Coroner's jury rules police shooting was justifiable

Sarah Antonacci

A Sangamon County coroner’s jury ruled Thursday that the fatal shooting of William R. Geiser by police was a justifiable homicide.

Geiser, 63, had a long history of mental illness and was living at the Bel-Aire Motel on March 8 when he pulled a knife and lunged at officers who went there to talk to him about repeated 911 phone calls he’d been making that day.

Springfield police asked Illinois State Police to investigate the incident.

Robert Jennings, a special agent with the Illinois State Police, testified at the coroner’s inquest that police had been to Geiser’s motel room earlier in the day and asked him to stop making calls because they were becoming a burden to the police dispatch center.

One call was made to the AT&T Midwest facility in which Geiser allegedly said the building would be destroyed that day.

Geiser apparently agreed to stop placing the calls, but started again later.

Three officers arrived at the motel that evening and knocked on Geiser’s door. He refused to open. A part-time employee of the motel said she could get him to come to the door. He said he wouldn’t come out until the officers had left the second-story balcony in front of his room and went to their cars in the parking lot.

Two of the three officers left. A third, officer Donald Bivens, who is with the department’s team that deals with the mentally ill and also is a neighborhood police officer in the area, stayed behind.

When Geiser opened the door, Bivens stepped into it so Geiser couldn’t close it. When Bivens did, Geiser came after him with a serrated kitchen steak knife. Bivens grabbed the blade, cutting his hand. The injury later required five stitches.

As Bivens grabbed the knife, the two other officers were making their way back up from the parking lot. Bivens yelled that Geiser had a knife. Officer John Shea, the first of the two to get to the room, began reaching for his Taser, Jennings said.

However, when Shea saw Bivens had been cut and heard Bivens yelling that Geiser had a weapon, Shea instead reached for his firearm, Jennings testified.

He fired three rounds. Ballistics tests showed that all three hit Geiser. Two were in his chest and were considered fatal. A third hit elsewhere.

Jennings said the part-time employee of the motel wondered why police didn’t use a Taser.

“It’s hard for the layman to understand,” he said. “When an officer is under the threat of a loss of life, they have the authority to use deadly force. They have a continuum of force, and it escalates as the threat escalates.”

Jennings testified that Shea had intended to use the Taser, until he saw that his co-worker already had been injured.

“It would definitely be considered a deadly force scenario,” the agent said.

The third officer on the scene also fired a shot, but tests showed it hit the door and ricocheted into the bathroom, Jennings said.

The state police agent said the knife was found under Geiser’s body and is being processed by the state police crime lab to ensure that Bivens’ blood was on it. He said it may be difficult, though, because there was so much blood at the scene.

Jennings said the investigation is complete other than the testing of the knife.

Sarah Antonacci can be reached at (217) 788-1529.