Training, planning and having access to resources were key in handling a daylong standoff in one of the city’s business districts, local officials said.
“It was a complicated incident that involved a barricaded criminal suspect who had displayed assaultive behavior toward our officers,” said Matt Rokus, deputy police chief, referring to Za Vue, who eventually was found dead inside the building at 301 Water St.
“He had access to a firearm in that building … (and) he could have been armed prior to entering,” Rokus said. “Then he started a fire ...”
The fire and the smoke it generated made it unsafe for officers to enter the building, Rokus said. But a potentially armed suspect also made it unsafe for firefighters.
“We do a lot of training throughout the year,” Rokus said. “This was a new scenario for us. It stresses the importance of working well with other agencies.”
Members of the Eau Claire Police Department, including its tactical team, Eau Claire County sheriff’s office and its regional SWAT team, UW-Eau Claire Police Department, Eau Claire Fire Department and state Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation responded to the standoff, with some busy at the scene for more than 12 hours.
“Whenever you have an incident like this that lasts over a number of hours, you have to call in additional resources,” police Chief Gerald Staniszewski said.
Employees from the city’s Community Services Department were called upon to close off three blocks of Water Street to vehicle traffic, said Rokus, noting university officials were contacted to reach out to students. The UW-Eau Claire Human Sciences and Services building, located in the 200 block of Water Street, was empty at the start of the incident and remained closed for the day, and students living in Aspenson Mogensen Hall, also in the 200 block, were advised to stay inside.
Managing a critical incident such as the standoff, including the number of personnel involved, doesn’t happen by accident, Rokus said. “There is a large amount of training involved.”
Matt Jaggar, an Eau Claire Fire Department battalion chief involved in the standoff, credited training as being “a key to the successful completion of this incident.”
Eau Claire police responded to Investment Realty, one of the businesses in the building, at 5:38 a.m. June 5 on a report of a burglary. Officers discovered a broken glass door on the east side of the building, began searching and were confronted by Vue, who sprayed them with a fire extinguisher before barricading himself inside a utility room, Rokus said.
Officers attempted to talk to Vue through the door for about an hour, trying to persuade him to cooperate and come out, Rokus said. However, a growing amount of smoke coming from the utility room eventually forced them to leave the building.
Once smoke was encountered, the Eau Claire Fire Department was dispatched to a report of a structure fire, Jaggar said. Initially, firefighters couldn’t go inside because of the possibility of Vue being armed.
The initial attempt to suppress the fire was done later in the day by tactical members who took a hose line inside the building while firefighters in ballistic gear ran a firetruck’s pump, Jaggar said.
Through interviews with property owner John Mogensen and building tenants, police had learned there was a firearm inside, Rokus said. They also obtained information about the layout of the building, including there was ceiling access from the utility room.
“When we go into a situation like this, we don’t know anything … and need to gather information,” Staniszewski explained.
Unable to talk to Vue, who shut the building’s power off, police couldn’t gauge his intentions, Rokus said.
In an effort to keep officers and the public safe, three armored vehicles — one belonging to the Police Department and the others to the sheriff’s office — were brought in to allow officers to get close to the large building, Rokus said. Wherever officers were staged, they had nonlethal options, including Tasers.
The Police Department, which had set up a command post in the area, stationed its drone over the building to monitor personnel and the fire, which grew and subsided throughout the day, in real time, Rokus said. The drone’s video feed also helped in planning.
“It takes a lot of resources to contain an incident like this,” Rokus said. “None of this would have been possible without the support from the community.”
The Eau Claire Police Department’s investigation of the incident will go on for several more weeks, Rokus said. While Vue’s preliminary cause of death was smoke inhalation, toxicology results are pending.
The incident is over, but “it’s hard to say it’s a success because of the loss of life,” he said.
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