The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

June 7, 2010

The shooting of Bobby Stacy: Case is a forensic puzzle of tire tracks, bullet paths

This story was originally published in The Joplin Globe on Sunday, June 6.

JOPLIN, Mo. — Claudia Moss never saw the entry wound left by the bullet from a Southwest City police officer’s gun that took the life of her 26-year-old son.

Bobby L. Stacy already had been declared brain dead and was lingering on life support by the time his mother arrived at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Okla., on March 28. The wound near his right ear was covered by a bandage wrapped around his head.

“I knew when I got there he was never coming home,” Moss said in a recent interview.

Her son died the next day.

The shooting of Bobby Stacy has been the subject of a Missouri State Highway Patrol investigation for more than two months, an unusually lengthy probe of an officer-involved shooting. If the length of the investigation is an indicator of the extent of suspicions that the shooting may have been less than justified, the state patrol will not say.

Neither the patrol nor Southwest City police will confirm the name of the officer involved, although his identity appears to be common knowledge among residents of McDonald County where the shooting took place. The officer remains on paid administrative leave pending a conclusion of the investigation, according to the town’s police chief.

What happened?

Moss, of Gentry, Ark., told the Globe that while she was at the hospital in Tulsa, she asked the patrol’s lead investigator, Sgt. James Musche, what happened. She said Musche told her that he did not yet know — all he knew for certain was that it had not gone down the way the officer claimed. However, the state patrol would neither confirm nor deny whether Musche made the statement.

For Moss and Bobby’s father, Larry Stacy, who operates a horse ranch near Ardmore, Okla., their wait to learn what investigators may be able to piece together from the scene of the shooting has become increasingly difficult to bear.

“I just can’t get this out of my mind,” Stacy said recently. “I try to go about my work, but I can’t stop thinking about it.” He said he can’t help but think there’s something going on that the family hasn’t been told.

“Nobody seems to know why it’s taken this long to wrap up,” he said.

Cat and mouse

This much appears certain: Bobby Stacy was in a stolen Chevrolet Suburban shortly before 2 a.m. on March 28 when an officer chased him down Frye Road out of Southwest City. The SUV ran off the road about a half-mile east of town and wound up high-centered on a foot-high abutment of a box-culvert bridge with a bullet in the driver’s head.

Bobby had been drinking at a party outside Gravette, Ark., his mother said. She believes he most likely left the party intending to go to his cousin’s home on the Missouri side of the state line.

It surprises his parents that their son stole a car to get there. Generally, he’d walk wherever he wanted to go, they said. He was the kind of guy who would walk rather than ask someone else for a ride, they said.

Stacy had worked at a drive-through wildlife farm in Arkansas for about five years after graduating from high school in Gravette, loved animals and was good at breaking horses, according to his parents. He’d had some prior brushes with the law, but stealing a vehicle was a more serious offense than any he’d committed previously, they said.

It seems unlikely though that the officer could even have known the vehicle was stolen. The owner of the Suburban, Jimmy Thacker, told the Globe his family never noticed it missing from their home on Route MM northeast of Southwest City until the next morning. They reported it stolen about six hours after the fatal chase.

Stacy’s father retained an attorney and hired a private investigator from Tulsa in the weeks following his son’s death.

The private eye, Eric Cullen, of Cullen & Associates, learned that a clerk at a convenience store on Main Street in Southwest City saw an officer stop a Suburban near the store the night in question. When the officer got out and approached the vehicle, the driver took off with the patrol car in pursuit.

Stacy’s parents believe it was possible their son started a game of cat and mouse that ended badly. But they have trouble seeing why it should have concluded with the officer pulling his gun and shooting their son.

Tire tracks

Cullen visited the scene of the shooting and took pictures of the roadway and what evidence he believes he saw of the final moments of the chase and shooting.

He said the tire tracks of the Suburban and the patrol car were still visible and indicated both drivers ran off the roadway. Frye Road takes a 90-degree turn to the south a half-mile east of town, and Cullen believes the back end of the Suburban yawed off the left side of the road as it was coming out of the turn.

He said the tire track evidence shows Stacy regained the roadway without stopping but then ran off the left side a second time and crashed in a shallow ditch just after crossing the box-culvert bridge near a driveway to Danny and Lois Frye’s residence. Tracks showed the officer skidded off the other side of the road just beyond the bridge and struck a barbed-wire fence, probably in attempting to stop, Cullen said.

Cullen believes he saw evidence that Stacy backed out of the ditch and ended up high-centered on the bridge abutment on the right side of the road.

If the private investigator’s analysis of the tire tracks is correct, then the questions appear to be: Did the officer exit his patrol car believing the chase was over after the Suburban crashed in the ditch? Did Stacy attempt to back into him, drawing the officer’s fire? Or did the officer exit his car and start shooting at Stacy without justification?

The state patrol has declined to release any details of the officer’s account, and no eyewitnesses to the shooting have surfaced.

No ID

The Globe’s efforts to reach the Fryes have been unsuccessful, although Cullen said they told him they were awakened by the crash outside their home but did not see the shooting.

Danny Frye believes he heard a loud noise and a couple of gunshots, the private investigator said. Lois Frye got up, looked out a window and saw the patrol car up against the barbed-wire fence in the ditch on the far side of the road and the SUV wrecked on the bridge, Cullen said.

Not realizing anyone had been shot, she went outside and asked the officer if he needed any help getting the vehicle off the bridge abutment, Cullen said, and was told something to the effect: “No, I’m good.”

Other officers and emergency medical personnel began arriving a short time later, and she saw the driver of the Suburban placed on a gurney and hauled away in an ambulance, according to Cullen.

Stacy’s parents do not believe their son was armed in any manner.

“He wouldn’t even carry a pocket knife,” his father said. “He was kind of anti-guns. Just from knowing what I know about my son, I would say there’s no way he was armed.”

Moss believes her son also is unlikely to ever have tried to run an officer down with a vehicle.

“He’s never been a violent person,” she said. “Sometimes when he was drunk, he wouldn’t stop and think. But he’s never been a violent person.”

They also do not believe their son knew the officer involved or had any prior contact with him. They were told at the hospital that their son had no identification on him at the time of the shooting and that officers had to have him fingerprinted at the hospital to learn who he was.

Multiple shots?

The number of shots fired by the officer and from what distance and angle are obvious subjects of the probe.

Two days after the shooting, Thacker was informed by his insurance company that the state patrol had agreed to let him retrieve family belongings left in the vehicle. He went to M&M Wrecker Service in Carthage, where the 1996 Suburban was being held as evidence, and saw the damage the vehicle sustained in the crash and shooting.

The windows of the rear doors on both sides were completely broken out along with the passenger-side window of the rear cargo area, he said. The front windshield and rear window of the SUV were intact, as were the windows on both doors for the front seats. There was a bullet hole in the driver’s side rear door, but Thacker could not tell if it was an exit or entry hole.

He said he also saw an apparent bullet hole in the back of the head rest of the front passenger seat and another hole in his son’s book bag left in the middle of the floor of the back seat. The carpet beneath the book bag appeared to have been disturbed, either by the bullet that passed through the bag or someone trying to locate evidence.

There was a significant amount of blood noted by Thacker on the driver’s seat and inside panel of the driver’s door. He could not tell if the three windows were shot out or broken out by crash impact. He could only speculate if any of the three apparent bullet holes he spotted were caused by the same bullet, he said.

Thacker was at work the night the SUV was stolen. His oldest son came home late from a church function in Tulsa and noticed the dome light on in the Suburban. He turned it off and went inside to sleep. Apparently, Stacy took the vehicle a short time later. The family was in the habit of leaving keys in their cars since their residence is in the country and somewhat remotely located.

Thacker told the Globe that before he was allowed to retrieve their belongings from the Suburban, the state patrol contacted him and wanted to know about a second set of keys they’d found in the car and a backpack with paperwork in it bearing the name of someone with whom he was not acquainted.

He said he told them his family did not know how either of them got in the SUV. He later learned that someone else who lives down the road from him may have had their vehicle tampered with the same night.

Head wound

Larry Stacy, who is divorced from Bobby’s mother and remarried, was down in Texas when he first got word that his son had been shot. He hurried to Tulsa but could not get there until about 5:30 a.m. the next day.

He and his ex-wife both recall a doctor telling them that Bobby had been shot in the back of the head with a hollow-point bullet from a large-caliber gun. The bullet had made “mush” of the right side of his brain, the doctor told them.

For almost two months, they were left to wonder how he could have been shot in the back of the head if he was posing any actual threat to the officer’s life. It was not until they received their son’s medical records from both the hospital in Grove, Okla., where an ambulance first took Bobby, and the hospital in Tulsa, that they learned he actually had been shot in the right side of the head.

The lingering possibility that multiple shots may have been fired from an angle coming from a side of the vehicle troubles them all the more.

“Was this guy shooting at him as they were driving down the road?” Moss asked. “I know I wouldn’t stop either if someone was shooting at me. How can a traffic violation turn into something like this?”

The Globe offered the officer believed to have been involved, through his police chief, an opportunity to provide his account of the shooting but received no response. Police officers are generally bound by departmental policy not to comment before the conclusion of investigations into officer-involved shootings.

Sgt. Mike Watson, a spokesman for the state patrol, said this week that the patrol’s lead investigator, Musche, is bound by such policy and cannot comment at this time.

“We certainly want to be sensitive to the family in terms of them wanting answers,” Watson said.

He said there is a considerable amount of evidence to examine in the case, investigators wish to be thorough in their consideration of that evidence and no timetable for completion of the probe can be provided at this time.

“But we’re not going to be partial to anybody,” Watson said. “We’re looking for the facts in the case and to present those facts as we find them.”

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