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Apr. 14—Police officers testified Tuesday a struggle with a suspect over a gun is what turned a traffic stop into a police shooting and led to the attempted murder charges against Jeremy Ross of Terre Haute.
Ross, 38, sat quietly in the Vigo Superior Court 3 courtroom with his attorneys as three officers testified as to what prompted two of them to shoot Ross multiple times in the parking lot of the Circle K gas station on Wabash Avenue in March 2020.
Officer Daniel Johnson, Lt. Mark Phillips and Sgt. Adam Loudermilk all agreed they did not see Ross holding a gun.
But they said they believed the statement of Officer Justin Gant, who yelled that Ross had a gun and they believed Gant was struggling with Ross to keep the suspect from shooting police.
"I didn't see it, but my buddy said it was a gun," Loudermilk said.
The three officers gave similar testimony about the struggle while Ross was in the passenger seat of a minivan and about the struggle to handcuff Ross after he was on the ground.
They also described the spectrum of force used when encountering suspects — from no force needed for complaint subjects to decisions about the level needed to stop an aggressive or dangerous suspect.
Defense attorney Brock Dalton told the jury in his opening statements that simply possessing a gun and having access to a gun are not substantial steps toward an attempt at murder.
Dalton said the police statements about the midnight incident are full of inconsistencies, and police did not wear body cameras or have car cameras that could show what actually happened that night.
"How do you decide who is telling the truth?" Dalton asked the jury.
Chief Deputy Prosecutor Rob Roberts agreed the officer statements given to Indiana State Police investigators have some inconsistencies, but they jibe from each officer's point of view that Gant said Ross had a gun and was trying to shoot police.
In fact, Gant told investigators he felt the gun in Ross's hand and, because of recent training, he tried to jamb his pinky finger behind the trigger to keep Ross from firing the pistol.
The investigation revealed, however, that Gant couldn't have put his finger behind the trigger due to the gun's construction.
"He felt the defendant trying to pull the trigger," Roberts said, giving Gant's reason for maintaining his grip on a gun he could not see. Roberts showed the jury an evidence photo of the silver handgun, which disproved Gant's account of jamming the trigger by getting his finger behind it.
"The only thing that stopped that gun from firing is that the safety was still on," Roberts said of the actual reason the gun did not fire.
Johnson, Phillips and Loudermilk all said they believed Ross was attempting to shoot Gant.
Gant has not yet testified in the trial, but he is expected to take the stand as testimony continues. It is uncertain if Ross will testify.
Officer Johnson said he was on regular patrol when he decided to stop the minivan after seeing it stop briefly at the Woodridge Motel on the city's easy side.
The van was speeding eastbound and crossed the center line on Wabash Avenue, Johnson said, so he initiated the traffic stop near Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
Johnson said Ross was calm when first approached on the passenger side of the minivan, and Ross admitted to having K2, or synthetic marijuana, inside two bags at his feet.
Johnson testified he called for backup from other officers and was talking calmly to Ross, but the situation soon "went bad" as Phillips arrived at the scene, followed by Loudermilk and Gant.
Johnson said when Ross started reaching around to retrieve something from his left side, that is when Gant reached through the open passenger window and tried to stop Ross. The struggle ensued.
Loudermilk said he reached in through the driver's door to turn off the minivan when Ross shouted for the female driver to "Go, go, go", and then Loudermilk pulled the driver from the van and handed her off to Phillips. The driver did not try to obey Ross's command, Loudermilk said.
Roberts told the jury it was at that point that Ross pointed the firearm toward Loudermilk's back, but could not fire due to Gant's grip. That led to the first attempted murder count against Ross.
Loudermilk said he pulled out his firearm and moved out of a possible crossfire situation to the front of the van. Phillips did the same.
Loudermilk said he was at the front of the van with his gun pointed at the windshield, but had to wait for Gant to move out of the way to get a clean shot at Ross.
Johnson said he first pulled out his Taser in an attempt to get Ross to stop struggling with Gant, but Johnson said he did not think the Taser would be effective. That was a lower level of force, Johnson said, but he realized the Taser's electrically charged wires could also shock Gant during the struggle.
Johnson said he then pulled his firearm and waited for a clean shot at Ross when Gant moved out of the way.
During the whole situation, Johnson said, officers were shouting at Ross to stop fighting, show his hands and get out of the van.
Both Johnson and Loudermilk said that the change in Gant's voice as he yelled at Ross told them Gant was getting tired and needed help.
"Gant couldn't let go, and I fired," said Johnson, who fired four times through the passenger-side window. "At that point, Jeremy and I made eye contact and his eyes were wide open and he [Ross] said, 'You just shot me!'"
Loudermilk said he fired at the same time, shooting through the windshield toward Ross' lower body.
The struggle continued, Johnson said, with Phillips reaching in from the driver's side to unbuckle Ross's seatbelt so he could be pulled from the minivan.
Once on the ground, Ross continued to struggle, officers said, and they thought it was likely he was trying to reach a gun tucked into the waistband of his pants.
Each officer said they are taught that if a person has one gun, to expect another. So, they said, they struggled to get Ross handcuffed. That struggle lasted for a couple of minutes.
Daley asked Phillips if Ross could have been trying to reach his multiple bullet wounds, rather than a gun. The officers said they took little notice of Ross's wounds as the struggle continued.
The officers said they had to put separate handcuffs on each of Ross's wrists, and then use a third cuff to connect them.
Loudermilk said once Ross was on the ground, he fired a Taser that struck Ross in the back, but it "did not take the fight out of him."
The officers said they stripped off Ross' pants but did not find another gun. When medics arrived, Ross was transported to a local hospital for treatment of the gunshot wounds.
Police did report finding two guns — the small-caliber handgun that Gant and Ross fought over and a 9mm pistol that state police later discovered in the van.
Ross faces two counts of attempted murder, possession of an altered handgun, resisting law enforcement and misdemeanor charges of possessing a look-alike substance and possession of paraphernalia.
Other charges related to Ross' past criminal history were not presented to the jury, and the potential for felony enhancements for a longer prison sentence will not be presented unless the jury convicts Ross.
Tuesday's testimony ended about 4 p.m., and today's testimony will resume about 8:30 a.m.
The proceedings in the Vigo Superior Court 3 courtroom are closed to the public. A video stream of the trial is available at https://public.courts.in.gov/incs#
Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at TribStarLisa.