ST. LOUIS • Peter George says he heard a pop and saw dozens of people scatter moments before watching two St. Louis patrolmen open fire on a gunman near Saturday's Mardi Gras celebration in Soulard.
The gunman, Otis Roberson, 32, died in the shooting — a fact that George says police did not appear to take lightly.
"The police seemed pretty upset," he said. "You could tell by their reactions it was not a happy experience for them."
Still, George, 56, of Brentwood, said seeing the shooting won't deter him from returning to Mardi Gras in the future.
"I was never scared, but I was just shocked that I had just seen that, with as many shots and as much blood as there was," he said. "At that time of day in that part of Soulard in the middle of Mardi Gras, that was the last thing I thought I was going to see."
Police said the uniformed officers were working part-time jobs for Mardi Gras Inc. and responded to a report of gunfire about 2:30 p.m. near Ninth and Barton streets, just south of the main Mardi Gras activity.
The officers rode up to the scene in a golf cart and came upon the man brandishing a weapon, police said. The officers ordered him to drop the gun; he instead turned and pointed it in their direction. Both officers fired shots, wounding the man. He was transported to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
"I thought, 'Are those blanks? They're not really shooting are they? Oh my God, this is real,' " said George, a photographer for Boeing. "It's one of those things where your mind is like, this isn't really happening is it?"
Roberson,of the 2100 block of Empire Court, was pronounced dead at a St. Louis hospital.
Police said that there were several witnesses to the shooting and that witnesses observed a skirmish involving Roberson before the officers arrived. No one was apparently injured in that fight.
One of the officers is 51 and has served the police force for 22 years, police said. The other is 56 and has served the department for 33 years. Mardi Gras Inc. employs 30 part-time officers. Hundreds of police from St. Louis and other jurisdictions also work the all-day street party.
“The officers acted within the guidelines of our firearms policy,” said St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson.
At a news conference Saturday night, St. Louis Police Lt. Col. Lawrence O’Toole said, “The investigation is in the preliminary stages” and that the officers had responded heroically.
O’Toole said that three spent rounds from Roberson’s revolver were found, and that many people were potentially in danger “if you are firing a gun in Soulard on Mardi Gras.”
“This is not a place to have weapons,” he added.
George, the eyewitness, estimated the entire encounter lasted no more than 90 seconds.
He said he was crossing the street on his way back to his car after Saturday's Mardi Gras parade when he heard what he thought was a firecracker and dozens running in all directions. Then, he said, he witnessed two officers hop off a golf cart, shout and shoot the man.
"I saw (officers) both trying to frantically get their guns out and unstrap their holsters," George said. "I could hear yelling, and all of a sudden I hear five, six, seven shots right in front of me. I never saw the guy until his head and shoulders came out from behind a car when he went down."
George credited the officers with handling the situation "as quickly and as professionally as they could."
"This was police putting down somebody who wouldn't put down a gun," he said.
Mardi Gras celebrations have been relatively problem-free since 1999, when the annual Fat Tuesday Parade ended in a near riot. Out-of-control partyers hurled bottles and cans at police; police used pepper spray on the crowd. The community responded by forming a nonprofit organization to operate the event; banning bottles, cans and coolers from the event; erecting security checkpoints; and moving the Grand Parade to Seventh Street and the Fat Tuesday Parade downtown.
In 2002, an 18-year-old was killed by a 19-year-old man after a confrontation on Fat Tuesday.
On Saturday, city police spokesman Dave Marzullo said, officers arrested 80 people during the Mardi Gras celebration, including 76 for underage drinking, one for marijuana possession, two for resisting arrest and one for interfering with an arrest.
Mack Bradley, a spokesman for Mardi Gras Inc. that runs the Soulard festival, said Saturday's shooting may be the first such incident in the history of the event. He said he thinks the fact that most people who attended had fun and went home safely demonstrates that Soulard's Mardi Gras is a largely safe celebration.
"It's a great public festival. It's the biggest festival St. Louis does," he said. "The experience that the vast majority have when they're coming to the celebration is the best way to get that message across because they had a great time and they tell their friends that."
Elisa Crouch of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The last name of the man killed by police was incorrect in a previous version of this story. The story has been corrected.