APPLETON, Wis. (WBAY) -- Outagamie County District Attorney Melinda Tempelis is revealing new information this afternoon about the shooting at the Valley Transit Center that left a firefighter and gunman dead and a police officer and a bystander wounded.
Police at Appleton transit center (WBAY photo)
The district attorney says the Appleton officers who used deadly force to stop the man were justified and acted in a reasonable manner. The D.A. isn't seeking criminal charges against either officer.
On the evening of May 15, first responders were alerted that a person was having a medical emergency on a bus arriving from outside the area.
Passengers noticed 47-year-old Ruben Houston of Wausau was asleep and snoring oddly. When the bus arrived in Appleton, he didn't get up as the other passengers did, and one passenger said Houston appeared to be having a seizure.
Tempelis said paramedics found signs of an opiate overdose: His eyes were severely dilated and his breathing was inconsistent. They administered Narcan to counteract an overdose.
As he recovered, Houston told paramedics he had taken his wife's morphine because his legs were bothering him. Paramedics wanted him to go to a hospital, fearing the morphine in his system would cause another overdose when the Narcan wore off.
Lundgaard brought a cot for Houston to lay down on outside the bus. Police Sgt. Christopher Biese asked if he could pat Houston down, but Houston brushed him off. He said he had to get back to Wausau to pay his rent and because his wife was sick.
Bus employees said he couldn't get on the bus because they couldn't accept the liability if he overdosed again on the way to Wausau.
Houston became more aggravated and pulled out a .380 semi-automatic handgun, racked it and fired two shots, hitting firefighter Lundgaard and police officer Paul Christensen. Christensen immediately had his service weapon and fired back.
Lundgaard was shot once in the back and it was fatal. Christensen was shot in the lower body.
Houston was wounded but continued shooting. He ran and grabbed a bystander by the neck, using her as a shield. The bystander, 30-year-old Brittany Schowalter of Appleton, was shot in the head and leg.
Tempelis says the shot that grazed Schowalter caused a traumatic brain injury. Tempelis said it's likely Schowalter was shot by police, but tests of DNA on bullets recovered at the scene were inconclusive.
Even when Houston went down from his injuries, he was flailing his arms and legs.He'd spent all 5 shots in his gun but police didn't know that as they approached him. Despite his injuries, he was still combative with police. He eventually died.
Officers Biese and Christensen shot 8 and 11 times.
Police Chief Todd Thomas said police body cameras proved invaluable to the investigation. In a written statement, he said his officers "acted heroically."
"Sgt. Biese and Officer Christensen acted heroically, moving and repeatedly engaging the suspect as he fired. Even after Officer Christensen was hit, and clearly in extreme pain, he battled on because people’s lives were still in danger. They were both guardians and caregivers – and when needed they were true warriors – vividly demonstrating the strength of the thin blue line," Thomas wrote. (Read his complete statement at the end of this article.)
The shooting was investigated by the Green Bay Police Department in accordance with state law that officer-involved shootings must be investigated by an outside agency. Appleton and Green Bay have an agreement for those investigations.
Christensen and Biese were placed on administrative leave, which is protocol since they had fired their weapons. Biese has been with the Appleton Police Department for almost 15 years. Christensen joined the department a year ago.
Lundgaard was a 14-year veteran of the Appleton Fire Department. He was posthumously promoted to driver-engineer.
Chief Thomas issued a lengthy statement Thursday about the shooting and his officers' and the community's response:
Statement from Chief Thomas regarding the Valley Transit incident that occurred May 15, 2019.
This tragedy has forever changed the lives of many people, most importantly those of the Lundgaard family. We know there is nothing any of us can do to take away the pain this has caused, but as a community we can continue to support them and stay committed to responding to this the way that Mitch would want us to.
We thank the Green Bay Police Department for their quick response and timely investigation. We know that this was a very difficult case for them to investigate, their staff was extremely compassionate and professional. We also thank the special agents of the WI Department of Criminal Investigations who immediately responded to the scene. I also want to thank the WI State Patrol for the help they provided that night and for reconstructing a very complex scene. An investigation like this is never done alone; it takes several local and state agencies working together to ensure a complete and thorough investigation.
It is impossible to name all the agencies that assisted us at the scene and in the days that followed; but I do want to specifically thank Outagamie County Sheriff Kriewaldt and Chief Greg Peterson of the Grand Chute Police Department for the amazing assistance their agencies provided at the time of the incident and for providing police services to the city during the procession and funeral. The Appleton police and fire departments, our employees and their families, are eternally grateful for all the help provided to us during our toughest days.
As a community, we need to thank District Attorney Tempelis and her staff for making their review of this incident a priority. We know how important it is to provide accurate information to the public as quickly as possible, but it can never be at the expense of the integrity of the investigation.
And we are very thankful for our dispatchers, who are our lifelines during incidents like this and who never get the credit they deserve. Thank you for your dedication and sacrifices!
I have read the reports and reviewed body camera videos. The body cameras have again proven to be extremely valuable and well worth the investment we make in them. Our body camera program protects our officers from false accusations, helps us gather critical evidence, and strengths the trust the community has in us.
And for this incident, it shows the public just how a seemingly insignificant, non-emergency call for a police officer, can quickly turn deadly. This is why our officers have to always remain vigilant, and why there is no such thing as a routine call.
I’m extremely proud of the professionalism that all the first responders displayed. Sgt. Biese and Officer Christensen were extremely patient and compassionate to a person who they were genuinely concerned for: and in a split second, that same person turned on them. They courageously responded in the way they have been trained, to stop a deadly threat. These officers, and the other officers that responded, than provided emergency medical aid to the same person, who just seconds before, was trying to kill them.
Sgt. Biese and Officer Christensen acted heroically, moving and repeatedly engaging the suspect as he fired. Even after Officer Christensen was hit, and clearly in extreme pain, he battled on because people’s lives were still in danger. They were both guardians and caregivers – and when needed they were true warriors – vividly demonstrating the strength of the thin blue line.
Officers also provided emergency medical aid to Ms. Schowalter, which included driving the rescue squad to the hospital so that the EMTs on that squad could provide her the critical care she needed to survive. We ask the community to keep her in your thoughts and prayers as she also continues to recover from this tragedy.
The body camera videos we will release will allow you to see and feel how this incident developed, and it puts you in the shoes of the officers involved. They are very intense and difficult videos to watch. But there is also a video that shows the exact moment that officers working the scene learned that Mitch had died. It is heart-wrenching and painful to watch; but the officer’s actions after that also demonstrates what is meant when you hear those words, The Thin Blue Line, or The Thin Red Line. On the video you see the immediate shock they feel, how everyone takes a breath and pauses for a couple seconds, and then how they jump right back into getting things done and working the investigation. That is what your officers and firefighters do every day. I could not be prouder of how both our departments responded to this.
As we continue to heal from this, what have we learned about our community?
Obviously this was an anomaly for our community, or for any community, and this could have happened anywhere on the bus route from Milwaukee to Wausau. This was a criminal traveling through our community, who had a long history of illegal and dangerous behavior. His actions were pure evil, plain and simple.
But, it is the actions of those first responders, and how this community supported us, which reaffirms everything we already know about Appleton; and that is what will truly be the final word in this tragedy.
The Fire Chief and I previously mentioned some of the things that we witnessed that displayed valor to us; but there were many more. On the videos you will see heroic, compassionate, and selfless acts from all the first responders; which is only part of this story. It is how this community responded; with love, understanding, empathy, and even tears, that is as important as anything else.
In Appleton, we know who we are as a community and why we are always hopeful –
It is because of those children that dropped off cards and collected money for the family.
It is the young girls’ softball team, who went out and asked for donations so that they could have a cookout with the firefighters and police officers.
It is the countless messages of support and prayers that came from all parts of our diverse community.
It is all the hugs we received from community members, and our fellow brothers and sisters in public service, who encouraged us to keep fighting on.
It is that amazing turnout for Mitch’s procession and funeral, and the beautiful signs and support shown by the 10’s of thousands of people who lined the route.
In the end, it is the actions of all those people, our heroic first responders and our compassionate community members, which truly defines the city of Appleton.
Todd L. Thomas
Chief of Police