Advertisement
  1. News

Surveillance video shows Lakeland city commissioner shooting alleged shoplifter

Lakeland police say that Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn shot and killed Christobal Lopez as Lopez tried to leave the Vets Army Navy Surplus store on Oct. 3 without paying for a hatchet. This is a screen grab of a store surveillance video released by police on Monday. [Lakeland Police Department]
Published Oct. 20, 2018

LAKELAND — For more than a week, details in the case of a Lakeland city commissioner who fatally shot an alleged shoplifter came mainly from police accounts.

Then, on Monday, Lakeland police released surveillance video that gives the public an up-close view of the shooting. It's a crucial piece of evidence that investigators are using to decide whether City Commissioner Michael Dunn, 47, should face charges in the Oct. 3 killing of Christobal Lopez, 50.

Two attorneys who reviewed the video at the request of the Tampa Bay Times said it seems to contradict the idea that Dunn was in fear for his life when he fired.

"This is a very difficult case to defend," said Tim Hessinger, a Tampa criminal defense attorney and former state prosecutor.

Video from inside the Vets Army Navy Surplus store shows Dunn holding a gun in his right hand as Lopez tries to advance toward the door. Dunn pushes Lopez with his left arm, and Lopez goes for the door again.

Still pointing the gun at Lopez, Dunn tries to grab Lopez's shoulder from behind with his left hand as Lopez makes it out the door, the video shows. Dunn's hand slips off Lopez's shoulder but Dunn is able to grab a fistful of the man's t-shirt. Lopez raises his left arm in an apparent attempt to break free, and then Dunn appears to fire.

Lopez falls to the pavement just outside the door. He appears to shake for a moment, then lies still as Dunn keeps the gun trained on him.

At the moment Dunn fires, Lopez is holding the door with his right hand and appears to be holding an object in that same hand. It's unclear if the object is the hatchet that Lopez is suspected of trying to steal when he was shot.

Dunn's attorney, Rusty Franklin, did not return a message Monday but has previously told reporters that Dunn was justified in shooting Lopez because he was holding the hatchet during the scuffle.

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

The video clip continues for about three minutes after the shooting. Lopez lies face down on the ground as Dunn walks in and out of the frame. No one is seen attempting to render first aid.

No charges have been filed in the case. A Lakeland Police Department spokesman said Monday that the agency and the State Attorney's Office are still investigating.

Brian Haas, State Attorney for the 10th Judicial Circuit, said in a statement that he expects the investigation to conclude by the end of this week.

According to police, Lopez tried to pocket a hatchet inside the store. Dunn, a co-owner of the business, confronted him, asking if he was going to pay for the item. When Lakeland police officers arrived about 2:30 p.m., Lopez lay dead in the parking lot.

RELATE: 'My brother didn't need to be killed like some animal,' Lopez's sister says

Florida's self defense law says a person can use deadly force "if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony." The controversial stand your ground law does not require people to retreat before using deadly force.

"Just from the video it doesn't look like Mr. Dunn was in fear and wasn't justified in shooting Mr. Lopez as he was leaving," said Bill Loughery, a former prosecutor with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. "It appeared that, because he had his gun, Mr. Dunn was in charge of the situation from the standpoint he was directing Mr. Lopez what to do."

Hessinger, the Tampa defense attorney who is also is a former Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor, said it appears Lopez was trying to flee when he was shot and there's no evidence in the video that he tried to use the hatchet as a weapon or gain control of Dunn's gun.

"It appears in the video that all the force is being used by the commissioner," Hessinger said.

Another former prosecutor-turned-defense attorney, Robert Heyman, said the case is a "tough call."

Florida law allows store employees to use reasonable force try to detain suspected shoplifters, Heyman noted. He said if the object in Lopez's hand is the hatchet, that would bolster any claim Dunn makes that he had to use deadly force to defend himself.

"There's an argument that as the door's opening, the guy could have taken a swipe at the store owner with a hatchet in order to escape," Heyman said.

Police described Lopez as a transient. His most recent address was a small house in the rural community of Wauchula, in Hardee County.

A funeral notice states that he was born in Arcadia and had lived most of his life in Hardee County. He was a Catholic and worked as a laborer in agriculture. He spelled his first name "Christobal," the notice says, which is a different spelling than police initially provided.

Lopez's family was laying him to rest as local news outlets were reporting the release of the video. His funeral service was Monday morning in Wauchula and he was buried in Zolfo Springs.

Dunn, an adamant supporter of gun ownership, 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.

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.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Times
Dania Vizzi, now, 24  of Odessa, stands for a portrait on the skeet range at Silver Dollar Shooters Club in Odessa. An Olympic hopeful, she won a bronze medal at the 2019 Pan American Games. Tampa Bay Times
    The Vizzi family turned agricultural land into a private skeet shooting range for aspiring Olympian without Pasco County permission.
  2. Amber Carr, center, wipes a tear as her sister, Ashley Carr, left, and attorney Lee Merritt, right, listen to their brother Adarius Carr talk about their sister, Atatiana Jefferson during a news conference Monday, Oct. 14, 2019 in downtown Dallas. The family of the 28-year-old black woman who was shot and killed by a white police officer in her Fort Worth home as she played video games with her 8-year-old nephew expressed outrage that the officer has not been arrested or fired. (Irwin Thompson/The Dallas Morning News via AP) AP
    The white, former Fort Worth police officer has been booked in jail on a murder charge for the shooting of a black woman through a window in her home.
  3. Tikerria Nashay Bell, 21, was arrested on a charge of attempted murder. Pinellas County Sheriff's Office
    She fled with their 18-month-old daughter, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
  4. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. TMCCARTY  |  times staff
    Police say it appears the girl was accidentally left inside the Jeep on Monday morning.
  5. The Tampa Bay Times' annual Medicare Guide explains how the program is set up, helps you compare options available in the Tampa Bay area, and points the way toward help, including free, one-on-one assistance. This illustration will grace the cover of LifeTimes on Oct. 23, when the guide will be published in print. RON BORRESEN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    As the open enrollment period begins, it’s time to review your coverage.
  6. The Medicare Handbook for 2020 is a good resource to have as the annual open enrollment period gets under way. The government usually mails beneficiaries a copy. Find a PDF version to print at medicare.gov/pub/medicare-you-handbook, or call 1-800-633-4227 (1-800-MEDICARE) to order a copy. THOMAS TOBIN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The open enrollment period, which lasts into December, is a time for millions of beneficiaries to review, and possibly change, their coverage.
  7. Medicare's online Plan Finder has been redesigned and is available at medicare.gov/find-a-plan. THOMAS TOBIN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The most-used tool on Medicare.gov will look different this year.
  8. Jim Tolbert, left, staffs a booth at a senior expo for Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders, or SHINE, a state program that answers Medicare and other insurance questions. The program has scheduled a number of events around the Tampa Bay area during Medicare's open enrollment period, Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. Times (2015)
    About 500 volunteers statewide are at the ready. They work for Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders, or SHINE, now in its 28th year.
  9. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. TMCCARTY  |  times staff
    The Fort Myers woman stepped in front of the plane and was struck.
  10. James Dailey, 73, is set to be executed on Nov. 7 for the 1985 murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio. Left: Dailey at his 1987 trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to death. Middle: Dailey in 1993, when he was again sentenced to die. Right: The most current photo of Dailey on Florida's Death Row. Tampa Bay Times
    James Dailey’s execution remains set for Nov. 7. On Monday, a judge denied efforts to overturn his death sentence after a former prosecutor testified.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement