Drug addict dodged 19 police bullets

JOE BELANGER

, Last Updated: 12:24 PM ET

LONDON -- The London man who dodged 19 police bullets as he fled a robbery spree denies taking a shooting stance, insists he told the pursuing officer he was unarmed and says he was clearly visible under a street lamp.

"He (the police officer) was trying to kill me," Paul Wayne O'Connell insisted yesterday in an interview with The Free Press from the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre.

"But I don't want his badge or compensation. I just want to get the help I need. Drugs have wrecked my whole life. All I wanted was to get better."

O'Connell said he was "hoping to get caught" last Wednesday during a five-hour robbery spree so he could get out of the drug culture and into treatment.

The tall, handsome and muscular man with a buzz cut and dressed in an orange prisoner jumpsuit maintained eye contact throughout the interview, expressed remorse and hope for a better future and noted his lawyer may be upset he talked to The Free Press.

But he said he'd read media coverage and public reaction to the shooting and wanted the community to know his side of the story and "to sincerely apologize."

He said he never saw the officer who fired the 19 shots and doesn't hold a grudge.

As the 37-year-old suspect talked, a little girl of about two cheerfully wandered around the long, rectangular room within a room where prisoners sit behind a horseshoe-shaped glass partition and talk to visitors on telephone lines while sitting on hard, round stools.

O'Connell confirmed reports he was bleeding from an arm at the time of the shooting, which he had cut while breaking into a SUV. He also confirmed he fled empty-handed from the first two of three robberies, when the clerks refused to hand over any cash, but said he jumped over a counter and took the cash box from a 7-Eleven store in the third robbery.

"I didn't want to hurt anyone. I had no weapon," he said.

O'Connell said the shooting began moments after the SUV crashed into the light standard in the Fairmont subdivision in east London.

"I opened the door and ran around the front of the (SUV) and that's when the cop shouted 'Freeze!' and I told him I was unarmed and I wasn't stopping," he said.

O'Connell estimated he was less than 10 metres and possibly as few as six metres away when the officer opened fire.

"I thought there was no way he was shooting at me," he said. "I thought it was a Taser."

The pair ran through the rear yards and several fences of at least three properties. O'Connell said he kept getting "lit up" by laneway lights equipped with motion sensors.

O'Connell said the foot chase ended in less than a minute when he climbed onto a deck and sat on a chair as more police officers arrived.

"I saw them and I said, 'Hi. I'm Chris Jones. The guy ran over there,' trying to make them think I lived there," he said. "But the officers just yelled, 'Get down on the ground!' and I did. I just laid down.

"I knew it was over."

O'Connell said he's been in trouble with the law since he was about 20 and has struggled with a serious addiction to cocaine and the prescription drug oxycodone for about 10 years, spending time in jail for crimes such as theft and possession.

He said his biggest regret is that his actions led to a shooting that put people in the community at risk.

"I grew up in the east end. I didn't want anybody to get hurt and I didn't think the impact on the community would be as big as it was," he said.

"Somebody could have been killed or paralyzed. It's just not right . . . I'm going to get what's coming to me and I fully accept the consequences."

O'Connell said he understands his long history of non-violent, drug-related crime leaves him with little credibility with the public.

"We (he and the officer) were the only two there," he said. "Only he knows what he was thinking and I know what I was thinking. But I'm a drug addict and a criminal."

Police say a suspect stole a 1992 Chevrolet SUV from a Dundas St. E. auto body shop and used it to flee three robberies that began about 11:30 p.m. at the Subway at Hamilton Rd. and Highbury Ave., followed by a robbery at a gas station at Highbury and Cheapside St. shortly after 1:20 a.m. and ending with a robbery at the 7-Eleven on Commissioners Rd. just west of Highbury at 4:10 a.m.

Police say an officer spotted the SUV heading north on Highbury at Magee St., driven by a suspect police believed was armed with a weapon, sparking a chase through the Fairmont subdivision that ended when the SUV crashed into a light standard.

During a foot chase, police said, the suspect took a "firing position" and the officer opened fire, emptying his 16-shot Glock pistol, reloading and firing three more times before the suspect surrendered in the rear yard of a home on Queenston Cres.

The bullets hit at least three homes, although police said they're still investigating. No bullets hit the suspect, although one bullet smashed through a shed and a rear bedroom window of a Tweedsmuir home before lodging in a closet wall. A man who lives at the home was in the room watching the commotion from the same window just moments earlier.

Public reaction to the shooting was visceral, ranging from ridicule to outrage and sympathy for the officer caught in an explosive, dangerous situation while alone at night chasing a suspect police believed was armed with a weapon.

Police Chief Murray Faulkner declined to comment on O'Connell's statements, noting he can't reveal evidence and that the investigation is continuing.

As well, Faulkner declined to identify the officer involved in the shooting, explaining "It's a personnel issue and I have no right to release the officer's name at this time.

"This is an internal investigation, the officer isn't facing charges or discipline," said Faulkner. "Depending on the outcome of the investigation, that (the release of the officer's name) could change."

O'Connell is charged with four counts of robbery, three counts of wearing a disguise, dangerous driving, possession of stolen property, obstructing police and failing to stop for police.

He is scheduled to return to court Aug. 25.

joe.belanger@sunmedia.ca


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