Des Moines IA June 20 2017 An early morning run-in with security guards at Des Moines Water Works Park last month left a cyclist with three bullet holes in the radiator of his SUV and a concern for others visiting the park.
Scott Richardson, 50, spent May 13 riding bikes with friends. The group stopped at a downtown bar and restaurant before Richardson returned to Water Works Park at about 1 a.m., three hours after the park had closed.
He loaded his bike onto his 2013 Jeep Wrangler and headed toward the exit.
That's when a car with flashing amber-colored lights pulled in behind him. When Richardson didn't stop, the car pulled around him and blocked the exit. Two security guards got out of the vehicle.
One of the men fired three rounds from a 9mm handgun into Richardson's engine.
The guards from On Point Security Group, a private company based in Clive, later told police they wanted to stop Richardson to tell him the park was closed and his vehicle could have been towed.
Richardson was arrested by police for operating while intoxicated.
A Des Moines Police Department spokesman called the shooting questionable, but no charges were filed against the shooter.
Police have forwarded the case to the Polk County attorney, who will decide whether to file charges.
"I don't know if we have overzealous mall cops taking matters into their own hands, but all indications are that’s exactly what we’re dealing with in this situation," said Brad Schroeder, a Des Moines attorney representing Richardson. "And it should scare the heck out of everybody."
Richardson, of Norwalk, told the Register the guards "tailgated" his car with their amber lights flashing for about a half mile.
He said he did not stop because he assumed it was security — and not law enforcement — "making sure that I exited the park." He knew he was approaching a gate that had a sensor to open it, so he continued driving.
Once guards pulled around him and parked sideways across the road, Richardson said he slowed down and stopped.
"All of a sudden I heard the 'boom, boom, boom,'" he said. "It was so unexpected."
Both security guards told police that Richardson "kept coming toward them." Peter Berger, an attorney representing On Point, said the guards reported that Richardson was "driving out of control."
Richardson disputes that he was driving fast or erratically, and said he had come to a complete stop before the shots were fired into his car. The police report makes no mention of his driving style.
"That was so unexpected because I hadn't done anything I felt to deserve being shot at," he said. "I guess I didn't assume anybody would be shooting a live round. Something could go terribly wrong, you know?"
Richardson was not injured. The bullets struck his radiator, transmission cooler, air conditioning condenser and the heater hose, he said. His car has been out of commission for five weeks.
After shooting his vehicle, Richardson said the security guard pointed a gun in his face and yelled at him to put his hand up. The guard then took him out of his car placed him in handcuffs.
The security guards involved in the incident could not be reached for comment. The Register is not naming them because they have not been charged with a crime.
But Berger, the attorney representing On Point, said the security guards feared for their lives as Richardson was driving toward them and the locked exit. Plus, Richardson was trespassing in the park after hours, he said.
"The driver of the vehicle was not complying with commands to stop, both when the security vehicle was behind and in front of it. And when the driver of the vehicle posed a significant safety hazard to both security guards and Des Moines Water Works, one of the weapons was discharged as a warning and struck the vehicle," Berger said. "It ultimately got the driver’s attention."
Des Moines police arrived on scene within minutes of the shooting. The investigation report shows police seized both security guards' 9mm handguns and three spent shell casings.
A preliminary breath test taken on scene showed Richardson's blood alcohol content at .106. He registered .088 on a second breath test taken an hour later. The legal limit to operate a motor vehicle in Iowa is .08.
Schroeder said his client's level of intoxication "played no part" in justifying the security guards' actions. He said Richardson was "peaceably" leaving the park when his vehicle was shot.
"Who in their right mind — when they’re trying to get somebody to leave a place and the person is doing so — decides that it would be helpful to shoot at them to expedite their departure?" he said. "I have no idea what they were hoping to accomplish in shooting at him."
Sgt. Paul Parizek, spokesman for the Des Moines Police Department, said Richardson was under no obligation to stop for the security guards as they attempted to pull him over.
Flashing amber lights, which were used on On Point's vehicle that night, are meant to serve as a warning, he said. The Iowa State Patrol recommends drivers wait to pull over for emergency vehicles until they reach a public, well-lit area if they "question whether the person is actually an officer," according to a brochure posted on its website.
"Everybody knows what the red and blue lights mean, that it's law enforcement and pull over. I didn't know that the amber light wanted me to pull over," Richardson said. "I had a good assumption it was park security, but I didn't know that. And I was in the darkest part of the park."
Parizek said he could not comment on more than the immediate facts and circumstances surrounding the case, but he said state law does allow for shots to be fired when a person believes his or her life is in danger. A motor vehicle could be considered a dangerous weapon under Iowa law.
But Parizek added he's unsure whether this situation warranted that level of force.
"It appears there was some questionable tactics involved," he said. "We train to avoid these types of situations. I'm not sure if there would have been a similar outcome if Des Moines police were involved."
Bill Stowe, general manager of Des Moines Water Works, declined to comment on specifics of the shooting incident. Water Works Park, 2201 George Flagg Parkway, is owned and maintained by the water utility.
"I'm certainly concerned that anyone would try to evade a security officer and potentially run them over," Stowe said. " ... We're always very disappointed when visitors to our park fail to abide by the reasonable requests of our security staff."
Des Moines Water Works has contracted with a private security firm for years, but security guards were not armed until 2014.
"We run a water plant, we're not making toothpaste or brick pavers, so certainly there are significant security concerns in making sure our water treatment facility and our processes are safe from any intrusions," said Stowe, who recommended arming security guards. "We take our security very seriously."
The Department of Homeland Security lists water systems as potential targets for terrorist attacks.
It wasn't until 2016 that On Point security guards began patrolling the 1,500-acre Water Works Park on the southern edge of downtown. Berger said the patrols were added to monitor "ongoing vandalism" at the park.
Des Moines Water Works has a five-year contract with On Point that pays the company $204,150 a year. On Point provides 24/7 armed security at the Fleur Drive plant and Water Works Park. It also conducts nightly checks at the utility's Saylorville and Maffitt Reservoir treatment facilities.
Earlier this year, Water Works added an armed guard at its office, 2201 George Flagg Parkway, where there is a customer service counter. That costs an additional $57,000 a year.
Both security guards involved in the May 14 incident are licensed by the Iowa Department of Public Safety, which issues employee identification cards for private security companies.
Two-year licenses are issued to individuals who are at least 18 years old and have not been convicted of a felony, aggravated misdemeanor or illegally using, carrying or possessing a dangerous weapon. License holders cannot be addicted to drugs or alcohol and should be “of good moral character.”
Both security guards involved in the shooting are still employed by On Point, Berger said.
Gray's Lake Park, a popular city-owned park, is located directly across Fleur Drive from Water Works Park. The city contracts with the Des Moines Police Department to provide security there, said Jen Fletcher, marketing supervisor for the parks department.
Though Richardson was unharmed physically, there are some mental scars to overcome. He has not returned to Water Works Park since the incident.
"It was shocking," he said. "It was a traumatic experience to have a gun pointed at me when all I was doing was exiting the park at 20 miles per hour."
Richardson, a self-described cycling enthusiast, said he commuted by bicycle to work 114 days last year. The 19-mile route sometimes took him through Water Works Park.
He still commutes by bike today, but said he will likely avoid using Water Works Park trails.
He is considering filing a civil lawsuit.
"Mostly I think about how bad it could have turned out or what could happen worse for the next person," he said. "Something could end much more badly for somebody else."
The Des Moines Register