ST. LOUIS • Officials baffled by the motive of a gunman who wounded a city police sergeant in an ambush in the Central West End on Tuesday were hoping to get answers from a man who sought hospital treatment later for gunshot injuries.
The officer had returned fire and thought he hit the shooter, police said. But it remained unclear whether that was the man being questioned at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. A car believed to have been used by four men involved in the crime was recovered and examined for evidence.
The sergeant, 39, was treated at a hospital and released after his bullet-resistant vest stopped a slug from penetrating his torso, officials said. There were at least 14 bullet holes in the windshield of his car — some from shots fired at him and some from shots fired by him.
“They targeted, they ambushed, they tried to assassinate a police officer,” Police Chief Sam Dotson said. He emphasized that there was no previous contact between the sergeant and the men, and no attempt made to rob him.
Dotson said later in the day that the shooting was recorded on neighborhood surveillance video, detectives had “substantial leads” and the crime had “a high degree of solvability.”
About a dozen people gathered outside police headquarters Tuesday evening, some waving American flags, to show support.
The attack occurred about 4:50 a.m. as the officer, off-duty but in his full police uniform, worked a secondary job for neighborhood security. He was sitting in his personal car near Maryland and Euclid avenues. It was parked on the north side of Maryland, so he could watch businesses on the south side of the street.
The sergeant saw two men walking, and a short time later they were joined by a third. “The officer doesn’t get out of his car,” Dotson explained. “He has no interaction with them or conversation with them.” The men left his sight.
Then a silver or gray Ford car pulled up in front of the sergeant’s, carrying the three men and one more, the chief said. The man in the front passenger seat got out, with a black bandanna covering his face, and immediately opened fire.
The gunman’s bandanna fell off in the exchange of shots, and he fled on foot. The others sped off in the car. Still in his own bullet-riddled vehicle, the sergeant tried to follow the attacker but lost track of him near a parking garage on York Avenue.
The sergeant was treated at nearby Barnes-Jewish Hospital and released by 10 a.m. He has been on the force for 16 years.
The attacker was described as black, 18 to 22 years old, about 5-foot-7, with a thin build, medium complexion and some facial hair. The wounded officer also is black.
Investigators were trying to determine whether the attacker was the man who arrived at Barnes-Jewish about 1 p.m. with gunshot wounds to his lower extremities.
Police said he told them he had been shot at Selber Court and Goodfellow Boulevard. That happens to be the area where police recovered a silver Ford Fusion with a bullet hole through its windshield.
Police suspect the men might have been in the Maryland Avenue area to steal cars.
At least one of them may have stopped at the nearby Coffee Cartel, open 24 hours, before the shooting. The Central West End is saturated with surveillance cameras.
The shooting occurred in an area of gated streets and within a block of the upscale Chase Park Plaza Hotel. Two windows at Bissinger’s Handcrafted Chocolatier were broken by gunshots, presumably the officer’s. Police have not said how many shots he fired.
After the shooting Tuesday morning, the neighborhood quickly resumed much of its normal activity. People walked their dogs, jogged or pecked at their laptop keyboards as they sat at sidewalk cafes.
Alderman Lyda Krewson, whose ward includes part of the Central West End, visited the scene Tuesday morning. “It is the best neighborhood, but it can happen anywhere,” she said. “We’ve seen that.”
A lone angry protester, Dhoruba Shakur, stood with his back to the yellow police tape Tuesday morning and held a homemade sign asking, “How does it feel?” Shakur, 25, of St. Louis, said his question was posed to police who are shooting black men. “How does it feel to be met with the same aggression you inflict on certain communities daily?” he told a reporter. Shakur said he hopes whoever shot the officer gets away.
Joggers ignored him as they ran past on their morning routines.
The police tape was taken down about 8 a.m. Two yoga enthusiasts who work at Lululemon clothing store were the first to get past it as they went to work.
Jim Whyte, executive director of the Central West End Neighborhood Security Initiative, said the area has more than 80 cameras, with more on Maryland Plaza placed by the developer, Koplar Properties. He said the wounded officer was working for Koplar.
The initiative also hires off-duty officers, often on bicycle, paying for 2,600 shifts a year. It is customary for police officers to wear their department uniforms when they are hired to provide security as a second job.
The Central West End has seven taxing districts that help provide extra security. The patrols have been used for many years, but Whyte’s office began in 2007 to provide oversight.
Fifty cars have been stolen in the Central West End neighborhood this year, according to police statistics through the end of June. In the same period, there were nine assaults with a gun reported in the neighborhood, bounded by Delmar Boulevard, Highway 40 (Interstate 64), North Vandeventer Avenue, Kingshighway and Union Boulevard.
“The gun violence inundating the city doesn’t come into the Central West End all that often,” Whyte said.
Joel Currier, Christine Byers and Valerie Schremp Hahn of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.