ARNOLD • An Arnold police officer was shot inside a police SUV Tuesday afternoon by a handcuffed burglary suspect just yards from the police station where he was taking the suspect to be booked, authorities said.
The officer was identified as Ryan O’Connor, 44.
He was shot in the back of the neck or head, and his injuries were life-threatening, said Jefferson County Sheriff’s Capt. Gary Higginbotham. Officials said Wednesday that he was in critical but stable condition.
"Officer O’Connor has a long road to recovery, and his condition could change by the hour," officials said in an email update on the shooting.
Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Marshak had described O’Connor’s injuries as “very, very serious and very critical” on Tuesday.
The suspect, identified by police as Chad Klahs, 29, of Arnold, shot himself in the head after shooting the officer, Higginbotham said. Klahs was also taken to a hospital, where he pronounced dead at 2:40 p.m., Marshak said.
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Police said O’Connor and Klahs were both shot with a .40-caliber handgun believed to have been taken in a burglary shortly before the shooting.
Klahs was being transported by O’Connor after he was arrested in a burglary at a home not far from the police station, police said. That burglary was reported at 12:46 p.m.
A gun was taken in that burglary, Higginbotham said. After that burglary but before he was arrested, it’s believed Klahs broke into a vehicle at an auto body shop and stole another gun.
It appears officers didn’t know that when they arrested Klahs. Officers took one gun from him before handcuffing him and putting him in the back of the SUV, Higginbotham said. Apparently Klahs was able to access the second concealed gun and shoot the officer before shooting himself, Higginbotham said.
Officers inside the station, at 2101 Jeffco Boulevard, saw O’Connor’s SUV approach a sally port, where suspects are brought inside, on a camera. But when O’Connor didn’t come inside, officers went out and found his SUV crashed into a fuel tank. Both O’Connor and the burglary suspect were seriously wounded inside.
Highways were closed so the officer could be rushed to a hospital.
O’Connor and Klahs were taken to St. Anthony’s Medical Center in South County.
Higginbotham said that after the report of the home burglary, officers from his department were called at 12:58 p.m. about shots being fired in nearby woods. Police suspect those incidents were related. At 1:35 p.m., they were called to report of an officer shot at the Arnold police department.
Matthew Saller, who lives in a subdivision near the police department, said he called police Tuesday afternoon after he found a man in his backyard just a few feet from his back door.
Saller said he believes he startled the man when he confronted him and ordered him to leave. He said the man stumbled and then fell over a lawn chair. When the man moved to his neighbor’s yard, Saller told him to leave that yard, too.
“My main concern was to get him as far away as I can as peacefully as I can,” he said.
He watched as the man then left the neighbor’s yard and headed toward woods between the homes and Jeffco Boulevard. Saller called police, who he said arrived within seconds.
Not long after that, Saller said, he heard at least one gunshot in the distance.
Shown a photo of Klahs, Saller identified him as the man he who had been in his yard. He said Klahs never threatened him or showed a weapon and that nothing was taken from his yard. But he said the intruder did seem agitated.
“He looked like a guy that was shaky or in trouble,” Saller said. “He wasn’t all there, that’s the way I’ll put it.”
Saller’s subdivision is between the police department and the gas station where Klahs was taken into custody.
The day’s events left Saller stunned. “I’ve lived on this street for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything bad happen here,” he said.
He said his heart went out to O’Connor’s family.
A law enforcement family
O’Connor is the son of former Maryland Heights Police Chief Tom O’Connor. The younger O’Connor had been with Arnold about three years and had previously worked in St. Louis County and Ferguson, police said.
He is married and the father of four children, friends said.
“Officer O’Connor was a dedicated and faithful member of the Ferguson Police Department for several years and during the civil unrest of 2014,” Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said. “Officer O’Connor and his family are in the thoughts and prayers of our community tonight.”
A GoFundMe account was set up Tuesday night to accept donations for O’Connor and his family. By early Wednesday afternoon, the account was at $13,000. Donations can also be made to BackStoppers Inc. or in person at Fortune Bank, 3494 Jeffco Boulevard in Arnold.
Officials warned that other donations people might hear about are not sanctioned by the family or Arnold Police.
BackStoppers, a local organization that raises money for first responders injured or killed in the line of duty, tweeted that they had made a $5,000 donation to O’Connor.
Late Tuesday, the Arnold Police Department posted about the officer on its Facebook page. “Against all odds our officer has fought through the horrific incidents that occurred earlier today and remains in stable condition,” it said. “Please continue to hold him, his family, and the men and women of this department in your thoughts and prayers.”
Klahs, meanwhile, was “well-known” to Arnold police before the shooting, Higginbotham said.
Klahs has several convictions stretching back to at least 2009 when he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison for burglary charges in Jefferson County.
In 2013 he was given 120 days of “shock time” and probation for drug and receiving stolen property charges in Jefferson County. He had also pleaded guilty to those charges.
His probation was revoked in 2014 and he was ordered jailed again.
It is unclear when he was most recently released from custody.
A distraught force
Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies spent hours investigating at the scene where the crashed SUV was surrounded by police tape. Investigators talked to officers who were at the station when O’Connor was shot and were piecing a timeline of the events together.
“They’re so distraught we can’t even get information out of them, which I completely understand,” Higginbotham said.
The county department’s officers were handling calls in Arnold on Tuesday evening.
Sheriff Marshak said Arnold police have asked his department to conduct the shooting investigation as well as the related internal affairs investigation.
The shooting Tuesday bears close resemblance to the Aug. 8, 2000, murder of St. Louis police Officer Robert Stanze, who was shot and killed by a man in custody with a hidden weapon.
The man, Harold Richardson, had a .45-caliber pistol hidden at the small of his back. Richardson was handcuffed with his hands behind his back, but managed to shoot from the back of a police car and hit Stanze, who was standing beside the vehicle. The bullet found an opening in the officer’s bulletproof vest.
Richardson pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2001.
Two officers shot in 2016
Two other Arnold police officers were shot in the line of duty in November 2016.
Officers Jason Gorenstein and John Palme were hit in the face by shotgun pellets while on a domestic disturbance call at Jeffco Estates in the 2100 block of Plaza Drive. Their injuries were not life-threatening, and they were treated and released.
Police said Noel Christner Kuebler Jr. popped out from behind a bush and began shooting at the officers. The two officers were hit and another managed to hide behind a vehicle.
Kuebler faces three counts of first-degree assault on a law enforcement officer, three counts of armed criminal action and one count of felony resisting arrest.
Samantha Liss and Erin Heffernan of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.