LAGRANGE TWP. — A man suspected of shooting a Lorain County sheriff’s deputy committed suicide as a police helicopter spotlighted his position in a farm field along state Route 301 and police closed in.
The death of 42-year-old Travis Stidham ended a nearly two-hour manhunt after Deputy Charles Crausaz was shot during a brief standoff outside Stidham’s home at 375 Stable Drive.
Crausaz, 39, had been upgraded from critical to fair condition about 11 this morning at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, where he was flown by helicopter after being shot at least once. Sheriff’s Capt. Jim Drozdowski said that it was unclear exactly how many times the veteran deputy was hit, but at least one round struck him in the left armpit. The bullet, believed to have been fired by the silver semiautomatic pistol Stidham was armed with, hit an area that wasn’t protected by Crausaz’s bulletproof vest.
Sheriff Phil Stammitti said that dispatchers received a call at 7:08 p.m. from Stidham’s mother, who lives in Tennessee.
The mother, whose name wasn’t released, told dispatchers that Stidham had shot his cat and dog because they were black in color and he believed they were evil. She also said that her son had shot his television.
Stammitti said Stidham’s father, Jack Justice, who also lives in the Pheasant Run housing development, had feared calling deputies because he was afraid that they might harm his son.
Stammitti said deputies were dispatched at 7:15 p.m. and arrived at Stidham’s home around 7:55 p.m. The deputies — five road patrol deputies and a sergeant, the entire shift working at the time — set up a perimeter around the house.
The deputies attempted to make contact with Stidham both by phone and through a public address system, but he didn’t respond, Stammitti said. Deputies were preparing to call in the SWAT team when the situation turned violent, Stammitti said.
Around 8:34 p.m., Stammitti said, Stidham came outside and began shooting at deputies, who returned fire. It was during that exchange of gunfire, Stammitti said, that Crausaz was hit.
Travis Lowery, who lives on Stable Drive a few houses down from where the deputy was shot, said he heard what he initially thought were four firecracker bursts about 8:30 p.m.
“Ten minutes later, I saw cruisers speeding down the street and I walked outside to see what the commotion was and I saw two deputies running with shotguns,” Lowery, 17, said. “They start shouting at everyone to get back in their houses. It was intense.”
Anthony Card, who had also stepped outside after hearing gunshots, ran back into his house but had a clear view of what was unfolding out one of his windows. He watched as two deputies carried Crausaz, one grabbing under his armpits and the other his feet, to get medical attention.
The sheriff said he couldn’t say exactly which deputies fired at Stidham, but Crausaz told him and Drozdowski at the hospital that he fired at Stidham.
Stammitti said he didn’t know whether Stidham was hit by any of the shots. During the confusion of the gunfire, Drozdowski said, Stidham fled the area, touching off a massive manhunt by dozens of officers from numerous law enforcement agencies from across the area.
Stidham appears to have fled into the fields north of Pheasant Run and there were reports that he may have tried to break into a home or a barn, but deputies were still investigating those reports at press time.
Card said a silver vehicle was driving up and down Stable Drive while officers were scouring the area. One of the deputies identified the driver as Stidham’s father.
“The cop told him, ‘Get out of here or we’ll arrest you. Your son just shot one of our deputies,’ ” Card said.
Other residents said they sat holed up in their homes, listening for any bit of information on police scanners streaming over the Internet so they could track the shooter’s whereabouts.
“There’d be a call that there was a break-in down the street and you’d see all the cops leave the area, then there’d be another call and they’d come back,” said Jennifer Givens, 35. “We didn’t know what was going on.”
Drozdowski and the sheriff said they had to take every report seriously.
Stammitti said a Cleveland police helicopter was called in to assist with the search as law enforcement continued to pour into the area, creating a sprawling cordon and warning residents to remain in their homes.
The helicopter was able to locate Stidham in a field off state Route 301 northwest of the Harlan Airfield using infrared technology, and he shot himself around 10 p.m. as heavily-armed members of the SWAT team were converging on the area. Stammitti estimated it took about 10 minutes for the helicopter to locate Stidham once it arrived on the scene.
The area was still being scoured for evidence at press time by detectives from both the sheriff’s office and the Elyria Police Department, which Stammitti said is assisting in the investigation.
Exactly what precipitated Monday’s gunfire wasn’t known. Drozdowski said Stidham has a criminal record, but it was mostly low-level alcohol and traffic offenses. Stammitti said he didn’t know if Stidham had a history of mental illness.
Stammitti said he visited Crausaz in the hospital and the deputy was in pain, but alert and talking.
He said having one of his officers shot was a “nightmare” for him and his fellow members of law enforcement, who have a strong fraternal bond.
“It’s been a tough evening for all of us,” Stammitti said.
He said it was scary because two officers from the immediate area — Elyria police Officer James Kerstetter, who was gunned down by Ronald Palmer on March 15, 2010, and Sandusky police Officer Andrew Dunn, who was shot and killed in March 2011 — have been slain in recent years.
Palmer was killed by two of Kerstetter’s fellow police officers when he refused orders to surrender and charged them. The man accused of killing Dunn is awaiting trial on aggravated murder charges.
The last Lorain County sheriff’s deputy to be shot was Shawn Hadaway, who now teaches at the Lorain County Joint Vocational School. Hadaway was shot when he and two other deputies responded to calls about gunfire in a neighborhood dispute in Sheffield Township in June 2000.
As they approached through the backyards, a man stepped out of a nearby woods and fired a shot into Hadaway, who was not wearing a bulletproof vest. The shooter, Terry Wyers, of Lorain, fled but was confronted by two Lorain police officers and shot six times by the officers after he ignored an order to drop his weapon and instead loaded a round and aimed his gun at the officers.
According to Lorain County Officers Down Memorial Page, which is compiled by history buff and former Elyria Police Detective Al Leiby, the last sheriff’s deputy to be killed in the line of duty was on July 3, 1979, when sheriff’s deputy Kenneth M. Tomaszewski was shot to death by Curtis Wacker, a juvenile suspect, following a traffic stop.
Wacker could not provide proof of registration for his vehicle, so Tomaszewski followed him home, where Wacker came from another room armed with a .22-caliber rifle and shot the deputy in the chest.