WILLISTON — A despondent Franklin County man, who had threatened to “end it” while holding a loaded machine pistol to his head as he advanced toward police while ignoring their commands, was shot dead on the side of Interstate 89 in Bolton as motorists drove by Sunday afternoon, officials said Monday.
Vermont State Police said they were told Benjamin Gregware, 42, of Sheldon had just lost his job, he feared he was going to lose custody of his children and had just purchased bullets at a St. Albans store. His ex-wife told police he was not acting normal and appeared impaired.
Trooper Chris Brown and Richmond Police Cpl. Richard Greenough, who were crouched behind a police cruiser, eventually fired at the advancing Gregware, who disregarded orders to drop his weapon, said Col. Matthew Birmingham, director of the Vermont State Police, at a news conference.
The officers administered first aid until rescue arrived, but Gregware was later pronounced dead at UVM Medical Center, police said.
Birmingham said the incident was captured on dashcam video in both cruisers and the body camera worn by Greenough. Birmingham said he expects those videos will be made public after the investigation is complete and prosecutors review the case.
Three shots hit Gregware: one each in the head, torso and shoulder, according to Maj. Glenn Hall, commander of the State Police criminal division.
The officers combined to fire 12 shots. Hall said Brown fired seven shots from his .223-caliber patrol rifle, while Greenough fired five shots from his 40-caliber service handgun.
Gregware kept his MAC-10 machine pistol with extended magazine pointed at his head for the entire incident, Hall said. Gregware kept the gun pointed away from passing vehicles, Hall said, but the officers remained concerned about the safety of motorists.
Police are still trying to determine if Gregware’s gun fired, the major said. There appeared to be a mark on the pavement, he said. He noted no shell casing was found, but with all the movement in the area and vehicles going by, that might not be unusual.
During a news conference Monday, Birmingham described the seconds leading up to the shooting, as captured by the cameras, after Gregware pulled over the red Honda Accord he was driving about 3:50 p.m. Sunday near mile marker 69 in Bolton.
“Trooper Brown can then be heard yelling ‘put the gun down’ multiple times. Mr. Gregware is then seen opening his door and stepping out of his vehicle holding a handgun which he immediately pointed at his own head. Trooper Brown and Cpl. Greenough continuously ordered Mr. Gregware to put the gun down,” Birmingham said.
“As these events are unfolding, multiple vehicles can be seen traveling southbound on Interstate 89 past their location. Mr. Gregware did not comply with verbal orders and started walking toward the officers with the gun still pointed at his own head," Birmingham said. "Both Trooper Brown and Cpl. Greenough fired multiple rounds at Mr. Gregware and he was seen immediately falling to the ground.”
Gregware was holding a loaded Masterpiece Arms 9mm tactical pistol, commonly known as a MAC-10, police said. Hall said it had one bullet in the chamber and 14 in the clip, which is believed to hold 30 rounds.
Both officers have been placed on paid administrative leave by their departments. In a change of Vermont State Police procedure, Birmingham said Brown will remain on paid leave until the case has been reviewed by state prosecutors. He said the department is doing a full review of its procedures in the wake of recent fatal shootings.
"I worry about Trooper Brown and the impact that this is having on him," Birmingham said. "These individual incidents are looked at independently of each other, not collectively, because lethal force is a justification point that occurs in a split-second of time."
There have been three fatal shootings involving Vermont State Police in six months, Birmingham said. Brown, who was a member of the department’s tactical unit until Jan. 30, was involved in all three, and a fourth, nonfatal, case in Fayston in 2015.
Brown joined the department in January 2012 and is assigned to the Middlesex barracks. He was on a special highway safety patrol in Chittenden County on Sunday, said Maj. Rich Hopkins, the field force commander.
“Let me be clear that this decision is not an indication of any wrongdoing by Trooper Brown, but merely a change in the way the State Police will now manage our response to officer-involved shootings as it relates to the health and well-being of our members,” he said.
Birmingham, citing personnel issues, has declined to discuss the transfer of Brown off the tactical team on Jan. 30 or the removal of its commander, Lt. Hugh O’Donnell, on Jan. 25.
Richmond Police Chief Alan Buck said his department policy provides for three days of paid leave, but he had provided Greenough six days to start. He said the town will do whatever it needs to support Greenough, who joined the department in August 2006.
Buck noted it was the first officer-involved shooting in the nearly 50-year history of the Richmond Police.
Birmingham said the case began to unfold about 3 p.m. when Melissa Gregware, 37, of Sheldon, called State Police with concerns about the well-being of her former husband.
“Mrs. Gregware stated that her ex-husband had just left the Walmart in St. Albans, where he had purchased ammunition, and was driving southbound on Interstate 89," Birmingham said. "She advised that he had been struggling with alcohol addiction and she believed that he had been drinking because he was slurring his words. She also advised that he was not acting normal and that his speech and behavior appeared different than what she had been accustomed to when he was intoxicated."
The colonel added, “She said that Mr. Gregware owns guns and she was concerned he might harm himself.”
Birmingham said police in the area were alerted about Gregware and the car.
Trooper Jay Riggen of the St. Albans barracks tried to negotiate with Gregware on his cellphone for about 20 minutes, Birmingham said.
Gregware, who said he was “not OK,” was driving southbound on I-89 and explained he was an alcoholic, about to lose custody of his children and was armed with a 9mm handgun. Gregware sounded despondent, emotional and was crying, police said.
Gregware said he would continue to drive south on I-89 “and when he ran out of gas he was going to ‘end it,’” Birmingham said.
Riggen tried to persuade Gregware to pull off I-89 so troopers could meet with him and get him help, but he refused, Birmingham said.
Police said Gregware listed off some of the I-89 exits he passed and eventually ended the call shortly after passing the exit in Richmond. Before he ended the call, police said, he told Riggen something like “you can bring all the guns you want."
Birmingham said Brown and Greenough initiated what police call “a high-risk motor vehicle stop” due to the information that Gregware was likely armed. Instead of approaching the vehicle, officers stay behind cover with their guns drawn while ordering the driver out of the vehicle.
Police said Brown was behind his open cruiser door with his rifle, while Greenough was on the other side of the cruiser with his handgun. About a minute later Gregware was shot.
Both officers approached cautiously, checked the car for other occupants and took the MAC-10 that Gregware was holding, Hall said. An ambulance was called and the officers began medical aid.
Vermont has seen an increase in police-related shootings and officials say some may be due to mental health issues.
Hall said there had been 22 police shootings between 2000 and 2010, but there have been about 25 since.
Birmingham said each shooting takes its toll, especially on those officers involved.
“Each one is incredibly tragic and challenging for all those involved," he said. "There is no greater responsibility for a police officer than the decision to use lethal force. Each of these officer-involved shootings is independently reviewed by both the appropriate state’s attorney and the Vermont attorney general to determine the legal justification for the use of lethal force by law enforcement."
Birmingham also announced that since a fatal shooting in East Poultney on Sept. 1, the department has undertaken additional review of its procedures and tactics. A final report on administrative recommendations is due in early March.