A traffic stop in Seward on Oct. 1 had shifted to a drug investigation when an officer shot and killed a man he had just handcuffed, authorities said Tuesday. But they didn't say whether the man was still in handcuffs when he was shot.
The deadly encounter began at 1:05 a.m., when Seward officer Matthew "Eddie" Armstrong pulled over a car for speeding, troopers said. Micah McComas of Chugiak and a friend, Amy Campbell of Seward, were inside. Campbell has said that McComas was driving her Kia.
The stop in the Safeway parking lot soon became a drug investigation, according to a statement released Tuesday by Alaska State Troopers, the Seward Police Department and the state Office of Special Prosecutions, which reviews police shootings in Alaska. Troopers are leading the investigation.
McComas' sister said the officer found something in his wallet but she doesn't know what.
The officer handcuffed McComas and put him in the back of the police cruiser, the statement said.
Armstrong, at that point the only officer at the scene, returned to the Kia to talk to Campbell, she said in an interview on Oct. 2.
Then the police car started slowly rolling, she said. The officer yelled and ran over to it. She heard five shots.
"Officer Armstrong was continuing his investigation, when at approximately 0147 hours, McComas managed to get in the front seat of Officer Armstrong's vehicle and attempted to drive away," the statement said.
The officer tried to stop McComas but ultimately shot and killed him, the statement said. An autopsy confirmed that McComas died of gunshot wounds.
The statement does not say whether McComas, 41, had somehow managed to get out of the handcuffs before he was shot and troopers did not immediately respond when asked that.
Authorities are not releasing any more information and are not giving interviews about the shooting, said troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters. Seward Police Chief Tom Clemons didn't return calls or answer questions sent by email this week, including whether Armstrong — a 13-year veteran of the Seward police force — was back on patrol duty.
The new information was the first acknowledgement by investigators that McComas was handcuffed just before he was killed. Campbell had said that from the start. It also was the first time authorities confirmed that the officer shot McComas.
The statement didn't say how many times McComas was shot, how they think he got into the front seat, or what kind of drugs were at issue.
McComas' sister and brother-in-law met with a state attorney, Andrew Peterson, for a briefing on the case Tuesday. Peterson is chief assistant attorney general in the Office of Special Prosecutions.
"It is crazy how this could have happened," said his sister, Krista Smith of South Carolina. "It seems like the officer lost control of the situation, somehow."
Peterson told the couple that he had reviewed part of a video from the scene and saw McComas still in handcuffs in the front seat, Smith said Tuesday. But he didn't address whether her brother was in handcuffs at the moment he was shot, she said. Campbell said she remembers seeing her friend handcuffed. Then, after he was shot, she saw him lying on the ground without handcuffs.
The family is conducting its own investigation into the shooting. A former medical examiner checked his body and found seven bullet wounds, including one on his left side described to Smith as a "contact wound," she said.
"That means there is basically gun powder around the hole. Which means it was pressed into his flesh," she said. Other bullets struck his arm, his leg and his hand, she said.
"We are basically trying to find out, 'Was lethal force warranted?'" Smith said.
That contact injury is perplexing, she said. But so is how her handcuffed brother ended up in the police cruiser's front seat.
"How in the world does that even happen?" she said.
The trooper-led investigation is continuing. Investigators ask anyone with information to contact the troopers' general investigation unit in Soldotna at 907-262-4453.
Once it is complete, the investigation will be turned over to the Office of Special Prosecutions to determine if the use of force was justified under state law.
The family is putting its confidence in the official investigation, Smith said.
"We feel like we can trust the process at this point," she said.
They don't want to brush aside McComas' own actions, she said. Over his life, he has been in and out of trouble. At the time of the shooting, he was awaiting trial on charges of being a felon in possession of a gun and a misdemeanor drug offense. Yet his friends said he would help anyone in a pinch. He was close to his parents and sister.