Amid criticism over death of William Henkle, trooper tells what was done and why.
WILKES-BARRE – Ever since state and local police unleashed 39 shots at a chain saw-wielding man outside a Forty Fort home, police have heard rumblings from the public, questioning their actions:
Why didn’t the officers use a taser gun instead of pumping 17 bullets into 40-year-old William Henkle?
Why didn’t police back off and discuss a better plan of attack?
And why not wait for the saw to run out of gas?
The answer, state police Capt. Kenneth Hill said, to each is simple:
The officers did not have tasers.
There was no time to talk strategy.
And, it’s impossible to wait when a man charges you with a chain saw.
Henkle had a “seriously maladjusted” thought process and charged “full bore” at a trooper before the officers could take other steps to calm the early morning situation on Feb. 21, Hill said.
One trooper, Michael Hartzel, was struck on the shoulder, back and buttocks with the saw, but escaped with minor injuries before Henkle was hit with the flurry of shots.
In hindsight, Hill, the commander of the Wyoming barracks, can’t think of any other way police could have defused the seven- to 12-minute standoff, he said.
Hill said Hartzel hoped to sneak around Henkle and tackle him before gunfire erupted. But Henkle eyed Hartzel, locked his sights on the trooper, and charged the 17-year veteran less than one minute after Hartzel arrived at the scene.
“But for the grace of God, (Hartzel) would be dead. He should be dead,” Hill said. “A chain saw could decapitate someone in a half second to a second, sever a spinal cord in an instant.”
Hill said he would have difficulty asking Hartzel: “Why didn’t you wait for the chain saw to run out of gas while it’s running up and down your back?”
Hill and state Trooper Tom Kelly met with the Times Leader Friday to further explain the incident that unfolded in the quaint River Street neighborhood at 4:45 a.m.
Police initially responded to Henkle’s home at 378 River St. with medics for a report of a person suffering a heart attack.
Upon arrival, the medics found no emergency. The Forty Fort officer returned to his cruiser to contact 911 and make sure he had the correct address.
A short time later, the police and medics heard the chain saw. They encountered Henkle in a driveway alongside the home and saw him drinking from a bottle. Police later found a bottle of rum in the area, but they are unsure if it was Henkle’s. Police have not yet received Henkle’s toxicology reports, but said they have since learned he had a history of mental illness.
The officer returned to his vehicle to call for backup while the medics locked themselves inside Henkle’s home.
Nine additional officers arrived at the home within five to 10 minutes, positioning their vehicles to act as a barricade, Hill said.
Henkle shouted at the officers and told them his neighbors were trying to kill him, Hill said.
The officers, as they arrived, formed a semicircle around Henkle, standing about 25 to 30 feet away, leaving Henkle an opening to retreat to his home, Hill said.
The officers urged Henkle to drop the saw.
“They’re talking to him,” he said. “He decided to challenge and engage.”
Henkle responded by bombarding the officers with obscenities and telling them they would have to shoot him to get the saw.
Nothing the officers said calmed Henkle.
“You could have had the top negotiators … I don’t believe it would have been any more successful,” Hill said.
Henkle repeatedly stepped toward various officers during the standoff, preventing them from discussing a detailed plan of attack, Hill said.
At one point, officers used pepper spray.
Henkle responded, “That s--- doesn’t bother me,” Hill said.
“He’d get closer, they’d back up,” Hill said.
One officer even promised to put his gun in his holster if Henkle dropped the saw, Hill said. The officer holstered his weapon. Henkle ignored the officer and kept the chain saw.
At some points, Hill conceded, Henkle was not threatening officers. But those moments did not last very long.
When Hartzel arrived, he assumed a position at the end of the semicircle, Hill said. His plan was to sneak around Henkle and tackle him.
But Henkle locked on to Hartzel and charged, from about 30 feet away.
Hartzel shouted for Henkle to stop and drop the saw.
Henkle ignored him and got to within 10 feet of Hartzel.
The trooper, backpedaling, fired three or four shots, before turning away from Henkle.
When he turned, Henkle cut Hartzel’s uniform with the saw as Hartzel continued firing over his shoulder.
Kelly said Hartzel was extremely lucky not to be severely sliced. The blade cut through Hartzel’s clothing, including his T-shirt, but did not deeply puncture his skin, Kelly said.
Once Hartzel retreated, Henkle darted toward another officer while the other officers opened fire.
Police shot Henkle numerous times and he fell to the ground before continuing his assault.
“The only thing he said was, ‘Ouch,’” Hill said.
A total of five officers, including three troopers equipped with .40-caliber pistols and hollow point bullets, fired 39 shots at Henkle.
He was struck 17 times in various parts of the body, including the chest, arms, ankle and hip. He even continued to hold the saw after bullets broke both of his arms, Hill said.
Investigators believe the incident was “suicide by cop.” Luzerne District Attorney David Lupas has said the officers were justified in the shooting.
But police have still faced criticism.
Since the incident, people have questioned whether police could have acted differently.
Kelly said police considered using batons, but they could not get close enough to hit Henkle.
Hill and Kelly said a taser gun might have been effective. But none of the officers was equipped with the weapon.
There also are concerns about lawsuits stemming from the use of taser guns, Kelly and Hill said.
Hill, who has been Wyoming’s commander for 13 months, wonders if the harsh public reaction would have been the same had Hartzel been killed.
Or had a neighbor, medic, or Henkle’s mother been hurt by Henkle.
In this case, the officers stood their ground in not letting Henkle wildly roam through the neighborhood or into homes to hurt anyone, Hill said.
If Henkle never charged at Hartzel, police would have stayed there “all night” trying to negotiate, Hill said.
“These guys didn’t let anyone else get hurt,” Hill said.
“I don’t see anything the officers could have done differently.”
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