Officer hit by getaway van on North Side after armed holdup
A shootout between Pittsburgh police and five gunmen who robbed a North Side store Wednesday turned a stretch of Brighton Road into a "war zone" that injured one officer.
"I saw these old ladies ducking behind a car, and I thought they'd been shot," said Shaun Barnett, 31, of the North Side, who was in a car with his girlfriend when gunfire broke out about 11:30 a.m. "It was crazy to see that in the middle of the day, with people everywhere. Bullets were flying; someone could have been killed."
After SWAT officers swept through surrounding businesses, police arrested three men and searched for two others officers say were part of the crew who pulled off a calculated armed holdup of The Swap Meet, a block from the Zone 1 police station, and exchanged fire with four officers responding to calls for help.
"Dude, I'm telling you, it was like a war zone," said Dennis Follin, 34, who ducked behind a 3-foot-tall brick wall in the nearby Rite-Aid parking lot with his wife, Gina, to avoid the more than 30 shots witnesses heard. "I grew up in Philly, so I saw this (type of violence) all the time. But it was her first time. It was crazy."
Officer Colleen Bristow, on the job since 2007, broke her elbow and suffered serious head injuries when a van driven by several suspects struck her on the street outside The Swap Meet. She was "in good spirits" in Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side, according to police Cmdr. RaShall Brackney. Bristow's family could not be reached for comment.
Police said the gunmen robbed the store and scattered. Police believe The Swap Meet is a front for a drug-packing business, Chief Nate Harper said.
"We believe this was all about the drug business that was going on inside there," Harper said. "We had very heavily armed individuals going after what was inside there, and it wasn't the finest jewelry or furs."
Owners of the store could not be reached.
Harper said investigators would obtain a search warrant for the store, interview witnesses and review surveillance video from the area.
"We really have to look at this business," Harper said. "A normal robbery is one or two people. Five or six is a small squadron."
Officers arrested Kevin Allison, 20, of Hazelwood, Rayshawn Jones, 24, of the North Side, and Aaron Farrow, 24, of South Oakland. Charges were pending.
A K-9 dog caught Allison, who police saw running and throwing guns when they arrived at the store. They found Jones hiding in a Dumpster.
Police said Farrow was driving the van that struck Bristow when she ordered him to get out. He put the vehicle in reverse and hit the accelerator, knocking her to the ground, Brackney said. He tried to run her over again, and officers opened fire on Farrow, Brackney said.
"He was very intent on leaving that scene, regardless of who he hurt," Brackney said. Farrow was treated for cuts from a windshield that shattered when the van crashed.
A fourth suspect ran to a nearby scrap yard and then to the Valero gas station, where he carjacked a silver 2010 Dodge Charger, rented from Enterprise. The two men inside that car were not injured but told police the carjacker was bleeding. He remained at large. Police recovered the Charger a few hours later in the adjoining California-Kirkbride neighborhood.
Police believe the carjacker was one of two suspects who ran into the Warhola scrap yard beside The Swap Meet, leading SWAT officers to surround that business and perch on the roof with rifles for several hours.
"They ran in with guns. We ran out. We had no idea what was going on," said Eric Vernon, who was in the building and said his brother-in-law owns the scrap yard.
Officers found a trail of marijuana and blood leading outside the back of the scrap yard, and an assault rifle and pistol outside.
SWAT members entered the scrap yard building and found it empty. Police searched several area buildings, and state police and Allegheny County Sheriff's deputies combed the area around nearby West Park near Ridge Avenue and St. Peter Parish.
Pittsburgh Public Schools officials locked down Allegheny Traditional Academy and Martin Luther King Jr. elementary schools during the search.
Terry Hall was working in a garage on Offley Street when he heard the barrage of shots and saw two men run out of a building across the street and into the scrap yard to hide.
Hall's 6-year-old dog, a boxer-pit bull mix named Lady, broke free of its chain, "I think because she wanted to try and get them guys," Hall said.
He said Lady spotted her owner and tried to run toward him, but police shot her. "She was looking me in the eye and started towards me. They shot her three times."
Harper apologized but said officers "didn't know if the dog was mild-mannered or a threat."