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Man dead after standoff with police at Big Bear Sports Center in Billings

From the 17 Billings-area stories from 2017 series
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A man crashed his car into Big Bear Sports Center at 3 a.m. Saturday, barricaded himself inside the store for nearly 10 hours and then died in a shootout with police.

The suspect's identity has not yet been released.

Events began to unfold earlier than that, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said in an impromptu news conference, when the man entered the West End Walmart store across the street from Big Bear.

"I'd heard he was run off from Walmart and came over here," St. John said. 

The man drove a 2000 Mercury Mountaineer with temporary license plates into the business' storefront allegedly to steal firearms, St. John said. The man then ran into the business and barricaded himself inside.

Police responded to the incident, and it developed into a standoff.

"We tried to negotiate but that did not happen," St. John said. "We ended up calling our SWAT team, our hostage negotiators and our bomb squad. We brought all our resources to bear on this."

The bomb squad was called, he said, because it has a robot with audio and visual capabilities.

At about 4:30 a.m., the man presented himself to officers pointing a weapon, and may have fired at the officers, St. John said. Officers returned fire.

"No officers were hurt and we don't know if the suspect was hit" at that point, he said.

Negotiations continued throughout the morning. Police could hear intermittent gunshots from inside the store, with the man using large- and small-caliber firearms.

"At one point in time he had a high-powered rifle we believe was fired at the armored vehicle, which is called the BEAR," St. John said. "It hit the windshield where our negotiator was sitting."

City dump trucks then were parked in front of Big Bear to block any bullets shot out of the store from potentially hitting other buildings or people.

Nearby retailers Best Buy and PetSmart and other stores in the immediate vicinity were closed Saturday morning and into the afternoon, although Home Depot remained open. Pizza Ranch across King Avenue West also was closed. 

A high school speech and debate meet taking place at Billings West High School went on lockdown as a precaution, but that was later lifted.

Just after 10 a.m., in an attempt to gain better visibility of the store's interior, a driver inside the BEAR removed glass from inside the entryway, inadvertently causing other damage to the front of the building. 

Police negotiators continued their attempts to de-escalate the situation. About 11:45, the man started to to exit the building from an east door near PetSmart.

"He showed his hands initially," St. John said. "He retreated into the building and then the next thing we saw was a rifle barrel that was pointed in the direction of officers."

One of the police officers saw the gun and fired at the door, driving the man back inside. At that point, police completely blocked off King Avenue West in front of the store.

After trying to re-establish phone contact with the man, he showed up at the store's front entrance about a half-hour later. The man failed to heed the commands of the police officers, and he and the officers exchanged gunfire.

"After the last volley happened we had no activity or conversation or communication," St. John said. 

Police could see, via store cameras, that the gunman wasn't moving. They waited 30 minutes before sending a bomb squad robot inside to get a close-up view of the scene.

"We sent our robot in to double-check because previously (the man) had feigned that he was going to give up, so we didn't want to put anybody at risk," St. John said.

After assessing the situation, tactical team members from BPD and the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office entered the store to confirm the man was dead.

Big Bear sustained major damage during the standoff, St. John said. The entry was damaged initially by the driver and then by the BEAR. A damaged water line left water inside the building, and police had yet to assess the damage the man did inside the business.

St. John said he had been in touch with Big Bear's owner and managers throughout the standoff, "and they've been very, very gracious."

"I'm just heartbroken at what has happened to their business and that one individual can cause this sort of mayhem," he said. "But we tried and tried and tried to resolve this peacefully and it didn't happen."

St. John said detectives had begun their investigation into what happened and why the man did what he did. Seven officers were involved in the shootings in the course of the 10-hour standoff and will go through the officer-involved shooting protocol.

"It's a very, very tragic deal but it was handled very well," he said.


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