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Did Lakeland commissioner need to kill suspected shoplifter? Investigation under way

Lakeland City Commissioner Mike Dunn's official City of Lakeland photo and an image of his Vets Army Navy Surplus store. [DAN SULLIVAN | Times]
Published Oct. 20, 2018

LAKELAND — A man pocketed a hatchet at a store in Lakeland on Wednesday. He paid for it with a confrontation that ended in his death.

Now, authorities are investigating whether a Lakeland city commissioner was justified in his use of deadly force after he shot the possible shoplifter at the elected official's military surplus store.

Commissioner Michael Dunn was not arrested. The Lakeland Police Department labeled its inquiry a "death -justifiable homicide" investigation.

Christobal Lopez, 50, died.

Officers responded to the shooting about 2:30 p.m. at the Vets Army Navy Surplus store, 819 N Florida Ave., which is co-owned by Dunn.

"There was some type of a disturbance inside the store that led to this shooting," Gary Gross, Lakeland Police spokesman, told reporters. "There were three employees inside the store. The updated information that we have now, is that one of those employees, Michael Dunn, a commissioner with the city of Lakeland, was involved in the shooting."

Dunn, who took office in January, could not be reached for comment.

He confronted Lopez at the store while Lopez's father was making a purchase. According to police and witnesses, Dunn saw Lopez take and conceal a hatchet before trying to leave the store.

Dunn stopped Lopez and asked if he was going to purchase the hatchet, police said.

It's unclear how things escalated, but police say Dunn fired a gun. Lopez was found near the store's entrance and pronounced dead shortly after paramedics arrived.

Lopez's father and two store employees were interviewed on the scene.

Gross said police are also looking to review any surveillance footage of the incident.

The State Attorney's Office is investigating the shooting, and an autopsy will be performed.

There were no cars Thursday in the store parking lot, which sits beside a busy six-lane road that cuts through the middle of Lakeland. Rolling steel doors covered the windows. A woman inside told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that no one at the business had any comment. She closed up the building and left.

A small vintage tank sat near the street, covered in political campaign signs. The store has been a part of the Lakeland retail scene since 1950. Merchandise includes paramilitary-style equipment, clothing, shoes, antiques and guns.

A trash bin in the rear bore a painted image of the American flag, along with political stickers, including one with an image of former President Barack Obama and the words, "You lie!" A "Don't tread on me" flag hung from a fence.

Kevin Cook, a spokesman for the City of Lakeland, said none of Dunn's fellow commissioner's could speak Thursday.

"They've been advised not to talk to the media while this investigation is going on," Cook said.

Dunn had made a few unsuccessful runs for office before he was elected in December.

Among issues: He was among opponents to moving a Confederate monument from Munn Park in downtown Lakeland.

An adamant supporter of gun ownership, he hosted a July rally at his store to counter a nearby March for our Lives rally on the same day. March for our Lives is an advocacy group formed by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students seeking stricter gun-control laws in the wake of a deadly February shooting at the Parkland school.

His online biography notes that he participated in the Lakeland Citizens Police Academy. The academy is a 14-week class that meets once a week to familiarize citizens with police activity. One class is a firearms familiarization course, according to the Lakeland Police Department website.

Many law enforcement agencies have similar programs.

The shooting is the second time Dunn has shot a person. But it's the first time the shooting was fatal.

The Lakeland Ledger reported that Dunn accidentally shot a man when he was 19. The Ledger first reported the incident during Dunn's unsuccesful bid for a seat on the Polk County Commission in 2000. Reports said Dunn was pretending to draw a 9mm handgun, thinking it was unloaded, when it went off. The bullet went down an alley and into a Nissan Sentra driven by Robert Hilton, who was shot in the elbow. Police at the time ruled the shooting accidental. Dunn was not charged.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Christobal Lopez's first name. Police initially provided an incorrect spelling.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com. Follow @TimesDan. Contact Daniel Figueroa IV at dfigueroa@tampabay.com. Follow @danuscripts.

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