State AG rules officers use of deadly force in Gonic shootout justified

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Police cruiser dashcam shows Douglas Heath firing his weaspon toward police officers and a civilian a moment before he died in a hail of bullets. (Courtesy photos/N.H. AG's Office)

ROCHESTER - As smoke poured from the engine compartment of his crashed Cadillac SUV, a severely injured Douglas Heath tumbled out of the front passenger side door onto the ground as a Rochester Police officer yelled, "Let me see your hands. Drop your gun, drop your gun."

But instead of dropping his gun, Heath, lying on his back, racked a round into its firing chamber and started shooting.

Graphic depicts how many shots came from all five principals, and where they were, during shootout with Douglas Heath on Aug. 20. It should be noted the firetruck in the middle of the intersection was not there at the time of the shooting.

As Rochester Police Officer Michael Lambert continued to yell "Drop your gun, drop your gun" several more times, Heath squeezed off two more shots, the third one striking the pickup of a civilian, whose truck was sandwiched between two officers' vehicles about 40 feet from the crash site.

Within a nanosecond of the third shot, a fusillade of bullets were let loose from three pistols and a high-powered rifle as four officers sought to neutralize Heath and the threat he posed to nearby civilians.

But Heath, suffering from a broken elbow, leg and ribs from the crash and struck several times by police bullets already, managed to squeeze off one more shot, into his own left cheek. Police don't know whether his final shot was intentional or accidental.

Heath also had traces of fentanyl and methamphetamines in his system, according to a coroner's report.

The sometimes grisly, often harrowing details of the Aug. 20 shootout between police and Heath, 38, of Gonic, were spelled out during a press conference called by New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald on Thursday at City Hall in Rochester.

Rochester Police cruiser cam from vehicle driven by Rochester Police Det. Geoff Moore as he arrives at the scene as the shooting begins.

Assistant AG Peter Hinckley took about an hour to summarize the events that led to the fatal encounter with Heath and the report that officially ruled the four officers involved were justified in their use of deadly force to protect the public.

With safety officials remaining tight-lipped during an exhaustive six-week investigation, Thursday's press conference gave them a chance to reveal all of the details of the incident and praise the officers involved for their judgment and actions under incredibly trying conditions.

Hinckley as well as State Police Colonel Christopher Wagner and Rochester Police Chief Paul Toussaint heaped praise on their four officers involved in the incident: State Police Troopers Haden Wilber and Nathaniel Goodwin; Rochester Police Officer Michael Lambert and Rochester Police Det. Geoff Moore.

The 43-page written report that exonerated the officers included statements from all four lawmen and civilian eyewitnesses as well as forensic evidence.

According to the report, Heath, who had several federal and local warrants out for his arrest on drug charges and had just eluded Rochester Police after a brief car chase two days earlier, was seen a short time before the shootout by Moore, who radioed state and Rochester police for backup.

Trooper Wilber, having some knowledge of Heath's activities, knew he frequented the Riviera Motel in Gonic and checked the parking lot where he found him in his Cadillac SUV around 3:15 p.m. It appeared to have been spray painted gray since the chase two days before.

Heath, upon seeing Wilber, immediately backed his car up and sped north on Route 125 toward Rochester, often reaching speeds in excess of 80 mph while using the northbound breakdown lane and southbound travel lanes to skirt traffic.

Less than two minutes later the chase ended with Heath, unable to negotiate a left-hand turn onto Oak Street, crashing into the Easy Street footwear building.

Sensors in Heath's SUV showed the car was going 71 mph five seconds before the crash.

Within 20 seconds, three police vehicles converged on the scene followed by Moore a few seconds later. The entire deadly encounter lasted just 15 seconds.

In all, Rochester Police and State Troopers fired off some 30 shots, with 15 striking Heath.

Many of the bullets that hit Heath, ones to his right chest, left abdomen, upper buttocks, right arm and left hand, were high-velocity bullets consistent with those used in Goodwin's rifle. All the other officers were using their .45s.

Hinckley said the multiple gunshot wounds Heath suffered would have caused his death in minutes if not seconds.

Wagner and Toussaint called their officers' performance of their duties heroic and noted that many innocent motorists trapped at the scene as the shooting commenced could have been injured or killed if not for their swift action.

"None of these officers or troopers got up that day and thought they'd have to use their weapon," Wagner said. "Most lawmen go their entire career without ever having to draw their gun."

Toussaint said the ordeal was traumatic for everyone involved including police, civilians and members of the Heath family, one of whom was in the front row during Thursday's hourlong press conference. Two other seats in the front row reserved for family members stayed empty.

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