CHAMPAIGN — Illinois State Police leading the investigation into the deaths of a Champaign police officer and the man who reportedly shot him early Wednesday morning outside a north Champaign apartment complex are urging patience on the part of the public.
Both Officer Christopher Oberheim, 44, and Darion Lafayette, 24, died from injuries they received in an exchange of gunfire about 3:25 a.m. at the Town Center Apartments in the 2400 block of North Neil Street.
A second Champaign police officer was shot, but authorities have declined to identify him, as he had not been formally interviewed by late afternoon Wednesday.
“There’s a lot of data to be collected. The process is what is going to deliver the truth,” said Illinois State Police Capt. Jason Henderson, who is heading up the multi-jurisdictional use-of-force team that includes officers from Urbana and University of Illinois police and the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office.
He appeared with Champaign police Chief Anthony Cobb at an afternoon news conference Wednesday, where Cobb said only that the injured officer is “recovering” and declined to say where he was shot or how many times.
“Things need to be gathered from that person,” said the chief.
Also with Henderson and Cobb on Wednesday were Champaign State’s Attorney Julia Rietz and Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen and City Manager Dorothy David.
Cobb and Henderson said the officers were summoned to a domestic disturbance at the apartment complex.
Asked if there was indeed such a dispute, Henderson said, “There are a lot of details yet to be confirmed.”
“Today is only the first day of this investigation,” said Rietz, who explained that her role was to review all reports for any violations of state law.
“We are absolutely committed to being as transparent as possible as soon as possible. But this is only the first day,” she said.
Cobb and Henderson said the officers got out of their squad cars, “encountered an armed individual, and gunfire was exchanged.”
“Video exists,” the chief said. “We will make this available as quickly as we can.”
All Champaign police officers wear body cameras. And Cobb said there were witnesses who still need to be interviewed, so he did not want to jeopardize the integrity of the investigation by revealing too much of what police believe happened.
Mr. Lafayette died at the scene. Officer Oberheim was taken to Carle Foundation Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:03 a.m. Autopsies on both men are scheduled for today.
Officer Oberheim is the third Champaign police officer to be killed in the line of duty. The other two were also fatally shot, in 1967 and 1913.
He had been with the Champaign police department for 13 years, having been hired in September 2008. Prior to that, he had worked as an officer for the Decatur Police Department from September 2000 to December 2007.
For the last several years, he had worked the midnight shift. The chief said he formerly served on the SWAT team and had earned two departmental awards for valor.
He is survived by his wife, Amber, and four daughters, the oldest of whom just graduated from Monticello High School.
Mr. Lafayette was also a father, son, brother and uncle, according to a Facebook post by a woman who said she was his niece.
Champaign County court records show Mr. Lafayette had previous arrests for domestic violence involving three different females and drug possession dating to 2017, when he would have been 21.
That year, he pleaded guilty to violation of bail bond for a July 12, 2017, incident for which he was charged with aggravated domestic battery, domestic battery and criminal damage to property. The charges alleged he bit one woman and broke the phone of another in that case.
He was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to get mental-health and substance-abuse evaluations. Court records show he completed his probation in October 2019.
That same month, he was charged again with aggravated domestic battery stemming from an incident in Urbana. He pleaded guilty to that and was sentenced to 60 days in jail and two years of probation.
In between those cases, he was charged in September 2018 with possession of less than 5 grams of methamphetamine and was sentenced to 30 months of probation. He was discharged from probation just last month. That case was investigated by Champaign police.
‘Devoted public servant’
Word of the fatal shootings spread quickly Wednesday morning. Dozens of first-responder vehicles lined University Avenue near Carle Foundation Hospital as the fallen officer’s body was taken from the hospital to the morgue in east Urbana.
Cobb was among the first to issue a written tribute to his colleague.
“His only intention was to serve, protect and help provide care before he was senselessly fired upon and killed. A true professional and devoted public servant, Officer Oberheim is remembered for his heroism, bravery, and the oath of office he honorably upheld in his commitment to duty,” Cobb wrote.
Just last Friday, Cobb spoke publicly about the escalating gun violence plaguing Champaign.
“Increasingly, our officers are finding themselves in close proximity to the shootings or gunfire, and I am concerned that our officers will be faced with a deadly use-of-force decision,” he said at a hastily called news conference after a pregnant woman was shot about 1:15 p.m. Friday in west Champaign.
About 1:30 a.m. that same day, two men were hit by gunfire in a drive-by shooting on Main Street in downtown Champaign. Their injuries were non-life-threatening.
‘Senseless loss of life’
Feinen was also at that Friday news conference and used some of the same words she uttered again Wednesday.
“The pain and devastation from gun violence is all too common,” said the mayor, who also extended her sympathies to Mr. Lafayette’s family.
“My heart is filled with sadness and anguish over the senseless loss of life that has shaken this community,” added David, the city manager, who struggled to keep her composure.
While many people have been injured in the about 85 confirmed shootings this year in Champaign, Officer Oberheim and Mr. Lafayette are the second and third men to have died as a result.
The first was Aaron Jamerson, 30, of Champaign. He was shot late on April 10 north of the main post office on North Neil Street and died early the next day at Carle in surgery. No arrests have been made in his death.
Bruce Ramseyer, who retired in December as a patrol lieutenant for Champaign police, said he and Officer Oberheim would “chit-chat” as they passed in the mornings as Ramseyer was coming on for the day shift and Officer Oberheim was headed home.
“You could tell when it was travel softball season. Chris would always have a red, sunburned head,” Ramseyer said. “He planned his summer schedule around girls’ softball.”
Ramseyer, who now teaches part time at the UI’s Police Training Institute after 25 years in uniform, said officers are taught from Day 1 that domestic disputes can be “extremely volatile.”
“There are times when people call us and say ‘I need help,’ but when we interject ourselves, sometimes they are not always happy with our decisions,” he said. “We try not to take anything as routine just because we handle these things frequently.
“Chris and all other officers have handled these hundreds of times. You try to treat each one as unique and be careful every time while trying to treat these families with respect, all while trying to be safe. It’s a difficult task.”
Police officers were at the apartment complex processing evidence for at least 12 hours Wednesday.
The glass in the front door to one of the complex buildings was shattered and a bullet hole could be seen in a car in the parking lot.
Moment of silence
State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, a former prosecutor, asked for a moment of silence on the Illinois Senate floor Wednesday for Officer Oberheim and issued a statement in which he described the wounded officer as “one of my best friends in the world.”
“My friend is a stand-up citizen, coached my son’s Little League team, volunteers faithfully at our local community’s AWANA church program for kids and is defined by his faith,” Rose said.
Rose said he did not know Officer Oberheim but learned from others that he was also a devoted family man.
“Both of these men displayed the courage and selfless sacrifice that defines our brave men and women in blue,” he said. “Please join me in praying for Chris’ family, the successful recovery of my friend who was wounded, and to keep all of our officers in blue safe as they serve each of us. Please keep them all in your thoughts and prayers.”
Monticello school district Superintendent Vic Zimmerman said Officer Oberheim was “very involved in the lives of his four daughters, three of which currently attend our schools. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”
“Police officers, firefighters, and other first responders put their lives on the line every day to ensure that the rest of us are safe — they are there when we need them during our most difficult times and are often not appreciated for their daily work,” he said. “Tragedies like this bring out the best in all of us as we rally around them and their families during difficult times.”
‘Dad, you are my hero’
Hannah Oberheim, one of Officer Oberheim’s daughters, took to Twitter with her grief:
“My heart is completely broken. Due to the senseless act of someone who had no regard for life, I will never hear my dad laugh, get another hug, or be walked down the aisle one day with him by my side. Dad, you are my hero and I will spend the rest of my life missing you.”