A Prince George's County police officer in a special unit that chases down violent criminals was killed yesterday in a shootout when he pursued a suspect into a Laurel area apartment complex following a routine traffic stop. He was the first officer fatally shot in the line of duty in the county in at least a decade.
A suspect was wounded in the gunfire and remained in critical condition late yesterday. Two other suspects from the car surrendered after they barricaded themselves in the complex for two hours.
The officer, Cpl. Steven Gaughan, 41, died several hours after he was taken to Prince George's Hospital Center with two bullet wounds, one in the shoulder and one in the abdomen. The bulletproof vest he was wearing did not protect him from the gunfire, police said.
Gaughan, who had a wife and two adopted children from Russia, served on the force for 151/2 years. In announcing his death, Police Chief Melvin C. High called Gaughan a hero.
"I'm proud to have served with him," High said. "He leaves a legacy in the department. He is a piece of each of us."
The incident began about 11 a.m. when Gaughan and two other officers, all part of a specialty police unit, tried to pull over a car at Route 197 and South Laurel Drive, police said. The car pulled into the parking lot of the Village at Montpelier apartment complex in the 11000 block of South Laurel Drive, and three men got out.
One ran behind the apartment buildings, and Gaughan, in uniform, followed, police said. Gunfire erupted, and Gaughan was shot.
The other two men exchanged more gunfire with police. One of the suspects was hit, although it is unclear whether it was the man who shot Gaughan.
A witness driving by, Chris Goldsborough, said he heard shots and pulled over to the side of the road to watch what was unfolding. He said he heard 40 to 50 shots.
"The suspects were shooting at the police officers," he said. "The police officers were shooting at the suspects. Everybody was firing, trying to protect themselves."
Shortly afterward, dozens of police dashed to the apartment complex.
"Cops pulled up with guns like they were going to the Vietnam War," said Tim Hamiel, 29, who lives in the Village at Montpelier, a large complex about a quarter of a mile long.
Scores of police officers in protective gear swarmed the apartments as they coaxed the barricaded men out. At about 1:30 p.m., the men surrendered peacefully and were ushered into an unmarked police car in handcuffs, according to witnesses.
The suspect who was shot remained in critical condition at Prince George's Hospital Center last night, police said. Police did not release the names of the suspects.
Gaughan was the fifth Prince George's Police officer shot at this year, but the first to be hit, according to a police source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He is the first officer in at least a decade to be shot to death in the line of duty. Cpl. John J. Novabilski was shot 11 times in 1995 while sitting in his cruiser outside a liquor store where he was working as a security guard. Another officer, Kilonzo M. Masembwa, was killed in a car accident in 2000 while responding to a reported burglary.
Yesterday, Gaughan fought for his life for several hours in the intensive care unit. The scene at the hospital was tense and somber, with hundreds of quiet police officers milling about, many of them crying.
Gaughan was assigned to the District VI station in Beltsville, and he worked on a four-person special assignment team. His assignment was to chase down drug dealers and other criminals, which is what he was doing when he made the traffic stop yesterday, police said.
Police said they did not know whether the traffic stop was related to an investigation he was conducting.
His supervisor, Maj. Thomas Connolly, said being a police officer is a "very dangerous job nowadays."
"He went out there every day, and he chased the bad guys and he caught them," Connolly said. "He loved his job."
Yesterday's attack was not the first time Gaughan had been under fire on duty. In August 1999, a county sheriff's deputy knocked on the door of a College Park home to serve an eviction notice. The deputy was met by gunfire, and a round grazed the back of his head. Gaughan and three sheriff's deputies returned fire, and the attacker was killed.
Gaughan was married to Donna Gaughan, assistant professor of criminal justice at Prince George's Community College. She previously worked as a Prince George's County police officer.
County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) called yesterday "a sad day for all of us, especially for all police officers." Johnson, who appeared to have a tear in his eye, said his heart was broken.
"These officers get up every morning and work very hard to make life safer and better for the people of Prince George's County," Johnson said. "We continue to stand by them."
Johnson said he is aware that a growing number of criminals on the streets are brazen enough to confront police officers with guns.
"We're not going to tolerate it," Johnson said. "We will increase our efforts. We will add more resources to the department."
David B. Mitchell, who was Prince George's police chief from 1990 through 1995, said he pinned the badge on Gaughan when the rookie officer graduated from the academy in 1990. "He was extremely energetic and a hard worker," Mitchell said. "He was professional. And he was extremely popular with the other troops.
"This is a dark day in the history of the Prince George's Police Department."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt and staff writers Ruben Castaneda and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.
Police officers return to their vehicles after the shootout at the Village at Montpelier apartment complex in the Laurel area.