Shots Fired: Suicidal Veteran Triggers Standoff

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An allegedly distraught, suicidal Iraq War veteran fired several shots, threatened his girlfriend and then holed up in his house, as the Payson Special Response Team surrounded the Easy Street residence and tried to coax him to come out.

The standoff lasted five hours before Christopher Lawrence Steward, 34, finally surrendered five hours later, thanks to the patient efforts of police negotiators.

Steward had reportedly argued with his live-in girlfriend earlier in the evening, then woke her with two gunshots and a threat to kill himself.

She fled, leaving Steward and his 13-year-old son behind in the house.

“We weren’t absolutely sure whether the young man was a hostage or in there voluntarily,” said Payson Police Chief Don Engler.

The incident started just past midnight on Dec. 10 and continued until past 5 a.m. It took police three hours to make contact with Steward, after breaking out a window and throwing a radio and microphone into him, since he refused to answer the phone or respond to shouts from police to come out.

Sgt. Dean Faust and Officer Mike Varga, negotiators who completed a week-long course offered by the FBI plus annual training updates, spent two hours trying to talk Steward out of the house, before they resolved the standoff peacefully.

The boy emerged shortly after Steward surrendered and told police that he had remained with his father in the house voluntarily.

Steward told investigators that he was an Iraq War veteran and suffered from post-traumatic stress. Engler said the department has not yet been able to confirm whether Steward is, in fact, a combat veteran.

Steward said he was upset by an argument he’d had earlier in the evening with his girlfriend and wanted to kill himself.

Officers arrested him for domestic violence, criminal damage, unlawful discharge of a firearm and failure to appear in connection with a warrant from a Phoenix court.

It’s against the law to fire a gun inside the town limits. Steward reportedly had fired one shot while standing in the front yard, which woke up his girlfriend. He then entered the house and fired another shot through the ceiling.

Payson police got the 911 call just after midnight. The caller reported “a male subject was armed and angry and had just fired two rounds in the residence,” according to a release from police.

When three officers arrived a few minutes later, they discovered that a woman who lived in the Easy Street house had fled, but a 13-year-old boy remained in the house with Steward.

The officers couldn’t make contact with Steward still inside the house, so they decided to call out the department’s Special Response Team, with heavier weapons and advanced training for assaults and hostage-taking situations.

The seven, off-duty members of the Special Response Team arrived within about 20 minutes, along with the department’s negotiators, the K9 unit and backup officers from the Gila County Sheriff’s Office and the Arizona Department of Public Safety, bringing the size of the force surrounding the house to about 15, said Engler.

Officers surrounded the house and covered all the exits. They also evacuated residents from neighboring homes.

Officers moved up close enough to the house to break a window and throw a communications device into the house, hoping that Steward would finally start talking to negotiators.

Finally, some three hours into the standoff, Steward used the device to make contact.

Officers Faust and Varga then began the delicate process of coaxing Steward out of the house. They initially tried to get him to send his son out, “but he just kind of stalled them,” said Engler.

The chief added, “our negotiators just do a tremendous job for us. They have had training in post-traumatic stress disorder and utilize those skills.” The two officers have about four years experience in negotiations.

Some two hours after making contact, Steward finally left the house and officers cuffed him and put him under arrest.

A few minutes later, the boy also emerged. Police said the boy had suffered no injuries.

Steward was booked into the Gila County jail and the investigation is continuing with possible additional charges being filed at a later time.

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