On duty, under fire

On duty, under fire

A Wisconsin trooper faced down a gunman who planned to go out fighting

Published on October 24, 2015


Stopped in his patrol cruiser, Trooper Trevor Casper searched for a gray Toyota Corolla on a busy stretch of Highway 41. Behind the wheel was Steven Timothy Snyder, a bank robber and killer on the run. When Casper spotted Snyder about 5:30 p.m., he eased his cruiser into southbound traffic, following the Corolla at a distance, keeping his lights and siren off.

About this story: To identify trends among fatal shootings by police, The Post studied whether the individuals killed were unarmed or armed with weapons and reviewed the actions they took in the immediate moments before police shot them. The Post has compiled a database of all fatal shootings nationwide by officers in the line of duty in 2015.
Above: Law enforcement from throughout Wisconsin take part in a flag ceremony as the casket of Trooper Trevor Casper is transported to Kiel High School for visitation, followed by the funeral. Casper was a graduate of the high school in Kiel, Wis., four years ago. (Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

But Snyder soon realized he was being followed. Outside the Pick ’n Save grocery store, he abruptly turned his car around. He raised his semiautomatic pistol and opened fire, striking Casper in the neck.

Snyder and Casper jumped out of their cars while they were still rolling. The 21-year-old trooper, armed with a .40-caliber Glock, and the 38-year-old bank robber circled the cruiser, guns blazing. Casper fired 12 rounds; Snyder got off nine armor-piercing bullets, one of which penetrated Casper’s ballistic vest. And when it was over, Snyder lay dying of a gunshot wound to his back.

Above: Law enforcement from throughout Wisconsin take part in a flag ceremony as the casket of Trooper Trevor Casper is transported to Kiel High School for visitation, followed by the funeral. Casper was a graduate of the high school in Kiel, Wis., four years ago. (Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

“Bad guy is down,” a dispatcher reported.

Casper collapsed and then dropped his gun. March 24 was his first solo day on the job — and his last. Shot three times, he became the youngest law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in Wisconsin history. Casper is among 31 officers this year who have been shot to death by perpetrators, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. He was hailed as a hero for stopping Snyder, who had magazines of ammunition tucked in his socks and left a manifesto promising “to go down fighting hard.”

Wisconsin State Patrol Trooper Trevor Casper was killed in the line of duty on March 24 in Fond du Lac, Wis. He was the youngest law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in Wisconsin history. (Courtesy of the Casper Family)

Snyder’s killing, as documented in interviews and police reports, is among the 800 fatal shootings by police so far this year. As the tally continues to grow, so does public debate and criticism over police use of deadly force.

But only a small number of the shootings — roughly 5 percent — occurred under the kind of circumstances that raise doubt and draw public outcry, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. The vast majority of individuals shot and killed by police officers were, like Snyder, armed with guns and killed after attacking police officers or civilians or making other direct threats.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, said The Post’s findings confirm what police officers already know.

“We know that anecdotally, because typically that’s why police officers choose to use deadly force,” said Pasco, whose organization includes 335,000 officers nationwide. “These are circumstances where their lives or the lives of citizens around them are in imminent danger.”

In 74 percent of all fatal police shootings, the individuals had already fired shots, brandished a gun or attacked a person with a weapon or their bare hands, according to an analysis of actions immediately preceding the shootings, which draws on reports from law enforcement agencies and local media coverage. These 595 cases include fatal shootings that followed a wide range of violent crimes, including shootouts, stabbings, hostage situations, carjackings and assaults.

Another 16 percent of the shootings came after incidents that did not involve firearms or active attacks but featured other potentially dangerous threats. These shootings were most commonly of individuals who brandished knives and refused to drop them.

The 5 percent of cases that are often second-guessed include individuals who police said failed to follow their orders, made sudden movements or were accidentally shot. In another 4 percent of cases, The Post was unable to determine the circumstances of the shootings because of limited information or ongoing investigations.

Much of the public outcry about police use of deadly force began in August 2014 when a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, after a struggle in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury declined to indict the officer. Of the 800 people killed by police this year, almost half have been white, a quarter have been black and one-sixth have been Hispanic.

The Post is tracking all fatal shootings by police while on duty in 2015. Recently, the FBI and the U.S. attorney general acknowledged weaknesses in their own counting of fatal shootings by police and announced plans to more thoroughly collect data.

To identify trends among the shootings, The Post studied whether the individuals were unarmed or armed with weapons and reviewed the actions they took in the immediate moments before police shot and killed them.

Of the 595 cases in which a person fired a gun, brandished a gun or attacked an officer or individual with a weapon or bare hands:

  • The most common type of encounter — 242 fatal shootings by police officers — occurred when individuals pointed or brandished a gun but had not yet fired the weapon at a person.
  • The next-largest group — 224 shootings — included situations similar to the one that led to Casper’s death: an individual firing a gun at a police officer or a bystander. The Post found that in 87 percent of these cases, the gunfire was directed at police officers.
  •  In 129 of the fatal shootings, individuals attacked police officers or civilians but had no gun. They were armed with weapons such as knives, hatchets, chemical agents and vehicles. Of these, 70 percent of the attacks were directed at police.

Deadly shootings by police, 2015

shot a gun at someone

attacked someone with something other than a gun

brandished or pointed a gun at someone

were involved in other or undetermined circumstances

NOTE: Some in the non-gun attack group may have had a gun, but didn’t use it in the attack just before their death.

First day solo on the job

With a population of 43,000, Fond du Lac is about halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay. Here, there were no protests and no moments of second-guessing after Casper’s decision to shoot and kill Snyder.

Elementary school children mailed stacks of hand-drawn cards to the troopers, and boxes of free pizzas were delivered to their post. Supporters tied ribbons to a local bridge and shone blue lights at night to honor Casper’s sacrifice.

“There are so many people who have 30-year careers and never have this happen to them,” said Clarissa Justmann, a trooper who responded to help Casper. “Trevor was on the job, by himself, for one day. And you just sit there, and you just wonder how this happened.”

Casper grew up in the rural Wisconsin community of Kiel, population 3,747. He was 5 feet 7 inches tall, with an average build, blue eyes and light blond hair. He wrestled and played soccer and was a big brother to his younger sisters, Olivia and Lauren.

After high school, he studied criminal justice at Lakeshore Technical College. Casper appeared in a promotional video in 2014 to talk about the school’s program. In the piece, he conducted mock field-sobriety tests, wrestled down a perpetrator and hosed off a fellow officer with water after he was pepper-sprayed.

The interviewer asked him about the risks he might face in this line of work: “Are you ever worried?”

Casper paused and smiled. He admitted he had been a little nervous.

“I know that when I go out there, I’m always looking around, I’m always safe,” he said. “It could happen, but I think it’s kind of . . . I don’t know how to say it . . . but going out and helping people and putting a positive impact on people’s lives, I think it would be worth it.”

Kevin Casper, 52, remembers the day in June 2014 that his son found out he had made it into the cadet class of the Wisconsin State Patrol. He came out of the house — nearly flying — into the back yard to share the news. They jumped and yelled and hugged each other.

Video: 'Casper: It's worth it.'

In 2014, Trevor Casper was interviewed about the risks involved in law enforcement. At the time, he was studying criminal justice at Lakeshore Technical College.
Play Video

(Whitney Leaming / Lakeshore Technical College)

In December, he graduated in the top half of his cadet class. Because of his good grades, Casper got his top choice for his first post: Fond du Lac, just 45 minutes from his home town.

Trooper Trevor Casper poses with his younger sisters Olivia, left, and Lauren after his graduation ceremony from the Wisconsin State Patrol Academy in December. (Courtesy of the Casper Family)

He spent his first 14 weeks on the job with field training officers. He would then get the chance to ride solo for the first time.

The family traveled down to Fond du Lac to visit with Trevor the weekend before the big day. Late that Friday afternoon, Kevin gave Trevor a haircut in his apartment kitchen. He asked him if he was nervous.

Trevor spun around in his chair to face his father. “I’m not nervous at all,” he told him. “I can’t wait. This is what I want to do.”

The family took Trevor to dinner at Friar Tuck’s, a local restaurant. He ordered a half-pound burger and fries. They visited afterward at his apartment and then headed home.

A few days later, on Tuesday, March 24, Casper was scheduled to start his shift at 3 p.m. When he went to get into his patrol car outside his apartment, the battery was dead.

Justmann, then 23, lived a few doors down, so she stopped by to jump-start his car. Justmann had been on the force just a year herself. The two had become quick buddies, part of a self-described “wolf pack” of new troopers who forged a friendship over trivia nights.

The two chatted about Casper’s first day. She told him not to do anything too “dramatic.” Just make some easy stops, as they call them, for loud exhaust mufflers or for dark-tinted windows. She would be out there, too, and she would stay nearby just in case he needed her.

Casper hit the road.

Video: 'Stay with us Trevor'

On his first day working alone, Trooper Trevor Casper of the Wisconsin State Patrol became the youngest Wisconsin law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty. He is remembered as a hero.
Play Video

(Whitney Leaming)

‘Armed and dangerous’

Hours north, in Marinette County, Snyder had robbed a local community bank with a gun and ordered employees to empty the vault and cash registers. Outside the bank, he stole a van and drove to where he had parked his getaway car.

There, he encountered 59-year-old Thomas C. Christ, a grandfather who worked as a truck driver. Authorities believe that Christ may have confronted Snyder because he parked his car near Christ’s property. Snyder shot Christ to death, leaving him in a ditch by the road.

Authorities would later determine that Snyder had a violent past.

Snyder, who lived in Michigan and worked as a mason, had been involved with skinhead and neo-Nazi movements, reflected in white-supremacist tattoos on his body. Friends told investigators that he was the “lone wolf” type — a man who believed in anarchy and held strong anti-government sentiments.

He had attacked his estranged wife, grabbing and hitting her head last Christmas. She sought treatment at an emergency room for the injuries. At the time of the shootout, he was wanted in Michigan on a charge of aggravated assault because of the incident.

Attempts to reach Snyder’s family for comment were unsuccessful.

After his death, the FBI and Michigan authorities would determine that Snyder was the man they had been searching for in a string of bank robberies. Using DNA samples, they linked him to nine bank robberies across three states since 2011. The FBI had dubbed him the “Respectful Robber” for his eerily calm demeanor and because he reportedly held the door open for a woman during a holdup.

In his getaway car, authorities would later find $137,960 from the robbery in Marinette County and a handwritten manifesto dated March 23. He vowed to be “relentless and dangerous till the last breath I take.”

Snyder texted goodbye messages to friends and family on March 24. Authorities tracked Snyder’s phone electronically and determined that he was driving south from the robbery and passing through Oshkosh, just north of Fond du Lac.

“Bank robbery, homicide, Marinette County,” a dispatcher said, providing a description of the getaway car and the perpetrator. “Armed and dangerous.”

Casper scoured the highway for Snyder’s car. About seven miles away, Justmann and fellow trooper Andrew Hyer, 37, kept watch in a crossover.

Casper saw the car first.

The moment is one Casper’s family revisits again and again. What if he had glanced down to look at his phone? What if he had been elsewhere?

Trevor Casper's parents, Debbie and Kevin, hold their eldest child's senior picture and his trooper hat in their home in Kiel, Wis. Trevor Casper was killed in the line of duty on March 24, his first solo day on the job, during a shootout in Fond du Lac. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

“Being the first day, when the car came by, it would have been so easy to look the other way,” said his mother, Debbie Casper, 52.

Kevin stopped her. “That never would have happened,” he said. “I know Trevor was watching, and I know he wouldn’t have missed it.”

They both imagine their son sitting a bit taller in his patrol car, perhaps with a rush of adrenaline and a sense of pride.

‘Please keep trying’

As Casper followed Snyder’s car into Fond du Lac, his fellow troopers raced to provide back-up. They arrived just as the shootout had begun. Justmann remembers seeing Casper in a full sprint chasing the suspect around the car. And she saw the fatal shot that killed Snyder.

“I remember seeing Trevor hit this guy, and the bullet went into this guy’s back,” she said. “I saw the shirt ripple, and there was an explosion of gray fabric.”

She reached for the shotgun in the trunk of her patrol car. She asked Casper if he was okay. He seemed winded, perhaps out of breath.

He grabbed onto the trunk of his car to steady himself. Then, he fell. He dropped his gun to the ground. There was blood everywhere.

“Trevor, stay with me!” Justmann screamed.

Snyder’s body lay nearby in the grass, with his right hand clenching his gun to his chest. Another handgun was found nearby, along with 137 rounds of ammunition.

Capt. Anthony Burrell, then 48, arrived just as Casper had fallen. Hyer dragged Casper along the ground. Justmann rolled him onto his side. She realized that he had been shot in his back. An armor-piercing bullet had traveled through his ballistic vest, into his back and out his chest, according to a district attorney’s report.

“We’ve got to get him out of here,” Burrell told the two troopers. They loaded him into the back of a patrol SUV, and as they sped from the scene, they saw paramedics parked nearby.

They transferred Casper to the ambulance and rushed to the local airport, hoping to catch a Flight for Life helicopter to a trauma center close to Appleton. Burrell paced in the airport hangar, waiting for them to load Casper in the helicopter. A nurse dressed in a flight suit told Burrell they were still working on him in the ambulance.

A few minutes passed. Then the nurse pulled Burrell aside. Casper hadn’t made it, she told him.

“Please keep trying,” he said. “You have to keep trying.”

“There’s nothing more we can do,” she told him. Casper had lost too much blood.

Burrell cursed. One of the paramedics took off his gloves. He asked Burrell if he wanted a few minutes alone in the ambulance.

Burrell sat with his trooper. A white sheet covered Casper’s body. With his right hand, Burrell lifted up the sheet. He stared at Casper’s face, now ashen. He said a prayer and then lowered the sheet.

Together, they began the 10-minute drive to the hospital.

LEFT: Authorities investigate the scene in Fond du Lac, Wisc., where Trooper Trevor Casper died after a shootout with a bank robber, who had killed a 59-year-old man earlier in the day. (Doug Raflik/Associated Press) RIGHT: A roadside memorial was set up for Casper by law enforcement and residents of Fond du Lac. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

The ultimate price

The Caspers can’t remember how they first heard of the shooting. They think it was online or maybe on the local TV news. Debbie remembers searching Twitter and finding fragments of information. She called and texted Trevor. The family paced in circles in the kitchen.

“You just keep hoping,” said Debbie. “You talk yourself into the idea that no news is good news.”

Debbie called Dave Funkhouser, the Kiel police chief and a longtime family friend. She was panicked. He called the State Patrol post to get answers.

They told Funkhouser that Casper was dead. Top-ranking State Patrol officials were rushing toward Kiel to tell the Casper family but were concerned that word would leak to local media. They asked Funkhouser to quickly drive to the Caspers’ home.

It was dark outside. Funkhouser saw Debbie waiting in the doorway. He placed his hand on her shoulder and led her, along with Kevin and Olivia, to the living room. He sat on a loveseat, facing the family on the sofa.

He didn’t drag it out.

Trevor died, he told them. That moment, the chief remembers, was the worst in his 27-year career in law enforcement.

About 10 minutes later, the Wisconsin State Patrol’s superintendent, lieutenant colonel and chaplain arrived at the front door.

In the dark, the family began the 45-minute drive to Fond du Lac.

There, the troopers had followed the ambulance to the local hospital. The Wisconsin Department of Justice later released dash-cam video that captured the conversation in the patrol car between the two troopers who witnessed the fatal shootout.

Hyer drove. Justmann cried. He told Justmann there are “bad people” in this world.

“We try to make it safer for everyone else. We try to do our part.”

“Yeah,” she said. “But, oh, my God.”

“It sounds like Casper was able to do something about it,” he told her.

“He did,” she said. “He paid the ultimate price.”

They stood in St. Agnes Hospital for hours, waiting outside the room that held Casper’s body. All of Casper’s clothing and personal belongings would be catalogued, at first for the investigation, and then, for his family to claim and divide among those who loved him.

Justmann kept his Taser. She wanted a piece of him with her on duty. His younger sister, Olivia, keeps one of his dress uniforms in her bedroom closet.

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‘His heroic sacrifice’

As night fell on March 24, the top brass across Wisconsin descended upon the scene to begin a forensic analysis of how this had happened to one of their own.

Every bullet and every blood spatter would become evidence in the killing of Trooper Trevor Casper.

The state’s report would total nearly 1,000 pages. A second report, from Fond du Lac District Attorney Eric Toney, would conclude that “Casper eliminated the threat posed to our community by the suspect” and that Casper was both “privileged and justified” in defending himself and others by using deadly force.

“His heroic sacrifice,” Toney wrote, and the loss to the Casper family “should never be forgotten.”

The local sheriff, Mick Fink, arrived at the scene soon after the shootout. As Fink looked around, the scene already told the story.

It was a battlefield.

“Holy cow,” he thought. “This kid died fighting.”

Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins and Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

About this story: To identify trends among fatal shootings by police, The Post studied whether the individuals killed were unarmed or armed with weapons and reviewed the actions they took in the immediate moments before police shot them. The Post has compiled a database of all fatal shootings nationwide by officers in the line of duty in 2015.

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