A 61-year-old man shot two firefighters and his own brother as they attempted to enter his home on a welfare check that went tragically wrong.
Firefighters and medics responding to an emergency call from a man who had been unable to reach his diabetic brother decided to break through the brother’s front door in the Temple Hills-Camp Springs area when he did not respond to repeated knocks. As they entered — fearing he might have blacked out or had a seizure — gunshots erupted from inside, killing firefighter John E. Ulmschneider and injuring another and the man’s brother, who was outside with them.
“We are so sorry about the firefighter and for the family,” the man’s sister said. “We were praying so hard.”
The sister spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the privacy of her family. She said her brother is still being monitored by doctors, but she declined to specify his medical condition. The Washington Post is not identifying the man because he has not been charged and police have not named him publicly. Efforts to reach the man by phone Sunday were not successful.
The 61-year-old man was released from police custody Saturday night, according to authorities.
A spokesman for the Prince George’s County state’s attorney’s office and a fire department spokesman said Sunday that the sister’s account of the shooting is consistent with preliminary assessments that it may have been a tragic mistake.
They’re sufficiently murky in their descriptions of the incident that we don’t know precisely where in the home firefighters and the brother were in the residence when the homeowner opened fired, nor do we know his mental state at the time of the shooting.
If they were outside the home and the man blindly fired through the door, then there may be legitimate grounds for a homicide charge if they didn’t break the threshold of the home. But the majority of the accounts suggest that he only fired once the firefighters breached the door and were inside the home. If that is the case, then the homeowner has a plausible self-defense claim even if the firefighters announced themselves before entering the home. Every individual is different, but in high stress situations, some people can develop both tunnel vision and deafness. This is especially true of people who are not inoculated to stress via training, and who have medical conditions.
Sadly, this appears to be a tragic case of mistaken identity leading to an intentional homicide, but not a criminal killing… at least, it would not be a crime in most states. The only significant variable I see that might result in charges is the number of shots fired and the relative position of the shots. If the firefighters were shot while down then charges may be warranted. If standing or even falling, I have a hard time thinking that the homeowner did anything that could be construed as “criminal intent.”
Unfortunately for the homeowner, Prince George’s County is in Maryland, a state where self-defense laws are so absurd that people have been charged with murder because prosecutors thought they should be calling 9-1-1 while being charged by home invaders. There is therefore the risk that the homeowner may end up charged with a criminal homicide, and perhaps would almost certainly end up charged if the homeowner was not a 61-year-old person in very bad health whom a jury would likely acquit. If a 30-year-old with no known health issues fired the same shots during a similar situation, I strongly suspect Prince George’s County prosecutors would throw the book at him.
So, what is the correct response to this shooting? I don’t know that any sort of a response is warranted, either on the criminal or policy fronts.
We still need authorities to perform welfare checks, and because of their equipment, firefighters are typically the best-equipped public servants to breach a structure. Might there be a need to equip firefighters with ballistic vests specifically on these sorts of operations?