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WASHINGTON, Ind. -- Investigators say a misinterpretation in the initial 911 call leading up to a police shooting in Washington, Ind., this week had officers believing they were responding to an armed homicidal man rather than a suicidal one.
Stephen T. Lee, 42, was shot fatally when three Washington police officers opened fire early Monday morning in the backyard of a home on the city's east side.
Authorities say Lee, who was armed with a muzzle-loading rifle, fired once before the officers shot back.
Family members believe the dispatch miscommunication may have contributed to Lee's death.
Although he acknowledges the misinterpretation, Washington Police Chief Steve Riney said it had no bearing on the outcome of the incident.
"You're still answering a call for an armed person," Riney said. "So it doesn't really change anything with the officer response."
Indiana State Police detectives, who investigated the shooting and sent a final report to Daviess County Prosecutor G. Byron Overton on Thursday, reviewed the 911 tape and determined there was an interpretation error, said First Sgt. Rob Priest.
The caller - Jamie Hammock, Lee's girlfriend - dialed 911 shortly after midnight and told police roughly that "(Lee) was at his father's house and that he was going to put a bullet in his head," Priest said.
The dispatcher interpreted the wording in "his head" to mean Lee's father, Priest said. Lee's father wasn't there, and Hammock was trying to say she feared Lee was going to shoot himself.
Priest referred questions about whether the distinction affected the response to Riney.
Speaking Thursday by phone, Riney said not only were officers still responding to an armed subject, but also they are well aware initial dispatches often are different from what they actually encounter.
"They make judgments on what is occurring when they arrive on scene," he said.
Family members disagree.
Hammock's mother, Cindy Crim, said police should respond differently to someone threatening to take his own life than to someone threatening to take another's.
"Had it been dispatched correctly - a call for help, not a homicidal man who's going to shoot his father, this could have been a whole different outcome," Crim said by phone from Northern California, where she lives. ".. If it was dispatched correctly, don't you have a negotiator squad? Don't you go in to help?"
Crim said the incident started after a fight between Hammock and Lee They had been going through hard times lately, she said, adding Lee struggled with depression and other health problems and was still grieving his mother's death in January.
She said the family has hired its own investigator and questions the shooting beyond the initial dispatch misinterpretation.
Lee had called Hammock as police arrived, Crim said, but when she didn't pick up, her phone recorded the final seconds before the officers opened fire. Crim said she accessed Hammock's cell phone account and had the voice mail transferred to her account.
Crim said the recording captured the officers yelling at Lee to put his weapon down, followed by a series of shots. At one point, she said, Lee can be heard asking why the officers are shooting at him. Crim said she does not believe any of the shots on the recording are from Lee's weapon.
Listening to it is "chilling," Crim said, adding the situation could have been defused peacefully.
"All it took was somebody with a little common sense to say, 'Wait, let's talk to him,'" she said. "All (Hammock) wanted was help - help to save (Lee), not help to kill him."
Indiana State Police Sgt. Chad Dick acknowledged the voice mail recording was included in evidence of the case, but he said he was not aware of - and could not discuss - any information contained on it.
Lee was pronounced dead about 12:40 a.m. Monday after being taken from the backyard where he was shot to Daviess County Hospital.
Results of an autopsy still were pending Thursday Manner of death is described on the report as "suicide by police."
Authorities have not said where Lee's gun was aimed when it was fired or how many shots the officers fired. A neighbor estimated it at seven or eight shots.
The three officers involved in the shooting - Sgt. Rich Tolliver, Sgt. Steve Mize and patrolman Craig Cox - have been off-duty since the shooting.
Riney said they would return to the force "soon," but declined to specify when.