Prosecutor: SB police officer shot man out of self-defense

SOUTH BEND (WNDU) --- The St. Joseph County Prosecutor says a South Bend Police officer acted out of self-defense on Tuesday night when he shot 27-year-old Terrance Eppenger on the city's northwest side.

On Thursday afternoon, Prosecutor Ken Cotter held a news conference alongside investigators. They interviewed Officer Samuel Chaput and several witnesses, who saw Eppenger hitting Chaput "at least 10 to 20 times" in the head.

"The witnesses actually confirmed it looked like the officer was kind of losing his adrenaline, kind of losing his ability to be able to try to protect himself," said Cotter. "At that point, (Chaput) believed he was imminently in danger of death."

The original call came in around 6 p.m. Tuesday night for an unwanted person in the 1300 block of Elwood Avenue. Residents say Eppenger refused to leave the front porch. In the past, they say he visited a person living on the second-floor of the duplex, who instructed the first-floor resident to call police if Eppenger lingered when the person was not home.

According to police, Officer Chaput was the first responding officer. Witnesses told investigators they heard Chaput try to calm Eppenger, who began hitting the officer.

Passersby and people in the neighborhood report the two men "struggled" and fell to the ground, where Eppenger continued to hit Chaput. The altercation continued onto the street, in front of the officer's squad car.

Chaput told investigators he tried to use his Taser, but the way Eppenger pinned him made it impossible.

"Officer Chaput was able to pull out his firearm and fire one shot, striking Mr. Eppenger in the lower torso area," explained Lt. Alex Arendt, assistant commander of the St. Joseph County Metro Homicid Unit.

Afterward, Arendt says the officer called for medical assistance and used his hands to apply pressure to Eppenger's wound.

Both men were hospitalized. Chaput suffered cuts and bruises -- and has been released. Cotter, the county prosecutor, said Eppenger remains in critical condition and awaits another surgery, adding the current goal is for Eppenger to heal before any possible charges are considered.

"Hope that it never does."
Asst. Commander Arendt says police-involved shootings are uncommon in the area.

"You never really know when that call may come. You just want to be prepared for it when it does come and hope that it never does," Arendt said.

Sheriff Mike Grzegorek, who assisted in the investigation, says Officer Chaput is experiencing "a lot emotionally," adding that shooting a person "is traumatic for the officer involved."

Det. Brian Cook, of the St. Joseph County Police, says he never has used his gun, agreeing with Grzegorek and Arendt no officer wants to use his or her firearm.

"You do this job knowing that may be a possibility," said Cook. "We all hope we don't have to do that."

In 2016, Officer Samuel Chaput was awarded the Chief's Award of Valor for chasing down and arresting a gunman, who robbed a check cashing business in November 2015. According to Chief Scott Ruszkowski, Chaput shot the robber in the leg. That was after the robber held his gun to the teller's head and pointed the gun at three officers, including Chaput.

The chief adds he never has had a complaint about Chaput, a four-year member of the South Bend Police Department.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg issued a statement, saying:
"We are extremely concerned any time we learn of a shooting involving a South Bend officer,” said Mayor Buttigieg. “I appreciate the thoroughness of the outside investigation, which determined that the officer used deadly force in self-defense and as a last resort. We also learned that the officer acted quickly to call in medical dispatch and administer on-site medical assistance. I am thankful that Officer Chaput has been released from the hospital and is recovering from his injuries, and hope for the recovery of Mr. Eppenger, who remains in critical condition. Our thoughts are with all those affected by this incident and their families.”

According to the mayor's office, the South Bend Police Department will review the shooting internally to ensure the officer followed department policies and training.