Cop draws gun on Wal-Mart suspect

Man brandishing knife asked clerk for loaded gun

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Williston police arrested a transient man at gunpoint last week after he threatened a Wal-Mart clerk with a knife and attempted to steal a gun from the store.

Shawn Wood, 29, told police he wanted the gun so he could shoot someone. Williston Police Officer Scott Graham said Wood apparently had no particular target in mind.

Wood was arraigned in Chittenden District Court on Feb. 3 on charges of attempted assault and robbery. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and was being held without bail pending a mental competency evaluation.

Graham said Wood had been in Vermont for only three days, having arrived recently on a bus from California. He said Wood had been staying at a shelter on North Street in Burlington. Wood told Graham he could not find a job, was depressed and wanted to shoot someone. According to Graham, Wood said he did not know whether he was going to shoot someone inside Wal-Mart or outside the store.

Graham said he asked Wood what he would do if he released him. Wood said he would go somewhere else that sells guns, get a gun and shoot someone, according to Graham.

Williston Police Chief Ozzie Glidden said Wood initially approached the clerk at the Wal-Mart gun counter shortly after 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 2 and asked to see a shotgun. The clerk complied.

Wood eventually handed the shotgun back to the clerk and requested a different gun. Again, the clerk complied. However, when Wood asked to be shown how to load the gun, Glidden said, the clerk grew nervous and told Wood he could not load the gun.

Glidden said Wood then pulled out a hunting knife he had moments earlier swiped from the sporting goods department and demanded the clerk load the gun. The clerk told Wood the gun, like other guns for sale at Wal-Mart, has a trigger lock that prevents it from being loaded. He told Wood he would have to get a store manager to unlock it.

Wood allowed the clerk to go find the manager, Glidden said. However, the clerk instead walked to a phone and dialed 911.

Graham responded to the scene alone. Shortly after he entered Wal-Mart, an off-duty Chittenden County sheriff’s deputy approached him and offered to help.

Graham said he discovered Wood leaning on the counter in the gun department with his back to Graham and the sheriff’s deputy. He was still holding the knife.

Graham said he pointed his gun at Wood and yelled at him to drop the knife and lie down on the floor. He said Wood immediately complied, placing the knife on the counter and lying down. Wood was quickly handcuffed and detained, Graham said. He said the sheriff’s deputy did not draw his gun.

Graham said he was approximately 10 feet away from Wood when he pulled his gun on him. At such a close distance, Graham said, he would have been forced to shoot Wood if the man had made even a slight movement toward approaching him.

“He listened and I’m glad he did,” Graham said. “I was ready to shoot him if I had to.”

R.J. Elrick, executive director of the Vermont Police Academy, said based on a description of the incident Graham handled the delicate situation appropriately.

“This officer, if perceiving an imminent threat, and given the distance of 10 feet, would have been justified under most agency policies to use deadly force to protect himself,” Elrick said.

The potentially deadly incident did include a light moment. Graham said he later learned from a Wal-Mart worker that a man shopping for fillet knives two aisles away had dropped the knife he was examining when he heard Graham’s abrupt command, “Drop the knife!”

Soon after Wood was detained, a host of officers from various departments arrived. Glidden said they included personnel from the Vermont State Police and the South Burlington Police Department, as well as other Williston officers.

Graham credited the Wal-Mart clerk for the way he responded to Wood’s threats. He said the clerk’s level head helped steer the situation toward a peaceful resolution.

“He really couldn’t have handled it any better,” Graham said.