WAUKESHA – From the beginning, the case involving Eric Zweifel has raised questions about what exactly transpired before a high-profile police standoff at the Baymont Inn in late April.
Had the mentally disturbed Waukesha man charged in the incident ever had a firearm, as Waukesha police had feared? Were the sounds of gunshots from inside Zweifel’s hotel room distinctive enough to warrant an officer to shoot at the closed door? Why did a hotel clerk falsely think Zweifel was involved in a domestic dispute with a woman inside the room?
Zweifel’s attorney, Jonathan LaVoy, has another question, one that has no direct correlation to the defense of his client on seven criminal charges: Did police act recklessly, endangering hotel guests and Zweifel, when they fired blindly at a door in response to unconfirmed gunshots that turned out not to be gunshots at all?
Zweifel — who was charged May 7 in Waukesha County Circuit Court with four felony counts of making threats to law enforcement officers as well as several other misdemeanor counts — was unhinged enough to require some sort of attention, LaVoy acknowledged.
“My concern has more to do with what the police did,” he said. “I’m not trying to excuse what Mr. Zweifel did. Obviously, he was having a significant psychological breakdown, and he was acting out, which resulted in the police coming … I just think there needs to be an investigation about what police did.”
What happened at the Baymont Inn in Waukesha?
According to initial police reports and the subsequent criminal complaint tied to the April 29 incident, police were dispatched at about 6 p.m. to the Baymont Inn, off Main Street and Moreland Boulevard, where a man was heard screaming inside his hotel room.
Zweifel, 44, who had known mental health struggles and had been placed at the hotel under a Waukesha County Health and Human Services psychological hold, had earlier refused to go with sheriff’s department deputies under a civil commitment order.
After slamming the door on deputies and declaring “I’m not coming,” Zweifel then called the police department, angrily shouting and complaining about the deputies’ presence.
When four police officers arrived, they were told by a hotel clerk that Zweifel may be involved in a domestic disturbance with a woman inside the room. So police knocked on the door of the second-floor room, but Zweifel only opened the door several inches room before slamming it shut again.
According to the statements of the four officers in the complaint, Zweifel at that point threatened them, essentially yelling how he was going to kill them.
What happened next is what raised questions about police actions.
Police heard what they thought sounded like two gunshots coming from inside the room. Concerned that they were under attack, they moved away from the door, but one officer opened fire at the door in self-defense.
It was enough to result in a tactical squad brought in to surround the hotel and evacuate guests, all while Zweifel continued to refuse to come out or let police inside. The roughly 2½-hour standoff ended about 8:30 p.m., when Zweifel agreed to surrender.
Police investigation left some questions unanswered
When it was over, authorities began to get answers — but only to some questions.
First, there was no gun inside the hotel room. Nor were they any bullet holes inside the room indicating that Zweifel had fired one. So the loud noises police had heard? From the damage inside the room, it appeared that Zweifel had violently thrown items inside the room, possibly accounting for the sound.
Second, no woman was inside the room, and, therefore, no domestic disturbance had been going on before police arrived. It’s still unknown why hotel staff thought otherwise.
But the third question — about whether police were warranted in firing a gun because of a perceived threat — is one with no official answers, and that bothers LaVoy, especially given what police had been told.
“Ultimately, they do not confirm who’s in that room,” LaVoy said. “They do not confirm whether there truly is a woman in the room, or whether there is a domestic dispute going on.
“Basically, they hear what they think are gunshots, but are really things being thrown around the room, and then one of the officers discharges his firearm into the room without seeing who’s in there,” LaVoy added. “I thought that was incredibly dangerous behavior that could certainly hurt of killed people in the hotel.”
While it would have no bearing on the criminal case, he said he believes an outside agency — such as what occurs when police officers shoot someone — should apply to this set of circumstances.
Waukesha police said in a statement that department comments on the incident are off-limits now that the case is proceeding through circuit court.
“Now that the charging decisions have been made and a criminal complaint is in the public domain we will continue to maintain the integrity of the investigative and respect the judicial process by not litigating elements of this case outside of the court room,” the statement said.
Suspect should have faced a Chapter 51 commitment, LaVoy says
Separate from the enforcement questions, Zweifel still will have to face charges that he threatened the officers, as well as the misdemeanor charges related to the hotel room damage, his refusal to cooperate with police and the tumult of the standoff.
Following a June 20 preliminary hearing, he was bound over for trial and is next expected to appear in court July 7.
LaVoy said he anticipates having Zweifel plead not guilty by reason of mental defect, followed by a request that the court order a psychological evaluation based on that plea.
He also suggested that the Waukesha County District Attorney’s Office could have avoided this case progression by not charging Zweifel criminally, and opting instead for a Chapter 51 commitment under state law, prompting treatments without the threat of a prison sentence.
Depending on the result of his mental evaluations, Zweifel, if found to not be responsible for his actions, could face a similar commitment, LaVoy said.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Waukesha police acted recklessly in Baymont Inn standoff, lawyer says