Sept. 11–After responding to a report of a domestic incident on May 6 in Weirton, W.Va., then-Weirton police officer Stephen Mader found himself confronting an armed man.
Immediately, the training he had undergone as a Marine to look at “the whole person” in deciding if someone was a terrorist, as well as his situational police academy training, kicked in and he did not shoot.
“I saw then he had a gun, but it was not pointed at me,” Mr. Mader recalled, noting the silver handgun was in the man’s right hand, hanging at his side and pointed at the ground.
The man was Ronald D. “R.J.” Williams Jr., 23, of Pittsburgh, and what happened in the seconds after Mr. Mader’s initial decision is still being investigated by Mr. Williams’ family as well as the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union.
Mr. Mader, who was standing behind Mr. Williams’ car parked on the street, said he then “began to use my calm voice.”
“I told him, ‘Put down the gun,’ and he’s like, ‘Just shoot me.’ And I told him, ‘I’m not going to shoot you brother.’ Then he starts flicking his wrist to get me to react to it.
“I thought I was going to be able to talk to him and deescalate it. I knew it was a suicide-by-cop” situation.
But just then, two other Weirton officers arrived on the scene, Mr. Williams walked toward them waving his gun — later found to be unloaded — between them and Mr. Mader, and one of them shot Mr. Williams’ in the back of the head just behind his right ear, killing him.
A month-long West Virginia State Police investigation later concluded the shooting was justified, a decision the Hancock County, W.Va., prosecutor,Jim Davis, announced at a news conference on June 8.
But a case that has been handled by local law enforcement from the first day on with some peculiar twists — failing to publicly name Mr. Williams for three days, the assignment of an investigator who left for a week-long vacation the next day and tension with Mr. Williams’ family — only got more peculiar.
Mr. Mader — speaking publicly about this case for the first time — said that when he tried to return to work on May 17, following normal protocol for taking time off after an officer-involved shooting, he was told to go see Weirton Police Chief Rob Alexander.
In a meeting with the chief and City Manager Travis Blosser, Mr. Mader said Chief Alexander told him: “We’re putting you on administrative leave and we’re going to do an investigation to see if you are going to be an officer here. You put two other officers in danger.”
Mr. Mader said that “right then I said to him: ‘Look, I didn’t shoot him because he said, ‘Just shoot me.’ ”
On June 7, a Weirton officer delivered him a notice of termination letter dated June 6, which said by not shooting Mr. Williams he “failed to eliminate a threat.”
The notice of termination included two other incidents the city believed Mr. Mader acted improperly: An incident in April where neither he nor two other more experienced officers — the same two who were involved in the Williams’ case — reported as suspicious the death of an elderly woman who appeared to have had a stroke and fallen in her home, though no one has been charged in her death; and an incident in March when a woman complained that Mr. Mader was rude and swore at her when she asked why her husband was being arrested for disorderly conduct over receiving a parking ticket.
Mr. Mader believes he was not at fault in either situation and he was never given an opportunity to clarify what happened in each case.
The city held a termination hearing on June 29 to approve the decision, but a frustrated Mr. Mader did not attend the hearing.
When he read stories a day after he got his termination letter about how Chief Alexander said in the June 8 press conference that all three officers were back at work and doing well, Mr. Mader was incensed.
“How can you say all the officers are doing well when you just terminated one yesterday?” Mr. Mader said in a recent interview. “I think he did that just to give the public a good view of the officers.”
As for why he was fired, Mr. Mader said it seems obvious to him why that was done.
“Firing me for it, it’s less of an eyebrow-raiser then to say the other officers are justified in what they did — which I think they were.”
Why the chief told reporters, and Mr. Williams’ family in a private meeting with them a week later, that all three officers were back to work is not known.
Neither Chief Alexander, Mr. Blosser nor Mr. Davis returned calls seeking comment. The Post-Gazette was told to contact Cy Hill, an attorney representing the city, but Mr. Hill did not return repeated voicemail messages and emails.
As a former officer, Mr. Mader is all too aware of the interest this case might have for those on either side of the ongoing controversy over the shootings of black men by white officers across the country.
Mr. Mader is white and Mr. Williams was black. But Mr. Mader said the other two officers — who are also white — did the right thing given their situation.
“They did not have the information I did,” he said. “They don’t know anything I heard. All they know is [Mr. Williams] is waving a gun at them. It’s a shame it happened the way it did, but, I don’t think they did anything wrong.”
As for Chief Alexander?
“It was like [Chief Alexander] was a good guy and the next second he’s throwing me under the bus,” he said.
Jack Dolance, an attorney for the Williams’ family, said that how and why Mr. Mader was fired “is pretty clear evidence of their policy and that the way they feel [the shooting of Mr. Williams] should have been handled. Not only do they think he should have been shot and killed, but shot and killed more quickly.”
Mr. Mader, 25, thought his hiring by the city in July, 2015, in a job that would pay him about $34,000 the first year, would turn out to be a good move for him, his young family, and the city.
He grew up in Weirton, graduated from Weir High School, married his high school sweetheart five years ago, and was raising two small boys (now ages 4 and 1) in the city when he got the job after serving for four years with the Marines, including a tour in Afghanistan.
“I was definitely excited,” he said, recalling the swearing-in ceremony. “It was the challenge. I like challenges; that’s the reason I joined the Marinesbecause they said it was the hardest branch to be in. And I was excited because it was a better opportunity for my family and I was getting a chance to be an officer in the town I grew up in.”
He is now going to school to get his commercial license to drive trucks, but he said he’d consider going back into law enforcement if a job came up.
After he received his termination notice, Mr. Mader sought attorneys to help him fight the city. He was told because he was still a probationary employee in an “at-will” state, he could be fired for any reason and there was no point in fighting the city.
One attorney told him the best he could hope for was to ask to resign instead of being terminated.
“But I told [the attorney] ‘Look, I don’t want to admit guilt. I’ll take the termination instead of the resignation because I didn’t do anything wrong,’ ” Mr. Mader said. “To resign and admit I did something wrong here would have ate at me. I think I’m right in what I did. I’ll take it to the grave.”
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill
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