Feb. 6, 2023 McKeesport Police Officer Sean Sluganski was fatally shot, and another officer—Charles Thomas, Jr.—was wounded while responding to a domestic dispute.
By Megan Guza Source Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
A McKeesport police officer was killed and another was wounded Monday afternoon when a man involved in a domestic dispute opened fire on the officers.
McKeesport Police Chief Adam Alfer on Monday night identified the slain officer as Sean Sluganski, 32, who joined the department in January 2020 and was promoted to full time in January 2021.
Chief Alfer said Officer Charles Thomas, Jr., 35, was the injured officer. He said he is a four-year member of the force and added he has been discharged from the hospital “and is at home recovering with his family.”
Court records identified the suspected shooter as Johnathan Jermia Morris.
Mr. Morris, 31, is charged with homicide and two counts each of aggravated assault, aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer with a gun, and attempted first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer.
The initial 911 call that sent police to a home on Wilson Street came about 12:10 p.m., said Allegheny County Police Superintendent Chris Kearns.
Mr. Morris, who was known to police, was suffering a mental health crisis, Superintendent Kearns said during a news conference, and he walked away from officers when they arrived at the home.
He said a family member warned the officers that Mr. Morris might have a gun with him.
He walked toward Grandview Avenue, where police encountered him again. Superintendent Kearns said the man “suddenly produced a handgun and shot the McKeesport officers.”
After the officers were shot, a third McKeesport police officer encountered Mr. Morris a short distance away near the intersection of Patterson Street at Versailles Avenue, where he allegedly began shooting again. Superintendent Kearns said that officer returned fire, wounding Mr. Morris.
Officer Sluganski was taken to UPMC McKeesport, where he was pronounced dead. Officer Thomas was taken to a Pittsburgh trauma center.
The alleged shooter, too, was taken to Pittsburgh. He remains in stable condition, Superintendent Kearns said.
Investigators pieced together the series of events in a criminal complaint filed against Mr. Morris.
Two witnesses told investigators they were driving on Grandview Avenue toward Versailles Avenue when Mr. Morris flagged them down, said police were trying to kill him and asked them to record video on their cellphones.
The two agreed, according to the complaint, and filmed as they followed Mr. Morris toward Versailles. The witnesses said they saw Mr. Morris walk into the front yard of 1300 Grandview Ave., then saw a police cruiser pull into the adjacent alley. A second police officer approached on foot, they said.
The witnesses said Mr. Morris pulled out a handgun, pointed it toward the cruiser and started firing, according to the complaint. They said Mr. Morris turned to the second officer and fired toward him as well. Investigators indicated in the complaint that Officer Sluganski would have been the officer on foot and Officer Thomas was in the cruiser.
The witnesses recorded the shooting, police said.
Officer Thomas later told detectives that after Mr. Morris walked away, he and Officer Sluganski followed him and ended up in the DeLong Alley, a small alley adjacent to 1300 Grandview Avenue. Officer Thomas, according to the complaint, said Mr. Morris was standing to his left as he pulled into the alley, at which point he heard a gunshot and realized he had been shot in the face.
Late in the afternoon, dozens of police vehicles joined in a motorcade to escort the dead officer’s body from the hospital to the medical examiner’s office.
In his statement Monday night, Chief Alfer said, “This is a tragic loss for our department and our community. We have lost a friend, a trusted colleague and an officer whose passion was providing service to the public. At this time, we ask that you keep all of our officers and their families in your hearts, particularly the families of Officer Sluganski and Officer Thomas.”
Police radio transmissions paint a chaotic and chilling scene, with officers initially heading to the home on Wilson after a woman called to report her son with mental health issues was being violent. A dispatcher noted that the woman reported that weapons were accessible.
At around 12:25 p.m., an officer told dispatchers that the man was walking away.
When they eventually encounter him again, one officer radios, “Watch that right hand, that pocket’s real heavy.”
About 90 seconds later, the same officer radios calmly: “Yeah, this dude’s on the hood of my car.”
About a minute after, the first calls for help come through.
“I’m shot in the face, I’m shot in the face,” an officer radios.
The dispatcher sounds confused at first asking, “Is that shots fired? Are medics needed?”
“Get some help, I’m hit,” the officer says. “Officer down, officer down, get me some help.”
The officer calls for help several more times, with the dispatcher assuring him help is on the way. Another officer reports hearing more gunfire, then someone else calls out that the suspect has been shot and injured near the intersection of Patterson Street and Versailles Avenue.
The dispatcher calls for an officer twice with no answer and then asks for clarification: “Can you confirm there’s only one officer down?”
An officer replies: “We have two officers down.”
At an evening prayer for peace at the Beulah Park United Methodist Church in McKeesport, Mayor Michael Cherepko asked for prayers for the families of the officers who were shot and for fellow officers.
“I see the hurt on the officers’ faces,” he said from a front pew, his voice low and cracking with grief. “It’s the worst day of my life.”
The service, held just a quarter mile from the shooting scene, brought in several dozen residents seeking a place to share their collective grief.
Frank Francis, a lifelong resident of McKeesport, said two of the officers involved Monday lived on his street.
“I’ve been deeply moved by this,” he said. “I just had to come and become a part of this community.”
William Meekins Jr., pastor at the church, said that violence in the community and the closeness of Monday’s shooting prompted him to work with other religious leaders in the area the hold the peace prayer.
“Nothing prepares you for something like this,” he said. “We wanted to open the doors for those who wanted to gather together.”
Paul Shelly Jr., who was born and raised in McKeesport and is seeking the write-in vote in Tuesday’s special election for the state House, said politics has no place in instances like these.
“It’s a time for the community to come together to grieve and pray for the families involved,” he said
Mr. Shelly said he still loves his hometown and its people, and he wants to see the violence across the city end.
“It just breaks my heart,” he said. “It’s a terrible day for McKeesport.”
The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh also offered a prayer service at St. Patrick Church in McKeesport.
“We are confronted once again by the violence that strikes at our hopes for peace,” Bishop David Zubik said in a statement. “As people of faith, we are challenged to examine how we can contribute to a culture that cherishes life and values kindness and compassion instead of anger and vengeance.”
The McKeesport officer’s killing was the second line of duty death in Allegheny County this year. On Jan. 2, Brackenridge Police Chief Justin McIntire was fatally shot as he pursued a suspect during a foot chase. Tarentum Officer Jordan Schrecengost was shot and wounded during the same incident.