central Dispatch received a 911 call from Paul E. Schenck’s High Street residence. The call was placed by Schenck himself, who sought help because he and his son were having an altercation.
Schenck was already having a bad day, according to his mother, Uta, in a recent interview. After his cat was killed by a car on the road outside his house that morning, he began drinking. When his son, Max, stopped in for a visit in the evening, the two began quarreling. Max later fled his father’s home and ran to the home of his grandparents, who lived at the front of the property.
The first to respond to the 911 call were Yellow Springs Officer Pat Roegner and newer officers Josh Knapp and Luciana Lieff. According to the report, Lieff and Roegner interviewed the parents while Knapp stood outside Schenck’s door and tried to persuade him to come out. But he refused, and when Roegner noticed that things seemed to be escalating between Knapp and Schenck, he returned to Schenck’s door, according to the BCI report. After Schenck yelled that he was going to kill himself, the two men tried to get through the door. At that point, they heard two to five shots go off inside the house and ran for cover.
According to the BCI report, Roegner felt his life was in danger. He then called for backup, using the “99” call that means “shots fired,” and that brings police from surrounding areas.
Schenck had a history of carrying weapons and having them in his home, according to a court file unsealed to aid in the BCI investigation. He had been arrested in 2009 for carrying a firearm while intoxicated, and soon after, on the request of his mother, police confiscated about 17 guns from his house. However, after he successfully completed a substance abuse rehab program, the court ordered that his guns could be returned to his father.
On July 30, 2013, after the arrival of the extensive police and SWAT team presence on High Street, shooting continued in sporadic blasts for the next several hours, overwhelmingly coming from Schenck’s home and in response to police attempts to close in, according to the BCI report. In all, he fired 191 rounds and the police shot 6 rounds, according to the report. There were 107 bullet holes going out of his house in all directions, with the exception of the front yard toward his parent’s home, the report said. Four neighborhood homes were hit, along with two police cruisers and one SWAT vehicle.
However, Paul Schenck Sr. last week questioned the BCI report. Most bullet holes were found in his son’s ceiling and in the back of his home, he said, indicating that his son wasn’t trying to harm people.
Between 11 p.m. and midnight, four Greene County Sheriff’s negotiators attempted to call Schenck at his house. Toward 1 a.m., police moved an armored vehicle, the “Peacekeeper,” about 40 yards from Schenck’s house and used a PA system to try to give him a number to call.
One neighbor, Gail Pettigrew, who lived across the street, was one of the few neighbors who stayed outside to witness the event, she said in an interview this week. A former member of the Armed Services, she wasn’t frightened by the gunfire, she said.
“I was more bothered by what I didn’t hear than by what I heard,” she said.
What Pettigrew said she didn’t hear were attempts to negotiate with Schenck. She heard officers say “Come out with your hands up,” but didn’t hear any attempts to lower the level of tension or to reason with him. She also heard Schenck repeatedly shout that he had no phone after officers shouted at him to pick up his phone.
According to Pettigrew, she also heard him call out for his mother, which the BCI report stated that other neighbors also heard.
The BCI report identifies other shouts from Schenck heard by neighbors, including threats that he was going to kill police, and that they were trying to kill him.
The elder Schencks were at a police command post on the corner of Union and High streets, and Uta Schenck was asking to talk to her son. However, she was not allowed to do so. His teenage daughter was also on the scene and asking to talk to her father, but she also was not allowed.
According to Attorney General DeWine at a November briefing on the BCI report, it is protocol not to allow family members to speak to someone in a shootout situation due to safety concerns.
In January 2014, a Greene County grand jury found that the use of force by the sharpshooter in shooting Schenck was justified.
Uta Schenck was close to her son. He was a sweet, smart, creative boy who grew increasingly troubled, she said recently. At age 16, while the family was living in Germany, he attempted suicide. Because the Schencks believed that country didn’t have the mental health resources needed for Paul E., they moved to the states, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
In Yellow Springs, he cut a distinctive figure. Inspired by the Goth youth he’d seen in Belgium, he dressed in black and wore chains, with his hair in a spiked mohawk.
“He was scary looking, but super soft inside,” Kate Hamilton said.
But over the years his troubles increased. He resisted medication for his bipolar disorder and sometimes preferred drinking instead, his mother said. His health problems increased, as did his paranoia, especially after he was jailed in 2009 following the incident with drinking and guns. Still, he was a devoted father for his two children, and loved cooking for them. And he had many friends.
Then came July 30, 2013. For the first year after her son was killed, “I was so angry, I wanted to die,” Uta Schenck said recently.
Already suffering from a heart condition before her son’s shooting, Uta suffered a stroke a year after the event, in 2014. It was a serious stroke, and she lost much of her ability to function. Lying in bed unable to walk or talk, she wanted to kill herself rather than “be a vegetable,” she said recently.
But something changed in her will to live.
“I have a family, grandkids,” she said. “I didn’t want to be that kind of example.” She also felt inspired by the support of her husband, Paul Sr.
So she fought back, slowly learning to walk again.
More recently, she’s suffered another health setback, with a diagnosis of cancer. She’s currently undergoing chemotherapy.
The stress of the shooting certainly contributed to his wife’s health problems, Paul Sr. said recently. And according to Uta, she still blames herself for not running away from police officials at the command center and just charging into a yard close to her son’s house, where he could hear her calling to him. Maybe doing so could have saved him, she thinks.
“I ask myself, what could I have done differently?” she said.
Both Schencks said they have not felt much support from the community. There’s a stigma connected to Paul’s shooting, Uta believes, and that stigma rubs off on his parents.
“Other than Paul’s friends, there hasn’t been much reaching out to us,” Paul Sr. said. “But then, we haven’t reached out either.”
The couple is gratified that they believe some changes have taken place for the better in local policing. They’re pleased especially that all officers have now received the CIT training that offers tools for de-escalation, although Uta wishes the training were more extensive.
Overall, Uta said, while she has seen positive change in the department, it’s a huge effort to change police culture.
“People are not held accountable,” she said. “That’s the culture. We see it all the time.”
In Yellow Springs, there was no internal investigation into the local officers’ response to Schenck that night, and in response to a question from the News in a February 2014 story, then-Chief Anthony Pettiford said there was no need for an investigation because the officers were doing the best they could. Pettiford resigned from his position about a year later. Officer Roegner, the ranking officer who first responded to the incident, was later placed on leave and resigned from his position the next year, citing the stress from the Schenck incident as a contributing factor.
Roegner did not respond to a phone call from the News seeking comment.
In response to a request from the News to speak to the officers who were on the scene that night, Chief Carlson emailed a written response in which, he said, he speaks for himself as well as those involved in the Schenck event.
“As the chief I speak for the entire department when I say that Paul’s death was tragic and the loss of life leaves an indelible memory in the community,” he wrote. “The loss of a son and the pain his family and friends must endure is beyond understanding. As a community, a state and a nation, we need to do so much more to address mental illness and the importance of working together to come to aid one another in times of need.
“The addition of the Village Policing guidelines, our Community Outreach Specialist program, the decision to withdraw from the Task Force and the progressive education available in de-escalation and crisis intervention training that all village police officers have received in the last five years shows that our department is breaking away from traditional policing norms. I firmly believe we are making headway… Public safety is our primary mission and we will continue to strengthen our relationships while balancing the protection and care for all of our citizens.”
Along with policing, the Schenck incident sparked an increase in local awareness of, and support for, those who deal with mental health issues, according to Kathryn Hitchcock, the neighbor of Schenck who, as a psychologist, has helped lead these efforts.
“Something needed to change,” she said. “It was clear we needed more support in town for those with mental illness.”
With the support and sponsorship of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, organizers launched two ongoing support groups. One group for family members of those with mental health issues, which Hitchcock facilitates, meets monthly. A second group, which is for those with mental illness, meets bi-monthly.
Through NAMI, organizers, who also had considerable support from the HRC, offered three training events. These trainings give participants the tools they need to de-escalate rather than escalate situations that could spiral out of control, Hitchcock said.
Overall, Kate Hamilton feels gratified with the changes the past five years have brought to both local policing and mental health awareness. She has surprised herself by becoming an activist, first as a member of the HRC, then the Justice System Task Force. She’s pleased with the community-minded philosophy of new Chief Brian Carlson and believes he’s the right person to lead the department. She’s especially pleased with the recent hiring of the department social worker and required CIT training for all officers, efforts she has consistently pushed because she believes that, had they been in place five years ago, Schenck might not have died.
“Overall, I feel good about it,” she said. “I feel these changes honor Paul’s memory.”
Yet while the changes are gratifying, she still misses her friend.
“His death was a catalyst. A lot of good things have happened that would not have happened without this,” she said. “But I still don’t have that unconditional love person that he used to be, for me.”