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Bucks DA clears officer in standoff shooting death

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The police officer who shot a man last month during a standoff in Doylestown Township was justified in employing deadly force, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub has ruled.

Review of the evidence gathered by Bucks County Detectives showed Thomas Edward Zeller on Feb. 20 twice emerged from his home and aimed loaded firearms at police officers, leaving the officer no choice but to shoot the man and neutralize the threat Zeller posed to him and the other officers on scene, the DA’s office said Monday, March 9.

Weintraub officially cleared the officer of wrongdoing in a letter sent last Wednesday to Chief Karl Knott of the Central Bucks Regional Police Department. In accordance with internal policy, the District Attorney’s Office will not name the officer as he is not being charged with any crime, nor will the office release the District Attorney’s letter.

Zeller, 61, was pronounced dead Sunday, March 1, at Abington Hospital – Jefferson Health. He had been hospitalized since Feb. 20. He died of complications from his gunshot wound, the DA’s office said.

The incident began with a request to 911 that police check on Zeller. The caller relayed that Zeller was upset and smashing windows at his residence. It escalated as officers learned Zeller was in possession of guns, a gas mask and a bulletproof vest and he discussed shooting and killing people outside his home, the DA’s office said.

A total of five shots were fired during the incident, all by one officer who was assisting in his capacity as a member of the Central Bucks Special Response Team. Following the shooting, the officer and others on scene rendered immediate medical aid to Zeller, tending to him until paramedics arrived.

The shooting came near the end of a nearly one-hour standoff during which two Crisis Intervention Trained (CIT) officers from the Doylestown Township Police Department – both of whom were familiar with Zeller from their shared previous employment at a grocery store – pleaded extensively with Zeller in attempts to de-escalate the situation and bring it to a peaceful end, the DA’s office said.

The officer who shot Zeller also successfully completed CIT training, and assisted on scene in attempts to communicate with the man prior to the shooting, the DA’s office added.

Zeller responded to the officers throughout the incident with combativeness, displaying a willingness to resort to violence against police and expressing mistrust amid several profane outbursts, Weintraub’s office said, giving the following account of the incident.

“What if I come outside with my hands up, but then pull a gun from my pocket?” Zeller asked an officer communicating with him by phone. Another officer made his appeals in person while taking cover after Zeller dropped his phone outside following the first round of gunfire.

The officers’ efforts were captured by two body-worn cameras, footage from both of which was reviewed as part of the investigation.

Approximately 17 minutes of audio derived from some two hours of footage, along with a transcript of the same, has been released by the District Attorney’s Office. The audio is available in full upon request.

After consultation with Zeller’s immediate family, video footage will not be released. Bodycam audio from the officer who shot Zeller is not available, as his camera was removed to allow him to properly wear the tactical and protective gear required for an SRT officer.

In audio from the incident, Zeller is heard telling the officer on the phone that he was armed with an AR-15 rifle and would “take them on.” Zeller indicated he believed people wanted to kill him, and said “I just think that I need to kill them first.” Zeller can also be heard in the recordings occasionally yelling obscenities at the officers outside his home.

Shortly after seemingly agreeing to put his firearms away, Zeller emerged from his home armed with a .22 rifle. He then raised the rifle, later found to be loaded and operable, in the direction of officers prompting a volley of four shots in his direction. None of those shots struck the man.

Zeller retreated back into his residence, but dropped his phone outside. Officers on scene continued for approximately nine more minutes in their attempts to de-escalate the situation and calm Zeller before he again emerged from his home, this time armed with a .38 revolver. Officers ordered Zeller repeatedly to drop the weapon and put up his hands, but he refused.

Officers can be heard on the audio recordings commanding Zeller no less than 39 times throughout the incident to either raise or empty his hands. Zeller raised the weapon and aimed it at police, at which time an officer fired one additional shot, striking the man in the upper abdomen and causing him to drop to the ground.

Officers secured the revolver and, while rendering aid to the injured man, found a .22 semi-automatic pistol in his pocket. Both weapons also were found to be loaded and operable.

As a matter of department protocol, the officer who shot Zeller was placed on administrative leave following the incident pending the outcome of this investigation. He has been cleared to return to duty.

This case, as in all police-involved shootings occurring in Bucks County, was investigated by the Bucks County Detectives and reviewed by District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub.


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