SANTA ROSA, Calif. - Officers who fatally shot a robbery suspect were told he might have been carrying a toy gun but they still feared for their safety, Police Chief Mike Dunbaugh said.
Todd Eugene Dieterle, 37, was shot by officers responding to a robbery call Thursday night. He was armed with a plastic gun that was painted black.
On Friday, Dunbaugh defended the officers' actions, saying the case may be one of ''suicide by cop.''
Dieterle was suspected of robbing a market near Santa Rosa Junior College at 6:14 p.m. Thursday. Market owner Bill Nijjar called 911 to report the crime, telling the dispatcher he thought the suspect's gun wasn't real.
''I think it's a toy gun,''' Nijjar said on 911 tapes released Friday by police. ''He doesn't have a real gun. It's a toy gun.''
The dispatcher relayed the information to officers but said it was ''not confirmed.''
Officers arriving on the scene ordered Dieterle, 37, to lay face down, but ''his left hand came around and he aimed the gun at the officers,'' Dunbaugh said. Witnesses confirmed that the suspect pointed the toy at police.
Three of four officers on the scene opened fire. It was not immediately known how many times Dieterle was hit.
Dunbaugh said that even with the information that the gun might not be real, the officers ''made a choice that their lives were at risk.''
Dieterle had been released from the Sonoma County Jail on Wednesday after pleading guilty to one count of misdemeanor spousal abuse and being released on his recognizance. He also was scheduled to appear in court in June for a sentencing hearing related to a probation violation.
Witnesses reported Dieterle was acting strangely Friday night.
''He was like a zombie,'' a witness, who asked that his name not be used, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. ''The way he walked, the way he moved, the way he looked at us, it was weird. It's like he wasn't there but he was there.''
The shooting has been referred to the District Attorney's Office for investigation.
In nearby Windsor on April 10, a woman was fatally shot by officers after she aimed what turned out to be a toy gun at them.
''We certainly have a similarity of toy guns pointed at officers,'' Dunbaugh said. ''I do have questions about copycat crimes and why someone may have wanted to take their own life.''