Tulsa’s police chief made a call for compassion Monday while two of his officers were hospitalized in critical condition after being shot during an early morning traffic stop.
Police Chief Wendell Franklin asked for prayer while noting the situations his officers have faced in recent weeks — from the pressure of a search for two missing children to the anger directed at officers during protests against police brutality.
“I stood before you several weeks ago when we talked about two missing children, and there was compassion from the community in the loss of those two children,” Franklin said. “A few weeks later, I stood before you and sent out correspondence, and there was hatred towards this department and hatred towards law enforcement, and I stand before you today with two officers that are fighting for their lives.
“We need this community to come together.”
Officer Aurash Zarkeshan and Sgt. Craig Johnson were shot multiple times during a traffic stop in east Tulsa early Monday.
Investigators allege in court documents that David Anthony Ware, 32, shot the officers. He was arrested after a manhunt.
“Here in Tulsa today, we’re going to have to pray, and we’re also going to have to take action,” Franklin said during a half-hour news conference at police headquarters in downtown Tulsa.
About 3:30 a.m. Monday, Zarkeshan stopped a 2007 Chevrolet Cobalt with an expired temporary tag near the intersection of 21st Street and 89th East Avenue. Johnson arrived shortly afterward to back up Zarkeshan.
Ware, who investigators say was driving the vehicle, refused to get out of the car when the officers told him it was to be towed for taxes due to the state.
Johnson told Ware 12 times to get out of the car, and he demonstrated three times that his Taser was charged, Franklin said.
Johnson and Zarkeshan then tried to pull Ware from the vehicle. During the scuffle, Johnson shot Ware with his Taser, and Ware ripped out the Taser probes, an investigator wrote in an affidavit.
Johnson then pepper-sprayed Ware twice as the officers continued the struggle to remove him from the vehicle.
“Ware reaches under his seat and as the officers are pulling him out, he produces a gun and fires three times at each officer,” the affidavit says.
Ware then shot Johnson three more times while he was on the ground, police allege.
Both officers were struck in the head and torso.
Ware was arguing that the officers were “violating his rights” as they informed him that the vehicle would be towed due to the expired temporary tags, according to court documents.
The investigator wrote in the affidavit that Ware ran from the scene and escaped in a red Jeep SUV, which police allege was driven by Matthew Nicholas Hall, 29.
During the press conference, Franklin provided more information about Ware’s escape.
“The officers went down, and the driver slowly walked away from the vehicle and got into a waiting vehicle that had arrived to the scene and drove away,” he said.
Tulsa County prosecutors charged Ware early Monday morning, before his arrest, with two counts of shooting with intent to kill and possession of a firearm after a former conviction of a felony.
Hall was arrested Monday afternoon and charged with accessory to a felony punishable by four years or more.
According to court records, Ware has an extensive criminal history in Tulsa County with numerous run-ins with local police dating as far back as 2006.
His first felony conviction recorded was for second-degree burglary in 2008, followed by convictions for drug-related offenses in 2014, weapon and larceny offenses in 2015, larceny again in 2016, and possession of drug paraphernalia and burglary tools in 2017.
Johnson, 45, joined the Tulsa Police Department in 2005. He later earned the rank of sergeant and is a graveyard-shift supervisor on the east side of town.
Zarkeshan, 26, is a patrol officer. A recent Tulsa Police Academy graduate, he completed his training in May and has been on patrol for about six weeks.
Franklin remarked about the symbolism of the uniform that police officers wear and how “we sometimes believe that we’re invincible.”
“Every time I put this uniform on, I remember the last part of our oath (of) office, and that says ‘with my life if need be,’” he said.
“This uniform is just that: It’s a uniform,” Franklin said. “Inside of this uniform is just a regular person. I’m just like you, and we’re just like you. The only difference is we do a different job than what you do. So, for us, we’re just as much a part of the community as you are.”
Franklin noted that “for more than 24 years, our department has not had to deal with a situation such as this.”
The last time a Tulsa police officer was killed while on duty was in June 1996. Officers Steve Downie and Dick Hobson were chasing an armed robbery suspect into a dark alley. They had a police dog with them and were wearing vests. The man they were chasing ambushed them, shooting both Downie and Hobson, killing Hobson.
About two years ago, a man shot a Tulsa police lieutenant in the leg while the lieutenant was assisting two other officers who were attempting to persuade a man to get out of his van at a midtown convenience store.
Mayor G.T. Bynum expressed gratitude to the community at large who provided tips that eventually led to Ware’s and Hall’s arrests.
Johnson and Zarkeshan chose to be law enforcers “at a historically challenging time,” Bynum said. He said he has worked before with Johnson, who was essential in remedying the blackout on Tulsa highways after a string of copper thefts.
“If you drive down our highways right now and notice that the lights are on, it’s because of his work,” Bynum said. “It’s the classic example of someone in the Tulsa Police Department who goes out and does their job to make your life better and you may have never heard their name.
“And I also think about Officer Zarkeshan,” Bynum said. “Think about the type of person that is willing to step up and choose law enforcement as a vocation right now in this environment in our country, and you think about what is just a remarkable, selfless public servant it takes to do that.”
As of Monday afternoon, Johnson and Zarkeshan were still in critical condition at two Tulsa hospitals and had both undergone at least one surgery.
The Police Department released a statement from Zarkeshan’s brother on Monday evening in which he said the officer was “out of surgery and stable” but “not out of the woods yet.”
Gallery: Memorial for Tulsa police officers
Major changes are coming this fall for Tulsa Public Schools, which will start the 2020-21 school year almost two weeks later than usual and implement district-wide distance learning on Wednesdays.
The Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education approved an unprecedented calendar on Monday evening that changes the start date for the coming school year to Aug. 31 and the end date to June 8. The school year will consist of 152 instructional days lasting 436 minutes instead of the traditional 166 days lasting 400 minutes.
The calendar ensures that all students are engaged in distance learning every Wednesday for at least the first quarter of the fall semester — regardless of active COVID-19 rates and whether school will be in session other days of the week.
Superintendent Deborah Gist said she recognizes the problems this may cause with child care for parents. Therefore, the district will spend the next six weeks collaborating with community partners to help support families with resources for the weekly in-home distance-learning days.
“We know that this is a big change, and it is an important one,” Gist said. “It provides time for custodians to clean and sanitize classrooms mid-week and for teachers to engage in planning, team collaboration and professional learning. These distance learning days will also give schools the flexibility they need to provide academic support for those students who need it most.”
The new calendar is designed to be flexible and allow the Tulsa school district to transition between full-time distance learning and face-to-face instruction as needed. District administrators will rely on recommendations from local health officials to decide among three potential scheduling options: in-person learning, 100% distance learning and a combination of the two.
If health officials deem it safe to fully reopen schools in August, then in-person instruction will resume for all students on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, Deputy Superintendent Paula Shannon said.
TPS will implement a hybrid scheduling option if social distancing still is required due to high COVID-19 rates. That would mean half of students would attend school Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other half would attend on Thursdays and Fridays. The other days would be spent in distance learning.
If the pandemic is so severe in August that shelter-in-place regulations are revived and even small gatherings are forbidden, then the entire week will be spent in distance learning until further notice, Shannon said.
The 2020-21 calendar will allow for possible shifts between in-person and distance learning based on rates of COVID-19 infection in the community throughout the year.
TPS also will offer a virtual school option for students and families who are at high risk for infection or who would prefer to keep their children home.
Students in the virtual academy still will be enrolled at their current schools but will complete their studies online. Those who choose this option will have the opportunity to return to in-person learning.
Meanwhile, TPS is preparing to provide the necessary protective equipment for keeping students and employees safe, which may include masks to be worn while at school.
Gist said administrators are developing plans to reconfigure spaces and classrooms to maintain social distancing practices in addition to social distancing protocols on buses and during arrival/dismissal times. There also will be additional cleaning procedures that may include hand-washing stations throughout buildings.
One is a department veteran with a track record of problem solving, entrusted with training reserve officers and supervising novice officers.
The other is just such a novice, only six weeks into patrol duty.
People who know the two Tulsa police officers who were gunned down during a traffic stop early Monday recalled examples of their compassion, empathy and commitment to serve others and to better the community as a whole.
Craig Johnson, 45, joined the Tulsa Police Department in 2005 and was promoted to the rank of sergeant, currently working as a graveyard shift supervisor in east Tulsa’s Mingo Valley Division.
Officer Aurash Zarkeshan, 26, entered the Tulsa Police Academy in 2019 and completed his training in May.
Former Tulsa City Councilor Karen Gilbert knows Johnson from several ride-alongs she took with him during her years on the council and because of his leadership in helping city leaders tackle a chronic copper theft problem that had literally kept Tulsa motorists in the dark for several years.
“Craig is just one person, but he saw something that was affecting our community, and he took it upon himself to do as much research as he could to help prevent that theft and to make sure all residents and visitors coming through Tulsa had safe travels,” Gilbert said.
At the time, Johnson was serving on a task force studying a rash of copper thefts throughout Tulsa. The repeated targeting of copper components on highway lights encircling downtown and all along Interstate 44 and the Broken Arrow Expressway cost the city so much that it had become impossible to keep the lights in working order.
Then Johnson discovered that Oklahoma City had an ordinance on the books that Tulsa did not. It served as a deterrent for thieves and helped law enforcement officers track down the culprits.
It requires scrap metal buyers to log the identities of copper sellers. Gilbert said she and her fellow councilor David Patrick gladly worked with Johnson to replicate the ordinance here.
City Traffic Engineer Kurt Kraft called Johnson a great guy and also recalled his key role in apprehending Tulsa’s copper thieves.
“He was very instrumental in working with us in arresting a lot of those people who were stealing millions of dollars in copper,” Kraft said. “I am just really sad to hear this.”
The early morning news that Johnson was one of two officers critically injured on duty brought back a flood of memories Gilbert witnessed him having with domestic abusers and their victims and even one particularly belligerent drunk.
“He had such a compassionate heart. Anytime we were on a domestic call when I was on a ride-along, he was very kind-hearted to the victims and very patient to everyone involved,” said Gilbert, who is now executive director of Tulsa Crime Stoppers.
She also recalled how unflappable Johnson was as he endured endless verbal abuse and threats from a highly intoxicated man he was taking to jail.
“I was sitting in the backseat, so this guy was in the front right next to Craig,” Gilbert said. “He was being called the most horrible names, and this guy even threatened to go after his family, and he just took it like a saint. I would have come unglued had someone told me they were going after my family. He was just trying to calm him down.”
Carol Freeman said she relishes the occasions when she runs into Johnson in the Tulsa County Clerk’s Office, where she works, because she has known him since he was a teenager in the Union High School band with her daughter.
Beyond friendship, she and her family have long felt a special sense of gratitude toward Johnson because he ended up introducing Freeman’s daughter to her now-husband when the three were young adults working together at a toy store in a local mall.
Freeman also saw Johnson frequently in her previous job with Moody’s Jewelry, where Johnson was employed as an off-duty officer for about five years.
“This guy has the sweetest smile, and he’s always just so loving and friendly. How could anybody do this to somebody that is just so nice? It just breaks my heart. I’ll be honest — I’ve been in tears on and off all day, texting with my daughter and son-in-law.”
Freeman said her thoughts have been with Johnson’s family, and in particular, his devoted parents, because he is their only child.
“This man is a human being — he is not just a uniform. People need to stop and realize. I mean, this man has two little boys,” she said.
Zarkeshan’s brother posted about the shooting on Facebook just ahead of Monday afternoon’s news conference by city and law enforcement officials.
“All I can ask for is prayers for my brother and his supervisor. He is out of surgery and stable but he is not out of the woods yet,” Armin Zarkeshan’s post reads. “I have never experienced these emotions before, but please just keep him in your prayers. Thank you to Tulsa PD for treating us like family and for everyone who has reached out. I love you bro.”
Citizens Bank of Edmond CEO Jill Castilla said Aurash Zarkeshan was a valued employee of the bank for nearly two years as he worked toward his ultimate goal of entering law enforcement.
She called him an “amazing and honorable young man” and described Monday’s news out of Tulsa as a devastating tragedy.
“He was highly engaged in serving as a volunteer in our community and wanted to make a positive impact as a peacekeeper. I wholeheartedly supported his goal and wrote recommendations as he pursued joining the Tulsa Police Department,” said Castilla.
“For his age, I have never worked with someone so empathetic, driven and servant-hearted. From the very beginning, Aurash has inspired us with his will to do good. He spoke of making a positive impact as an officer and using his service as a way to build community.”
Castilla added: “Aurash remains a treasured member of our Citizens family and we are devastated by this tragedy. We are here for him, his family and his friends however they need us.”
In his own words, Zarkeshan shared his outlook on his future in law enforcement in a March 2019 marketing video for Citizens Bank.
“When you are in that field, you are a huge influence to the community, and I want to use that in a positive way to change negative misconceptions and to give back to the community in which I serve,” he said.
Kevin Canfield contributed to this story.
Gallery: Memorial for Tulsa police officers