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VIDEOS: Illinois State Police released to YouTube two videos of the May 19 fatal shootings in Champaign. Warning: The videos contain graphic content

URBANA — Champaign County’s top law enforcement officer said authorities have determined that a Champaign police officer was justified in fatally shooting a man who fired at him and his partner last week, killing Officer Christopher Oberheim.

“This is my preliminary opinion. I don’t expect it to change at all. I am confident that certainly from a legal perspective this was a justifiable use of deadly force and from a tactical perspective, Officer (Jeff) Creel’s acts were heroic,” State's Attorney Julia Rietz said Thursday.

Rietz and her criminal division chief, Troy Lozar, reviewed the evidence gathered in the preliminary investigation led by the Illinois State Police and declared that “Officer Jeffrey Creel’s use of deadly force was legally justified and appropriate. Further, Darion Lafayette was in violation of Illinois criminal law in that he illegally possessed a firearm and caused the death of Officer Chris Oberheim.”

Rietz laid out the evidence that she and Lozar relied on in coming to their legal conclusion, including surveillance video from Town Center Apartments; police body camera footage from Creel, Officer Oberheim and other responding officers; 911 calls; scene photos; written reports of officers; autopsy results on Officer Oberheim and Mr. Lafayette; and a search of Mr. Lafayette’s residence.

A presentation of that evidence was compiled and shared with representatives of Officer Oberheim’s family, she said.

Rietz said she, Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb and representatives of the Illinois State Police also met with members of Mr. Lafayette’s family earlier this week.

“We made efforts to share the preliminary investigation with Mr. Lafayette's family representatives,” she said, declining to comment on how the information was received.

Encounter lasts 'less than a minute'

The evidence presented in summary by Rietz showed that the three men crossed paths about 3:32 a.m. on Wednesday, May 19, because a neighbor on the second floor of the three-story building at 2419 Town Center, located in the complex in 2400 block of North Neil Street, heard what she believed was a violent domestic dispute going on in an apartment above hers and called 911 for help. That call was recorded at 3:24 a.m.

The woman involved with Mr. Lafayette, the mother of his child, declined to talk with police in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. Rietz said her two children, who were sleeping in the apartment when police checked on them, were unharmed.

The Department of Children and Family Services has placed the children in foster care and an abuse and neglect case involving them and their mother is underway in court, Rietz confirmed. The mother is represented by an attorney in that case.

Rietz said Officer Oberheim and Creel arrived about the same time in their respective squad cars, parked around the corner and walked toward the building to which they had been sent. Both had flashlights out but the parking lot was lit by overhead lights.

Creel saw a person come out of the building and get in a car that had backed into a space just in front of building 2419.

Before talking to the occupant, Creel tried to get information on the car but because METCAD had too much radio traffic, he was unable to get it.

The officers saw Mr. Lafayette alone in the driver’s seat. The driver’s door was ajar, his left foot was on the ground and he had a cellphone in his left hand. His right hand was reaching into the passenger seat.

Creel was in front of Officer Oberheim as the pair approached the car from the rear.

“What’s up, man? Champaign police. How are you?” Creel said. “Put your hands where I can see them.”

As Mr. Lafayette leaned out of the car, Creel asked him what he was doing and Mr. Lafayette responded, “I’m in my car, sir.”

Creel instructed him to “drop your hands,” and Mr. Lafayette got out and came into direct contact with Creel, declaring: “I ain’t got nothin’, man.”

Rietz said 7.5 seconds had elapsed from the time Creel first spoke to the beginning of a physical struggle.

Creel tried to control Mr. Lafayette by wrapping him in a bear hug but Mr. Lafayette broke free and began firing the gun in his right hand.

Body camera video showed Officer Oberheim reach in and try to help. Neither officer had their guns drawn, Rietz said.

Multiple gunshots and flashes can be seen on the Town Center video, which had no audio, but both officers’ body cameras recorded the audio.

Officer Oberheim was hit first and fell backwards at the rear of Mr. Lafayette's car. Creel’s body camera fell off his chest during the struggle and landed face down under a car as the shots continued. Officer Oberheim’s body camera fell from him as he collapsed and was pointing upward.

Creel reported that after shooting Officer Oberheim, Mr. Lafayette then shot him twice in the right upper chest, forcing him to the ground. A third shot hit the right-handed Creel in the left arm and went in and out, Rietz said.

“Creel reported the next thing he remembered was that he was able to get to his feet and move to the rear of the vehicle, where he observed Officer Oberheim lying on the sidewalk with a severe gunshot wound to the head, and Darion Lafayette on his feet next to Officer Oberheim,” Rietz said.

Creel reported: “Fearing that Darion would again try to shoot and kill me and Officer Oberheim, I immediately fired my sidearm numerous times into Darion until I felt we were safe.”

Mr. Lafayette fell on the sidewalk near Officer Oberheim. There was a 9 mm Glock handgun next to him. The slide was locked back and the magazine was empty.

Shell casings collected at the scene and an examination of the guns involved showed that Mr. Lafayette fired at least nine shots and Creel four.

“You will hear the initial volley of shooting is erratic,” Rietz said. “The final four (shots from Creel) are very controlled and measured and consistent with officer training.”

“The actual encounter between the three of them is definitely less than a minute,” Rietz said.

Wounded and calling for help

With both his colleague and the shooter not responsive, Creel called for help. Ambulance paramedics were dispatched at 3:37 a.m. and firefighters were working on both men at 3:42 a.m. Ten minutes later, they found no signs of life in Mr. Lafayette. Officer Oberheim was taken to Carle, where he was pronounced dead at 6:02 a.m.

An autopsy showed Officer Oberheim was shot three times: once each in the torso, neck and head. The fatal wound entered the left rear of his skull, according to preliminary autopsy results.

Mr. Lafayette was hit three times: once in the right back, penetrating his lower left lung and twice in the front of the head. All three were considered fatal.

Rietz said Creel’s body armor prevented the rounds from going into his chest.

“The vest absolutely saved his life and then he was able to get up to assess the situation, see that his partner was seriously injured and that the assailant was standing over him with the ability to do further harm to Officer Oberheim, Creel or somebody else and he was able to respond and end the threat,” said Rietz, further marveling that Creel had the ability to summon help to the scene as fast as he did “to try to save his partner.”

In addition to paramedics, several officers from Champaign, the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office and University of Illinois police were present.

A search of Mr. Lafayette’s apartment found two magazines in a dresser drawer loaded with the same kind of ammunition that had been fired outside the apartment complex. Officers found a gun case for a Glock firearm in a closet.

Mr. Lafayette’s criminal history includes prior convictions for violation of bail bond in 2017, unlawful possession of methamphetamine in 2018 and aggravated domestic battery in 2019, for which he was still serving a sentence of probation.

Because of his felony convictions, he was not allowed to possess a gun or ammunition.

Legal analysis

Rietz said she and Lozar concluded that under existing case law, the officers were justified in approaching Mr. Lafayette to ask him if he was involved in the domestic dispute to which they had been sent and that Creel, for officer safety purposes, was justified in asking Mr. Lafayette to show his hands.

Further, Creel’s use of deadly force was reasonable because Mr. Lafayette had repeatedly fired a gun, struck Officer Oberheim, was still armed and “appeared capable” of continuing to shoot the officers or others.

Thus, Creel’s use of force “was reasonable and consistent with his responsibility as a peace officer given the entirety of the circumstances he faced in the early morning hours of May 19, 2021.”

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).

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