Last Wednesday, Council Bluffs Police Officer Paul Damrow had finished his regular shift and was home — asleep.
About 3 a.m., he was paged to serve as a sniper during a hostage situation on the eastern side of the city. He positioned himself behind a cruiser about 112 feet away, with a direct sight line on the windshield of a pickup truck that was overturned, resting on its passenger side.
Forty-five minutes after arriving and at the end of a two-hour standoff on Aug. 7 — when Troy E. Petersen held a silver handgun to his girlfriend’s head — Damrow fired one shot, fatally striking Petersen in the back of his head.
Pottawattamie County Attorney Matt Wilber said in a press conference Monday that Damrow “reasonably believed that deadly force was necessary” to defend the woman, April Montello-Roberts, from Petersen’s threat. Montello-Roberts later told police that Petersen said, “Are you willing to die for me?” as he pointed the gun to her head, and she believed she was going to die.
Wilber said Damrow was justified in the shooting and that there would be no criminal charges filed against him. Authorities have said Petersen and Montello-Roberts fatally shot two men before the standoff, although officers did not know that at the scene of the standoff.
Wilber did not take into account the double homicide when making his decision that deadly force was justified.
Wilber said officers had legal justification to shoot when they arrived at the crash site because Petersen had been shooting at officers and a Pottawattamie County sheriff’s deputy as the pair fled from authorities — striking one officer’s cruiser three times. Wilber said he has examined 14 shootings by officers in his career, two, including this one, that were fatal, and he said this was the “clearest justification case” he’s dealt with.
“Legally, (Damrow) was justified as soon as he engaged,” Wilber said. “This was not, legally, a hard call.”
Council Bluffs Police Chief Tim Carmody said Damrow, who was placed on administrative leave after the shooting, will return to work soon. He praised his officers and other authorities for their work during the standoff and the homicide investigations.
“We never want to take a life ... (but) that night we saved one,” Carmody said. “In that moment, (Damrow) took a shot to save a life.”
Police said Petersen and his alleged accomplice, Montello-Roberts, went on a crime spree last week, killing Jerrot H. Clark, 52, on Aug. 3 during a planned robbery and Steven P. Carlson, 51, on Aug. 7 while evading authorities.
Petersen, 28, of Essex, Iowa, fired shots at deputies and officers while Montello-Roberts, 44, of Shenandoah, Iowa, drove away from authorities until they crashed and Petersen claimed to take Montello-Roberts hostage.
However, authorities at the scene doubted the seriousness of it, because Montello-Roberts did not seem scared. She would caress his head and the two smoked cigarettes, according to video taken from a drone used by Council Bluffs police.
Petersen even stuck out his tongue at the drone as it hovered a few feet above the pickup. The drone had a light that helped Damrow and other officers see the pair better and make sure officers were in a safe position to evade potential threats. The department has been using a drone for only a couple of months, but Carmody said it was vital in last week’s situation.
“It’s extremely helpful,” Carmody said. “It provided information here that was priceless, both during the investigation and the aftermath.”
In his initial observation of the scene, Damrow said he didn’t have a clear shot because Montello-Roberts was sitting behind Petersen and there was a risk of the bullet continuing through and striking her, Wilber said. Besides, officials were still dealing with the ambiguity of the situation.
But then Petersen became more agitated and pointed a handgun at Montello-Roberts, according to Damrow and two separate officers at the scene. They agreed that if there was a safe shot, Damrow should take it.
“I felt he was going to kill her right there,” Damrow told investigators in an interview. “If I didn’t do anything, she was going to die.”
Damrow pulled the trigger, but no bullet fired. He ejected the round and loaded another, and fired one bullet through the windshield, fatally striking Petersen in the head.
Authorities recovered five firearms from the pickup.
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Damrow has been with the department for nine years and has served on the Emergency Services Team, essentially a SWAT team, for 5½ years, Carmody said. He is a sniper on the team and a master pistol and rifle instructor.
Montello-Roberts, 44, of Shenandoah, Iowa, was taken to the hospital and then spoke with police. She has been charged with two counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder and one count each of robbery and burglary. If convicted, she faces life in prison.
“There was a maniac out trying to kill people, did kill people, and thankfully no officers or deputies were hurt,” Carmody said. “I’m thankful that they’re safe.”