The Centralia police officer who fatally shot a 48-year-old, knife-wielding man after a confrontation early Thursday morning near Mellen Street in Centralia has been identified as Phil Weismiller, a five-year officer and former Army captain, according to the Centralia Police Department.
Centralia Police Chief Bob Berg said Weismiller was the second officer to arrive at the scene. He shot the man who police say was armed with a knife and refused to drop it when ordered to do so.
The victim was identified Friday as Joseph R. Wharton of Westport. Police said he had arrests and criminal convictions in Washington, Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico.
Weismiller is a 34-year-old Centralia police officer who has worked for the department for one year and seven months, Berg said. Prior to his employment at Centralia, he worked at the Kelso Police Department for three years and nine months.
Weismiller also worked previously as a captain in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, Berg said.
In accordance with department policy regarding officer-involved shootings, Berg said that Weismiller has been placed on paid administrative leave until the investigation is concluded.
Weismiller has already given a statement to initial investigators and will be available for follow-up interviews by investigators from the Region 3 Critical Incident Investigation Team, which is an inter-county team consisting of detectives from the sheriff’s offices of Thurston, Lewis, Pacific, Grays Harbor and Mason counties, according to a press release from the Centralia Police Department. The team has extensive experience in conducting such investigations in the five-county area.
The officer who initially contacted Wharton, Tracy Murphy, has not been placed on administrative leave as he was not directly involved in the fatal shooting, Berg said.
While the details of the moments leading up to the fatal confrontation remain under investigation, Centralia police issued a press release explaining the events that led up to the shooting:
The shooting occurred at about 2:20 a.m. after Murphy, a 17-year veteran of the department, saw a man behind Fiddlers Coffee on the 1200 block of Mellen Street, according to Centralia police. Because Wharton was behind a closed business in the early morning, the officer thought it was suspicious and attempted to contact Wharton.
When Murphy tried to talk to Wharton, however, he ignored the officer and began walking away across the street toward an abandoned building, according to a press release from the police department.
The officer, who was in his patrol car, followed Wharton across Mellen Street and into a parking lot near an abandoned building. Toward the back of the parking lot, Murphy again tried to contact Wharton, who then turned and displayed a knife to the officer.
Murphy ordered Wharton to drop the knife, but Wharton refused and then told the officer he also had a gun. Wharton then started running away.
At that point, Weismiller arrived and started to pursue Wharton on foot while Murphy, still in his car, drove around the block to the intersection of Marsh Street and Elm Street in an attempt to intercept the fleeing man.
Weismiller caught up to Wharton on the east side of a house at 1215 Elm Street where Wharton attempted to climb over a fence.
Wharton, still armed with the knife, then turned toward the officer. Weismiller told him repeatedly to drop the knife before fatally shooting him, according to the release.
While the chief said initially that the Centralia Police Department would handle the investigation, he said late Thursday morning that while they handled the preliminary part of it, such as taking statements and securing the crime scene, the incident will be investigated by the regional, multi-agency investigative team. Their findings will then be passed onto the prosecutor’s office for review.
Region 3 Critical Incident Investigation Team arrived on scene of the fatal shooting at about 10 a.m. Thursday.
When the investigation is complete, which may take a few weeks, the lead detective will present the findings to the Lewis County prosecutor and chief of police, according to Berg. It is then up to the prosecutor to determine whether or not the officer will face criminal charges.
Once the investigation is over and the prosecutor makes a charging decision, an internal board will review the incident, in accordance with department policy, Berg said.
“While the investigation is preliminary at this time, my initial assessment is that the officer acted properly and in policy,” Berg said Thursday morning a few hours after the shooting. “Having said that, it is premature to comment on the outcome on an investigation that has just begun.”