Twenty-six-year-old Ervin Eugene Sweat Jr. was wanted on a pair of warrants and facing imminent arrest when he stepped out of a Ford truck and opened fire on police officers, initiating the gunfire exchange that killed him on Sept. 9, Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman said at a press conference two days later.
During the Sept. 11 press conference, Chapman said Sweat fired at least two shots at the officers from a semi-automatic .40 caliber Smith and Wesson pistol, one of which struck Humboldt State University Police Officer Louis Altic in the upper thigh. Altic and Arcata Police Officer Matthew O'Donovan returned fire, with all nine of their shots hitting Sweat, who was later pronounced dead at Mad River Community Hospital.
Chapman and UPD Chief Donn Peterson both said Altic is lucky to be alive, noting that the bullet narrowly missed the femoral artery in his right leg. Peterson said a surgeon described it as a "miracle."
"We all feel very, very fortunate to have him with us still," Peterson said of Altic, who has served as an officer for more than a decade, having moved to UPD from the Eureka Police Department a couple years ago.
Chapman said this is the first time a police officer has been shot in Arcata since April 1, 1980, when an officer was wounded shortly before shooting and killing a suspect during a foot chase after an armed robbery. This is also the first time APD has shot and killed a suspect since that incident. (The department had gone 36 years without an officer-involved shooting before officers wounded a suspect at a gas station last year.)
Witnesses interviewed by the Journal said the Sept. 9 shooting was preceded by a fight, which began with a verbal altercation between a man and a woman out in front of the bars. The situation escalated when the man walked over the hood of the woman's car, prompting her to yell at him. At that point, the witnesses said, the altercation turned physical as others intervened, including one of the man's friends, who they said pulled a handgun and threatened the woman and her friends.
Police responded to Arcata's bar row on the Arcata Plaza shortly before 1:30 a.m. to a call of a physical fight, Chapman said, but arrived after it had been broken up or dispersed. As officers investigated, a bystander told them one of the people involved in the fight had brandished a handgun and was now in a blue Ford F-150 parked in front of Toby and Jack's bar. When officers turned their attention to the truck, Chapman said, Sweat got out of its rear passenger seat. The chief said video footage from the dash camera of a responding patrol car shows Sweat exit the vehicle and immediately level the pistol at police but does not show the actual shooting.
Chapman said all indications at this early stage of the investigation are that Sweat opened fire almost immediately, firing at least two shots. Officers returned fire, fatally wounding Sweat, and then immediately began administering CPR.
During the press conference, Chapman said Sweat is from Antioch, Tennessee, but appears to have bounced back and forth a fair amount between there and California. There are records of local law enforcement contacts with him going back to 2014, Chapman said, later noting that the booking photo sent out with APD's press release was from a local arrest in 2016.
Chapman declined to opine as to why Sweat allegedly decided to draw his gun on police, but the chief did note that Sweat was a convicted felon in possession of a firearm with two active warrants out for his arrest — one stemming from a firearms possession case out of Santa Barbara County and a no-bail warrant stemming from a local felony evasion case.
"Mr. Sweat was going to go to jail that night," Chapman said.
There were four other occupants of the Ford truck when Sweat stepped out, but all have been cooperative with the investigation, Chapman said. The chief estimated 50 to 100 people were milling around in front of the bars at the time of the shooting.
Chapman closed the press conference by expressing gratitude to UPD, which routinely offers back up to APD, as Altic was doing Saturday morning.
"This is one of the most ... gut-wrenching calls you can get in law enforcement," he said. "As a chief, getting a call at 2 a.m. to hear an officer is down — I don't know that I'll ever forget that moment."
The shooting is being investigated by the multi-agency county Critical Incident Response Team, with officers from the Eureka Police Department, sheriff's office, district attorney's office, Fortuna Police Department and California Highway Patrol participating, along with technicians from the California Department of Justice crime lab. The investigation's findings will ultimately be forwarded along to District Attorney Maggie Fleming, who will decide if any of the officers involved acted criminally.
Altic and O'Donovan are both currently on administrative leave, which is standard protocol after critical incidents.
Chapman began the press conference by noting that it was falling on the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He noted that more than 60 police officers and 300 firefighters lost their lives that day because they chose to run toward danger in an effort to help those in need.
"Louis Altic was shot running toward danger — really, literally running to danger," Chapman said.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.