Fayette County

Man in custody killed trying to escape during officers’ search for explosives in woods

Mark Sawaf.
Mark Sawaf. Laurel County jail

A man shot and killed during a confrontation with authorities Thursday night in Harlan County was previously accused of concealing explosives in trail cameras and putting them in the woods.

Mark Sawaf, 39, of Harlan had been indicted by a federal grand jury in July and was scheduled to go to trial on Sept. 13, according to court documents. He was ordered to remain in custody until trial and was indicted on eight charges, including owning and making unregistered destructive devices.

Lexington Fire Department investigator Capt. Brad Dobrzynski shot Sawaf during the altercation, which occurred after Sawaf tried to escape, state police said. ATF Special Agent Todd Tremaine and Lt. Matt Greathouse of the Lexington Police Department hazardous devices unit were also involved in the altercation that broke out on a hill above Woodland Hills subdivision about 6:50 p.m.

ATF had received information that Sawaf had placed more explosives in the woods and had gone with him to find them, Kentucky State Police Trooper Shane Jacobs said Friday. ATF asked Lexington police and fire officials for help because of “an expanded area” that needed to be searched and the scale of the operation, state police said. The state police hazardous devices unit was also asked to assist.

Sawaf died at the scene, according to state police and the Harlan County coroner’s office.

The group had found several trail cameras in the woods before the shooting, and bomb technicians searched the area Friday for more explosives, Jacobs said. Trail cameras are usually affixed to trees and are motion-activated to take photos of deer and other animals, but Sawaf allegedly had modified some with explosive material.

“It’s going to be a very big task for us to try to locate these trail cameras; it’s such a safety concern for individuals here in the Harlan community,” Jacobs said.

State police investigators are leading the shooting investigation. Lexington officials directed calls Friday to state police.

Friday’s shooting is believed to be the first time a Lexington fire investigator has fired a weapon during a confrontation; fire investigators have been carrying guns since 1996. The last city officer-involved shooting was in 2009.

After his arrest in June, an order required Sawaf to be detained while he awaited trial because conditions of release that could “reasonably assure the safety of any person and the community” could not be found, according to court documents.

In May, a man lost multiple fingers and suffered injuries to his chest when a trail camera exploded, according to court documents. The man had gotten the cameras from someone who’d found them on a trail near Red Dog Road in Harlan County.

After identifying Sawaf as a suspect, investigators executed a search warrant on his house on June 21, according to records. They found materials consistent with what was used in the trail camera explosive: a flashlight with blast damage, a section of PVC pipe filled with unidentified black powder, hot glue and coins, according to court documents.

During their search in June, investigators also found a workbench in the home with a plastic jug containing black powder, a rock tumbler containing a suspected explosive powder, copper wires, and a handwritten note with explosive mixtures, according to court records.

“The portrait the evidence paints of Sawaf is of a dangerously duplicitous individual — loving and caring to those who know him, but a secretive and anonymous explosives manufacturer whose devices are left for any hapless member of the public to find and trigger with serious resulting injuries,” according to the findings in the detention order.

Outside the explosives case, testimony “portrays Sawaf as a highly educated, hard-working business owner responsible for the well-being of others, with stable finances and personal relationships, and lacking any prior criminal convictions of any kind,” according to court documents.

Sawaf, an avid hunter, owned and operated Harlan Counseling Inc. since 2014 and had a master’s degree in mental health counseling, according to court documents. The business was in a small strip of offices just off U.S. 421.

Neighbors to Sawaf, whose modest, two-story house was on a hill near downtown Harlan, said Friday he was quiet and had little interaction with them. He often stayed inside.

Tracy Medford, who lived across the street from Sawaf, said he spoke to Sawaf several times, but Sawaf would just nod his head and didn’t seem interested in engaging in conversation.

“He was real quiet and kept to himself. He acted like he didn’t want to talk to nobody,” Medford said.

Sawaf shot guns in the hills behind their houses and had exploding targets. He often went into the woods after midnight and would stay until early morning.

Medford said he was “leery” of Sawaf.

“I was worried that he might go crazy and shoot somebody,” Medford said.

Sawaf had worked at Cumberland River Behavioral Health in Harlan before starting his own practice.

Eric Perry, a team leader who worked with Sawaf, said Sawaf grew up in Michigan and moved to Harlan with his family after high school.

“Mark was extremely intelligent, almost borderline genius I would say,” and had great knowledge of mental health and substance abuse counseling, Perry said.

Sawaf got along with co-workers at the office, but did not associate with them outside work, Perry said.

Sawaf was extremely socially liberal and was an atheist — not mainstream views in Harlan, Perry said.

Before Sawaf’s June arrest, he had been investigated for using exploding targets, but it was determined that he was using the devices legally, according to court documents.

More than a decade before Sawaf’s arrest, his father, Ali Sawaf, was convicted on eight charges related to distribution of OxyContin and other painkillers. At the time of his conviction in 2002, Ali Sawaf was a urologist in Harlan County.

The case was one of the first in Eastern Kentucky against a doctor for overprescribing OxyContin after abuse of the drug exploded in the region beginning in the late 1990s.