District Attorney Kelly Callihan said Thursday that three Johnstown police officers were justified in using deadly force when they shot and killed the driver of a fast-moving car early on June 25 as it sped toward them and a handcuffed woman in custody on North Sheridan Street.
Callihan said that she ruled out filing any criminal charges in the death of 27-year-old Elip Cheatham after a careful review of the law and the facts developed through an independent investigation by the state police.
“The events that occurred were tragic. But a greater tragedy was averted because of the actions of the officers in question,” Callihan said during a news conference at the Cambria County Courthouse.
“These officers had a duty to protect and defend the life of the civilian in their custody, their own lives, the lives of fellow officers (nearby). And they performed their duties properly.”
State law permits the use of deadly force by law enforcement to prevent a crime that would cause the death or serious bodily injury to a person, she said.
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Although Callihan previously had said that she would reveal the names of the three officers, she declined to do so Thursday because of what she described as serious threats not only against those officers but also against the entire city police force and some individuals now held at the county prison. She declined to be specific about the threats, but said that the information came from three sources, which she did not identify.
“It’s a very tense time,” she said.
Security was extra tight at the courthouse, with a half-dozen deputies wearing bulletproof vests in the courtroom and some police officers from nearby municipalities at scattered locations outside.
Johnstown police Chief Craig Foust said that the three officers – who have been on paid administrative leave since the shooting – would be “back on the street soon” but declined to be specific.
Previously, they were identified as a 15-year veteran of the force, another with four years on the job and the other with one year.
Cheatham was shot minutes after an unrelated shooting outside of Edder’s Den bar, one-quarter of a mile away on North Sheridan Street. His relatives have said that he was not attempting to run down the officers but wanted to get his cousin, Cardell “CJ” Clinton – who had been injured in the earlier shooting – to the hospital.
Callihan said 18 rounds were fired at the fast-approaching car – which had been traveling at an estimated 60 mph on the two-lane street. Fourteen of the shots struck the exterior of the vehicle, with four entering the interior.
There was no evidence that Cheatham had attempted to brake the car, Callihan said. It came to a halt after it struck one of the cruisers and bounced off, the district attorney said.
She revealed that Cheatham had been shot four times, including a fatal wound to the chest. The other wounds were to the back of the right upper shoulder, the right upper arm with the slug exiting and grazing his thumb, and the right elbow.
Dennis McGlynn, solicitor for the Flood City Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, defended the officers involved.
“These officers had to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and also an innocent bystander. They did so in a way that stopped or ended a dangerous situation by stopping that vehicle. The vehicle was the weapon as it sped at them. They had no choice but to exercise self-defense by trying to stop the driver,” McGlynn said.
The officers, he said, “did not take this lightly. It’s very disturbing for anyone to be involved in an incident involving death.”
McGlynn added, “It’s important to note the police did not start this chain of events. Had the vehicle stopped and requested assistance for the wounded passenger, this incident would never have occurred.”
Callihan said that the woman in the stopped vehicle – identified as Latoya Just – told state police investigators that she was “in the middle of the road in handcuffs and had no place to go.” She said, “ ‘The car came down at full speed even though the police had it blocked off and were telling them to stop.’ And they almost hit her. That is when the police opened fire.”
The woman estimated that Cheatham’s car came within 4 or 5 feet of her, Callihan said.