Police chief: Ambush killing of Iowa police officers was 'a cowardly act of calculated murder'

Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert speaks during a press conference Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, at the Des Moines Police Department in Des Moines, Iowa. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP)

DES MOINES - A day after police in Iowa captured a man they say killed two officers in a pair of brazen ambushes, authorities here said they may never truly know the motivation for what one official called "cowardly" attacks.

While investigators will try to determine what prompted the attacks - and what, if any, connection they might have had to a confrontation between the suspected gunman and police just weeks earlier - the Des Moines police chief said he will not be among those trying to discern a reason for the bloodshed.

"What happened yesterday was calculated murder of two law enforcement officers, plain and simple," Dana Wingert, the police chief in Iowa's largest city, said at a news briefing Thursday.

Wingert was visibly angry as he discussed the shootings, which claimed the lives of Sgt. Anthony Beminio, one of his officers, and Justin Martin, a rookie officer from neighboring Urbandale.

"We did not deserve this," Wingert said. He added: "I won't try to reason or make sense of this. This was calculated murder. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. It was cowardly in every sense of the word."

Authorities on Thursday charged Scott Michael Greene, 46, with two counts of murder in the first degree, according to online records kept by the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

Greene, the lone suspect in the ambushes, was listed as being held in the Polk County Jail without bond after being booked just after 3 p.m. According to the Des Moines Register, he was taken to jail in the handcuffs belonging to the slain officers.

When authorities apprehended him Wednesday morning, nearly eight hours after the first officer was killed, police say he told them he had "an existing medical condition," so he was taken to the hospital and kept there overnight.

Sgt. Paul Parizek, a Des Moines police spokesman, said Thursday morning at the briefing that formal murder charges were expected once he was out of the hospital and able to speak to detectives.

Greene was still hospitalized on Thursday morning, more than a day after he was apprehended, and had not spoken to detectives at that point, officials said. Parizek told The Post that Greene was released later Thursday and taken to the police station for questioning.

Before the killings, Greene had been clashing with police, strangers and his family with increasing frequency, and on at least two occasions he was apparently involved in racially charged confrontations.

People who knew and encountered him described him as someone who acted strangely and was "ready to blow." Greene and his mother had each accused the other of abuse, and in court documents Patricia Greene described her son as mentally disturbed and volatile.

Greene's car was found Wednesday bogged down in a wooded area, Parizek said, and authorities also found a rifle they believe was used in the attacks. The gun was well hidden in a rural area, and police might never have been able to find it without an explosives-detection dog, Parizek said.

Even after detectives interview Greene, Parizek said, it might not be clear whether they would fully determine what could have prompted the attacks.

"I don't know if we'll ever really know," Parizek said. "There's a lot of time in these investigations where unless they provide us with a reason why they did it, we won't really know."

Parizek said authorities can speculate about motives after carefully probing what he called "maybe the biggest case we've ever faced," but that does not mean they will ultimately make sense of it, he said.

As part of the investigation, police interviewed numerous witnesses and some of Greene's relatives. Police said they believe that Greene acted alone. They also said his family will not be the focus of their investigation, describing his relatives as people who were victimized by the shootings much like the law enforcement community.

"They didn't do this," Parizek said. "Their family's torn apart just as much as our families are."

Gordon Sterk, who owns two local Ace Hardware stores, had employed Greene as a part-time worker three times in recent years. He said he was shocked by what happened.

"I never thought he'd have that in him," Sterk said at his store outside Des Moines Thursday. "I never saw him angry, but you never know what is going through someone's head."

More than a year ago, Sterk said, Greene called in sick because he said he was suffering from depression. But then, Sterk said, Greene started taking medication and "had a whole new outlook and was thinking clearer." Just a day before the fatal shootings, Sterk said he saw Greene again and described him as agitated and not himself. Greene came into Sterk's store and, even though he no longer worked there, began to straighten the shelves.

When an employee commented that it looked like they had taught Greene well during his time there, Sterk said, Greene snapped: "You didn't teach me that, my dad did." Neighbors say the death of Greene's father from cancer in 2010 hit him particularly hard.

Sterk called the killings "senseless." He said, "If you want to take your own life that's one thing, but leave others out of it. I never thought we'd have a cop killing in this town."

The killings horrified police and citizens alike in Iowa. At a vigil Wednesday night, religious leaders offered their condolences, and some also alluded to the bitter tone of the ongoing presidential election. Bishop Alan Scarfe of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa said the election was unleashing a torrent of hate and said it was "time to mourn what we are becoming." Others at the vigil said they just felt disturbed and unsafe because the violence happened so close to home.

"This whole thing just makes me sick," said Diana Griffith, 72. "I wanted to show my support, but I guess I also just wanted to comfort myself."

Two of the incidents in Greene's past had racial elements. Greene, who is white, was convicted of harassment in 2014 after a man told police that Greene called him the n-word and threatened to kill him, court records show.

Last month, Greene was asked to leave a high school football game in Urbandale, a city just outside Des Moines, while he was waving a Confederate battle flag.

A YouTube account bearing his name uploaded a video titled "Police Abuse, Civil Rights Violation at Urbandale High School" that appeared to record Greene arguing with police officers telling him he had to leave Urbandale High School property after showing up at football game waving the Confederate flag. In the video, the man who appears to be Greene can be heard saying he was assaulted while "peacefully protesting."

Denzil Miller, a Hoover High senior who was at the game while his school played Urbandale, said a "murmur" spread along the Hoover sideline as people noticed the flag.

"It was kind of shocking," Miller, 18, said in an interview. "It's not like everyone was getting into a big uproar about it, but everyone noticed."

Police say they are not sure if Greene's confrontation with officers at the football game had any link to the shooting.

The Urbandale Police Department said it issued a warning to Greene, whose daughter attended the high school, after that episode. Two days later, Greene got into a fight with his mother and accused her of domestic abuse, forcing her to pack up and leave her home; police say that he also recorded that episode. Greene had been in court on Tuesday for a hearing about his mother's accusations that he abused her.

After Greene was taken into custody and police showed up at his mother's house, a close friend of Greene's mother stood in her driveway crying about the shooting. The woman, who asked not to be identified, said that Patricia Greene was inconsolable after the shooting.

"She did not raise him like that," the woman said.

Early Wednesday morning, police say, the first officer was shot dead while sitting in his squad car at an intersection next to Urbandale High School. The officer, 24-year-old Justin Martin, had joined the force a year earlier and was 10 weeks removed from his probationary period. Police found Sgt. Anthony Beminio, 38, about 20 minutes later, also fatally shot in his car.

Authorities say neither officer appeared to have a chance to speak with Greene or try to defend themselves before they were killed. Funerals have not been arranged yet, police say.

Martin and Beminio were the 51st and 52nd law enforcement officers fatally shot this year, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, a nonprofit that tracks line-of-duty deaths. That number has surged upward this year, fueled in part by ambush attacks like those that killed eight officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas.


Berman reported from Washington. Emma Brown, William Wan, Julie Tate and Alice Crites in Washington and Casey Hynes in Urbandale contributed to this report.

Authors Information:

Colby Itkowitz is the lead anchor of the Inspired Life blog. She previously covered the quirks of national politics and the federal government.

Mark Berman covers national news for The Washington Post and anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and stories from around the country.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Colby Itkowitz, Mark Berman




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