A Harlan County man killed by police last August instigated the deadly confrontation by grabbing an officer’s pistol and refusing to let go, screaming “Shoot me! Just kill me!” before another officer shot him once in the head, according to a newly-released witness account.
Mark Sawaf was handcuffed in front of his body, but had grabbed the grip of Lexington police Lt. Matt Greathouse’s gun with both hands while police were searching for explosive devices Sawaf had placed in the wooded hills overlooking Harlan.
Greathouse said he feared for his life as he desperately tried to keep Sawaf from taking the .40-caliber Glock from the holster, pushing down on Sawaf’s hands and the gun as Sawaf pulled on it.
The two had fallen to the ground, and another officer slugged Sawaf in the neck and head to try to get him to let go of the gun, but he didn’t.
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Greathouse, exhausted after hours of searching for explosive devices in muggy heat and steep terrain, wasn’t sure he could keep Sawaf from pulling the weapon. He yelled for someone to shoot Sawaf.
Lexington fire department Capt. Brad Dobrzynski did, firing one shot behind Sawaf’s right ear.
Even after the shot, Greathouse had to pry Sawaf’s hands from his gun before he could get up.
That firsthand account from officers involved in the fatal confrontation with Sawaf on Aug. 11 is included in records from the Kentucky State Police investigation of the shooting.
The agency released the file on the case this week in response to a request under the Open Records Act from the Herald-Leader — the first time the statements have been made public.
Sawaf, 39, was a mental health and substance-abuse counselor who had an office in Harlan but also practiced in Lexington.
Friends and family members of Sawaf have said he was an intelligent, caring man and that they don’t believe it was necessary to kill him in order to subdue him.
However, the lead investigator concluded that the officers involved in the struggle with Sawaf acted consistently with their training. That training defines an effort to take an officer’s gun as a circumstance in which deadly force is allowed.
In addition, a grand jury declined to indict Dobrzynski, an indication the members decided he was justified in shooting Sawaf.
Sawaf’s attorney, Travis Rossman, declined comment Friday on the case.
The case involving Sawaf, which got attention nationwide, started last spring when someone found two trail cameras along an all-terrain vehicle trail near Harlan, according to court records. Hunters mount such cameras in the woods to capture photos of deer and other animals.
When a young man named Dustin Hall put a battery in one of the cameras found in the woods, it blew up and tore off more than one of his fingers, Richard McMahan, an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said in an affidavit.
Authorities focused on Sawaf, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, as a suspect in making the illegal explosive devices after witnesses said they’d seen him in the area where the cameras were found.
Police arrested Sawaf June 21 after finding a fuse and other materials at his house consistent with those in the camera that hurt Hall.
Two additional trail cameras rigged with explosive material that were ultimately traced to Sawaf injured two other people as well, including one man who suffered a serious groin injury because he had the camera between his legs when it blew up, according to records.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Hanly A. Ingram ordered Sawaf held without bond pending a September trial, citing the potential danger to the public of releasing him.
On Aug. 10, however, Sawaf’s attorney told federal authorities Sawaf was willing to show police where he had put other explosive devices in the woods.
Rossman told authorities that Sawaf hadn’t meant to hurt anyone, that the devices were more powerful than he intended, and that he wanted to help find them so no one else would get hurt, according to information in the investigation record and court documents.
In a letter found in his jail cell after he died, Sawaf said he put out the explosive devices because thieves had taken some of his cameras and he was “overwhelmed” with anger.
“I was basically driven to this level of insanity from being victimized by theft,” Sawaf wrote in a letter to his fiancée, Nancy Penn, that was included in the case file.
Sawaf claimed there were 14 to 16 devices that hadn’t been found, according to a statement from Todd Tremaine, a special agent with ATF.
Ingram, the magistrate judge, gave police permission to take Sawaf from jail on Aug. 11 to help find the devices.
ATF agents in charge of the search drew up a plan that spelled out the duties of each officer, from guarding Sawaf to collecting evidence and destroying explosive devices.
ATF officials asked state police and officers from Lexington to help in order to have more qualified bomb technicians available. Each team also would have a medic in case someone got hurt in the hills.
One ATF official said in a subsequent statement that he believed Sawaf either intended to try to escape, hurt officers or commit suicide by walking into one of the devices he’d left in the woods.
Police warned Sawaf at a morning briefing not to cause problems, and then more than a dozen officers set out into the hills with Sawaf to look for the devices.
When Sawaf pointed out a camera, one team would set about blowing it up while Sawaf went with other officers to look for another device, police who were involved told investigators.
It was difficult work, scrambling over steep, rugged terrain in oppressive heat and humidity while carrying gear. Several officers were stung when they stumbled upon a hornet’s nest, and some suffered heat exhaustion. Two threw up from being overheated, according to a witness statement.
Sawaf, accustomed to being in the woods and a fit 170 pounds, didn’t seem winded and appeared to have little trouble getting around during the search, officers said.
Sawaf was handcuffed, but officers had taken off his leg chains so he could maneuver in the hills.
Joseph Bennett, who owns the land where police were searching and spent the day helping them, said officers treated Sawaf respectfully.
Rossman did not go into the woods with Sawaf and police, but was nearby and met with police about 2:30 p.m. to bring Sawaf lunch from Arby’s.
The officers were behaving professionally and Sawaf, while drenched in sweat, was in good spirits and seemed calm before heading back into the hills with police, Rossman said.
By early evening, Sawaf had directed police to seven explosive devices.
After disarming one, police found a note inside that said, “Dear thief, I hope you are wearing gloves ‘cause your hands should be filled with glass,’” Tremaine told state police Sgt. Jason E. Joseph.
Sawaf said there was one more device near where they’d found the seventh one, but that it was down a narrow trail accessible only by all-terrain vehicles, not the larger vehicles called side-by-sides that police were also using. That meant no one could ride beside Sawaf to the spot, as officers had earlier in the day.
Police decided to check for that device and then quit for the evening and come back the next day.
Sawaf rode to the spot on the back of Tremaine’s ATV. Tremaine left his gun with another officer to guard against Sawaf grabbing it while they were close together on the four-wheeler.
It turned out there was not a device at the site, so the team started back up the hill.
Tremaine had Sawaf on his ATV, followed by an ATV carrying Greathouse, a bomb technician with Lexington police, and Dobrzynski, an arson investigator with the Lexington fire department who also is a medic and certified peace officer.
Tremaine said he felt the weight on his ATV shift and looked around to see Sawaf had jumped off the back and was running down the hill.
Tremaine yelled, “He’s running! He’s running!” and Greathouse and Dobrzyinski jumped off their ATV to chase him, Tremaine said.
The two caught up with Sawaf after he fell, Greathouse said.
Tremaine said Sawaf didn’t appear to be helping the two officers as they tried to haul him up the steep hillside, and the ground was slick under their feet when they tried to push him.
Greathouse said that as he tried to pull Sawaf up the hill, Sawaf fell and slid down. Greathouse straddled him and told Tremaine they needed help.
As Tremaine went to help get Sawaf up the hill, he saw Sawaf grab the grip of Greathouse’s gun with both hands.
Sawaf’s hands were cuffed to a chain around his waist. The cuffs were attached at a point where he could have moved his hands a range of about six inches, however, according to the investigation.
That would have allowed enough leeway to pull the gun from the holster.
Greathouse screamed “He’s got my gun! He’s got my gun!” Tremaine told an investigator.
Greathouse and Sawaf slid down the mountain, with Sawaf on top of the officer.
Greathouse said he could feel Sawaf pulling on the gun and got his left hand on it, but couldn’t reach it with his right hand at first because Sawaf’s head was under his arm.
He hit Sawaf in the right ear, causing him to move his head so Greathouse could get his other hand on the gun.
Tremaine lunged and tried to push Sawaf away, but Sawaf kept his grip on the gun.
Tremaine said Sawaf screamed at officers to kill him, but he hit Sawaf several times to try to get him to give up, without success.
Greathouse said he could feel the blows on his right arm through Sawaf’s head, but Sawaf held tight to the gun, and Greathouse didn’t know how much longer he could hold out.
He told investigators later he thought he was going to die.
Tremaine said he saw Greathouse’s gun move in the holster and felt he’d lost control of it. He yelled “Shoot him! Shoot him! Shoot him!’ according to his statement.
Dobrzynski had been knocked to the ground during the struggle.
He said that after he got up, he saw Sawaf “rocking back and forth” on the grip of Greathouse’s gun and thought Sawaf was going to shoot Greathouse.
When Tremaine rolled to his left, Dobrzynski took half a step to his right and shot Sawaf, according to his statement.
Tremaine said he thought Sawaf was dead, but Rebecca Bobich, an advanced emergency medical technician with the ATF, said she she saw a slight rise and fall of Sawaf’s chest and found a faint pulse.
It may have been up to 20 minutes before Bobich reached Sawaf and found signs of life, according to a timeline in the file, though the document noted times were approximate.
Bobich and others worked to try to save Sawaf, inserting a tube to help him breathe and an intravenous line for fluids.
Police checked on getting a helicopter to evacuate him, but had to drive him out on an ATV for a considerable distance while Bobich continued trying to stop the bleeding from his head.
Sawaf died before police reached an ambulance crew coming to meet them, according to the investigation.
Rossman told a KSP investigator that officers were somber after the shooting.
“There was nothing inappropriate about how they were acting,” Rossman said, according to a summary of his statement. “I don’t think anybody wanted this.”
Joseph, the state police investigator, said in his report that he concluded Sawaf had arranged an elaborate escape attempt.
Joseph said Sawaf took officers to a place he knew well but they didn’t and was cooperative to gain their trust. He accurately pointed out several explosive devices, but at the end of the day took police on a goose chase to a more isolated spot where fewer officers could accompany him, and tried to run, Joseph said.
When that didn’t work, Sawaf forced a confrontation that required an officer to use deadly force to keep him from taking another’s weapon, Joseph said.
Joseph pointed to two letters Sawaf wrote the night before the search. In one, he instructed a family member on how to handle his property, and in the other, he apologized profusely to his fiancee for creating a mess that would land him in prison and end his career.
The tone of the letters was a goodbye, Joseph said.
Sawaf also made a map showing the location of explosive devices but left it in his jail cell.
“It’s as if it was left so that someone else could find it and use it to attempt to locate the devices, in his absence,” Joseph said in his report.